Reindeer in northeast China Some Ewenki have adopted Tibetan Buddhism but have traditionally been animists, worshiping many natural elements, including a wind god, mountain god and fire god. Bears and some birds are revered and prayed to for good weather and hunting. The swan is an important totemic animal. Bears are sacred animals protected by hunting taboos. Traditionally, whenever the Ewenki ate bear meat they conducted the same rituals they did for their own dead. Ancestor worship has also been practiced and shaman have been consulted for spiritual matters and health problems. The shaman could be men or women. Usually the became shaman after a long illness and accepted no payment for their services. Ewenki who inhabited pasturing areas alongside Mongolians adopted Tibetan Buddhism. A few living in the Chenbaerhu area are believers of the Eastern Orthodox Church. [Source: "Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China", edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, 1994)]
In the old days, the Ewenki practiced wind burial, in which the bones of the dead were hung in a hollow tree suspended on tree stumps. Under the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, they have mostly abandoned that custom and now practice mostly earth burials. With a wind burial, 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. But now wind burials have been replaced by burial in the ground, thanks to the influence of other ethnic groups living nearby. [Source: China.org china.org |]
The lingering influences of bear worship is still found among Ewenki hunters. After killing a bear, the Ewenkis would conduct a series of rituals at which the bear's head, bones and entrails are bundled in birch bark or dry grass and hung on a tree to give the beast a "wind burial." The hunters weep and kowtow while making offerings of tobacco to the dead animal. In the Chenbaerhu area every clan has its own totem — a swan or a duck — as an object of veneration. People would toss milk into the air upon seeing a real swan or duck flying overhead. No killing of these birds is permitted. |
An aobao is a pile of stones, earth, grass, etc used by Mongolians or other ethnic groups in northeastern China as a road or boundary sign. In the old days it was regarded as the dwelling place of a god where sacrifices were offered. When the Ewenki people celebrate the Aobao Festival (usually at a time chosen between April and June of the lunar calendar), they worship the Aobao God by slaughtering bulls and goats as the sacrifice to pray for safety and health and favorable weather for crops. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
Excerpt on Shamanism from Last Quarter Moon
In a fictional account of Ewenki shamanism, Chi Zijian wrote in “Last Quarter of the Moon”: The grass grew green, flowers bloomed, swallows flew back from the south, and the waves shimmered again on the river. The ceremony marking Nihau’s designation as our clan’s Shaman was set to take place amidst the sights and sounds of springtime. According to established practice, a new Shaman’s initiation should take place at the urireng of the former Shaman. But Nihau was pregnant again, and Luni was worried that it would be hard for her to travel to Nidu the Shaman’s old urireng, so Ivan invited a Shaman from another clan to come and preside over the Initiation Rite. [Source: Chi Zijian, “Last Quarter of the Moon”, ethnic-china.com]
“She was known as Jiele the Shaman. Past seventy, she still had a straight back, a set of neatly spaced teeth and a head of jet-black hair. Her voice carried far, and even after downing three bowls of baijiu without a pause her gaze didn’t waver. We erected two Fire Pillars to the north of our shirangju, a birch tree on the left, a pine on the right, symbolising the co-existence of mankind and the Spirits. They had to be big trees. In front of them we also placed two saplings – once again, a birch on the left and a pine on the right. We stretched a leather strap between the two big trees, and attached sacrificial offerings – reindeer hearts, tongues, livers and lungs – to show reverence to the Shaman Spirit. Blood from a reindeer heart was smeared onto the saplings. Besides all this, Jiele the Shaman hung a wooden sun to the east of the shirangju, and a moon to the west. She also carved a wild goose and a cuckoo out of wood, and suspended them separately.
