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Architecture | Topics | Magazine 6/2012

From Tradition to Tourist Attraction – Dong Wood Construction

Once seen, never forgotten – the pagoda-covered wind and rain bridges of the Dong people in South China. The mortise and tenon construction used for the bridges is also used for pagoda-like drum towers, theatre stages and village gates, as well as the houses that the Dong live in. The wood architecture of the Dong is one of the last remnants of an ancient culture in China.

Text and photographs: Frank Kaltenbach

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

The Dong live in a mountainous area in South China at the junction of the provinces Guizhou, Hunan and Guangxi. The landscape of rice terraces, bamboo forests and tea plantations is still intact, with the anthracite-coloured tiled roofs blending into the topography harmoniously. Even larger villages like Zhaoxing in the top left of the photograph above is hardly visible in the mist.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

While the villages of the Miao minority are typically located on hills, the larger settlements of the Dong are in river plains. Zhaoxing is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Dong area because of its good accessibility.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

As opposed to the many remote villages, where tower-like red brick buildings with flat roofs stand out blatantly, Zhaoxing ensures maintenance of a traditional silhouette and a homogeneous roofscape comprising the typically subdued tiled roofs. Only the five drum towers of the five local family clans are permitted to jut out of the sea of houses.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

The construction style of the houses is also traditional. The wood is cut in a neighbouring forest, the bark is removed on site and carried to the village by foot, where it is used as roof covering for functional buildings.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

The river is used to float the heavy trunks to the village or a truck loading area.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

The characteristic mortise and tenon joints require the pieces to fit together exactly.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

Special chisels are used by the carpenters to carve complex mortise holes in the trunk to ensure a precise fit. The width and depth of the hole is marked on a template and transferred to numbered bamboo rods so that the parts can be allocated correctly.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

The prepared trunks are transported to the erection site and fitted together into gable walls while lying on the ground. The whole structures are then lifted up and connected with horizontal timbers.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China
Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China
Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

The trunks stand loose on a 'foundation' of smooth stones – they are not anchored in the ground. A ground floor built of bricks has become increasingly popular in the past years because of the welcome protection from moisture, insects and snakes.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

The walls and ceilings of the upper storeys are made of thin tongued-and-grooved wooden boards fitted in square-shaped timbers. This naturally does not provide any significant sound insulation.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

The construction of the wind and rain bridges is based on the same principle, the span width however representing an additional challenge. With four span sections and five pagoda-like structures over the bridge heads and piers, the Chengyang Bridge in Ma'an is the largest and most frequently visited bridge of this kind.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

Instead of the diagonal bracing used in western cultures, the Dong place increasingly projecting layers of round timbers on the natural stone supports. Span widths of up to 20 metres are achieved in this way. The horizontal linearity of the Dong constructions contrasts with the curved bridges in the Himalayas using a similar type of construction.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

Fascinating spaces are created inside, the roof serving not only as a protective structure for the wooden bridge, but also offering one of the few public places to visit or take a sheltered walk in after work. Continuous rows of seating benches run on either side of the covered path, which widens to a square above each pier, inviting to linger and enjoy a view of the landscape.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

Not only does the space become more generous in this section, the atmosphere is also special: a filtered, almost sacral light enters the semi-darkness through openings between the stepped tiers of the eaves of the tower-like structure, creating a mystical yet open space.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

Cars or scooters are scarce in the Dong area, even horse carts are an exceptional sight. Pedestrians carry most goods, often using a carrying pole balanced over the shoulder. Bridges are accessed by means of steep and often narrow steps instead of ramps. The Batuan Bridge is an exception to this: a separate track for driving cattle is provided one-and-a-half metres below and to the side of the footbridge. The track is also very popular with pedestrians less keen on climbing stairs.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

A temple with a view of the bridge is found at the side of most of the larger bridges.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

The pagoda-like structures are not only built on wooden bridges, but also on stone arches, as illustrated by this historical example of an access to a famous monastery.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

With the increasing number of asphalted roads and tourism, even reinforced concrete bridges are decorated with the 'corporate' Dong architecture. Whether this is a sensitive integration of modern architecture in a rural context or romantic kitsch is arguable.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

Apart from wind and rain bridges, the other feature giving Dong villages their unique identity is the drum tower. As the meeting place of a clan, drum towers fulfil a variety of functions including a place for children to play, a shelter, an old people's home, a market hall and a village hall. They are usually situated right next to the village well and the village pond.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

The inner supports run right through to tip of the tower. The also continuous vertical interior space ensures good ventilation conditions for the fireplaces, which are set up in the centre as communal kitchen during family festivities and funerals.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

Ornamental painting and signs of use found in the smaller drum towers of the clans illustrate the important ritual function of the towers for the community.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

The attraction of Dong architecture has in the meantime also been recognised by tourism operators. Gigantic drum towers are built in the few larger villages, which though constructed in the traditional manner, are intended purely for sightseeing and do not have any ritual significance.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

The third typology of Dong architecture are the theatre stages. In China, such covered stages date back to the Tang Dynasty of the 7th century or earlier. The Dong build these in their typical style of construction and they are usually located in the village square next to the drum tower.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

There are simple, single-storey versions as well as structures with an additional built-up lower storey.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

Architecturally more sophisticated examples can for instance be found in the centre of Zhaoxing, where the roof structure is almost identical to the drum towers, wind and rain bridges or village entrance gates.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

Above Zhaoxing, about twenty minutes away by car, a village called Tan'an is located at the end of a narrow road. The broad view of the rice terraces is excellent from there. The only Ecological Museum of the Dong Minority could be found there until a few years ago. In the meantime, the museum is closed, the dilapidated theatre stage is worse for wear and the entrance gate displays distinct signs of weathering.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

Down in Zhaoxing on the other hand, forces of a different kind are working against the traditional culture. First signs of the tentative growth of the – for local conditions – booming tourist location, are evident. Highways are being cut through the hilly landscape, bold reinforced concrete bridges span whole valleys, and parking areas near the village entrances are being extended continuously.

Prefabrication in traditional timber construction of the Dong people in China

The new entrance gate to the Dong culture is far outside the actual village and leaves an overdone and artificial impression. Nevertheless, it is still a gate for pedestrians, allowing visitors to experience the rice fields from the elevated reinforced embankments just like the paddy farmers in the past, gently approaching the dark-grey covered houses standing together like a herd of water buffalo. The Dong have a big opportunity to improve their very simple living conditions through tourism, without losing their culture – if only they manage not to degenerate into a pure tourist attraction.

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