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Northern Dulongjiang
(Dulong River valley)

Ethnological Overview | Phonemic Inventory | Outline Grammar | Texts

Dizhengdang Village   

Ethnological Overview

Dizhengdang | Cosmology and Conceptions of Species and the Soul | The Territory and its Divinities | The House: Symbolic Organization of Space 

Bordered by Tibet to the north and Myanmar to the west, the Northern part of the Dulong River valley remained long unexplored. During the 1950's several teams were sent to the Dulong River valley to study the history and culture of the Dulong people, but they only established a superficial overview of the area. Nowadays, the recent works of Li Jinming, a Dulong ethnographer born in Dizhengdang, constitute the first detailed data available in the Chinese language. In this part of the valley, local culture has remained quite lively and less exposed to outside influences, and it is only recently, towards the end of the 1990's, that Christianity started to spread from the south of the valley, where it has already spread widely. Traditional values, popular beliefs and shamans' activities are respected by most of the inhabitants despite some criticism from the authorities and changing attitudes of the young generation.

Along the northernmost banks of the Dulong river, called Kelaolong by the locals after its confluence with the Mangbrilong, the few scattered hamlets are still very isolated. There, the narrow trail is impassable for mules, and the two hamlets on the east bank of the Mangbrilong can only be reached after crossing rope bridges. The inhabitants of these localities are the poorest in the whole Dulong River valley; their harvest is generally hardly sufficient for half a year, and men spend most of their time in the surrounding deep forests hunting. It was recently decided by the authorities that all the inhabitants of the Kelaolong should be relocated to areas closer to Dizhengdang village in the coming years.

Just as the Dulong (T'rung) people call themselves after the name of the valley, those living in the Kelaolong and Mangbrilong valleys use these same names to refer to themselves. The inhabitants of the Dizhengdang area are known as the Lvkata people (people of beyond the mountain), a reference to a mountain south of which (Longyuan village area) people use the name Kyimdongpang ([people of] below the Kyimdong [mountain]).

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The village of Dizhengdang

The Chinese name of Dizhengdang is inspired by a local name meaning "houses in rows". It is, in fact, a generic name for two distinct hamlets: Lemdam and Zungdam. These are clearly differentiated by the locals, still, they are very close to one another, and not clearly delimited. For the inhabitants, each of these two hamlets has a story of its own, which makes it the place of reference for the expression of a specific identity. Most important of all, ever since the foundation of the two hamlets, the difference between Lemdam and Zungdam has been one of clanic affiliation. To be of Lemdam or Zungdam is, in the eyes of the locals, to be related to the clan of the founders of these localities.

It is said that the first to come and settle in Lemdam were of the Kartcho clan which originated from the Salween valley. After a time, the few settlers separated themselves to live on several spots within Lemdam, giving birth to different lineages. Most of the actual inhabitants of Lemdam are the descendants of these first settlers, and are affiliated with one or another of the lineages which were founded at that time: Apanrong, Nvwangtsar, Tsvriying, etc. Later on members of the Gamlei clan arrived from the south of the valley (from a place called Tonggrung, still an existing village). Their arrival aroused the discontent of the members of the Kartcho clan, the first to arrive and cultivate the place and who considered themselves the "masters of the land". But the new comers, on the other hand, pointed to the fact that they were from this valley, whereas those of the Kartcho clan came from the Salween valley. It was then decided that the members of the Gamlei clan would settle and cultivate nearby, in Zungdam, where the large majority of the inhabitants remain today of this same clan. Residence is, according to local tradition, patrilocal, and each family within Dizhengdang has been there for several generations. But recently a few families affiliated with other clans have moved to both Lemdam and Zungdam. They did so on the grounds of matrimonial relationships, joining the wife's side's relatives.

Dizhengdang is a two-day walk north on a small pack-trail from Kongdang, in the centre of the valley, where the newly constructed road enters the valley. Dizhengdang is today one of the biggest villages in all of the Dulong River valley, and it comprises a total of 55 households (27 in Lemdam and 28 in Zungdam) for an approximate population of 200 inhabitants. Situated on the west bank of the river, the place is exceptionally flat and favourable for cultivation. Unfortunately for the inhabitants, part of this flat area by the river bank was washed away together with some granaries by a huge swelling of the river in 1971. Barley and wheat are planted in small quantity in autumn, maize and potatoes, which constitute the main resources, during early spring on the fields surrounding the houses. But the most important superficies of arable land, still less productive, are the plots on the steep hillsides. These are swidden fields where maize, millet, buckwheat and taro constitute the main cultivation. Dizhengdang is one of the four "administrative villages" (xingzheng cun) in the Dulong river valley, and as such is the administrative centre of the northern part of the valley commonly called "first district" (yi xiang). This administrative division comprises a set of 17 settlements, some of only three or four houses, which extends up to hamlets that are found near the border with Tibet to the north and which are the poorest in the valley. At Lemdam are situated the "public hall" (cungongsuo), a well-supplied shop and a school where children are taught up to the fourth year. Once united as one "commune" (gongshe) for the organization of labour, Lemdam and Zungdam now form two separate communes, each with its headman. Above them, a "village head" (cunzhang) and more specifically a "party secretary" (zhibu shuji), are responsible for the application of the political decisions, the administration of agricultural yields and the birth control policy and the repartition of governmental help, etc. for the whole district.

