China’s first book to record the full history of the remotest ethnic group – the Derung
Community of a nation
Published: Apr 26, 2022 08:13 PM
A Derung man crosses a river with a rope.Photo:Courtesy of Chen Haodong

A Derung man crosses a river with a rope.Photo:Courtesy of Chen Haodong

In 1895, French explorer Henry Orleans and his team went to a remote place in what is today's Southwest China's Yunnan Province. After overcoming harsh terrain and natural conditions, they finally discovered the home of a rumored ancient and mysterious people - the Derung.

This is the earliest record of the Derung in the world. One of China's smallest ethnic groups, its people live along the border between China's Yunnan Province and Myanmar.

The Derung, which only had a population of about 1,800 people before the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC), only lived in a simple commune system that used slash-and-burn cultivation. Now they have increased their population to more than 7,000 and have shaken off poverty.

Book cover of Dulongchunfeng Photo: Courtesy of Chen Haodong

Book cover of Dulongchunfeng Photo: Courtesy of Chen Haodong

What dramatic changes have they experienced? The book Dulong Chunfeng, gives the answer. More than 450,000 characters long, Dulong Chunfeng is the first book to provide a comprehensive introduction to the ethic group.

Deep impression

Duan Aisong, one of the book authors, told the Global Times that he decided to write it out of his strong curiosity about this mysterious ethnic minority and its unique culture and customs.

He said one of the unique customs of the Derung is that the women used to tattoo their faces when they reached the age of 12 or 13. The design of the tattoo indicates which clan they belong to. The patterns look like vines of some plants and tend to reach from their chin to right below their eyes. 

When tattooing the face, an experienced elderly woman dips a slender bamboo stick into pot ash and then traces the symbolic pattern on the recipient's face, then the tattoo artist uses a bamboo needle and a needle stick to follow the pattern. 

It takes at least 10 days to complete a tattoo. During this period, the 12- or 13-year-old girl had to experience the pain of bamboo needles pricking her skin countless times every day.

The painful custom was later forbidden. 

Duan recalled he once interviewed an over 70-year-old woman surnamed Li whose mother was a tattoo master. 

Duan said he was very impressed after talking with the woman. She was a bit shy, but her eyes showed tenacity. And she had a very good memory. 

"She told me, 'In the past, time passed too slowly, while now time goes very fast.' Her words made me believe they are really satisfied with their current life."

A dramatic change

Dulongjiang Township in Gongshan Derung and Nu Autonomous County was one of the poorest regions in Yunnan Province and even the entire country.

According to Duan, most Derung people used to live in mountainous areas and made a living by hunting. A new life came with the people's liberation in 1949 as they directly entered the socialist society.

With the help of the local government, they have now moved to a place along the bank of the Dulong River and have learned to grow rice and other plants that can be used as spices.

All of the six administrative villages have access to roads with hard surfaces, 4G and radio and TV signals and all villagers benefit from a critical illness insurance program.

In 2018, the Derung ethnic group shook off poverty as a whole.

"This phenomenal breakthrough could only happen in China. This minority can continue to this day not only because of its upward spirit, but also because of the great attention and help given by the Communist Party of China," Chen Haodong, editor in charge of the book, told the Global Times.

According to Chen, the Derung people now live in step with current trend as some young people have joined livestreaming teams selling special products made by the Derung including traditional and colorful blankets handmade by the local women.

Many kids go to schools built in the township. Legendary Chinese basketball star Yao Ming also built a primary school for local kids and invited them to watch Chinese Basketball Association games.

According to Duan, since the Derung has other ethnic branches in Myanmar, with the approval of the Chinese government, some kids living in poverty in Myanmar have been allowed to go to school in the township. 

He said the group used to be polygamous, but that changed after the founding of the PRC. He once interviewed a woman from the Myanmar's branch of the ethnic group who married a Derung man in China.

She told Duan that many Myanmar women want to marry men in the township since the living environment here is much better than their own. 

"When she told me the biggest dream is to get Chinese nationality, I felt the strength of our country. No other country has given so much to such a disadvantaged ethnic group," he said.

Duan said the growth of the Derung is one example of what is happening with other minority groups. He hopes that through the book, readers will be able to have a deeper understanding of "the community of the Chinese nation."
An elderly Derung woman with a tattoo on her face weaves a colorful blanket.Photo:Courtesy of Chen Haodong

An elderly Derung woman with a tattoo on her face weaves a colorful blanket.Photo:Courtesy of Chen Haodong