Dali village is a Dong settlement whose origins have been roughly traced to the Ming dynasty approximately six hundred years ago. Dong is on oral but not written language and as such historical narration of the Dong people has largely been scripted in text by outsiders. Within the community, songs and stories often carry historical narrative from generation to generation. To better understand Dali, a description of its geography helps to bring to life its history of relative isolation and cultural autonomy.
Regionally this area is home to many small villages and townships that are geographically dispersed with some being found high in the steep mountainous terrain and some found on more level ground often in proximity to larger river systems. Dali is the former, and is found situated in a small valley carved out atop a line of mountain ridges. A small stream cuts through the center of the valley and acts as an axis to determine the underlying structure of the settlement pattern. The houses and other buildings aggregate around the stream at the bottom of the valley, often competing for a place to touch ground and creating a dense built fabric that dynamically negotiates a shifting terrain.The walls of the valley are almost completely terraformed by traditional agriculture through terraced farming principles. Aquaculture for raising fish and growing rice are intertwined in these raised and flooded fields. The village is home to around 1,000 residents.
Architecturally, Dong communities are well known for their chuan dou 穿 斗 style of timber building and for variety of architectural expression that they have managed to achieve within this system of building. Key landmarks contribute the overall structure of each settlement, including a drum tower, wind and rain bridges, village gate, an opera stage, granaries, and housing raised on wooden stilts. In Dali, approximately at the center of the village, is a raised and flat piece of land that creates a public plaza. Anchoring one end of the plaza is the tallest structure in the village, the drum tower, and just opposite it a tall rock cairn topped by lush and wild grasses, the Saa (grandmother) altar. Driving up the mountain switchbacks that take you towards Dali village — you emerge from the trees poised at a lookout over the village wherein the drum tower and plaza anchor your view of the whole — where after you then descend into the village and eventually enter its narrow streets on foot.
The traditional architecture of the village has largely been preserved or continues to be practiced when building new structures and there is minimal presence of external building archetypes. The one notable exception is the school, being a governmental structure, it is a large concrete edifice whose presence indicates the village's parallel ties to larger sociopolitical systems. In recent years there has been something of a building boom in Dali and many small businesses, such as guesthouses and small eateries, are in the process of beginning or expanding. The government’s strategic plans for Guizhou’s development focus heavily on the development of eco-tourism. To achieve this goal, investments in infrastructure have been expansive in the past five to ten years. A high-speed rail was built to connect the capital of the province, Guiyang, to the township just outside of Dali, Rongjiang, and has been instrumental in opening the southeastern (Qingdongnan) region of Guizhou to development. In previous years a trip that would have taken many hours driving on poorly built roads can now be traveled in just one hour by train. A new road leading into Dali was recently completed in the Spring of 2016. This allows for a relatively easy drive from Ronjiang into Dali village. As a whole these changes leave these areas poised for the development of tourism and a shift in the trajectory of the local economy. Combined with an outflow of people from the village to urban centers for jobs and new opportunities, the fabric of Dali’s social structure is being stretched and pulled into new shapes and forms.