Ethnic Kam women and man in holiday dresses. Liping County, Guizhou, China.
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Guizhou, Hunan and Guangxi provinces, China; small pockets in Vietnam and Laos
Kam, Chinese

The Kam people (Kam: Gaeml, [kɐ́m]), officially known in China as Dong people (Chinese: 侗族; pinyin: Dòngzú), are a Kam–Sui people and one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by the People's Republic of China. They live mostly in eastern Guizhou, western Hunan and northern Guangxi. Small pockets of Kam speakers are found in Tuyên Quang Province in Vietnam.[1]

They are famed for their native-bred Kam Sweet Rice (Chinese: 香禾糯), carpentry skills and unique architecture, in particular a form of covered bridge known as the "wind and rain bridge" (Chinese: 风雨桥). The Kam people call themselves Kam, Geml, Jeml or Gaeml.[2]


The Kam are thought to be the modern-day descendants of the ancient Rau peoples who occupied much of southern China.[3] Kam legends generally maintain that the ancestors of the Kam migrated from the east. According to the migration legends of the Southern Kam people, their ancestors came from Guangzhou, Guangdong and Wuzhou, Guangxi. The Northern Kam maintain that their ancestors fled Zhejiang and Fujian because of locust swarms. Some scholars (mainly Chinese) also believe that the Kam were a branch of the Bai Yue from the first century CE. The Bai Yue inhabited the Yangze River basin after the collapse of the Yue Kingdom around the first century CE which led to the establishment of many small chiefdoms.[2]

The first explicit mention of the Kam (or Dong) people come from Ming dynasty sources. Many Kam rebellions took place during the Ming and Qing dynasties, but none were successful in the long run. The Qing developed extensive irrigation systems in the area and rice harvests increased significantly but this mostly benefited the local landlords. The Kam were further exploited after the first Opium War of 1840–1842 by western forces, capitalists, landlords, usurers and Qing officials.[2]

As a consequence of these events, many Kam helped or joined the Chinese Communists soon after its founding in 1921. They supplied food and resources to the Red Army as it passed through Guangxi during the Long March. Some Kam also allied with the People's Liberation Army through establishing guerilla units against the forces of Chiang Kai-Shek. After 1949, infrastructure was quickly developed in Kam areas. Schools, roads, small factories and more were built. Many Kam also became government officials.[2]

Although the Kam and Han Chinese peoples generally get along well today, the history of Guizhou is marked by innumerable tensions and conflicts between the Han Chinese and non-Han minority groups. Today, many Kam are assimilating into mainstream Chinese society as rural Kam move into urban areas, resulting in intermarriage with the Han Chinese and the loss of the Kam language. However, various attempts to preserve Kam culture and language have been very successful, and improving living conditions in rural Guizhou may entice local Kam villagers to stay rather than move to major urban areas.


The Kam language (autonym: lix Gaeml) is a Tai–Kadai (Chinese: Zhuang–Dong) language. Ethnologue distinguishes three Kam varieties as separate but closely related languages: Northern Dong [doc], Southern Dong [kmc], and Cao Miao [cov].[4][5][6] Sui, Maonan and Mulao are the languages most closely related to Kam. Historically, Northern Kam has been influenced by Chinese much more than has Southern Kam.[2]

The Kam language has no traditional script of its own. The Kam people sometimes use Chinese characters to represent the sounds of Kam words. A Latin alphabet was developed in 1958, but it is not much in use due to a lack of printed material and trained teachers.


Kam-Dong (red) and Sui (purple) autonomous prefectures and counties
Distribution of the Dong and other Kam-Sui ethnic groups in China
County-level distribution of the Kam

(Only includes counties or county-equivalents containing >1% of county population.)

