OROQEN

OROQEN

(Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia Provinces in northeast China)

left The Oroqen are one of the smaller minorities in China. Also known as the Orochen, Orochon, Elunchun, they are scattered over a large area of Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia in northeast China. Up until the last couple of decades many Oroqen were hunters and forest nomads, similar to tribes found in Siberia. Most are settled now. Oroqen can mean both “mountain people” and “reindeer herder.”

The Oroqen language belongs to the Manchu-Tungus group of the Altai family of languages. It is similar to Mongolian and the languages spoken by people native to Siberia. Most Oroqen have a good command of Chinese. Some also speak the Ewenki, Mongolian and Daur and other languages of the people that live near them. The Oroqen lived north of the Amur River in Siberia until they migrated into China to escape czarist Russian plunderers and then lived in the pine and birch forests the Greater and Lesser Xingan Mountains in Heilongjiang Province and eastern Inner Mongolia. The Chinese divided them into two groups: the Horse-Riding Oroqen and the Foot Oroqen.

The Oroqen live mainly in: 1) the northeast of Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region in Oroqen Autonomous Banner, Zhalantun, Molidawa Banner and Arong Banner; and 2) in the Heilongjiang province in Tahe county, Huma county, Xunke county, Jiayin county and Heihe city. Oroqen Autonomous County is situated in the east side of the Daxing'an Mountains and has a total area of 54,657 square kilometers and a population of 297,400. Of them only 2,100 are Oroqen. Most are Han Chinese and Mongolians. The Oroqen are mainly distributed in Nuoming, Wulubutie, Guli Townshiop and Tuozaming Village. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~]

The Oroqen call themselves "Oroqen". Some say this means "people of the mountains"; Others say it means "people of the reindeer". Before the Qing Dynasty, the Oroqen was generally called the "Suolun clan", "Hunting clan" or "Deer employing clan". The name of "Oroqen" first appeared in the twenty-second year of Kangxi period. The group was described in the historical records of Han Dynasty as "Erchun", "Elechun", "Eluchun" and "Elunqi". After the foundation of P. R. China, the nationality was called the "Oroqen".

Books: The Oroqens---China's Nomadic Hunters by Qiu Pu (Foreign Language Press, Beijing 1983); Oroqen. Nationalities Press, Beijing, 2001

Oroqen Population and the Region Where They Live

Oroqen population in China: 0.0006 percent of the total population; 8,659 in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census; 8,216 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 6,965 in 1990 according to the 1990 Chinese census. [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia]

The Oroqen population stood at 4,000 in 1917, dropped to 3,700 in 1943. A census taken in 1953 showed that their number had plummeted to 2,250. The population has started to grow slowly but steadily since, and the census in 1982 showed that their number has reached 4,100. The 1990 national census showed 7,000. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]

The Oroqen have traditionally dwelled in the forests of the Greater and Lesser Xingan (Hinggan) Mountains in Northeast China which abound in deer and other wild beasts the Oroqens hunt with shot-guns and dogs, The Great and Small Xingan Mountains, where the Oroqen have traditionally lived, are the two big mountain ranges in the northeast China and along the drainage area of Heilongjiang River. The Great Xingan Mountains cross Heilongjiang province and Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region from northeast to southwest. The mountains are high and the valleys are deep. There are a number of creeks and brooks in the mountains. The Small Xingan Mountains slant to southeast along the upper reaches of Heilongjiang River. The slopes and and the landscape of these mountain is relatively gentle. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

The Xingan Mountains stretch in an unbroken chain for 1,600 kilometers. The dense forest—some of them virgin forests—are home to hardy tree species such as larch, red pine, birch, oak and poplar. Among the foods and medicinal plants are edible fungus, mushroom, hazel and persimmon. Wildlife includes tigers, bears, deer, roe deer, elk, wild boar, ermine, fox, cranes and pheasants. In the rivers are many kinds of fish such as salmon and Huso dauricus. The Oroqen have traditionally hunted this immense forest region for roe deer, their primary prey, and other game in all the four seasons, for generations, using guns, horses and dogs. It wasn’t until the 1950s that they came out of the silver birch woods and stepped down from the Xingan Mountains and began a settled life of semi-farming and semi-hunting. By the 1990s, with the making of the Xingan Mountains into preserve, their that hunting activities had largely ended. ~