These local officials, as well as the teachers and the manager of the shop, are the first persons an outsider will meet, as they often are the only ones who speak Chinese quite fluently, most of the time with a strong local accent but rarely the official Mandarin Chinese. The school, shop and "public hall" are therefore places to rest and cook for passing people.  Among the inhabitants, the Chinese language level depends on the level of education, generally low, and how much time one spent outside the valley, and is usually higher amongst men compared to women. But more than Chinese, the Lisu language is widespread in the Dulong valley and is more generally a kind of lingua franca in the whole Gongshan area. This is linked to the fact that the huge majority of independent traders who come into the valley are of Lisu origin (mainly from Fugong county).

In the school of Dizhengdang, for the last two decades there have been from three to four teachers. Generally a young teacher originating from another county of the Nujiang Prefecture (hence not Dulong) is in charge of teaching the higher level, for his Chinese is often closer to the official standard compared to any of the Dulong teachers.  These last are in charge of the first three levels and often teach in a mix of Dulong and Chinese to make sure that the children can understand.  It seems that the Dulong script established in the early 1980s (published in 1986) has never been used in schools, the focus being on improving the Chinese language level.  Having studied up to the fourth year in their village, the children of Dizhengdang have to leave their homes and join the school of Bapo in the south of the valley (this school is about to be moved to Kongdang), the only place where there are fifth year level classes.  For some of them this will be the last year of study, because their abilities are too limited or often because of a complete lack of interest.  The ones who persevere have to leave the valley for Gongshan Township.  Far from their families, these students are not able to return before the summer holidays because the valley is inaccessible during winter once the snow falls on the mountain passes.  Unfortunately, several times it has happened that children have decided to try to go back home during the Chinese New Year holidays in the winter and then died accidentally on the mountain path because of the snow at that time of the year. 

There are three seasons in Dizhengdang. These are three photos of Dizhengdang (both Zungdam and Lemdam) taken in late autumn, winter, and early spring. 

Three seasons in Dizhengdang

Cosmology and Conceptions of Species and Soul

In Dulong myths, at the time of the beginnings, we find a world characterized by its relative absence of differentiation. In mythical times, animals, spirits and humans were all living together and could freely communicate with words and see each other. They were sometimes working together in the fields, helping one another. Spirits were taking care of the human babies when their parents were busy during the day, and humans were baby-sitting for the spirits as well. They were sharing the same terrestrial abode, living on shifting cultivation. This was the intermediary space between the underworld and the sky. These worlds were not separated, and a ladder linked the earth with the sky, where people were also living. But these mythical times should not be seen as a world of total harmony. On the contrary, absence of differentiation was problematic and a state of disorder. In fact, spirits were "eating" the babies committed to their care, and were consequently endangering the humans by decreasing their population. Violent conflicts opposed spirits and humans and this unsolvable discord led to the flood. In this manner, the world was to be put into order, humans and spirits separated and the ladder leading to the sky destroyed.

The cosmic space in which people find themselves for the time being is the result of these mythical times. The basic tripartite organization of the cosmos is paralleled by a conception of layers, each having its specific landscape and its own inhabitants. There are nine layers from the top of the sky to the Earth, and nine from the Earth to the underworld. The terrestrial abode, where all humans live, constitutes the visible world. Like in mythical times, relationships can still be established between these worlds, but indirectly through the means of rituals, symbolic actions and words. Spirits are now invisible for common people, and only those who have the ability to "see", such as the shamans, can deal directly with spirits.

Although the Dulong now live mainly from shifting cultivation, hunting and gathering remain important activities in everyday life. Their cosmology and social practices draw heavily on these schemes, and the reference to hunting is present in a great variety of rituals. They know very well their environment and its specificities, and move in it with a fine understanding. It is full of signs: some there since mythical times, others left by animals. Spirits are conjoined with physical phenomenon, full of natural references: these may be boulders or forked trees inhabited by potentially harmful spirits and must not be moved.

