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SIEGEL: There is a village in southwest China where song takes the place of the written word.

(Soundbite of song)

SIEGEL: Those voices are imitating cicadas in the fields above the village of Dimen. The village has been isolated, hard to get to. But like most places in modern China, it's learning that the greater world is not so far away. People in Dimen learn to read and write in the official national language Mandarin Chinese, but they also speak in their own tongue, the language of the Dong people. In the West, we spell that D-O-N-G.

(Soundbite of song)

SIEGEL: Novelist Amy Tan has been a frequent visitor to the village of Dimen and she writes about it in National Geographic Magazine, the May issue is devoted to China. Tan sat down with us to recall the first time that she set foot in Dimen.

Ms. AMY TAN (Novelist): Entering into the village, I had little girls singing those songs, those Dong songs, the welcoming songs, one at each elbow.

SIEGEL: The singing - this isn't just the welcoming for the tourists, this isn't the job of the children to sing every time somebody arrives. It's what they do.

Ms. TAN: In one way you know that it's more than just something they do for tourists because every child from the age of five and up knows how to sing and they sing on key. You see them singing in school. You can stop somebody on the side of the road and say, can you sing me a song? And they will start singing. Children sing to greet and also to talk about spring and to talk about the seasons. There's a song about childhood is too short, the birds have come to sing their song, it's now the time to go into the field, childhood is over. They sing songs about community, about the ways that they treat one another.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. TAN: Many of these songs are about nature, just as the cicada one is about nature - listening to nature. There's a lot about being out in the field working, and realizing that even though your life is very hard and you are working constantly and it never stops - no matter what the season or the weather - there is this beauty.

(Soundbite of song)

SIEGEL: You write about the one granny in the village who still knows the big song - I guess the number one song, the history of the people of Dimen.

Ms. TAN: There's a song that's Dimen's history and it goes for hours. And it was passed down, orally of course, person to person. This woman can sing most of those stanzas, and you make - part of it is you improvise. There's another woman in the village who can sing part of it. So this is the only woman who knows the whole history of the village. I asked young people, throughout my stay there, about the songs that they sing. And they could sing a lot of the popular ballads but they didn't want to learn that song. There was a couple, two couples on a bridge, lovers' lane, smooching, and I asked them what they like to sing: karaoke. I asked them about their other songs, yes, they do sing the cicada songs, they loved those songs. How about the song of the history of their village? That song is boring. I said, would you ever learn it? No, I don't think so. So it was a very sad feeling that I had as I listened to this woman sing this song over dinner again the next night, that she would be probably the last person to knows this song.

SIEGEL: Amy Tan, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. TAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's novelist Amy Tan talking with us about the Dong ethnic minority of China in the village of Dimen in southwest China. You can find a link to her National Geographic article about the village at npr.org/music. And while you're online, click over to our special ALL THINGS CONSIDERED China Diary. It's a blog set up to hear from you about what interests you about the country. We're planning to spend a week on the air from there next month. So go to npr.org/ music. And while you're online click over to our special ALL THINGS CONSIDERED China Diary. It's a blog set up to hear from you, about what interests you about the country. We're planning to spend a week on the air from there next month. So, go to npr.org/chinadiary.

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