The Hezhen are one of China’s smallest minorities. More or less the same group as the Nanai in the Russian Far East, they live mostly in the Three-River Plain area in northern Heilongjiang, where the Songhia, Heilong and Ussuri rivers come together. The Heilong River is also known as the Amur River, Black Dragon River and Heilongjiang. There used to be many more of them but 80 to 90 percent of them died under the Japanese occupation of Manchuria when they were resettled and forced to work in mines and railroads. [Source: Norma Diamond, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]

The Hezhen are also known as the Hezhe, Achas, Fishkin Tatars, Golds, Goldis, Heshes, Nabeis, Nanais, Naniaos, Nanaitsis, Hoshes, Hochits, Khechkis, Natkis, Sushens, Wild Nuchens and Yupibos. Related to the Nanai in Russia, they speak an Altaic language and no longer practice the shaman and healing ceremonies the once did. The Chinese called them the “Fish Skin Tribe” because their traditional clothes, hats and shoes were made of fish skin.

Concentrated around the middle course of the Heilongjiang (Amur) River and the along the Songhua and Wusuli (Ussuri) Rivers, the Hezhen mainly live in Tongjiang city, Xilinzi village, Huachuan, Fujin, Fuyuan and Raohe counties in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province. Their most compact communities are in the villages of Jiejinkou, Sipai, and Bacha, three Hezhe Autonomous Townships. The Hezhen call themselves different names according to the region they inhabit: namely the Nanai, Nabei and Naniao. These three names mean "people of this place" in their respective dialects. The term Hezhe is the way people living down the Heilongjiang River called them. In Siberian Russia they are known as the Nanai. ~ *\

The Hezhen are the second smallest minority in China out off 55. They numbered 5,354 in 2010 and made up 0.0004 percent of the total population of China in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census. Hezhen population in China in the past: 4,664 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 4,245 in 1990 according to the 1990 Chinese census. A total of 718 were counted in 1964 and 670 were counted in 1982. [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia]

Hezhen and Fish

Fishskin boots

The Hezhen have traditionally been a hunting and fishing people. Their homeland is occupied by rivers and marshes and is filled with wild animals and fish. They enjoy eating raw fish served with vinegar sauce, salmon, carp and huso sturgeon (a fish that can weigh over 1,200 pounds and reach lengths of 10 feet), also known as yellow croakers. Traditionally, they used dogsleds and birchbark canoes and made clothes from fish skins and deer hides with embroidered floral designs. They traded dried fish, furs and deer antlers.

The Hezhe are known for their intimate relation with fish. Living near the banks of the big rivers of northeast China— namely the Amur (Heilongjiang), much of which lies on the border between China and Russia—their lives have traditionally revolved around fish and fishing. In the past, they ate fish to the exclusion of most everything else, wore fish skin clothes and used products made from fish for many of their daily needs. Fish loom large in their myths and legends and play a major role in their games and sports.

The area where the Hezhen live is known for its green hills, clear waters, large rivers and plentiful game and fish. An old Hezhen saying goes "hunting roes with sticks, scooping fish with gourds, and having pheasant fly into the cooker" describes how easy the hunting and fishing has traditionally been. Today, fishing remains the main livelihood of Hezhen who live by the rivers. Some also engage in farming. [Sources: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Ethnic China]

Origin of the Hezhen

The Hezhen can be traced to the Nvzhen, a tribe of Tartar horsemen who ravaged the northern borders of several Chinese dynasties. They used to wear clothing made of fish skins and employed dogs for hunting which earned them the titles Yupi Tribe (Fish Skin Tribe) and Shiquan Tribe (Dog-using Tribe). They have traditionally practiced shamanism. [Source: chinaculture.org]

According to legend, the Hezhen descended from mermaids. The forefathers of the Hezhen lived by the three rivers—Songhuajiang (Songhua River), Heilongjiang (Amur River) and Wusulijiang (Ussuri River). In the past the Hezhen and their ancestors were known by various names, including the "Heijin", "Heizhen", "Hezhes", "Qileng", and "Hezhe" and so on. The Hezhen called themselves "Nanai", "Nabei", or "Naniao", all meaning "natives" or "aborigines." After the foundation of the People's Republic of China, they were formally named the"Hezhe Nationality", meaning of people residing in "the east" or in "the lower reaches" of a river. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums]

