EWENKI AND THEIR HISTORY

EWENKI

right The Ewenki are a small ethnic minority that live in northern Heilongjiang Province and eastern Inner Mongolia. Closely related to the Tungus, Evenski and Yakut in Siberia and more distantly related to Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, they are a Turkic people who originated from the Lake Baikal region of Russia. They speak Tungus-Manchu languages, look like Mongolians and have traditionally herded reindeer, traded furs and hunted and fished. Many Ewenki migrated to northern China from the Lena River Valley in Siberia beginning in the mid 17th century. Reindeer were used mainly to haul tepees and bedrolls on long expeditions to hunt for moose, bear and wild boar. [Source: "Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China", edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, 1994)]

There are about 30,000 Ewenki in China. They are also known as the Tungus. Some regard them as members of the Tungus group, which lives in Siberia. In China, they have traditionally been grouped with the Oroqens and Dauers, who were collectively referred to as the ‘Sulun Tribes,” and have been ruled by Manchus, Russians, Japanese and Chinese. Since the Communists have come to power many have given up their traditional ways. Few herd reindeer anymore. Most Ewenki are engaged in farming, farm-herding or animal husbandry. A few live as their ancestors did, as roving hunters and reindeer herders, in the forests around the Greater Xingan Mountains.

The Ewenki are distributed across seven banners (counties) in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and in Nahe County of Heilongjiang Province. Most reside in the Ewenki autonomous district, Hulunbei'er city in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Others are found in Chenba'erhu District, Erguna Zuo district, Molidawa District , Arong District, Zhalantun City, and Nehe County in Heilongjiang province. They usually live in these places alongside members of the Mongolian ethnic minority, Han Chinese and the Oroqen ethnic minority group.[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 ~]

'Ewenki' is the name used by the Ewenki to describe themselves. It means “folks living in mountain forests” or "people living in the big mountain". Ewenki people used to live in the forest north of Lake Baikal and later moved east to the middle reaches of Heilongjiang River. In the past, the Ewenki were known as the 'Suolun', 'Tonggusi' and 'Yakute'—the names of different Ewenki groups that lived separately from one another. The joint name 'Ewenki' did not emerge as a widely used name until 1957.

The Ewenki language belongs to the Tungus-Manchu branch of Altaic linguistic family. There are three dialects — River Hui and Yimin (Buteha), River Moerge (Chenbaerhu) and Aoluguya (Erguna). Mongolian is the language generally used in pasturing areas, and Chinese is the language generally used in agricultural and mountainous areas.

Websites: 1) Northern Hunting Culture has pictures of the Aoluguya Evenki, their lifestyle and handicrafts.

Ewenki Population and the Region Where They Live

The Ewenski are the 41st largest ethnic group and the 40th largest minority out of 56 in China. They numbered 30,875 in 2020 and made up less than 0.01 percent of the total population of China in 2020 according to the 2020 Chinese census. Ewenki populations in China in the past: 0.0023 percent of the total population; 30,875 in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census; 30,545 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 26,315 in 1990 according to the 1990 Chinese census. [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia]

The Ewenki have traditionally lived in the hills of a branch range of the Da Xing'an Mountains. According to China Ethnic Groups: "Known as the last hunting tribe of China, Ewenki people had lived of hunting and raising reindeer deep in the Greater Hingan Mountain for generations"- Their homeland is a region of grasslands, dense virgin forests, rivers and lakes and lots of game and fish. Ewenki living in different areas lead different lives. Those who inhabited the Ewenki autonomous district and the Chenba'erhu district traditionally lead a stockbreeding life; those in Nehe County were farmers; those in Molidawa and Arong Districts and Zhalantun City were hunters and farmers; and those who inhabited the Ewenki village of Aoluguya in Erguna Zuo District lead a traditional life of hunting. Since reindeer were vital to living the nomadic, hunting, life they were called “the reindeer-using Ewenki”.