Province Prefecture/city County % Kam Kam population Total population
Guizhou province (whole province) 4.62 1,628,568 35,247,695
Guizhou Tongren prefecture (whole prefecture) 11.41 376,862 3,302,625
Guizhou Tongren prefecture Tongren City (Bijiang District) 33.72 104,051 308,583
Guizhou Tongren prefecture Jiangkou County 8.99 17,011 189,288
Guizhou Tongren prefecture Yuping Dong Autonomous County 78.09 98,757 126,462
Guizhou Tongren prefecture Shiqian County 30.49 101,990 334,508
Guizhou Tongren prefecture Songtao Miao Autonomous County 2.56 14,025 547,488
Guizhou Tongren prefecture Wanshan District 73.40 40,130 54,674
Guizhou Qiandongnan Miao Dong autonomous prefecture 31.40 1,207,197 3,844,697
Kaili city 5.10 22,099 433,236
Shibing county 2.53 3,464 137,171
Sansui county 48.89 83193 170,167
Zhenyuan county 32.23 71,800 222,766
Cengong county 32.50 61,006 187,734
Tianzhu county 67.54 235,241 348,302
Jinping county 49.64 94,537 190,429
Jianhe county 34.47 65,170 189,085
Liping county 70.85 324,867 458,533
Rongjiang county 38.38 115,295 300,369
Congjiang county 40.88 123,270 301,513
Leishan county 2.08 2,752 132,004
Danzhai county 1.07 1,452 135,400
Guangxi 0.69 303,139 43,854,538
Guilin city 1.04 48,166 4,614,670
Longshenggezu autonomous county 26.57 42,718 160,796
Liuzhou prefecture 6.51 229,162 3,522,322
Rong'an county 2.93 8,303 283,029
Sanjiang Dong autonomous county 55.98 170,248 304,149
Rongshui Miao autonomous county 11.28 48,020 425,608
Hubei province 0.12 69,947 59,508,870
Enshi Tujia Miao autonomous prefecture 1.79 67,440 3,775,190
Enshi city 2.27 17,187 755,725
Xuan'en county 13.93 46,817 335,984
Hunan province 1.33 842,123 63,274,173
Suining county 4.12 13,973 339,235
Xinning county 0.05 283 557,120
Chengbu Miao autonomous county 1.45 3,498 241,517
Huaihua city 17.42 808,155 4,639,738
Hecheng district 2.99 10,370 346,522
Huitong county 52.49 173,947 331,392
Xinhuang Dong autonomous county 80.13 193,678 241,690
Zhijiang Dong autonomous county 52.37 175,030 334,229
Jingzhou Miao Dong autonomous county 26.06 63,962 245,444
Tongdao Dong autonomous county 75.96 156,719 206,327
Hongjiang city 5.43 26,360 485,061


Zhaoxing, the largest Dong village in China

The Kam people are internationally renowned for their polyphonic choir singing, called Kgal Laox in the Kam language (Chinese: 侗族大歌), which can be literally translated as Kam Grand Choir or Grand song in English. The Kam Grand Choir has been listed by UNESCO as a world-class intangible cultural heritage since 2009. Kam choral songs include nature songs, narratives, and children's songs.

One-part songs (as opposed to polyphonic, or many-part, songs) can be sung by one or many people.[3] They include:

Operas are highly popular among the Kam and are performed by local troupes.[3] Two famous Kam playwrights are Wu Wencai (1798–1845), author of Mei Liangyu, and Zhang Honggan (1779–1839).

Kam oral literature contains a rich array of legends and folk tales. Many of these popular tales are about the leaders of past uprisings (Geary 2003:218). Celebrated leaders include:

Popular folk tales are listed below. They can be found in The Kam People of China by D. Norman Geary.[3]


Kam clans are known as dou and are further divided into ji, gong, and households (known as "kitchens"), respectively from largest to smallest in size.[3] Village elders were traditionally the village leaders, although the government replaced these elders with village heads from 1911 to 1949. Kam society was also traditionally matriarchal, as can be evidenced by the cult of the goddess Sa Sui (Geary 2003:88). Before the advent of the Han Chinese, the Kam had no surnames, instead distinguishing each other by their fathers' names.

