The History of the Deang

 

It is believed that the ancestors of the so-called Deang were the Pu, a people mentioned in the chronicles of the Chinese Qin Dynasty (221 A.D.) as the native population of the Western region of the present Yunnan Province. The long arm of the Chinese emperors did not reach such remote areas until many centuries later. These Pu people are mentioned again in the books of history as one of the subdued peoples under the Nanzhao kingdom. Whatever happened during that long period is unknown.

Modern descriptions of the Deang way of life show that it was not influenced by the Nanzhao kingdom, nor by the Dali kingdom that followed it.

Their life did certainly change during the 15th century, when the Chinese Ming dynasty handed over the administration of Deang lands to the Tusi (local chiefs who were used to govern the minorities in the emperors' name) of the Dai nationality. It was during this period that migration of Dai peasants towards Deang lands began, forcing them further and further into the mountains and to much poorer land.

The influence of Dai culture and the Theravadan Buddhist tradition that came with it, initiated a series of cultural and social transformations among the Deang. However, the fundamentals of their economic life, including communal ownership of the land by extended families, remained unchanged until the nineteenth century, when increasing pressure by Han and Dai settlers brought about new changes.

A handful of landlords, most of them Dai, held the majority of the land for themselves, creating a miserable situation for many Deang families. In the winter of 1814, there was an uprising by the Deang of Dehong against Tusi government oppression. The Deang proclaimed, "the government is unfair, let's destroy the government and gain equality". Although they were ultimately defeated, the unchanged exploitation that was slowly turning Deang peasants into landless laborers brought about a string of uprisings that continued throughout the 19th century.

The Dai, through the tusi administrative structure, attempted to retain control over the Deang. Decentralizing their power, they appointed some Deang as village heads who would support their policies and collect taxes and contributions.

The highest Deang local official was the Dagang, who usually enforced the Tusi's policies over several villages. The Dajigang was the head of a single village. He was assisted by the Dapulong and the Dajige, who were in charge of different aspects of village administration, together with the Dajigang, who led the village.

In some areas of Zhengkai and Genma Counties a type of local democracy was in effect. The Dagang was elected by the heads of the villages he administered, and the Dapulong and the Dajige were also elected by the people of their respective villages.

The 20th century witnessed an increased presence of Chinese administration in Deang lands, especially after 1956, when communist reforms began to be implemented. These reforms brought about a complete upheaval of Deang traditional society, and a definitive loss of control over their lives and future. The Cultural Revolution and the wave of destruction that accompanied it, represented a direct attack against the Deang way of life.

In the current reform era the Deang are today attempting to recover their culture and to find a ways of benefiting from the new society.

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