Kam people

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Not to be confused with Kom people (disambiguation).
Ethic Dong Liping Guizhou China.jpg
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
Polytheism, Theravada Buddhism

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


The Kam are thought to be the modern-day descendants of the ancient Liáo (僚) peoples who occupied much of southern China.[2] 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. Many Kam rebellions took place during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, but none were successful in the long run.

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. [1] Ethnologue distinguishes between two Kam languages, with the codes kmc for Southern Kam (Southern Dong) and doc for Northern Kam (Northern Dong). Sui, Maonan, and Mulao are the languages most closely related to Kam.

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.


By province[edit]

By county[edit]

County-level distribution of the Kam

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

county/city % Kam Kam Total
Guizhou province 4,62 1628568 35247695
Tongren prefecture 11,41 376862 3302625
Tongren city 33,72 104051 308583
Jiangkou county 8,99 17011 189288
Yuping Dong autonomous county 78,09 98757 126462
Shiqian county 30,49 101990 334508
Songtao Miao autonomous county 2,56 14025 547488
Wanshante district 73,40 40130 54674
Qiandongnan Miao Dong autonomous prefecture 31,40 1207197 3844697
Kaili city 5,10 22099 433236
Shibing county 2,53 3464 137171
Sanhui county 48,89 83193 170167
Zhenyuan county 32,23 71800 222766
Cengong county 32,50 61006 187734
Tianzhu county 67,54 235241 348302
Jinping county 49,64 94537 190429
Jianhe county 34,47 65170 189085
Liping county 70,85 324867 458533
Rongjiang county 38,38 115295 300369
Congjiang county 40,88 123270 301513
Leishan county 2,08 2752 132004
Danzhai county 1,07 1452 135400
Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region 0,69 303139 43854538
Guilin city 1,04 48166 4614670
Longshenggezu autonomous county 26,57 42718 160796
Liuzhou prefecture 6,51 229162 3522322
Rong'an county 2,93 8303 283029
Sanjiang Dong autonomous county 55,98 170248 304149
Rongshui Miao autonomous county 11,28 48020 425608
Hubei province 0,12 69947 59508870
Enshi Tujia Miao autonomous prefecture 1,79 67440 3775190
Enshi city 2,27 17187 755725
Xuan'en county 13,93 46817 335984
Hu'nan province 1,33 842123 63274173
Suining county 4,12 13973 339235
Xinning county 0,05 283 557120
Chengbu Miao autonomous county 1,45 3498 241517
Huaihua city 17,42 808155 4639738
Hecheng district 2,99 10370 346522
Huitong county 52,49 173947 331392
Xinhuang Dong autonomous county 80,13 193678 241690
Zhijiang Dong autonomous county 52,37 175030 334229
Jingzhou Miao Dong autonomous county 26,06 63962 245444
Tongdao Dong autonomous county 75,96 156719 206327
Hongjiang city 5,43 26360 485061


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 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 be one or many people.[2] They include:

  • Duo Ye songs
  • Love songs - accompanied by the pipa or niutuiqin
  • Drinking songs
  • Bride's songs
  • Mourning songs
  • Pipa songs

Operas are highly popular among the Kam and are performed by local troupes.[2] 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:

  • Xing Ni - An ancient figure, whose legend dates possibly from the Tang Dynasty (618-907).[2]
  • Wu Mian - Leader of a 1378 rebellion during the Ming Dynasty due to drought and famine.
  • Lin Kuan - Led a 1397 rebellion but was later executed. Popular among the Northern Kam and is commemorated by an ancient tree.
  • Wu Jinyin - Wu revolted in the 1740 to resist grain taxes, but was killed in 1741.

Popular folk tales are listed below. They can be found in The Kam People of China by D. Norman Geary.[2]

  • The two orphan brothers
  • The unfriendly eldest brother
  • Ding Lang and the dragon princess
  • Zhu Lang and Niang Mei
  • Shan Lang and E Mei
  • Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai
  • Suo Lao
  • Mei Dao
  • The frog and the swallow (rice agriculture tale)
  • The dog (rice agriculture tale)
  • The singing tree (origin of singing tale)
  • Liang Niangni (origin of singing tale)
  • Lou Niang (drum tower tale)


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.[2] 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.[2]

  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[edit]

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.[2]

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:[2]

  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.[3]
  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.[2] Burial consists of the following phases:[2]

  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.[2] Kam villages typically have:

  • Ganlan-style wooden houses (stilt houses)
  • Ancient and sacred trees
  • Covered ("wind-and-rain") bridges
  • Wayside pavilions with wooden or stone benches
  • Bullfighting arenas, which are fields
  • Wells surrounded by stone rims and usually dug near trees
  • Fish-ponds, traditionally communally owned
  • Racks for drying grain and granaries
  • Village entrances - to protect against intruders, and also are where "blocking the way" ceremonies are held
  • Drum towers - usually found only in southern Kam areas today. Drum towers may be village towers or extended-family towers (Geary 2003:47).
  • Altars to Sa Sui, the main deity of the Kam pantheon

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

Agriculture and economy[edit]

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.[2] 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:[2]

  • Water buffalo: 1–3 per household
  • Pigs: 1–3 per household
  • Dog: not very popular but sometimes used to clean up excrement and rubbish. In some areas, hunting dogs are raised.
  • Chickens: 2–20 per household. Hens raised by the Kam generally lay around 100 eggs per year.
  • Ducks: 2–4 per household (about half of all households). Ducks tend to destroy rice seedlings and are thus less preferable than chickens.
  • Geese: 2–4 per household (about one-tenth of all households). They are recent introductions from the Han Chinese.
  • Fish: raised in fish-ponds and sometimes hunted

The "four pillars" of Kam cuisine are glutinous rice, sour (pickled) food, hot pepper, and rice wine.[2] 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.[2]

In recent years, tourism has become a major source of income for the Kam people.[2]


Below is a list of traditional Kam festivals.[2]

Two new year festivals:

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

  • Sowing seeds
  • Planting cotton
  • Washing water buffaloes
  • Eating new rice

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

Singing festivals:

  • Commemoration of lovers killed by lightning
  • Gaoba Singing Festival

Remembrance festivals:

  • Girls' Day
  • King Lin's Day - commemorates Lin Kuan, a northern-Kam hero of the 14th century
  • A Dianlong Day
  • Jiaxu Day
  • Best Weather Day - Jiang Yingfang, the "Robin Hood" of the Kam people who led a rebellion in the 19th century, is celebrated on this day.