Kam common law is known as kuan and is practiced at four levels.[3]

  1. Single village
  2. Several villages
  3. Single township / entire local rural area
  4. Multiple townships / large portion of the Kam population

Courtship and marriage

Traditional courtship consists of three phases:

  1. Early meeting phase where men and women sing songs and recite poems to one another.
  2. Deepening love phase where the courtship is one-to-one and the songs are more spontaneous.
  3. Exchanging a token phase where a man gives a woman a gift, with the woman expected to make excuses to test her suitor. The token is usually a minor gift without much monetary value. However, it is highly important symbolically, as it is the equivalent of an engagement ring in Western cultures.[3]

Weddings last three days and are first held at the bride's family's home. The bride is later sent to the groom's home, where an afternoon reception and all-night feast then ensue. The next day there is a "blocking the horse" ceremony where the hosts block the guests while singing songs. The bride typically resides at her parents' house for a few months or even years. Silver jewellery is passed onto the bride by her mother.


The birth of a child is complemented by the following events:[3]

  1. The "stepping-over-the-threshold person," the first person to enter the home where the child was born, will influence the child's future personality and success.
  2. Several fir trees are planted at the birth which are gifted at age 18 for marriage and new home.[7]
  3. Neighbors are invited and bring food and gifts.
  4. Announcing the birth to the mother's family.
  5. Visit from the female relatives on the third day or so; gifts are brought.
  6. Homage expressed to the land god for the birth of a male child (practiced by the Northern Kam).
  7. Building a "bridge" – Three wooden planks are lined up side by side to express goodwill to passing people.
  8. Wrapping the hands – The child's hands are wrapped to help prevent him or her from stealing things later on in life.
  9. First haircut at the age of one month.
  10. First eating of fermented rice at the age of about one month.
  11. First eating of meat dipped in wine at six months old – considered a major milestone.


Like those of the Miao people, Kam funerals are highly elaborate. People who died from unnatural causes (e.g., accidents) are cremated, while those who died from natural causes are buried.[3] Burial consists of the following phases:[3]

  1. Receiving the breath – listening for last words and the person's the last breath.
  2. Drinking clear tea – Three spoonfuls of "clear tea" and a small pieces of silver are placed into the recently deceased person's mouth.
  3. Buying water for washing the corpse.
  4. "Washing" the corpse – The corpse is covered with wet money paper.
  5. Putting on the graveclothes – Old clothes are taken off.
  6. Arranging the "dream bed" – The suona is played during the vigil.
  7. Starting on the road – A red cock is killed, and the corpse is removed from the dream bed and placed into a coffin. White headcloths are worn by the mourners (also practiced by the Han Chinese).
  8. Digging the "well" (grave).
  9. Holding the memorial ceremony – Presents are distributed.
  10. Going up the mountain – Coffins are usually placed high up on a mountainside.
  11. Placing the coffin into the "well" – A chicken is killed and prayers are said. The chicken is then lowered into the grave and pulled back out again for later consumption.
  12. Holding the funeral receptions – Lunch and dinner are held.
  13. Returning to the mountain – The sons return to the grave to build a grave-mound. The dead person is called to "go back home" to live at the altar to the family's ancestors.
  14. "Transferring the sons" (if the dead is female) – This is a ceremony in which the duties of filial piety are transferred from the deceased mother to her eldest brother or the eldest brother's representative.


An average-size Kam village has 200–300 homes, although the smallest ones have only 10–20 and the largest ones have more than 1,000.[3] Kam villages typically have:

Popular scenic spots in Kam-speaking territories are the Jiudong region, Liudong region, Chengyang village, Pingdeng region, and Yuping region.

Agriculture and economy

The Kam people cultivate dozens of varieties of glutinous rice (known locally as "Kam" or "good" rice). The Han Chinese cultivate non-glutinous rice, which is called "Han (Chinese) rice" by the Kam.[3] Supplementary foods inclusive maize, millet, vegetables, plums, peaches, pears, mushrooms, mandarin oranges, pomelos, and watermelons. Cotton is cultivated for textile production. Generally the Kam occupy lower-lying land than the Miao and are thus wealthier.