Most of the Oroqens live in the 55,000-square-kilometer Oroqen Autonomous Banner in the Greater Hinggan Mountains. Situated in Inner Mongolia's Hulunbuir League, the Oroqen Autonomous Banner is 97 per cent forested land. The seat of the autonomous government is Alihe, a rising town with highways, railways, cinemas, hotels, department stores, restaurants, electric lighting and other modern amenities. *|*

History of the Oroqen

20080306-orochon femaleshaman donsmaps.jpg
Orochen female shaman
The Oroqen are a people of Tungus stock that have traditionally lived northeast of China and southeast Siberia and are related to other ethnic groups that live in this area. Traditionally they were nomadic hunters. The origin of the Oroqen is not yet clear. "Some scholars say that they rooted from the north Shiwei nation, others think that they originated from the Nuzhen. They lived a nomad hunting life until the foundation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). There were only around 2,000 of them at that time. Now there are almost 9,000 of them but their nomadic way of life has all but disappeared. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\]

An old Chinese verse goes:

There was a large forest in the Xingan Mountains
In the forest lived brave Oroqens.
With a hunting horse and a hunting gun,
Capture the endless animals all over the mountains and plains.

The Oroqens originally peopled the region north of the Heilong River and south of the Outer Hinggan Mountains. But activities by Tsarist Russia after the mid-17th century forced the Oroqens to migrate to the Greater and Lesser Hinggan Mountains. There were then seven tribes living in a clan commune society. Each clan group called "Wulileng" consisted of five to a dozen families descended from a male ancestor. The group head was elected. All tools were communally owned. The group members hunted together, and the game bagged was equally distributed to all families. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]

In Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368), they were called "People in the forest". In Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), they were known as the "Barbarian race in the Northern Mountain". The introduction of iron articles and guns and the use of horses during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) raised the productive forces of the Oroqens to a higher level. This gave rise to bartering on a bigger scale. That brought about profound social, economic changes. Individual families quit the clan group and became basic economic units although the clan groups did live or hunt together in the same area. Organized under the Qing Dynasty's "eight banner system," the Oroqens were compelled to enlist in the armed forces and send fur to the Qing court as tributes. Many soldiers sent to fight in Xinjiang, Yunnan, Taiwan and other places lost their lives. *|*

The Oroqen settled in imperial China and provided the Qing court with furs. After the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 came the rule of warlords who effected some changes in the administrative setup of the "eight banner system." Oroqen youths were dragged into "forest guerrilla units," and Oroqen hunters were forced to settle down to farm. Many of them later fled back to hunt in the forests. Diseases took a heavy toll in the old days and 80 per cent of the women suffered from gynaecological troubles due to the lack of doctors and medicine and ignorance. *|*

Oroqen Under the Japanese and Communist Chinese

The Oroqen retreated into the forest again when the Japanese controlled Manchuria. The Japanese troops, who occupied northeast China in 1931, repressed the Oroqen. According to the Chinese government they introduced opium to the region and used the Oroqen as guinea pigs in bacterial experiments. This, coupled with incidence of diseases, decimated the Oroqen population so that only some 1,000 of them remained at the time of the Japanese surrender in 1945.

Many Oroqen continued to practice their nomadic ways until the 1950s when the Chinese government encouraged them to settle down in houses built by the government. Most now live on the Oroqen Autonomous Banner of the Hulun Buir League, Inner Mongolia. In 1951, Oroqen leaders negotiated the formation of the Oroqen Autonomous Banner, a type o administrative division that that dates back to the Manchu period, encompassing 23,000 square miles in Inner Mongolia near the Russian border. On why they agreed, a leader named Baiyaertu later told Time, “There were so many of them and so few of us. What could we do?”

At the Oroqen Museum in Alihe a display card reads: “Before liberation Oroqen went to the edge of extinction” and with the help of the Communist Party the “Oroqen are marching towards the magnificent future.” To help the Oroqen, the Chinese government provides free housing, farming assistance and education.