The Ewenki Autonomous Banner, nestled in the ranges of the Greater Hinggan Mountains, is where the Ewenkis live in compact communities. A total of 19,110 square kilometers in area, it is studded with more than 600 small and big lakes and 11 springs. The pastureland here totaling 9,200 square kilometers is watered by the Yimin and four other rivers, all rising in the Greater Hinggan Mountains. Nantunzhen, the seat of the banner government, is a rising city on the grassland. A communication hub, it is the political, economic and cultural center of the Ewenki Autonomous Banner. [Source: China.org china.org |]

Large numbers of livestock and great quantities of knitting wool, milk, wool-tops and casings are produced in the banner. The yellow oxen bred on the grassland have made a name for themselves in Southeast Asian countries. Pelts of a score or so of fur-bearing animals are also produced locally. Reeds grow in great abundance along the Huihe River in the banner. Some 35,000 tons are used annually for making paper. Lying beneath the grassland are rich deposits of coal, iron, gold, copper and rock crystal. |

Ewenki History

The forefathers of the Ewenkis had originally been a people who earned their living by fishing, hunting and breeding reindeer in the forests northeast of Lake Baikal and along the Shileke River (upper reaches of the Heilong River), tracing their ancestry to the "Shiweis", particularly the "Northern Shiweis" and "Bo Shiweis" living at the time of Northern Wei (386-534) on the upper reaches of the Heilong River, and the "Ju" tribes that bred deer at the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in the forests of Taiyuan to the northeast of Lake Baikal. Later, they moved east, with one section coming to live on the middle reaches of the Heilong River. In history, the Ewenkis and the Oroqens and Mongolians living in forests to the east of Lake Baikal and the Heilong River Valley in the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368) were known as a "forest people," and a people "moving on deer's backs" by the time of the Ming (1368-1644). When it came to the Qing period (1644-1911) they were called the "Sulongs" or "Kemunikans" (another tribal people different from the Sulongs at the time) who knew how to use deer. [Source: China.org china.org |]

In 1635, the Kemunikans came under the domination of Manchu rulers after their conquest of the Lake Baikal area, to be followed around the years from 1639 to 1640 by their control of the Sulongs living to the east of Lake Baikal. From the mid-17th century onwards, aggression by Tsarist Russia had led the Qing government to remove the Ewenkis to the area along the Ganhe, Nuomin, Ahlun, Jiqin, Yalu and Namoer — tributaries of the Nenjiang River. In 1732, 1,600 Ewenkis were called up in the Buteha area and ordered together with their family dependents to perform garrison duties as frontier guards on the Hulunbuir Grassland. Their descendants are now the inhabitants of the Ewenki Autonomous Banner. |

With the institution of the "eight banner system" way back in the 17th century, Ewenki nomads were drafted into the army and had the obligation to pay leopard skins as tributes to the Qing rulers. A "nimoer" mutual-aid group consisting of a few to 10-odd families was usually formed by the Ewenkis to pasture their herds. People in the group were members of the same clan. Immigrations in the past led to population dispersion which in turn resulted in great unevenness in the social development of the Ewenki people dwelling in different places with diverse natural conditions. As a result, some Ewenkis have traditionally been nomads; others are farmers or farmer-hunters. A small number of them were hunters. The Ewenkis in the Ewenki Autonomous Banner and the Chenbaerfu Banner led a nomadic life, wandering with their herds from place to place in search of grass and water. They lived in yurts. |

In the forests of the Ergunazuo Banner Ewenki hunters had no permanent homes and wandered from place to place with their reindeer in search of game. When they stopped these Ewenki hunters lived in teepee-like tents built on 25 to 30 larch poles. In summer these tents were roofed over with birch bark, and in winter with reindeer hides. When the hunters were on the move, their tents and belongings as well as their capture were carried by reindeer, which lived on moss. Five or six to a dozen families who were very closely related were grouped in a clan. All members of the clan took part in hunting, and the game bagged was divided equally among the families. Shot-guns, reindeer and animal pelts were valued. |