“The Spirit Dance Ceremony commenced. Everyone in our urireng sat next to the blazing fire observing Jiele the Shaman as she taught Nihau the Spirit Dance. Nihau was wearing the Spirit Robe left behind by Nidu the Shaman, but Jiele the Shaman had adapted it because he had been fat and taller than Nihau, so the Spirit Robe was too loose for her. That day it seemed that Nihau was a bride again. Clothed in a Shaman’s costume, she was lovely and dignified. Attached to the Spirit Robe were small wooden replicas of the human spine, seven metal strips symbolising human ribs, and lightning bolts and bronze mirrors of every size. The shawl draped on her shoulders was even more resplendent with teal, fish, swan and cuckoo bird adornments fastened to it. Twelve colourful ribbons symbolising the twelve Earthly Branches hung from the Spirit Skirt she wore, and it was also embellished with myriad strings of tiny bronze bells.
“The Spirit Headdress she donned resembled a large birch- bark bowl covering the back of her head. Behind it draped a short, rectangular ‘skirt,’ and at the top rose a pair of small bronze reindeer antlers. Several red, yellow and blue ribbons were suspended from the branches, symbolising a rainbow. In front of the Spirit Headdress dangled strands of red silk that reached the bridge of her nose, endowing her gaze with a mysterious air, since her eyes were visible only via the gaps between the strands of silk. As Jiele the Shaman had instructed her, before the Spirit Dance Nihau first addressed a few words to the entire urireng. She proclaimed that after she became a Shaman she would unquestionably use her own life and the abilities bestowed upon her by the Spirits to protect our clan, and ensure that our clansmen would multiply, our reindeer teem, and the fruits of our hunting abound year after year.
“With her left hand holding the Spirit Drum and her right hand grasping the drumstick made from the leg of a roe-deer, she followed Jiele the Shaman and began her Spirit Dance. Although Jiele the Shaman was very elderly, as she began to perform the Spirit Dance she was full of energy. When she beat the Spirit Drum, birds came flying from afar and alighted on the trees in our camp. The drumbeat and the chirping of the birds blended poignantly. That was the most glorious sound I’ve heard in my life.
“Nihau danced with Jiele the Shaman without pause from high noon until the sky went dark. Luni lovingly brought Nihau a bowl of water to get her to take a sip, but she didn’t even glance at it. Meanwhile, the rhythm of Nihau’s drumbeats grew more compelling, and her dancing more skillful and eye- catching with every step.Jiele the Shaman stayed in our camp for three days and danced the Spirit Dance each day, and she used her drumming and dancing to transform Nihau into a Shaman.”
The major Ewenki festivals include Aobao Meeting, Spring Festival and Mikol Festival. During the Aobao Festival (usually at a time chosen between April and June of the lunar calendar), they worship the Aobao God by slaughtering bulls and goats as the sacrifice to pray for safety and health and favorable weather for crops. Activities like horse racing and pushing and pulling are also held. An Aobao is a pile of stones, earth, grass, etc used by Mongolians or other ethnic groups in northeastern China as a road or boundary sign and in the old days regarded as the dwelling place of a god where sacrifices were offered. The Aomi Naneng Festival is a festival held in August in the pasturing area. Huge celebrations of religious activities and entertainments are held. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
The "Mikuole" festival is observed by Ewenki herdsmen in the last ten days of May every year. Nen, women and children gather in the grasslands and enjoy wine, fine foods and other delicacies prepared for the occasion. It is a time for nomads to count new-born lambs and cattle, celebrate the harvest and take stock of their wealth. Young, sturdy lads demonstrate their skills in lassoing horses and branding or castrating them. [Source: China.org china.org |]
"Mikuolu" is the most festive day of the year for the pasture Ewenki. People dress up in beautiful national dress. Relatives and friends get together to castrate and brand the animals. Strong and vigorous young men, on horseback, chase and lasso fierce, two-year-old horses. When the horses are lassoed, riders jump on the horse. Some draw its tail and some seize its ears. They hurl the horse to the ground, Some cut its mane, some cut the end of the tail and some make a brand. The owner of the horse is branded on the right side of a hinder leg. The whole process is very tense, exiting and interesting labor, as well as a good chance for Ewenki riders to compete with each other and show their riding skills. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