The ancestors of the Hezhen and Nanai were the Jurchens of northernmost Manchuria. Jurchen is a term used to collectively describe a number of East Asian Tungusic-speaking peoples that descended from the Donghu people.They lived in the northeast of China, later known as Manchuria, before the 18th century. The Jurchens were renamed Manchus in 1635. The Donghu (literally: "Eastern foreigners" or "Eastern barbarians"), or Hu, were a tribal confederation of nomadic people that was first recorded from the 7th century B.C. and was destroyed by the Xiongnu in 150 B.C.. They lived in northern Hebei, southeastern Inner Mongolia and the western part of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang along the Yan Mountains and Greater Khingan Range. They lived on in East Asian Tungusic language. [Source: Wikipedia]

Hezhen History

Hezhen girl in the 1900s

The ancestors of the Hezhen first came under Chinese sway during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) when the Heilong Military Region was set up to rule the area. In the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) the Hezhen were incorporated into the military "eight banner" system of the Manchu rulers and recruited into the army and used in river patrols.
. Norma Diamond wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Aboriginally, they were a distinctive fishing and hunting people, but since the seventeenth century they have been strongly influenced by the Manchu and the Han. Some Hezhen men entered careers in the military and civil service or participated in patrols on the rivers. In the twentieth century, intermarriage between Hezhen women and Han men became common: as Bannerrnen, Hezhen men could marry Chinese women, but Hezhen women rarely if ever married out of the group. [Source: Norma Diamond, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]

The Hezhen faced near extinction during Japanese occupation of Manchuria. About 80 to 90 percent of them died after being resettled and forced to work in mines and railroads. By some estimated there were only 300 Hezhen at the time the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. According to the Chinese government: “It was when they fell under the rule of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo during Japanese occupation of China’s northeast that the Hezhen reached the depths of misery. A policy of genocide was practiced, under which the Hezhen were herded into concentration camps. Their diet was inadequate, as they could no longer hunt and fish freely, and opium addiction was rife. The death toll under these conditions was high and the Hezhen dwindled rapidly in numbers, reaching the point of extinction as a separate ethnic group just before China’s national liberation in 1949.” |

In 1945 the Hezhen area came under Communist rule, and many Hezhen returned to their former home areas. According to the Chinese government they "returned to their old hunting grounds and rebuilt their homes with help from the central government. Loans and relief funds enabled them to resume their traditional way of life. Farming was encouraged and many of the Hezhen went in for it, as others formed production teams to pursue hunting and fishing.

By the early 1950s the government had organized fishing cooperatives. In the late 1950s Hezhen villages were incorporated into communes shared with neighboring Manchu, Koreans, and Han Chinese. The Hezhen practiced some agriculture, and raised deer for antlers and martens for fur and engaged in traditional hunting. Agriculture became a larger part of their economy, along with the farming of fish, deer, and marten. Some ice fishing and forest hunting still continue. By 1980 there were 2,475 Hezhen. They were 4,245 in 1990 and 4,640 in 2000. [Source: Ethnic China *]

Local schools, developed during the 1950s, provide an education in Chinese. There has been continuing intermarriage with neighboring groups. Chinese sources suggest that the Hezhen no longer conduct their traditional shaman-led religious rituals and healing ceremonies. According to Beijing: Electricity has transformed their once-gloomy dwellings with light, radios, TV sets and other conveniences of modern life. Textiles, leather and rubber have replaced the old animal skins they used to wrap themselves in, and up-to-date educational and medical facilities are available, even for the Hezhen who continue to lead a nomadic life. The Hezhen run their own affairs in Fuyuan County's Xiabacha Hezhe Autonomous Township, and send deputies to local, provincial and national People's Congresses.” |

