right The Hezhen are one of China’s smallest minorities. The 2010 census counted 5,300 of them, up from 1,500 in 1982. They live mostly in the Three-River Plain area in northern Heilongjiang, where the Songhia, Heilongjiang and Ussuri rivers come together. 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.

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. ~ *\

Hezhen population in China: 0.0004 percent of the total population; 5,354 in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census; 4,664 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 4,245 in 1990 according to the 1990 Chinese census. [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia]

Hezhen and Fish

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, kepu.net.cn ~ , Ethnic China ethnic-china.com*]

In imperial China, they were recruited into the army and used in river patrols. Under the Communists they returned to their former home areas and were organized into fishing cooperatives. They also practiced some agriculture, and raised deer for antlers and martens for fur and engaged in traditional hunting.

Hezhen History

left 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]

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, kepu.net.cn ~]

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 Hezhes were incorporated into the military "eight banner" system of the Manchu rulers. In imperial China, the Hezhen were recruited into the army and used in river patrols. [Source: China.org china.org |]

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. Under the Communists they returned to their former home areas and were organized into fishing cooperatives. In 1980 there were 2,475 Hezhe. They were 4,245 in 1990 and 4,640 in 2000. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *]

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 Hezhes reached the depths of misery. A policy of genocide was practiced, under which the Hezhes 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 Hezhes dwindled rapidly in numbers, reaching the point of extinction as a separate ethnic group just before China’s national liberation in 1949.” |

After the creation of Communist China in 1949 “they then 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 Hezhes went in for it, as others formed production teams to pursue hunting and fishing. With their initiative brought into full play, the Hezhes began to have a thriving economy. 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 Hezhes who continue to lead a nomadic life. The Hezhes run their own affairs in Fuyuan County's Xiabacha Hezhe Autonomous Township, and send deputies to local, provincial and national People's Congresses.” |

Saving the Endangered Hezhen Language

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, kepu.net.cn ~]

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 ^]

“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. ^

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. 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. [Source: Li Fangchao, China Daily, June 6, 2005]

Religion of the Hezhe

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 ethnic-china.com *] 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 china.org |]

Henzhen 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 ethnic-china.com *]

“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.” *\

Hezhen Marriage

The Hezhen have traditionally been monogamous but polygamy was sometimes indulged in by the wealthier members of the tribe. Marriage partners had to be selected from among members of other clans, and early marriage, arranged by the parents, was normal. Though remarriage for widows was sanctioned, no marriage ceremony was performed. [Source: China.org china.org |]

Until the last years of the 19th century Hezhen society was relatively equal and there was no economic component to marriage. From then on, the influence of Chinese and Manchu transformed their weddings in a more complex process. Before, the bridegroom only needed to go to the bride's house and request her hand in marriage from her parents. If they accepted, the couple spent the night together, leaving the following day for the husband's house. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *]

Under the influence of Manchu and Chinese, marriage for the Hezhen became more complex. Under the old system few presents were exchanged. In the 20th century, due to Chinese influence, wedding ceremonies became more important and the quantity of gifts increased. In the Chinese-influenced ceremony the bridegroom went to the bride's house, where she was dressed with a red dress, wearing a red veil. *\

In the past there was frequent exchanges of wives among different clans. In recent times, when the youth didn't agree their parent’s partner selections, they sometimes practiced kidnap marriage. Divorce has traditionally been rare because divorced people were discriminated against in Hezhen society. Widows have traditionally had the freedom to marry whoever they like after their husband's death but generally married widowers.