Traditionally, when the Ewenki are castrating and branding sheep, the old give children female lambs as gifts, with a blessing of prolificacy and happiness. After all the work is done, a chief or group leader hosts a feast for relatives and friends. The number of newly born cattle and sheep are declared. When the feast of one household finishes, people rush to another house for a feast there. ~
Ewenki Wedding and Marriage Customs
Monogamy is generally practiced. In old days exogamy was strictly observed. Members of the same clan were not permitted to marry one another, and those going against this unwritten law would be punished. An Ewenki wedding is an occasion for dancing and merry-making. All Ewenki folk dances are simple and unconstrained. The dancers' foot movements, executed in a forceful and vigorous style and highly rhythmic, are characteristic of the honest, courage and optimistic traits of this ethnic minority. [Source: China.org china.org |]
Most marriages are love matches although sometime arranged marriage occur, in some cases between girls of 17 or 18 and boys of 7 or 9. Under the terms of Ewinki elopement a couple sets up a felt tent with a xianrenzhu, beside it. In the middle of the night the girls sneaks out off her tent and rides off with her lover. The couple sleeps together in the xianrenzhu. The marriage is formalized when an elderly women rearranges the brides eight pigtails into two. Most newlywed set up their households with the groom’s clan. [Source: "Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China", edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, 1994)]
The matrimony of Ewenki hunters includes three phases: courtship, betrothal and wedding. When the wedding is approaching, the bridegroom has to move his camp to a place neighboring to the bride's house, however far he lives. On the wedding day, the bridegroom take 10 reindeer as presents to the bride's house, accompanied by his parents, other relatives and friends. The the bride receives the bridegroom with a part of similar size and make up. When they meet, the bride and the bridegroom hug and kiss, and give each other the presents. Then everyone goes into the tent to enjoy a feast. The wedding doesn’t begin until the night after everyone finished feasting. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
The Ewenki wedding has traditionally been held outdoors, not indoors. At the wedding site, in a river valley, the ground is cleared and a bonfire named the "Fire of Joviality" is lit. People cluster round the bridegroom and the bride, push them from the tent towards the bonfire. People gather round the bonfire in a half-circle, and an old man who presides over the wedding starts the ceremony. He pours wine into two birch bark cups, and hands them to the bridegroom and the bride. They spill a cupful of wine into the fire, to show their respect to the Fire God. Then they propose a toast to the parents, with the groom toasting the bride’s parents and the bride doing the same to groom’s parents. ~
The newlyweds then hug and kiss, and everyone in attendance sings and dances in a circle, hand in hand, throughout the night. The Ewenki call this kind of singing and dancing “the Dance of the Fire of Joviality". The movements are grand and powerful. The dancers raise their arms and twist their waist and leap. Following a lead singer, everybody joins in the chorus. The singing goes with the dancing, and the dancing goes with the singing, quick or slow, high or low. Everyone sings and dancies and no one wants to stop until they have enjoyed themselves thoroughly and are completely exhausted. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
Women in front of birchbark tent
Ewenki Life and Culture
Clans have traditionally acted independently of one another since the last tribal Ewenki chief died in 1761. Each clan is headed by a chief, who presides over meetings and settles disputes and otherwise acts like any other member of the clan. Blood feuds have often occurred between clans, which often recruited new members to increase their strength. Possessions have traditionally been shared with the understanding that anybody could take what they wanted when they needed it and would pay it back when they were able. For honored guests, a reindeer is slaughtered with a slit to the throat. The pelt is peeled back, the organs are removed, blood is drained and the meat is cut into four-inch cubes. [Source: "Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China", edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, 1994)]