Endangered Hezhen Language

where the Hezhen live

The Hezhen have their own language, which belongs to the Manchu-Tungus group of the Altaic language family. It has some similarities with the Manchu language. Nowadays, only old timers can speak the Hezhe language. Most Henhen speak Chinese or the languages of other ethnic groups that live near them. They do not have their own system of writing and use Chinese characters for written communication. There are two main dialects: Qileng and Hezhe. These dialects are different but related to the dialect spoken by the Russian Nanais.[Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums]

The Hezhe-Nanai language belongs to the Manchu-Tungusic family of languages. Tungusic languages (also known as Manchu-Tungus and Tungus) form are spoken in Eastern Siberia and Manchuria by Tungusic peoples. Many Tungusic languages are endangered. There are approximately 75,000 native speakers of the dozen or so living Tungusic languages.Some linguists consider Tungusic to be part of the controversial Altaic language family, along with Turkic, Mongolic, and sometimes Koreanic and Japonic. The term "Tungusic" is from an exonym for the Evenk(Ewenki) and people used by the Yakuts ("tongus"). It was borrowed into Russian and ultimately transliterated into English as "Tungus".

The French linguist Jean Veronis wrote: ““Unesco's Red Book on endangered languages lists Hezhe as a nearly extinct language. The signs are not good: the total number of speakers has fallen below 50, there are no children who speak the language, only people over the age of 50 understand the language. The widespread use of Mandarin Chinese has taken over within the community. There is no such thing as written Hezhe and, as is often the case, the traditional Hezhe culture is being lost as the language dies out, in particular the Yimakan, a collection of songs that relate the myths, legends, philosophy and traditions of this people. [Source: Will Hezhe survive?, Jean Veronis, June 2005 ^]

Saving the Endangered Hezhen Language

The French linguist Jean Veronis wrote: “Their language, Hezhe (also written as Hejen or Hedjen), is a dialect of Nanai, one of the languages in the Altaic family and part of the Tungusic branch (the other branches being Turkish and Mongolian). The other Tungusic languages are not very well known, with the possible exception of Manchu, which has also virtually disappeared after several centuries in which it was the official language of the ruling dynasty. [Source: Will Hezhe survive?, Jean Veronis, June 2005 ^]

Teachers in a school in northern Heilongjiang have developed a system of writing Hezhe that is based on Chinese and they have produced a textbook for this language used by 150 students as of 2005. Li Fangchao wrote in the China Daily, “The Hezhe people have improved their chances of preserving their dying language with the publication of a new book. Teachers from Jiejinkou Hezhe Central School in Tongjiang, recently finished compiling probably the first Hezhe language textbook. "I am afraid that nobody can completely understand the language as it also has many dialects," Jing Changzhi, headmaster of the school, told China Daily. [Source: Li Fangchao, China Daily, June 6, 2005]

Jing said it was no use trying to create a completely new written form for Hezhe as the language itself has lost its "significance in communication." "But it is vital to save the oral language as it carries the culture and tradition of the Hezhen from past generations," he said. The language book the school is now promoting comes after four years of effort, he said. "We labelled commonly used words and sentences with Chinese pinyin and characters, as they all know Chinese," said Jing. The school now has about 150 students, of whom 40 are Hezhen.

Religion of the Hezhe

Nanai shaman in the 19th century

The Hezhen have traditionally been animists and shamanists, believing that all objects and phenomena of the nature have their own spirit and that their shamans can influence the way these spirits affect living human beings. Shamans used to have an important function in Hezhen society and religion, as they were considered to have the power to communicate with the non human realms and solve the problems that gods or demons can cause to the human beings. There were several kinds of shamans with different tasks. However, shamanism, on which the Hezhen built their spiritual life, has almost completely disappeared due to the influence of the Chinese culture. [Source: Ethnic China*]

The Hezhen have Buddhist believed that every person has three souls, one that dies with the body, and two others that survive it. Of these two one is reincarnated as a person or an animal whose species depends on his good or bad behavior during his life. The other one will be driven, by means of the opportune ceremonies, to the world of the dead, a world similar to that of the living people, inhabited by the spirits of the ancestors. This soul is able to abandon the body for brief periods of time during dreams of other people. For this reason the Hezhen give great importance to the dreams, having built around them a complex interpretive system. *\