Development of the Oroqen

In 1951 the Oroqen Autonomous Banner was established in the northeast of Inner Mongolia. After then their life changed. In 1958 there were no nomad Oroqen. They still made some hunting expeditions, but the decrease of the game in the 1990s put an end to the traditional way of life of the Oroqen. In 1996 the Oroqen Autonomous County government banned hunting wild animals in order to protect the dwindling numbers of animals that remained. \*\

In the early days after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, shot-guns, cartridges and supplies of food-grain, clothes, cooking oil and salt were sent to the Oroqens by the governmeni. People sent by the government helped them to raise production as well as to set up local government. Following the inception of the Oroqen Autonomous Banner on October 1, 1951, several autonomous townships were set up in places where the Oroqens live in compact communities. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]

While helping the Oroqens to promote hunting, the government made efforts to help them switch over to a diversified economy and to lead a settled life. The building of permanent housing for the Oroqens got started in 1952 with government allocations. A dozen villages were built in the Heihe Area for 300 families that used to lead a wandering life in 51 widely-scattered localities. Another three villages were built for 150 families in 1958, Taught by Han and Daur farmers, the Oroqens began to grow crops in 1956. And by 1975, the people in the autonomous banner became self-supporting in food-grain for the first time in Oroqen history. *|*

With no industry whatsoever in the past, the autonomous banner has now established 37 factories and workshops turning out farm machinery, electric appliances, flour, powdered milk, furniture, leather, fur and candies. The banner also has built schools, department stores, hospitals, banks and cinemas. All school-age children are enrolled in primary and middle schools. The Oroqen people also have their own song and dance troupes, film projection teams, broadcast stations and clubs. Health problems were brought put under control with the help of mobile medical teams sent by the government, the launching of disease-prevention campaigns and the popularization of the knowledge of hygine. As a result the Oroqen population increased to 4,100 in 1982. *|*

According to the Chinese government: “Before the foundation of the PRC, the Oroqen had been always leading a migrated hunting life. Their social development was very slow and they still lived in the gentile community phase of the late primitive society. Their productivity level was low. After the foundation of the PRC, to help the Oroqen people develop their economy and culture and to catch up with the development level of the advanced nationality, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and government adopted a series of special policies such as derating various taxes and encouraging the development of agriculture, forestry and other industries; appropriating special funds to help with the development of various projects; letting all the Oroqen people in the forest region eat commodity grain; offering food subsidy; uniformly providing guns to the hunters; reimbursing all the hospitalization costs for the Oroqen; providing stipend for the students in primary school and middle school. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

“Our government spent a lot of human resources and material resources in conducting the Oroqen people to give up the hunting life and lead a resident life. By adopting many measures such as propagation and education, visiting the large cities and demonstrating typical examples, the government gradually made them realize that the scattered and migrated life was bad for the development of the nationality and only the settlement could develop the production and improve their life. In 1953, 9 settlements and 313 broad and bright houses were set up in Heilongjiang province and the Oroqen realized their settlement. Between 1954 and 1958, 6 hunter villages and 214 houses were successively set up in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region. The Oroqen people who had led a migrated hunting life for generations began to successively step down from the Xingan Mountains and began a new resident life. ~

In the early days of settlement, the economy of Oroqen was mainly the hunting industry. From then on, the CCP and the government conducted them to transit their single hunting economy into multi-industry economy and to progressively develop the multi-industries such as forestry, stock, agriculture, by-industry and breeding. The life of Oroqen was greatly improved and their thought gradually caught up with the step of the age. To save the wild animals resources that became rare, on January 1st, the Oroqen Autonomous Banner held a preserve conference and launched the "Notice on the preserve of wild animals". From then on, the hunting life that the Oroqen people led for generations has been totally terminated. Under the leadership of the CCP, the Oroqen step into a new age.” ~

Now the Oroqen live mainly on agriculture, with some of them employed in forest protection, deer breeding, animal husbandry and tourism. Even though are small minority in Oroqen Autonomous Banner they do have the political representation in the National People Congress and National Committee of the Chinese People Political Consultative Conference.[Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\]

Oroqen Religion

The Oroqen have traditionally been Shamanists or animists. They worshiped nature and their ancestors, and believe in the omnipresence of spirits. Their objects of worship are carefully kept in birch-bark boxes hung high on trees behind their tents.

The Oroqen were mostly animists. They worshiped many natural elements, including a wind god, mountain god and fire god. Bears, tigers, wolves and other animals were revered and were often addressed and treated as if they were family members or ancestors. During major holidays and festivals offerings were of meat made to important gods.

Ancestor worship was also practiced and shaman were consulted for spiritual matters and health problems. In the old days, the Oroqen practiced wind burial, in which the bones of the dead were hung in hollow trees suspended on tree stumps. If the coffin did not fall to the ground in three years a special ritual was conducted so the sins of the dead would be cleansed and he or she could ascend to heaven and become a star.