20080306-orochon reindeermountedtents.jpg
Reideer-mounted tents

Near Extinction, Development and Settling of the Ewenki

Dispersed to live in different places and with many Ewenkis dragged into the army by the Qing rulers, the Ewenki ethnic group was threatened by extinction. Of a total number of 1,700 Ewenki troops sent to suppress a peasant army of other nationalities that rose against the Qing government in 1695, only some 300 survived the fighting. Following their occupation of northeast China in 1931, the Japanese drafted many Ewenki of them into the Japanese army. This, coupled with the spread of smallpox, typhoid fever and venereal diseases, brought about a sharp population decline. For example, there were upwards of 3,000 Ewenkis living along the Huihe River in 1931, but less than 1,000 remained in 1945. [Source: China.org china.org |]

After the Communists came to power in 1949, reforms were carried out in both the pastoral and farming areas. As for Ewenki hunters roving in the forests, efforts were made to help them develop production by setting up cooperatives. Socialist reforms in most of the Ewenki area were completed towards the end of 1958. The Ewenki Autonomous Banner was established on August 1, 1958, in the Hulun Beir League (Prefecture). Five Ewenki townships and an Ewenki district were set up later. A large number of Ewenkis were trained for administrative work. |

A series of measures, including the introduction of fine breeds of cattle, the opening of fodder farms, improved veterinary services, the building of permanent housing for nomads and the use of machinery have boosted livestock production in the Ewenki Autonomous Banner but compromised teir traditional way of life. In the forested areas, Ewenki hunters, who used to be on the move after their game, now live in permanent homes. They still hunt, but they have also gone in for other occupations. |

In the old days almost all the Ewenkis were illiterate. Today more than 90 per cent of all school-age children are at school. Some Ewenkis have been enrolled in the Central Nationalities Institute in Beijing, Inner Mongolia University in Hohhot and other institutions of higher learning. With improved health care tuberculosis and other diseases that used to plague the Ewenki people have been put under control. Hospitals, maternity and child care centers, tuberculosis and venereal disease prevention clinics are now at the service of the Ewenkis. As a result the population in the banner, which had dwindled for a century or more, has increased by many folds in recent decades. |

Ewenki in the 19th Century

Describing Tungus in the 1820s, the explorer John Bell wrote: "They have no homes where they remain for any time, but range throughout the woods and long rivers for pleasure; and, wherever they come, they erect a few spars, in clinging to one another at the top; these they cover with pieces of boiled birch bark, sewed together, leaving, a hole at the top to let out smoke.

"They can not bear to sleep in a warm room, but retire to their huts and lie about the fire on skins of wild bears. It is surprising that these creatures can suffer the very piercing cold of these parts,"

"They are very civil and tractable, and like to smoke tobacco and drink brandy...I have seen many of the men with oval figures, like wreaths, on their foreheads and chins...These are made, in their infancy, by pricking the parts with needles and rubbing them with charcoal...They have many shamans among them, I was told of others, whose abilities for fortune-telling far exceeded those of the shaman."

"The women dressed in a fur-gown, reaching below the knee, and tied about the waist with a girdle...made of deer skins, having their hair curiously stitched down and ornamented...The dress of the men consists of a short jacket with narrow sleeves made of deer skin, having the fur outward; trousers and hoses of the same kind of skin...They have besides a piece of fur, that covers the breasts and stomach, which is hung about the neck with a string of leather."

"Their arms are a bow and several sorts of arrows, according to the different kinds of game they intend to hunt...In winter, the season for hunting wild beasts, they travel on what are called snow shoes...They have a different kind of shoe for ascending hills, with the skins of seal glued to the boards, having the hair inclined backwards which prevents them from sliding on there shoes...When a Tungsu goes hunting into the woods, he carries with him no provisions, but depends entirely on what he has to catch."

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Ewenki and the Modern World

Most Ewenki are involved in animal husbandry or agriculture. They herd horses, oxen and goats and grow wheat, sorghum, rye, oats and buckwheat. Some sell reindeer antlers to Koreans and Chinese for use in Asian medicines.