Such a short and schematic description could easily be misleading, and the conceptions held by the Dulong people cannot be reduced to clear-cut categories. Their cosmos is not merely that of different worlds placed in layers, where spirits, humans, animals and plants find their place. These categories are of course meaningful and are the basis for the construction of meaning about humanity, self and otherness, in a set of contrasting positions. Humans are not similar to spirits, animals, plants and so on. Nevertheless, I shall argue that Dulong people do not set humans apart from other beings, be they spirits or "natural" species. Having introduced these ancient and mythical categories and the way they organize the cosmos, which human society is a part of, it is now necessary to look at the Dulong people's concept of species.

Cosmology and myth are here considered as a way of talking about the world that aims to make sense of that world, and form a general matrix for intelligibility. As such, there exists an intrinsic relationship between cosmologic order and human order. This correspondence, as we will see, is also linked to the question of the nature of religion.

The Dulong people's understanding of species is fundamental to their view of the world and cosmology. The word they employ for "species" does not give the notion of clear and delimited groups such as a series of named species in a hierarchical taxonomic classification. This can be revealed with a few simple examples. If humans are a "species", they are also differentiated amongst themselves as being of different "species" what we used to call clans or lineages. The same term is employed to qualify these different levels of social organization. Moreover, in other situations, this term can be translated as "kind", or "type", for example when we speak of the different kinds of blades on a Swiss army knife. Using this term, different categories can be constituted on the principle of shared similarities. However, Dulong people do not employ an evaluative categorization between humans, spirits, animals or plants, and regardless of one's outer shape (or similarities), they all constitute a class of beings: they all possess a common principle, a "vital force" or a "soul" as western languages would usually call it.

Although such facts are well known around the world, they need to be clarified in this context. To put it very simply, we find something similar to the common idea of "animism", a belief in the animation of all of nature, regardless of evolutionary perspectives sometimes related to this term. It is a kind of religious "discourse" about how human society relates to the non-empirical world at many different levels. More specifically, the "soul" is a shared characteristic of humans, spirits, animals, plants, including what we commonly designate (quite contradictorily in this context indeed) as "inanimate objects" such as boulders, rivers, and so on. To understand the importance of such an attribute, we need to challenge our Western dualistic conceptions, and insist on the one hand that the environment does not necessarily consist dichotomously of a physical world and humans, and on the other hand that personhood does not necessarily consist dualistically of body and spirit. In Dulong cosmology, the difference between humans, plants and animals is a difference in degree and not in nature. Having a "soul", various kinds of beings, similarly to humans, share a faculty that makes them "conscious subjects", capable of intentional acts, emotions, etc. This characteristic can be designated as a sense of "personhood", and each being of this class can, in some ways, interact with the others. To put it another way, what we usually see as an exclusive human quality is in this case also attributed to a wide range of other beings situated in the environment with which people have relationships.

The "soul" is conceived by the Dulong people as a vital principle that distinguishes them from dead things, and which implies a degree of consciousness. Souls are of the same shape, appearance, and morality as the physical being they are attached to. Speaking of a man, when he is working in the field, so does his soul; when he is resting or eating, so does his soul. The presence of the soul is attested by the shadow, its manifestation. Only at night, when we are asleep, does the soul go away, and all that it does and sees constitutes our dreams. The souls are very courageous and go everywhere, even in the presence of danger. Hence, malevolent spirits sometimes capture them, and the resulting absence of the soul will provoke sickness. If the soul disappears and dies, it will unavoidably be followed by the death of the person. For death means the disappearance of the soul, it will be followed by the appearance of another entity, the "dead-soul", which is not eternal but will subsist a time equivalent to a human life. This process is the same for all beings who have a soul. For example, if we burn wood, the smoke is its "dead-soul". The soul appears clearly here in its expression of vital principle, and this leads to the related and essential aspect that, as such, the soul is what is nutritious: just as a spirit can eat human souls, the soul of what people eat is what gives them sustenance. As I will show below, the way one species sees another is dependent upon what constitutes food for them.

In this respect, s that occurred in mythical time are very meaningful. As we have seen, relations of trust between humans and spirits ended when humans discovered that spirits were eating their children. But even more significantly, a spirit once gave to the parents the flesh of their own baby to eat. This act of involuntary cannibalism is essential, and just as with primordial incest it initiates human society. In the myth, it also results in violence, which opposes humans against spirits, as exemplified by the personage of Nisham. Of human appearance, but decked out with a long tail, he was characterized by his extreme anti-social behavior: stealing food and capturing and raping women, which led to his murder by the humans. Violence, murder, cannibalism and incest all appear as the result of these undifferentiated times. Cannibalism and later incest can be understood as founding acts for the re-creation of human society, establishing as a rule the impossibility of "cumulating the identical" (to borrow F. Héritier's formulation). The danger of this accumulation is socially positive, and the prohibition to "consummate" one's fellow leads to a recognized and acceptable type of relationship.