Oroqen Burials. Marriage and Festivals

Wind burials are practiced by the Oroqens. When a person dies his corpse is put into a hollowed-out tree trunk and placed with head pointing south on two-meter high supports in the forest. Sometimes the horse of the deceased is killed to accompany the departing soul to netherworld. Only the bodies of young people who die of contagious diseases are cremated. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]

Oroqen people celebrate the Spring Festival on the same date as Han Chinese. On the third day of the first lunar month, they hold sports contests like shooting. Gulun Muta is a festival held in the spring. In Oroqen language, Gulunmuta means worshiping the fire-fiend. Activities include racing, shooting, arrow shooting, tug of wars, song and dances, story telling, chess and wood card games. In the evening, people light camp fire and watch shaman do trance dances, communicate with the gods and the their ancestors. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

Monogamy is practiced by the Oroqens who are only permitted to marry with people outside their own clans. Marriages have traditionally been arranged.Proposals for marriage as a rule are made by go-betweens, sent to girls' families by boys' families. Before the wedding officially took place the couple slept together in the house of the bride’s parents to mark the sanctifying of the marriage contract and gift-giving ceremonies. After the wedding the couple went to live with the groom’s clan. Divorce was uncommon. Widows were required to wait three years until they remarried.

Oroqen Life

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Orochen tents (Orochen are similar to the Oroqen)
Traditionally the Oroqen lived in teepee-like tents, known as xianrenzhu, or sierranju, which are supported by thirty long poles and covered with birch bark in the summer and deerskin in the winter. At the center was a fireplace used for cooking and warmth. Xianrenzhu were usually set up by a river in a single line or an arch by a mountain slope. By the 1950s, most Oroqen had moved to brick and tile houses provided by the Chinese government.

Birch bark is also used to make baskets, tools, utensils and canoes, and deerskins is used to make boots, clothes and sleeping bags. Oroqen women made beautiful boxes, bowls and basins from birch bark and were known for their skilled needlework.

The Oroqens are an honest and friendly people who always treat their guests well. People who lodge in an Oroqen home would often hear the housewife say to the husband early in the morning: "I'm going to hunt some breakfast for our guests and you go to fetch water." When the guests have washed, the woman with gun slung over her shoulders would return with a roe back. Some of them still preserve the pillar to the immortals near their house. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]

In the old days life was hard. Shortages of food were a concern. Many Oroqen made their living by hunting, raising and herding reindeer, whose embryos, penises, tails and antlers are used in Chinese medicine. Many Oroqen still subsist off of fish, reindeer meat and wild plants. Meat is often preserved by smoking or drying. Raw reindeer liver is considered a delicacy. Fermented mare's milk is a popular alcoholic drink. It is not clear how much the Oroqen have been affected by modern life and many of the their old traditions remain.

Oroqen Culture

Oroqens enjoy dancing and singing. Men, women and children often gather to sing and dance when the hunters return with their game or at festival times. The Oroqens have many tales, fables, legends, proverbs and riddles that have been handed down from generation to generation. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]

With a rich and varied repertory of folk songs, the Oroqens sing praises of nature and love, hunting and struggles in life in a lively rhythm. Among the most popular Oroqen dances are the "Black Bears Fight" and "Wood Cock Dance," at which the dancers execute movements like those of animals and birds. Also popular is a ritual in which members of a clan gather to perform dances depicting events in clan history.

"Pengnuhua" (a kind of harmonica) and "Wentuwen" (hand drum) are among the traditional instruments used. Played by Oroqen musicians, these instruments produce tunes that sound like the twittering of birds or the braying of deer. These instruments are sometimes used to lure wild beasts to within shooting range.

Oroqen women, who also hunt, show marvelous skill in embroidering patterns of deer, bears and horses on pelts and cloth that go into the making of head gears, gloves, boots and garments. Oroqen women also make basins, bowls, boxes and other objects from birch barks. Engraved with various designs and dyed in color, these objects are artistic works that convey the idea of simplicity and beauty. Taught by their mothers while still very young to rub fur, dry meat and gather fruit in the forest, Oroqen girls start to do household work at 13 or 14. Pelts prepared by Oroqen women are soft, fluffy and light, and they are used in making garments, hats, gloves, socks and blankets as well as tents. *|*