In nature everything has a god, but not all gods are equal. The most powerful is the God of the Sky, who directs everything, and the God of the Three Stars, responsible for illnesses. The world, for the Hezhe, has three levels: the sky, the earth and the hell. The sky, where the gods live, has seven levels occupied by the gods in order of importance. The earth is where people live. Hell is where demons live. The Hezhen still keep vestiges of totemism. Most of the clans remember the legends that recount the way their first female ancestor was matched with the animal that became their ancestor. They also worship their ancestors. *\

The dead were buried in the wilderness, in log-lined pits covered with a mound. Dead infants were bundled in birch bark and suspended from the limbs of trees, in the hope that their souls would be freed into the air and promote the prosperity of the parents. [Source: China.org]

Hezhen Tiger Stories

The tiger is one of the more widely respected totems among the Hezhen, second in popularity only to that of the bear. There are numerous stories that relate the tiger with the Hezhe. Neal Jabarovs wrote: A long time ago there was a girl that met a tiger deep in the forest and became its wife. She had a son called Akejinka, which means "born of the tiger". When this son grew up he became a great hunter. He took a woman and had numerous children with her. These children produced a large clan, whose members are all considered her and the tiger their founding ancestors. descendants, and therefore also of the tiger. For that reason, people of the clan of Akejinka don't fear the tiger, and neither do tigers harm them. If they go hunting and they encounter a tiger, it is enough for them to stay still without moving." [Source: Ethnic China *]

“Other folk tales narrate how a couple that belonged to the clan of the tiger got lost in the forest. Having nothing to eat, they were doomed to die from starvation. When they requested help from their ancestors they were saved by a tiger that came out of the forest bearing a deer in his mouth. Another story tells of a tiger that slept with a woman. The woman saw a man in a dream. The following day she entered the forest where she found a cabin in which she fell asleep, only to discover the next morning that there was a tiger sleeping with her. *\

“One more tale narrates the story of a hunter who saved a tiger from a trap into which it had fallen, and it responded with its protection. The tiger is therefore an animal with deep symbolic meaning for the Hezhe. They think that tigers come to their funerals and cry for the dead. For that reason the Hezhen never hunt tigers. If they see their tracks they turn around. If they hurt a tiger they carry out a ceremony of pardon. They never say its name.” *\

Nanai family

Hezhen Fishing Techniques

Hezhen have traditionally fished throughout the year, but spring and autumn are main fishing seasons. Living in an area richly endowed with fish, they have created original skills in fishing through time-tested experience. The Hezhen know clearly when to fish, where to fish, how to fish, and even can tell exactly what species of fish when and where. It can be argued that of all the people in the world, the Hezhen are leaders in the number of the fishing tools at their disposal and way fishing chores are divided up. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China]

There are three sorts of fishing tools used by the Hezhen, namely spears, hooks and nets. One type of fishing spear has a shaft that cannot be separated from the prong. The other type of spear has a shaft that can be separated from the prong after the fish has been speared. There are cords fastened to the head of the prong so that the fish caught cannot escape. There are big versions and small versions of the spears with separated prongs. The big ones are used specially for spearing the Huso dauricus (kaluga sturgeon). This kind of fish weighs up to 500 kilograms.

The iron head of the big spear is about 70 centimeters long. The prong in the middle is 30 centimeters long. Around every prong there are four barbs. The shaft of the spear is four meters in length, and four centimeters in diameter. The shaft and the head of the spear are connected by a horsetail cord over six meters long, with a float made of fish air bladder fastened to it. Another cord of over seven meters long fastened to the end of the shaft. When spearing Huso dauricus, a raft—held in place by ropes and stakes hammered in the river bank, is set up in a place where there is a strong current and the water is one to 1.5 meters deep. While the Huso dauricus swims against the current, two fishermen try to spear the fish at a distance of five to ten meters. There is no margin for error. When speared, the fish writhes and struggle, and swim away with the spear and cord. Fishermen will follow the float and finally pull the fish into their boat. If the Huso dauricus is too huge, it is pulled directly to the shore and and the cord in tied to a tree. When the fish is exhausted, it is cut into pieces and carried back.