Hezhen Life and Festivals

Hezhen used to live in crude birch-bark sheds. Nowadays, they live in stone houses with tile roofs or those with earthen walls and thatched roofs. In winter they have traditionally traveled by sled and hunted on skis. Some Hezhe people may still use dog-drawn sledges, horse-drawn sleighs, skis, birch-bark boat as their transport tools. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

Embroidery is a highly developed art among the Hezhes — probably perfected over the centuries of long winter nights. Geometrical and floral patterns decorate clothing, shoes and tobacco pouches, They are also noted for their carved wooden furniture, birch bark boxes and utensils, which sport images of Buddha, plants and animals. They are also skilled at carpentry, tanning and iron smelting; but these are still cottage industries. [Source: China.org china.org |]

Among the Hezhen festivals are the God Deer Festival and Wurigong Festival. God Deer Festival is held on the third day of the third lunar month and the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, People dance to pray for the god to exorcize the ghosts, bring good luck and ward off calamities. They also pray for a good harvest for the coming year. The Wurigong Festival is held biennially in fifth or sixth lunar months and lasts for three days. Wurigong means fun day or the sports meeting. Competitive activities including swimming, boating, net casting, pushing and pulling and straw fish forking are held during the festival. The local people also hold banquets where they eat and drink together. See Sports Below. \=/

20080306-Tungus fishtraps donsmaps.jpg
Tungus fish traps

Hezhen Raw Fish — the Local Delicacy

The Hezhen have been eating raw fish since long before sushi was invented. They also eat fish skin, fish eggs, and soft fish bones in a raw state. According to Chinatravel.com: “Hezhe people live on fish as they live along Heilongjiang, Songhuajiang and Wusulijiang rivers. They have many different ways of eating fish. They not only cook fish but also eat raw fish, usually sturgeon and carp fish. When making raw fish dish, people cut off the heads, skin and bones of the living fish, cut the fish meat into thin pieces, dip the fish pieces into some rice vinegar until the fish pieces turn white, season the fish pieces with salt and other condiments, shredded potato, caraway and bean sprout. This dish tastes fresh, cool, refreshing and delicious, and it doesn’t have any unpleasant fish smell. Hezhe people also entertain guests with raw fish. They also cut fish into thin slices and toast them on fire, season the fish slices with condiments and make delicious fish dish. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

The most popular dish is "raw fish with greens", prepared with wild ginger, shallots, capsicum, vinegar and salt. If there is no vinegar, they season it with the chokeberry juice. [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 ~]

There is a legend on how "raw fish with greens" was created. Long long ago, there was a newly married daughter-in-law, who was so smart and pretty that nothing was difficult for her. One day, her father-in-law brought her a difficult problem. He wanted to prepare a fish so that it seemed to be raw but was actually cooked. She chose two fresh carps, sliced the meat quickly with knife, and put the pieces of meat into a birch basin with vinegar. Then she broiled the fishskin over the fire, and shook it so that the scales shook off and the fishskin had a burnt color and was crisp and smelled delicious. She sliced the fishskin as well, and put the slices into the basin, then added the seasonings, and mixed them. A basin of raw fish was served up. Her father-in-law loved the dish and praised her over and again. Nowadays, the materials for this dish include cucumber, cabbage, spinach and potato, seasoned with monosodium glutamate, wild ginger, refined salt, capsicum oil, shallot, garlic and other condiments. It is tasty, smells delicious with an alluring color. "Frozen fish slices" prepared by the Hezhen is informally called "parings" by the Hans. It is made in winter, by peeling off the skin of the frozen fish and slicing the meat and, if you like, adding seasonings. "Raw caviar" is a popular dish. It usually comes from the soybean-size jacinth crystalline caviar of salmon or the grain-size greenblack caviar of the kaluga sturgeon (Huso dauricus). The Hezhen-prepared caviar is seasoned with salt, vinegar, ginger, garlic, capsicum and caraway. Unique Hezhen methods of having fish also include dried fish bar, dried fish trunk, and dried fish floss.