Oroqen Birch Bark Products and Crafts

The Oroqens have preserved the birch bark culture in northern China. Most of their daily utensils are made of birch barks, such as bowl (A Shen in the local language), basin (A Han), wooden cask (Mulin Kaiyi), basket (Kunji), sewing box (Ao Sha), box (Ada Mala) and the curtain put around the poles of their houses (Tiekesha). All of these tools have colored patterns on them and are very beautiful. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

There are many birch trees in the Great and Small Xingan Mountains where the Oroqen people live. The diligent Oroqen are as resourceful and creative with the things they make from birch bark as they are with roe fell. They make birches and barks into various household appliances and crafts, including birch bark vessels and birch bark boats. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

In the early summer, birches are rich in sap and moisture and this is regarded as the best time to harvest birch bark. The Oroqen select sturdy, straight and smooth birches. They use a knife to make gashes around the trunk on the top and bottom and then make a gash between the top gash and the bottom gash. They use hands to peal off the bark, and try to get as large of piece as possible. New bark grows where the bark was peeled off.

Oroqen have traditionally been skilled as craftsmen of making products using birch bark and threads made from twisted horsetail hair or roe, deer or elk tendons. They sometimes carve various patterns on the products. Large-sized articles include suitcases, water pot and baskets. Among the mid-sized ones are basins, hatboxes, needle and thread boxes and the little barrels used for collecting and storing wild fruits. Small articles include bowls, cigarette cases and medicine boxes. Birch products are easy to make, solid and endurable. They are relatively waterproof and portable.

The Oroqen also have traditionally used birch bark to build boats. These boats are long and narrow and somewhat like a canoe. Generally, the width is less than 1 meter and the length is about 5 meters. The boat's framework is made up of two logs (or long pieces of wood) covered by a large piece of birch bark without holes. There are no metal nails in the boat. Every part of the boat is fixed with nails made of wood. Two or three persons can fit into this kind of boat. People can row the boat with a single oar. The rowing produces little sound, which is helpful when hunting, making it is easy to get close to game. One person can cross the river by using this boat and bind the boat to his body and carry it.

Oroqen Sleighs and Skis

In the homeland of the Oroqen, there are many mountains, trees and creeks, making transportation difficult. Snow and ice can last six or seven months. In the old days, Oroqen used reindeer, horses, sleighs, skis and birch bark boat to travel through the woods and across the snow. Reindeer were once the important means of transport for the Oroqen people but because reindeer are relatively slow and have relatively small carrying capacities, they were gradually replaced by horses that are faster and have a larger carrying capacity. Even now horses continue to be widely used by the Oroqen. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Sleighs and skis have also played important roles in Oroqen's life. To make a traditional Oroqen sleigh is simple: use two curved wooden poles as the bottom for runners and install four wooden stakes and a beam on it for the carriage. This kind of sleigh was very basic but it was convenient for carrying loads through the winter forest. The Oroqen used to carry the necessary household articles on this kind of sleigh to their hunting grounds. ~

Primitive skis have been used for a long time in Oroqen areas. In the old days, the Orqen liked to hunt in the winter because it was easy to track animals in the snow. Every year, when the mountains became sealed by heavy snow, hunters donned skis to search for animals and ordianry oroqen wore them to make visits and pass message. The skis were generally made of the solid and whippy wooden planks of birch or larch. The front of the ski was curved upwards. There was a fur sheath for the foot in the middle of the ski. Oroqen used two kinds of skis: short ones and long ones. The long skis were about two meters long and the short ones were about one long. The longer skis were stiffer and faster and suitable for travel on flat areas in snow that wasn’t too hard. The shorter skis were lighter and more flexible and more suitable for travel through woods, on slopes and on harder snow. Skis fixed with boar skin at the bottom slid better on flat and downhill surfaces and gripped better going uphill. ~

Oroqen, Assimilation and Modern Life

Oroqen hunting traditions are dying. Many of those who even remember them are very old. Baiyaertu’s son Bai Ying, who has workers a cultural researcher in Beijing told Time, “They can’t adjust to the rhythm of modern life. They can’t farm, so they drink every day.”

There days many Oroqen children speak only Mandarin and the Oroqen are a minority in their own banner. Of the 300,000 people that live their 90 percent are Han Chinese. Many others are Mongolians. On assimilation, Hing Chao, chairman of the Hong Kong-based Orochen Foundation, told Time. “They are assimilated, yes, but they are not integrated into the mainstream of society.”

Image Sources: Nolls China website, Donsmaps, University of Washington, San Francisco Museum, CNTO

Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company; 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org *|* New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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