ETHNONYMS: Ang, Benlong, Black Benglong, Liang, Niang, Red Benglong
Identification. De'ang is one of fifty-six ethnic groups in China officially recognized by the Chinese government. The earlier official ethnic name was "Benglong" but was changed to "De'ang" in 1985 at their request. The De'ang are discontinuously spread across the border areas between the southwestern frontier of the Chinese province of Yunnan and northeastern Myanmar (Burma). They are one of the smallest minority peoples in China; they numbered 15,462 in 1990. They are considered to have a long history.
Location. In Yunnan, the De'ang live mainly in the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, with others scattered in the Lincang Administration Area and the Baoshan Administration Area. The regions of Santaishan in Luxi County and Junnong in Zhenkang County are the largest communities of De'ang. The climate in De'ang areas is subtropical with dry and rainy seasons each year.
Demography. Population growth had been very slow because the high birthrate was offset by a high rate of infant mortality. Since the 1950s the population has been steadily increasing with the improvement of medical care and health conditions. The population of De'ang was estimated at about 6,000 in 1949 and had increased to 12,275 by the time of the national census in 1982.
Linguistic Affiliation. The De'ang are Mon-Khmer speakers. They speak three dialects. Having lived in close contact with the Dai, Jingpo, and Han (Chinese) for a long time, many De'ang also speak the languages of those peoples at trade fairs and in social intercourse.
History and Cultural Relations
The legend from either the De'ang's neighbors or the De'ang themselves recounts that the De'ang were the first settlers in the Dehong region of Yunnan. Remains of old tea plantations, roads, towns, and so on have been found in local areas and scholars believe they were left by the ancestors of the De'ang. The "Pu" people, whose presence is recorded in Chinese historical documents from 2,000 years ago, are thought to be the ancestors of the De'ang and the other Mon-Khmer speakers in ancient China. However, the exact name of the De'ang first appeared in Chinese records as "Benglong" in the Qing dynasty. The De'ang have had close contact with Tai-speaking peoples at least since the Yuan dynasty, 700 years ago. There are some cases still remembered by local people of De'ang villages being assimilated into those of the Dai.
The village is the basic unit of settlement. Most villages are located in mountainous and semimountainous areas, near those of the Jingpo, Lisu, and Han peoples. A few villages are found on the plain among Dai villages. Usually a few dozen households constitute an isolated village.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The De'ang have traditionally practiced extensive agriculture with simple techniques. In the Dehong region, wet-rice cultivation is the most important economic activity, while in the Lincang region, important products are dry rice, maize, and starchy tubers. The De'ang depend for subsistence not only on grain crops, but also on tea production. Tea cultivation has been practiced since ancient times, and tea has been the main cash crop since the last century. In addition, the De'ang engage in handicraft production, including bamboo weaving, gunny weaving, gunnysack sewing, and making of silverware. There are no markets in De'ang villages. They sell their own products and buy metal tools, salt, cloth, and other manufactured goods at neighboring Dai or Han markets. Since the late nineteenth century, some De'ang who live close to towns and communication lines have engaged in trade during the leisure season, but trade is insignificant in their economy.
Division of Labor. Labor is divided by age and sex. The elderly engage in weaving and taking care of household chores. Men perform heavy work in the fields, such as plowing and harrowing, while women are responsible for transplanting rice seedlings. Everyone's primary work is directly related to agriculture, although a family member who has a professional skill is often assigned to do some other work, such as weaving or manufacturing silverware.
