About Dimen Village

Dimen village, Guizhou Province, China

Dimen belongs to Kam minority, one of the 56 ethnic groups in China. Chinese call them Dong. Dimen is about three hundred years old. It is located deep in the mountains of Guizhou Province in south-central China. The village has about 520 households and less than 2200 people. Tradition says it was once home to 1300 households and it gave rise to surrounding villages.

Dimen has been virtually isolated for centuries from the rest of the world and the Dimen Kam successfully resisted outside influences. Recently, the outside world has come to Dimen full force and visible changes are happening every year. Many people, especially the younger generation, have left for work in distant factories to provide for their families leaving fewer working-age people in the village. Grandparents often take care of grandchildren while parents are away. The main occupation is farming and it is carried out much like in the past with little help of technology. The villagers grow rice, potatoes and vegetables, and raise animals such as chicken and pigs.


Cultural characteristics of the community

Kam have a distinct culture and speak their own language, which is quite different from Chinese. They do not have any non-academic writing system. Their traditions and culture have been preserved through songs that are passed down from generation to generation. They are so famed for their singing that Unesco designated the Kam (Dong) Grand song as an intangible cultural heritage in 2009. Kam are also known for their carpentry skills and unique architecture. They have distinct crafts as well: weaving, dyeing cloth in indigo, embroidery, and papermaking. Many of these traditional methods and distinct Dimen designs are known only to a few elderly women. Unfortunately, these women did not pass down the skills the younger generations due to lack of interest. There is a real danger that parts of their history, cultural heritage and knowledge be lost in not so distant future.

Problem Identifications

Based on Kam views and values:

Based on observation and case studies in other locations:


Dimen, the Kam Spring
from Dawn of the Butterflies by Marie Anna Lee, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Forethcoming

Dimen is a three-hundred-year-old Kam minority village hidden deep in the fir-covered mountains of Guizhou, one of the poorest provinces in south-central China. One can now fly to the county seat of Liping, located in the southeastern tip of Guizhou, and then drive thirty-nine kilometers to Maogong and take a narrow four-kilometer-long unpaved road to the village.

Dimen is larger than average in Kam standards in which two to three hundred households often constitute a village. In Dimen, there are about twenty-one hundred people living in five hundred and twenty households. There used to be thirteen hundred households at one point, but many people migrated to surrounding areas and founded new villages. The name Dimen means spring so it takes on a new significance as a place of origin from which the other villages have sprung.

The village is divided into five quarters: Wei, Mo, Mang, Mu, and Yin. Mu is where the first settlers founded Dimen and where the cemetery is. People tend to marry outside of their quarter. There is only one surname used in the village, Wu. There are three families with a different last name; they are the Duang, the descendants of the landowner family and children of Wu Meng Xi, one of our mentors.

A carved entrance gate marks the village grounds high up on the main road from Maogong. Teenage girls in colorful costumes welcome village guests there with songs, decorated eggs, and rice wine. Below, Dimen rests in a lush green valley. A river winds through the middle of the village with houses lining its high banks. As the river flows on from the village, a temple, an altar to goddess Sa Sui and a bull-fighting arena define Dimen’s farthest edge. A cemetery demarks the original grounds of the village before it spread to the other riverbank. Rice fields lie farther down the stream.

The village girls lock elbows with the guests and lead them through the gate into the village below. After a few curves down the unpaved road, the main drum tower comes into view. Overshadowing all other buildings in height and lavishly decorated with paintings and carvings, it’s the heart of the community and a meeting place where village elders decide public matters and settle disputes. It was rebuilt in 2007 after a large fire that decimated a significant portion of the village and destroyed the old drum tower.

Dimen has two more drum towers that serve as meeting places for their clans. Celebrations, funerals, feasts, and other gatherings happen underneath their painted beams. Old men often smoke and discuss politics there, while children play cards and peek out from its open balustrade.

Passing the main drum tower on the right, a person can walk onto the main square that has a few concrete shops that are a familiar sight all over China. Other than the general stores that sell everything from incense to small farming equipment and beer, the square has a noodle shop and a small hostel to accommodate visitors. A few wooden stalls sell freshly butchered meat in the evenings.
Beyond the square, an elementary school equips children with standard lessons first in Kam and later in Mandarin Chinese. It now serves children from the neighboring village of Dengcen, whose Kam-speaking school closed in 2008 forcing the children to walk more than one and half kilometers to school one way every day.

A luscious green rice field lies behind the school with a broad but shallow river curving around it from two sides. It supplies fish, irrigates plants, and serves for washing whatever needs to be cleaned whether it’s a human body, a freshly butchered pig, or a kettle darkened by years of use. Two wind-and-rain bridges dominate the scene. A small one-room clinic that treats most ailments with IV fluids is located just before the first bridge. There’s a small supply of medicine, as well, and the staff says they can set broken bones, if necessary.
The first wind-and-rain bridge is wide enough to allow a bus to pass underneath its carved beams. Look upstream, and there’s another bridge, narrower but just as ornate as the as the first one. Just where the river bends downstream is another bridge, as narrow as the second one. Two more bridges connect the two sides of the river before the river flows past the village.

Carved animals and painted heroes welcome tired souls to take a rest from the outside elements for a while underneath the bridges’ roofs. Deep shadows, a gentle breeze from the cool river waters, and the calming sound of water rippling downstream seduce many to take a nap on the benches that line the bridges in hot summer afternoons.

The road forks after the first bridge with one road leading to the village of Ladong and the other follows the river to Dengcen with rice fields beyond the village confines. A labyrinth of stone-laid lanes wide enough for a horse cart and narrow dirt pathways wide enough for one person to pass connects various parts of the village with the main road. Open sewage runs parallel to the main paths. People wash clothes, equipment, and their bodies in its waters.

Two- to three-story houses huddle together in long rows with colorful laundry and leafy vegetables hanging down from their verandas. Wooden coffins, some painted black to be more beautiful, peek from underneath the raised houses. Penned animals infuse the air with an acrid aroma. A space opens up from time to time for a smaller square, a communal open workspace, a small garden, and even a rice field to form neighborhoods. Fishponds dot the village with red or green duckweed blanketing the surface. Vegetables sometimes grow on small docks floating in their midst. Five stone-carved wells, scattered on the outskirts of the village, provide fresh water to the inhabitants.
The village prides itself with three outdoor theaters. The performances are often of local origin, many written by songmaster Wu Sheng Zhang, who is also a cousin of our teacher Wu Meng Xi. Indeed, Kam drama is said to originate in Dimen. The famous Wu Wencai was born in the village in 1798 and then moved to nearby Ladong. The oral traditions in Dimen say that his family moved to Ladong after his mother remarried. He observed Chinese operas performed by the Han troupes and noticed that the Kam spectators could not understand them. He first translated two popular Chinese works and then wrote his own operas in the Kam language.(Geary, 232)

The way out of the village is lined with silos and granaries built on high pillars to protect the grains from fires that often plague the village. This way, even with all belongings gone, families will have food to eat and grain to plant.

Muddy paths and narrow roads lead into the mountains that surround Dimen from all sides. Ancient and sacred trees overlook the village from above. Ancestral bones are often buried underneath them to bring good fortune to the family. There are bamboo trees growing in abundance close to the village, but fir trees become more and more common the deeper someone ventures into the mountains. Some way from the village, wayside cooling pavilions provide farmers respite on strenuous walks to their faraway fields.