When fishing the in winter, Hezhen fishermen build a hut on the ice of the River and cut a one-meter diameter hole on the ice. When the door of the hut is closed, it is dark inside the room and bright under the ice, which makes it easy to see the fish and spear them when they come under the hole. In the old days, there were so many fish that the fishermen just sat beside the hole and scooped fish with a strainer. They could collect tons of fresh fish within half a day. The fish froze in freezing outside temperature and were delivered in this state to the other parts of China in boxes.

20080306-Tungus fishtraps donsmaps.jpg
Tungus fish traps

In spring, autumn, and winter, fishermen usually catch fish with hooks. The kind of hooks varies according to the fish. The "quick hook" is a method of long-line river fishing employing over three hundred hooks attached to fishing line forty to fifty meters long. With this "quick hook" method many fish can be caught at one time. The largest quantities of fish are caught with nets. When the fishing season draws near, every Hezhen fishing family make preparations and and patches nets. The nets are typically ten to fifteen meters long and two to five meters wide. Sometimes, more than ten nets are connected together and 5000 kilograms of fish is hauled in at one time.

Trying to Keeping Hezhen Culture From Dying

Hezhen culture is in decline. You Wenfeng, one of the last fishskin clothes makers, is try to keep it from dying. Ryan Woo of Reuters wrote: “ “Sensing the end, You started to impart her knowledge to some local Han Chinese women in Tongjiang, a quiet city near the northeastern border with Russia where she now lives. Her disciples also learn the Yimakan, a storytelling genre that switches between speech and song in the Hezhen language. The education is arduous, with You's acolytes committing to memory songs of fishing, hunting and ancient tribal conquests through phonetics alone. [Source: Ryan Woo, Reuters, January 21, 2020]

“With little prompting, You burst into song in her studio apartment during a visit by Reuters, singing of a woman's wish to bear a son for her hunter-husband. “Hezhen hunters rode on canoes made from birch, or “swift horses", You said, smiling. Such is their skill on water that legend says the Hezhen descended from mermaids. "When the forests flooded to the treetops, there'd be fish everywhere," she said. “Just throw your spear into the water and there'd be fish." These days, fish are sourced from the marketplace. And instead of tiger bone and deer tendon, embroidery needles and cotton thread are used.

In 2005, Newsgd.com reported: Although the Hezhen have seen a population resurgence after they were almost wiped out by the 1940s, their traditional culture still faces extinction as the young generation embraces modernity. Liu Sheng, a Han Chinese and a former public servant in Tongjiang City has spearheaded a crusade to help salvage the Hezhen culture since her retirement in 1998. "At the time I retired, I began to learn to make traditional Hezhen fish-skin clothes from my husband's aunt Liu Cuiyu, who is now 81, as a way to pass time," she said. "But as I learned more about the Hezhen culture, I began to love it and thought something must be done to stop the distinctive culture from edging toward extinction." [Source: Newsgd.com, May 5, 2005 ***]

“The traditional Hezhen way of living has also fallen out of fashion since the mid-20th century. By the time Liu Sheng began to make fish-skin clothes, Liu Cuiyu was believed to be the only person still practicing the craft. "Aunt Liu Cuiyu has been in poor health due to old age. If I don't preserve the 'fish-skin culture,' the living fossil will definitely fall into oblivion," Liu Sheng, 57, said. "So I made up my mind to do all I could to save the memories in the Hezhen people that were going to be lost forever if nothing was done." With the help of her husband, You Gengshen, a Hezhen, Liu Sheng reconstructed the traditional fish-skin clothes, fish-skin carvings of totems, and other traditional Hezhen art forms according to pictures and texts in books written by renowned ethnohistorian Ling Chunsheng (1902-1981) in the 1930s. ***

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, 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 ; 4) Chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBCand various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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