Land Tenure. Traditionally land belonged to the village, and each family had the right only to use the land, not to own it. In the Dehong region, the rice fields became private property during the nineteenth century and could be mortgaged or sold by the owner, who brought the field under cultivation first. However, the village still maintained ownership of dry land. In the late nineteenth century, the economic forces of the Dai and Han peoples began to infiltrate into the De'ang villages. By the time of the Agrarian Reform in 1956, the Dai and Han had occupied 80-90 percent of the rice fields in De'ang villages by buying the land from De'ang landowners. Losing the fields, many De'ang were reduced to being tenants of the Dai and Han owners. In the Lincang region, the majority of cultivated land is dry land or upland fields. Before 1956, the land near villages had been divided and given to individual families for a long time with the right of succession, but the land far from villages still belonged to the villages, and any village member could use such land. When the land lay fallow, it would be turned over to the village. Traditionally land could not be sold by anyone, and as soon as a villager migrated out, the land he owned had to be returned to the village. One could not even rent one's own land to an outsider without the permission of the village head. Since the Agrarian Reform of 1956, however, all of the lands in the De'ang areas have been nationalized, as have lands elsewhere in China.
Kinship, Marriage, and Family
Kin Groups and Descent. A De'ang village is usually composed of several patrilineal groups. Each patrilineal group is composed of several to thirty or forty nuclear families with a patriarchal authority structure and patrilineal inheritance of Sinicized family names.
Marriage. Customarily, mates come from the same village but from different patrilineal groups. Asymmetrical cross-cousin marriage—in this case, a man marrying a daughter of his mother's brothers—has become the preferred form. Postmarital residence is patrilocal. A matrilocal marriage can sometimes occur when a man is not able to afford the bride-price. If a husband wants a divorce, some charge and the approval of the village head will be necessary. If the divorce is demanded by the wife, her family must repay the bride-price.
Domestic Unit and Inheritance. In the Dehong region, the nuclear family that consists of a married couple and their children is the most common form. The eldest and second sons usually establish their respective new houses after marrying, and the youngest son inherits the parents' house and property and the responsibility of taking care of the parents. In the Lincang region, the large extended family was common until the early twentieth century. Such a family contained many nuclear families and included three or four generations. All the family members, varying between twenty and ninety in number, lived in one large bamboo house. The house was divided into several rooms. Each room was usually occupied by a nuclear family. Often the responsibility of running the household rested with the senior male. The property of the family was owned by all family members. Owing to the development of a monetary economy and the accumulation of property by the nuclear family, this large-family form has gradually disintegrated since the early twentieth century and the independent nuclear family has become most common in De'ang communities. As a kind of transitional form from the large extended family to the nuclear family, independent nuclear families have sometimes lived together in the previously used large house in close relationship with each other, although they have been independent households.
Before 1949, the De'ang were under the rule of the Dai ruling class. The Dai ruler gave the De'ang village headmen official titles and appointments to collect tribute and tax. The position of a village head was often hereditary in Dehong, while in some areas of Lincang a village head was elected by villagers and approved by the Dai ruler. Moreover, several village heads elected a chief head from among themselves to handle the affairs between the villages and to be the representative of the villages in contacts with the Dai ruler. Since the Chinese Communist government was established in 1949, the national government has brought the administrative system in the De'ang areas into the national socialist system.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religion. The De'ang adopted Theravada Buddhism from the nearby Dai. Buddhist temples exist in most villages, and feeding the monks is the obligation of every household. The De'ang monks can write and read the Buddhist scriptures in Dai language. In addition, there is a lay specialist in every village who directs offering-making ceremonies and divines for villagers. The ultimate goal of Buddhism in De'ang society is to extricate oneself from suffering and enter otherworldly life after death through merits earned in this life. The De'ang have religious festivals similar to the Dai, such as the New Year, Closing the Door, Opening the Door, and so forth.
Death and Afterlife. Each village has a cemetery shared by all of the villagers. The normal form of burial is in a coffin in the ground, while only those who have died of "unnatural" causes (e.g., disease or accident) are cremated. In funeral rites the monk chants for the dead and releases the soul of the dead from purgatory, so that the soul will not harm people and livestock.
See also Dai
National Minorities Commission, Yunnan Provincial Editorial Group, ed. (1986). De-angzu jianshi (A concise history of the De'ang). Kunming: Yunnan Education Press.
Yunnan Institute of History, ed. (1983). "The Benglong." In Yunnan shaoshu minzu (Yunnan Minority Peoples). Kunming: Yunnan Peoples Press.