Under the Communists, some Evenski were settled in villages; others were allowed to practice their herding ways. Most dream of practicing some form of traditional reindeer herding and hunting while enjoying modern conveniences such as hot showers, cell phones, decent incomes and televisions.

Some Ewenki that belong to the Aolu Guya Ewenkii tribe in the Greater Hinggan Mountains in Inner Mongolia still live the nomadic life. One elderly woman named Suo Maliya lives with five other nomads and owns a herd of 300 reindeer. The nomads are regarded as the last of their kind. The reindeer are valued at $735 a piece which makes their herd worth $219,000.

In the mid 2000s, most of the members of Suo’s tribe — about 231 people — were resettled in a village 50-square meter houses with modern conveniences such as cable television, toilets and central heating. Many make their living by selling antler products, some of them marketed online. The villagers are allowed to maintain herds of reindeer in five designated hunting grounds.

Some younger Ewenki have shown an interest in reindeer herding but most aren’t interested.

Resettling the Ewenki

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The Ewenki are among hundreds of thousands of nomadic herders from the country’s northern hinterlands who have themselves been herded into permanent settlements. Government officials say their aim is to provide new opportunities for the nomads while protecting the environment from overgrazing and hunting. In some cases, relocations are a consequence of governmentbacked initiatives to excavate mines on herders’ grazing land, critics say. Officials say they are promoting diversity by bringing nomadic minorities into mainstream society, but the relocations are strictly carried out only on the government’s terms. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2011]

According to a 2007 report by Human Rights Watch on the resettlement of Tibetan herders, such relocations “often result in greater impoverishment, and — for those forced to resettle — dislocation and marginalization in the new communities.” “When changes happen to an ethnic group in this way, so quickly, this can be very painful,” said Bai Lan, a professor at the Inner Mongolia Academy of Social Sciences.

In 2003, one group of 200 Ewenki was forcibly relocated from their encampment to a “resettlement site” 120 miles away, on the outskirts of Genhe, a dilapidated riverside city. Government officials confiscated their hunting rifles and urged them to leave their herd of reindeer behind. Before they were resettled reindeer were used mainly to haul tepees and bedrolls on long expeditions to hunt for moose, bear and wild boar. Economic necessity has transformed them from beasts of burden into money makers: The herders now make a modest living selling their antlers for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

Ewenki Resettlement Site

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The resettlement site, called Aoluguya, Ewenki for “grove of poplars,” has a different set of problems. The product of a multimilliondollar investment by the Genhe city government, the site looks more like a theme park than a community. Road signs describe it as a “Reindeer-herding Tribe Culture Tourism Zone.” Its perimeter is decorated with giant models of tepees, the Ewenkis’ traditional abode. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2011]

The government commissioned a Finnish consulting firm to design the site in the image of a Scandinavian hamlet. Its residents live in rows of freshly varnished lodges with frontyards and vaulted roofs. The homes’ interiors are spartan; most contain nothing more than a few beds, a stove and a television. “They wanted to attract foreigners, but the foreigners never come,” said Ao Rongbu, 63, a former herder who remains in the settlement because of a heart condition.

Aoluguya is plagued by poverty and alcoholism. Its residents survive by selling handicrafts during the summer, mainly knickknacks carved from reindeer antlers. “There’s nothing interesting about Aoluguya. There are no trees. There are no reindeer,” said He Xie, Suo’s 47-year-old son, slurring his words after a day of drinking.

Loss of Ewenki Culture

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Much of Ewenki culture has been lost. The children are taught only Mandarin in school, and most can no longer speak their parents’ unwritten language, which is in danger of disappearing. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2011]

Many of the reindeer at the resettlement site starved to death in their first few weeks for lack of a type of lichen that grows only in the woods. “What upsets me is that, in the future, who will take care of the deer?” said Ma Rusha, a 55-yearold herder. “Young people are afraid that they’ll run into black bears and wolves. They’re not willing to stay here.”