In Northern Dulongjiang the whole environment in which people find themselves is a divine landscape. The forests and mountains in their totality as a material and spiritual world are, I shall argue, cultural space, not natural. But they are not just the objects of cultural representations: they constitute a social environment, and people envision their relationship to nature in the form of consubstantiality. The notion that "nature" is there to be exploited or controlled by humans is something quite incongruous for the Dulong people. People interact with the surrounding world in terms of social-like relationships with other beings. Environment is not an entity we act on, but a set of entities we deal with. In opposition to the mythical times when all species were living together, the new era succeeding the flood established another frame for their relations and a discontinuity involving variations in the modes of communication between them. People are not able to see the spirits and communicate visually with them, whereas animals, still visible, are not socialized like they way they appear in myths, and do not speak the same language as humans anymore.

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The Territory and its Divinities  

The power wielded over a "natural world" is clearly not a human capacity, but the attribute of some spirits. Humans can only exercise influence through the means of incantations and offerings. For example, humans can prey on animals, but an agreement to hunt a wild animal must be secured from the spirit called "The Master of Game". Similarly, humans depend on the spirit of the sky for the well-being of their souls. This spirit is responsible for the making of human souls and their owners' respective life spans. Directing humans' destiny, this high spirit is depicted as a breeder who keeps human souls just as humans keep their domestic animals. In these instances, domestication appears as the archetype, so to speak, of this type of subordination.

Hunting, using crossbows or traps, always necessitates a ritual, at least for big game. The basic principle of this ritual is to obtain from "The Master of Game" not the "permission" to hunt, but an agreement for an exchange involving the souls of the animals. The Master is asked to release the animals from the enclosure where they are kept and to set them free. If the souls of the animals are not obtained first, no game will be captured. The ritual, the goal of which is to secure the success of the hunt, necessitates at first a fumigation (by burning pine needles; Dulong sang [from Tibetan bsangs]) in order to purify the area to establish the contact with the spirits, then the offerings of ritual flags as well as small dough effigies representing the animals the hunters wish to obtain. As in all relations of reciprocity, something has to be given for what is taken, and the ritual flags are, according to the locals' saying, equivalent to a currency and necessary to "buy" the animals' souls. If the Master of Game does not like the flags or their colors, he will not accept the transaction.

This type of relationship is different from the one people enter into with some spirits living on the earth, in the surroundings of the houses or near the fields. Unlike with hunting, farming does not require systematic offerings, and no request should be formulated. There are only a few places where some earth spirits reside. Because people may harm these spirits when working in the fields, those may in return provoke illnesses, and will then be propitiated with small offerings. This relationship with spirits living in close proximity to humans, involving presents and offerings, makes these spirits relatives to the people living there, and they are said symbolically to be kindred.

Wealth is seen as a vital force, and the concept in Dulong is very close to the idea of luck. It is very important to keep wealth within oneself, for having none would influence the harvest and the hunt, and the domestic animals would not grow fat. Wealth is also linked to the spirit of the high mountains. In the eternal snows of the highest mountains is the essence of wealth, a great concentration of fertility and prosperity. This representation is linked to the idea that the snow is the soul of the cereals. These high mountains are also the residence of spirits who consequently are in a very intimate relationship with the people, for they are seen as the dispensators of wealth. More accurately, these spirits are localized and each village and its inhabitants are in relation to one particular mountain spirit responsible in some way for the area, for the well-being and prosperity of all beings living in it.

Mountain spirits are also protective divinities and can be asked to look after people and defend them against other beings that may cause illness, accidents, and all kinds of calamities. The New Year festival is the most exemplary event regarding people's relation with these spirits. It is the only period of the year during which is held a collective ritual in order to secure wealth and abundance of cereals and game for the coming year. But since its interdiction during the Cultural Revolution, it has almost been abandoned. This fact is in itself meaningful, for it is believed that all that is to come during the following year depends on what is obtained during this ritual. In other words, the accepted abandoning of the New Year's ritual, although caused by a political decision applied under duress, seems to indicate a change in the way the Dulong people look at economic activities. 