The Ewenkis make wide variety of household utensils from birch bark. They also make a large variety of products from animal skins. They have traditionally carved wooden sculptures and toys for trade. Sports like lassoing and horse racing are often connected with nomadic life. The Ewenkis excel in horsemanship. Boys and girls learn to ride on horseback at six or seven when they go out to pasture cattle with their parents. Girls are taught to milk cows and take part in horseracing at around ten, and learn the difficult art of lassoing horses when they grow a little older. [Source: China.org china.org |]
Ewenki have traditionally enjoyed tobacco, milk tea and stewed meat and delicacies such as reindeer meat, venison, elk-nose meat sausages in the hunting areas. When Ewenki hunters go out on long hunting trips, they leave whatever they cannot take along — foodstuffs, clothing and tools in unlocked stores in the forests. Other hunters who are in want, may help themselves to the things stored without the permission of their owners. The things borrowed would be returned to the store owners when the hunters happen to meet them in the future. |
Birch bark plays an important role in Ewenkis' daily life. Most of their utensils for hunting, fishing and milking are made of birch bark. Birch bark are also applied to make dishware, wine-brewing container, vessels, houses, and fences. They even wrap dead bodies with birch bark. What's more, Ewenki people make clothes with birch bark. Caps and shoes made of birch bark are very popular among Ewenki people. They decorate their birch bark containers with various kinds of beautiful patterns. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
Myths, fables, ballads and riddles form their oral literature. Embroidery, carving and painting are among the traditional lines of modeling arts as commonly seen on utensils decorated with various floral designs. An adept hand is also shown by the Ewenkis at birch bark carving and cutting in producing all kinds of fancy beasts and animals as toys for children. china.org |]
In the old days, nomadic Ewenki lived in "xianrenzhu", conical teepee-like tents covered by animal hides and birch bark, herded reindeer and hunted for elk, rose deer and squirrels in groups of four or five hunters with shotguns and dogs. Food was shared equally, with the hunter who made the kill customarily taking the least desirable part. Special care was taken to make sure the sick, aged and disabled were provided for. Reindeer provided a means of transport for belongings. Hunters sometimes rode them or were pulled by them on ski boards
The few Ewenki that still practice nomadism live in yurts (circular felt tents) or 10-foot-square canvas tents and keep themselves warm and cook from a fire, whose smoke escapes from hole in the canvas. They sleep on low beds, primarily eat reindeer flesh and organs and spend their day doing chores like cooking, milking the herd, gathering berries, making cream, looking for strays, watching out for wolves, doing embroidery and washing clothes.
Nomadic Ewenki live in nomadic units called nimals, comprised of several nuclear families, and migrated primarily between winter woods and summer pastures for reindeer.. The migration southward for the winter takes place after the reindeer mating season.
Ewenki Customs: Hospitality and Fire Awe
The Ewenkis are an honest, warm-hearted and hospitable people. Guests in the pastoral areas are often treated to tobacco, milk tea and stewed meat by the Ewenki hosts. Such delicacies as reindeer meat, venison, elk-nose meat sausages are generously offered in the hunting areas. [Source: China.org china.org |]
Ewenki people are very hospitable. They respect the elders. Young people will salute and greet the elders whenever they meet them. The common courtesies are going down on one's knees, turning sideways and making a bow with hands folded in front. Ewenki people think it a joyous occasion if guests visit them. People in the pasturing area entertain the guests with milk tea, and those living in the hunting area entertain their guests with breast meat of deer or reindeer milk. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
The Ewenki have traditionally observed their etiquette rules strictly, especially respect towards the elderly. Young people are expected to jump to their feet to respond to an elder's call immediately and cannot start dinner until the elders have started to eat. Ewenki youths have to address their elders with respectful language. In the old days when the young and old encountered each other on horseback, young people were expected to dismount. Ewenki hospitable is summed by the Ewenki expression: "a wayfarer cannot travel with his house, so do you. If you are friendless, you will be treated alike some day. People are willing to lodge in a fire-warmed house, just like birds are willing to perch on a flourish tree." Ewenkis in pasturing areas have traditionally offered guests milk tea. Those in hunting areas offered honored guests delicacies and the tastiest parts of game, deer and reindeer the slaughtered along with reindeer milk. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