The nomadic herders seem to enjoy some modern comforts. A few years ago, the government provided a pair of solar panels and ATV, enabling them to watch state broadcasts. Suo does not understand Mandarin, but the rest of the herders gather each night to drink liquor and watch the news. In the morning, they discuss international affairs as they fetch water from the stream. The herders have opinions about figures such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the late Libyan ruler Moammar Kadafi. They are also huge NBA fans.

Lichen for the reindeer has been growing scarce in the area surrounding the encampment, and the group will have to move soon to feed its herd. “Wherever there is food for the deer, that’s where we’ll go,” said Ma Lindong. As always, he said, they will bring the TV and the solar panels with them.

Ewenki Old-Timer Clings to Life Guided by Reindeer

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Once her tribe’s best reindeer herder, Maliya Suo, a last link to the traditional Ewenki language and way of life, lives in an encampment in the woods in northeastern China. In her old age, Suo is taking on an even tougher adversary: the Chinese government. A member of the nomadic Ewenki community that lives primarily in China’s Inner Mongolia region, Suo has resisted the government’s effort to resettle her in the world of buildings, money and cars. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2011]

Suo, wanting no part of modern urban life, soon moved back to the woods, where she has been ever since. “The city doesn’t smell good,” said Suo, whose deep-set eyes are cloudy and who wears an old wool vest and a pink-and-beige patterned head scarf. She doesn’t speak much, and when she does it’s in a pained warble. Yet her manner conveys a matriarchal authority.

After Suo insisted on leaving the resettlement site, several family members said they had no choice but to follow because she was too old to live alone; exactly how old, nobody seems to know. “We go into the mountains because Maliya Suo is in the mountains,” said Zhang Dan, a 37-year-old craftsman. “Nobody is willing to move her.” Suo, who is thought to be over 90, is the last link to the traditional Ewenki language and way of life. She spends much of her time sitting on her bed or on the ground in the tent, munching on pine nuts and tending the fire.

Suo, whose husband was a talented hunter 12 years her elder, had seven children. Only two are still alive. Her eldest daughter, the first member of the tribe to attend college, drowned while drunkenly washing clothes in a shallow stream. A son died when his bladder burst after a drinking competition. Another son was shot dead in the woods, and two died of illness. Suo’s husband, whom she regularly accompanied on hunting trips, drank himself to death, family members said.

In the old days, her main responsibility was to strap the game her husband killed onto the backs of reindeer and guide them back to camp. Now she looks after the members of the tribe who live with her in the woods.

Ewenki Encampment

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The encampment where Suo lives, in a patch of sparse forest in the Greater Hinggan mountain range, is an assemblage of four wedding party-style tents near a shallow stream. There are no power lines or cellphone service. Nothing lies between the encampment and the border with Siberia except a 50-mile swath of birch trees and frozen ponds. Suo and four others live there, along with a herd of 400 reindeer, most of them owned collectively by those at the resettlement site. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2011]

The interior of Suo’s tent remains dark during even during the day and smells strongly of wood smoke. Old rags and fresh meat hang side by side in the tent from lines strung across its metal frame. Plastic trinkets mingle with animal bones on a crude wooden shelf in the corner

Day-to-day life at the encampment, which is packed up and moved every few months, is guided by simple survival. The herders spend many of their waking hours chopping firewood in preparation for the winter, when the temperature can reach 40 degrees below zero and snow piles up waist-high.

The herders subsist on reindeer milk, a staple of the Ewenki diet, and whatever game they can find in the woods, supplemented by garlic and cabbage from the city. Squirrel is a special treat, and occasionally one of the hunting dogs nabs a roe deer; the herders immediately eat its liver raw and save the rest for later.”We’ve always depended on our hunting for survival,” said Ma Lindong, 45, a herder who is married to one of Suo’s nieces. “If we don’t have that, then what else do we have?”

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 \=/; 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.

Last updated September 2022


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