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The House: Symbolic Organization of Space             

Houses in the northern Dulong River valley are made of heavy pine lumber, which makes them quite similar to Swiss chalets. The floor of the house will always be at an average distance of one meter from the ground, the beams sustained at the four corners by a pile of stones. The single room is never of a very important surface; still, houses can show different features. The most common type is composed of a veranda which one accesses by the means of a ladder, and a small door opens onto the room, where the space is organized mainly around the fireplace. A kind of attic, equivalent to at least half of the room surface and in which one can hardly stand, covers the fireplace. It is used for storing food, jars of alcohol and other goods. Hanging from the attic there is a small shelf made of bamboo that is also a key element of the house; it is mainly used for smoking meat and drying pieces of wood. The beds are generally placed on both sides of the fireplace, but there is no specific rule, and often no proper bed. Quite frequently walls of boards are set up on the veranda in order to constitute a separate room (still leaving free the access to the entrance door of the house), where the family's teenagers sleep. Opposite to the fireplace is the space onto which the door directly opens, where people are quite active and all kinds of kitchen utensils are placed on a long shelf along the wall. This space, called svral, is that of coming and going, on which side of the fireplace young people sit. On the other side, far from the tumults of the house activities, the quiet anu space is that of the head of the household, where old people or important guests will be invited to sit.  It also becomes a sleeping place for the elders at night. 


Fig. 1: Organization and division of space in the house

A few houses of a bigger size can be found, and they will generally include two fireplaces, according to the number of the members of the family. Before the 1950's, it was common to find households of over ten individuals. The parents used the hearth opposite to the door, and the second one was used by the son and his wife, before they built their own house, generally after the birth of the first child. All brothers successively used this hearth after they got married and later left their parents' house.  Nowadays, even if there is no second fireplace, it is still common that married sons remain in their parents' house for a while, and it is still a rule that the younger male child and his family will remain with his parents and inherit the house.

The hearth is the centre of the inside space of the house, around which is organized social life. It symbolizes the family, and this is why a young couple generally has its own fireplace, and it is said that the wealth and prosperity of a family is rooted in the hearth. Accordingly, the attic is also considered a place of great importance and symbolic significance. Both are considered to be the two first floors of the sky, and from the fire pit starts this vertical axis which links the house, the human world, with the superior layers of the sky, a world of spirits, integrating the house into the whole cosmic space.

Roofs are generally made of shingles of pinewood. Some houses are thatched with a kind of long grass, a type of roofing which is constructed with a little more elaborate framework, and will last for longer, possibly up to ten years. Nevertheless, houses are never made to last over generations, and when part of it is considered to be too old (often the roof), the whole house is dismantled and rebuilt again. It can be moved a few meters or even displaced to another location in the village, and only the damaged parts of the framework will be replaced. The preparation of all the materials for the building of a new house can take several months, but the construction, during which the family benefits from the help of other villagers, relatives or neighbours, only lasts a day.

The construction of a new house is an important event, and peculiar attention is paid to the location. One must determine on the ground the position of the hearth, and a divination can be performed to determinate if the choice will be favorable for the household. This is the duty of a specialist, a diviner or a shaman. During the construction of the house, the hearth is again the only place which necessitates special care. A square space is left empty on the floor of the house for the fireplace, and boards will be used in order to constitute a box underneath. This box will be filled with earth which has to be taken from a spot nearby the house which is determined by the first sunbeams. As soon as the first baskets of earth are dumped into the hearth's space, a competent person will put in a thorny stick and a bit of poison (or a poisoned arrow) and start an incantation. All malevolent spirits are exhorted not to establish themselves in the hearth and threaten the house's well being, or they will be pricked and poisoned.

Most of the ritual that takes place at the end of the construction is related to securing the wealth and security of the new house and its inhabitants. After fumigating the interior by burning pine needles on the fire pit, a way to establish to relationship with the spirit, the performance continues outside. Dough figurines of animals are thrown on the ground from the roof of the house, and the way they fall down is a presage of future hunts. Bowls full of water, each representing one of the house inhabitants, are also thrown to determinate their fate and well being in the new house. Climbing down from the roof, wealth is then "fixed" in the house by throwing flour on the four walls of the house and on the hearth while performing an incantation accompanied by the sound of the gong. Neighbors or relatives who are believed to be particularly wealthy are invited to perform this part of the ritual and will be well entertained. At night, a lot of people will join in for dancing and drinking, activities which have a good influence on the wealth and destiny of the household. The singing and dancing can last until dawn, and women come to encourage and reward the singers with alcohol. The songs, performed in groups dancing in a circle, evoke the construction of the house, and enumerate each part of it, from the piles of stones on the ground to the top of the roof. As a performative speech, they symbolically rebuilt the house and assure its perennity. 

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