Miscellaneous festivals:

Bullfighting is also historically popular among the Kam people.[2]


The Kam people are traditionally polytheistic with many elements of animism.[2] Totems include turtles, snakes, and dragons, and worshiped ancestors include the mythical figures of Song Sang, Song En, Zhang Liang, and Zhang Mei.[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[edit]

Some deities and sacred natural phenomena are also listed below.[2]

  • Sa Ma Qing Sui, or Sa Sui, is the most important deity in Kam mythology. Sa Sui is a female deity who may have originally been a land goddess.
  • Village entrance goddess
  • Bridge goddess
  • Land gods and goddesses
  • Three family prosperity gods
  • A love deity actually consisting of five male gods
  • Banishing-evil god
  • Spirit of the sky and earth
  • Sun and moon worship (derived from Chinese religion)
  • Thunder and lightning
  • Mountains
  • Rivers and streams
  • Wells
  • Two fire spirits: one good and one evil
  • Large stones and boulders
  • "Wind-and-water trees" (i.e., trees with magic qualities) and ancient evergreen trees
  • Water buffalo spirits
  • Rice seedling spirits
  • Fruit tree spirits

Snakes are highly revered and are often thought to have been the progenitors of the ancient Baiyue peoples, which included the Kam.[2] 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[edit]

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.[2]

  • Not marrying in the Chinese Year of the Tiger, since they must wait around nine years before giving birth to their first infants.
  • Pregnant women cannot participate in marriage ceremonies or arrangements, visit sick acquaintances, or sacrifice to gods.
  • Women cannot give birth in their mothers' home. There are many other childbirth-related taboos and superstitions.
  • Children cannot have haircuts before the age of one month old. The locks of hair from the first haircut must be stored and not be disposed of.
  • Coffins cannot have any metal objects inside them, since departed souls fear metal objects, especially copper.
  • Corpses should not be placed inside coffins during rainy weather.
  • Names are not to be called out when a corpse is being carried to its grave.
  • Chopsticks should not be tapped on bowls, as this is reminiscent of beggars' behavior.
  • The meat of crows or dead wild animals with unknown causes of death bring bad luck and should not be eaten.
  • Unmarried men should not eat pig feet, since pigs have split hooves.
  • New houses should not be built if a neighbor has recently died.
  • Pregnant women should not watch new houses being built.
  • Wood struck by lightning cannot be used for building houses.
  • Main entrances of two houses should not directly face each other as this will cause severe quarreling.
  • It is best to move into new houses at night when the village is already asleep.
  • Nothing should be bought on the first day of the Chinese New Year, as this might cause materials to diminish for the new year. On this day, floors should not be swept, rubbish should not be thrown out, friends should not be visited, arguments should be avoided, and knives should not be used to cut food.
  • The lusheng should not be played between the sowing and transplanting of rice seedlings, since it could attract plagues of insects.
  • Meeting a pregnant woman while hunting is considered bad luck.
  • While hunting, the names of animals should not be shouted so that the mountain god is not be aroused to protect them.
  • Fish swimming upstream are protected by the gods, and catching one will result in bad luck.
  • Leaving home on the 7th, 17th, or 27th day of the month is unlucky. (This custom is also practiced by the Chinese.)
  • A recently deceased person will rise up if a cat jumps over him. Therefore all domesticated animals must be kept away from them.

Magic and shamanism[edit]

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.[2] 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.[2]

Notable Kam[edit]

  • Su Yu (粟裕) (1907-1984), the first four-star general of the People's Liberation Army
  • Wu Hongfei (吴虹飞) (1975-), singer for the Chinese rock band Happy Avenue (幸福大街)
  • Sen Fluke (裕虹虹) (1945-), Pastor for the Golden Singers (幸福大街)
  • Li Ting (李婷) (1987-), gold medalist in the 10 meter synchronized platform diving at the 2004 Summer Olympics at Athens, Greece


Drum tower in Zhaoxing, Guizhou 
Autumn festival in Chengyangqiao, Guangxi, China 
Kam covered bridge in Guangxi, China 


  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 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.
  3. ^ http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20150429-a-bullet-train-to-nowhere


  • 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. (The two main authors are affiliated with the linguistic organization SIL International.)
  • Long, Yaohong and Zheng, Guoqiao (1998). Language in Guizhou Province, China. Dallas: SIL International and the University of Texas at Arlington Publications in Linguistics 126. ISBN 1-55671-051-8. (Translated from Chinese by D. Norman Geary.) [2]
  • Ōu Hēngyuán 欧亨元 (2004). Cic deenx Gaeml Gax / Dòng-Hàn cídiǎn 侗汉词典 (Kam–Chinese dictionary. Běijīng 北京, Mínzú chūbǎnshè 民族出版社). ISBN 7-105-06287-8.
  • The Kam (Dong) ethnic minority, www.china.org.cn

External links[edit]