The Ewenki are in awe of fire and treat it as if it is divine. They never use anything with blades to stir the fire, or pour water or throw filthy things into the fire. They make a toast to the fire before eating meats, having dinner or drinking. The Ewenki in the pasturing areas hold a ritual for the fire god: a table of offerings is put before the fire, with lights and colorful lists around the fire stand. In the fire stand, there is a frame, on which people place the whole breastbone of a sheep. They pour sheep oil on it, light the fire, and put all kinds of offerings into the fire. ~
Meanwhile, the woman in charge of the ritual kneels before the fire, praying for the forgiveness from the Fire God, in the case that some family members have done something improper to the fire. After that, the whole family kowtows to the fire, and nobody is allowed to stir the fire or rake out the cinders for three days. The fire plays an important role in the Ewenki’s daily life. Besides, they believe that the host of the fire is divine, and the host of the fire is the ancestor of every household. If the host of the fire is lost, the Ewenki believe, the family will decline. That is why the Ewenki are so pious to the fire.
Reindeer: Boat in the 'Sea' of Forests
Reindeer are commonly called the “nondescript animal” in China because they have horse-like head, deer-like antler, donkey-like body and cattle-like hoofs, but they are different from each of these four animals. Reindeer are well adapted for cold weather. They are fond of eating moss, and manage well in remote mountainous forests, swamps, or deep snow. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
The reindeer in northern China are believed to have originated from wild animals in northern Russia. They were caught and domesticated by hunting groups in China and Russia such as the Ewenki and Oroqen and used in a number of ways in daily life. The Ewenki became the last ethnic group in China to breed and use reindeer after the Oroqen gave up the reindeer in favor of the horse.
Reindeer are called 'Erlun' in the Ewenki language. They generally measure around two meters in length and one meter in height, and weigh from 100 kilograms to 150 kilograms. The colors of their hair includea dust-color, white, black and gray. Their tails are usually short. There is a long tuft of hair under the neck. Males are larger and taller than females. Their life-span is generally 15 years to 20 years. Most of the females in deer family have no antlers, but among reindeer both sexes grow a pair of branched antlers. The size of the antlers and amount of the branches vary according to age. The antlers fall off in the autumn and grow again in March or April the next year. The reindeer are quite valuable to the Ewenki and have traditionally been their main source of income and provided them with meat and milk. The skin can be tanned to leathe and the antlers and genitals are used make prized oriental medicines.
Reindeer are meek by nature. They never kick or bite people and are relatively easy to raise. They are usually raised by women. It is not necessary to enclose them with a fence, or feed them. You can just put them out to graze. They leave the campsites when night comes, gathering in herds and grazing in the forests, and come back at dawn. They don't leave in the daytime. The reindeer are good at finding food. Even in the winter, when the mountain paths are sealed by snow, they can also use the broad forepaws to dig up into the snow, as deep as one meter, to look for mosses to eat. Reindeer like salt. Their masters can knock on the salt box if they want to use the reindeer. They will follow the sound and come.
Reindeer are very strong. They can bear a burden of more than 40 kilograms and cover more than 32 kilometers per day. They are indispensable in the productive and daily life of the Ewenki hunters, because their relatively light weight and broad hoofs allow them to walk for a long time in deep snow, swamp or dense forest. People use the reindeer to transport hunted animals and articles for daily use, such as cookers, foodstuff, clothes, and fabric and birch bark that can be used to make tents. The Ewenki love their reindeer dearly. Each reindeer has a name and a wooden or cooper bell so that it can be found easily. The Ewenki never give heavy things to pregnant reindeer or baby reindeer to carry, and they won't milk them when the reindeer are sweaty, to avoid abortion and disease.