Animals frequently raised by the Kam people include:[3]

The "four pillars" of Kam cuisine are glutinous rice, sour (pickled) food, hot pepper, and rice wine.[3] Other popular local dishes and condiments include barbecued fish, intestines sauce, purple blood pork, chicken-blood sauce, oil tea, gongguo (glutinous rice snack sweetened with liana) and bianmi (another glutinous rice snack). The giant salamander is a rare local specialty. Two hot meals (breakfast and dinner) and one cold meal (lunch) are served every day.

The Kam-speaking area is famous for its fir wood. Fir from the Kam area was used to build the ships of 15th-century explorer Zheng He and the Great Hall of the People. Major economic activities include carpentry and the manufacture of silverwork and wickerwork. Baskets and other wickerwork are usually made by men. Baskets can be made from five types of plant materials, namely glutinous rice straw, cogongrass, Guangxi grass, bamboo, and rattan.[3]

In recent years, tourism has become a major source of income for the Kam people.[3]


Below is a list of traditional Kam festivals.[3]

Two new year festivals:

One-day work-related festivals, where chicken, fish, and glutinous rice are eaten.

There are four harvest festivals which last 1–3 days.

Singing festivals:

Remembrance festivals:

Miscellaneous festivals:

Bullfighting is also historically popular among the Kam people.[3]


The Kam people are traditionally polytheistic with many elements of animism.[3] Totems include turtles, snakes, and dragons, and worshiped ancestors include the mythical figures of Song Sang, Song En, Zhang Liang, and Zhang Mei.[3] However, the Kam have been influenced by Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism through historical contacts with the Han. This influence is mainly seen in regards to ancestor worship, funeral rites, and certain festivals like the Spring and Dragon Boat Festivals.[2] The Kam also use rice grains, bamboo roots, snails, and chicken bone, eyes, blood, and eggs for divination. Today, Taoism, Buddhism, and to a lesser extent Christianity are practiced by the Kam.

Spirits and deities

Some deities and sacred natural phenomena are also listed below.[3]

Snakes are highly revered and are often thought to have been the progenitors of the ancient Baiyue peoples, which included the Kam.[3] The legendary founders of the Kam people, Zhang Liang and Zhang Mei, are often called upon to help with illnesses and disasters.

Taboos and superstitions

Traditional Kam religion uses many taboos, omens, and fetishes. The fetishes are usually plant parts such as tree branches, reeds, leaves, and roots. Some of the taboos and superstitions are listed below.[3]

Magic and shamanism

Rituals involving supernatural elements include dragon dances, spring buffalo dances, and fire prevention ceremonies where ash is placed in boats and sent downstream.

Sorcery can be performed in private. There are many purposes of sorcery, such as repelling evil spirits, recovering the soul of a disturbed child, exacting revenge on enemies, and inducing love. Voodoo dolls, borrowed from the Chinese, are made so that pins can be stuck onto them, with the person's name and birth date written on them. The doll is then buried underground after being inserted into a clay pot.[3] White cocks can be used for revenge sorcery.

Shamanism is practiced by the Kam and bears many parallels with Miao (Hmong) shamanism. One major duty of shamans is to recover the souls of sick people.[3]

Notable Dongs



  1. ^ Edmondson, J.A. and Gregerson, K.J. 2001, "Four Languages of the Vietnam-China Borderlands", in Papers from the Sixth Annual Meeting of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society, ed. K.L. Adams and T.J. Hudak, Tempe, Arizona, pp. 101–133. Arizona State University, Program for Southeast Asian Studies. Expand.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Skutsch, Carl, ed. (2005). Encyclopedia of the World's Minorities. New York: Routledge. pp. 408, 409. ISBN 1-57958-468-3.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z D. Norman Geary, Ruth B. Geary, Ou Chaoquan, Long Yaohong, Jiang Daren, Wang Jiying (2003). The Kam People of China: Turning Nineteen. (London / New York, RoutledgeCurzon 2003). ISBN 0-7007-1501-0.
  4. ^ Dong, Northern at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) Closed access icon
  5. ^ Dong, Southern at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) Closed access icon
  6. ^ Cao Miao at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) Closed access icon
  7. ^ "A bullet train to nowhere".