Last Quarter Moon; Novel About the Ewenki
“The Last Quarter of the Moon”—the saga of the Evenki clan of Inner Mongolia— is the first novel from award-winning Chinese novelist Chi Zijian to be translated into English. Kelly Falconer wrote in the Financial Times, “It is an atmospheric modern folk-tale” about “nomadic reindeer herders whose traditional life alongside the Argun river endured unchanged for centuries, only to be driven almost to extinction during the political upheavals of the 20th century. Their history is recounted by the 90-year-old, unnamed widow of one of the clan’s last great chieftains. Her ethereal presence and memory, and strength of will, allows her to speak for the tribe, breathing life into their collective memories. [Source: Kelly Falconer, Financial Times, January 18, 2013]
“The story is full of allegory. There is the fire that is passed from one generation to the next; the cycles of life and death; and the “coexistence of mankind and the Spirits”. The clan’s reindeer are central to their lives and “were certainly bestowed upon us by the Spirits, for without these creatures we would not be”. Chi channels, Shaman-like, the sentiment, emotions and experiences of another, much older woman (Chi was born in 1964). Inevitably the wider world intrudes: in 1965 the clan votes on whether or not to “resettle”, leaving their mountains for a newly created township away from their shirangju (open-roofed teepees), where they fall asleep looking at the stars. Everyone yields to the communists’ persuasion, apart from the narrator: “My body was bestowed by the Spirits, and I shall remain in the mountains to return it to the Spirits.” Her simple-minded grandson stays behind to look after her and their few reindeer.
“The others realise their mistake when reindeer start to die in captivity. The communists believe the precious animals to be like ordinary domesticated beasts: they should eat “tender branches in the summer, and hay in winter. They won’t starve”. The Evenki protest: “Do you take reindeer for cattle or horses? Reindeer won’t eat hay. They can forage for hundreds of different foods in the mountains. If you make them eat just grass and branches, their souls will suffer and die!”
“This nomadic clan has not kept pace with the world, and their lives (like those of their reindeer) are irretrievably disrupted by the forces of modernity. The pace of this tale is slow but certain, as though the story unfolds to the beat of an ancient, sonorous drum. The animistic Evenki have a symbiotic relationship with nature, and Chi’s narrative is decorated with descriptions of the forests and the mountains, of the flora and fauna: Autumn resembles “a thin-skinned person. If the wind utters a few less than complimentary words about him, he pulls a long face and beats a retreat”; there are falling leaves dancing “like yellow butterflies in the forest” and a snow-white fawn, which “resembled an auspicious cloud that had just fallen to the earth”. The Evenki survive famine, disease, war and reform, drownings, lethal snowstorms and accidental shootings. The one thing they cannot endure is displacement. The book ends with a glimpse into their uncertain future, “deeply shrouded in death’s shadow.”
“”The Last Quarter of the Moon” is the English-language title. In Chinese it is “The Right Bank of the Argun,” a hint that the story is based on fact. The author’s afterword gives more useful background; unfortunately it is not reprinted in the English book but is available on translator Bruce Humes’ website, Ethnic ChinaLit. In it, Chi relates how she grew up in this landscape. “As a child entering the mountains to fetch firewood, more than once I discovered an odd head-shape on a thick tree trunk. Father told me that was the image of the mountain spirit Bainacha, carved by the Oroqen [another nomadic clan]”. Latterly, Chi researched her book by staying in an Evenki encampment. She concludes: “I felt that I had at last found the seed for my novel ... The vast stretch of forest I possessed as a child would serve as its seedbed, and I was confident that this seed would sprout and grow in it.” Chi was right to be confident. This is a fitting tribute to the Evenki by a writer of rare talent.
Book: “The Last Quarter of the Moon,” by Chi Zijian, translated by Bruce Humes, Harvill Secker]
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