Hezhen Clothes

Traditional Hezhe clothing is made of fish skins and deer hides. The decorations of the clothes consist of buttons made of catfish bones and collars and cuffs dyed in cloud-shaped patterns. Women wear fish-skin and deer-hide dresses decorated with shells and colored strips of dyed deer hide in cloud, plant and animal designs. Bear skins and birch bark are also used to make thick boots which everyone wears in winter. Unmarried girls used to tie their hair in one braid, while married women wore two. Bracelets were common ornaments for all women, but only old women wore earrings. Since the mid-20th century, these styles have fallen out of fashion to a great extent. [Source: China.org china.org |]

Hezhen fish skin dresses are very unique. When making the fish skin clothes, people remove the full skin of a silver carp and dry it. After processing the fish skin to make it as soft as cotton cloth, people sew it with silver carp skin threads and make it into clothes. Hezhe people also make clothes of deer skin or roe skin, and these clothes are usually sewed with roe tendon, deer tendon or skin threads. Men wear roe fur coats in winter and garments with buttons on one side in the front in summer. The wristbands and front of the garment are usually trimmed with colored cloth or dyed into colored graduated shade, and sometimes decorated with two rows of fasteners made of catfish bones. Women wear fish skin or deer skin clothes, which are decorated with graduated shade. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

Hezhen Fishskin Clothes

The Hezhen are famous their fishskin dresses—which show their talent for utilizing natural resources and adapting to their environment. To make fish skin clothes: 1) take the full skin of a silver carp or chub and dry it. 2) Then, remove the fish scales and hammer the skin with a wooden mallet to make the skin as soft as cotton cloth. 3) Sew the fishskin together with silver carp skin threads and make it into clothes. Unfortunately nobody realy wears fishskin clothes any more. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]

Under the influence of Manchu clothing, the fish skin dress grew in long garment, mainly for women, with slim waist like a cheongsam. The length of the dress was below the knees. It was loose and had short sleeves but has no collar. The dress and trousers was edged with colored cloth, embroidered with patterns. Some were decorated with copper bells. ~

Fish skin trousers were made entirely different for males and females. Those for males were aligned at the upper ends, and the lower ends are edged with black cloth. In winter hunting, these trousers were surprisingly warm and endured the roughest wearing. In spring and autumn fishing seasons, the trousers were water-resistant and protecedt the knees. Today, modern living and the availability of other materials and designs has changed Hezhen clothes radically. The fishskin dress used by Hezhen women to wrap themselves, rather it exists as a kind of folk handicraft collected and ordered by museums, researchers of national culture, and tourists.

Making Hezhen fish skin clothing is a lot of work. Liu Sheng, a Han Chinese woman married to a Hezhen, spent five years making a set of traditional Hezhen fish-skin clothes, 33 pieces altogether. She told Newsgd.com: "After the fish skins were sun-dried, I rolled a wood rod on the skins until they were as flat as paper. And then I used my bare hands to rub the fish skins thousands of times until they were as soft as a piece of cotton fabric.” She then sewed the fish skins together."It's exhausting work. My hands often blistered," she recalled. [Source: Newsgd.com, May 5, 2005 ***]

Oral Literature and Songs of the Hezhen

Story telling and ballad singing are favorite pastimes among the Hezhe people, who have a wealth of folktales. Some of the longer epics and ballads can last for days on end, as tales of ancient heroes are narrated in speech alternating with songs. Short and lively shuohuli songs used to be sung by the elders to initiate the younger members of the tribe into the tribal lore. The Hezhes also sing songs with extempore words; typical are "jialingkuo" and "henina. [Source: China.org china.org |]

The Hezhen have a rich oral literature, with a large body of stories, legends and songs that are present in all activities of their lives. The main types of songs and stories are: 1) yimakan, or sung stories; 2) telungu, or legendary stories; 3) shuohuli, or stories; and 4) jialinkuo, or popular songs. Most of the history and tradition of the Hezhen people is handed down by "yimakan," which resemble folk song that has nearly died out over recent years. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *]

There are more than ten kinds of Hezhen folk songs, whose context covers all aspects of life. There are sad songs, ancient songs, fishing songs, hunting songs, etiquette songs, love songs, cradle songs and narrative songs. Women prefer singing "jialingkuo" and songs like the wedding performance "Yimakan". Dagu (story-telling with a drum accompaniment) is associated with old men and are often retellings of ancient epics. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]

Yimakan reflect the spiritual universe of the Hezhen, their myths, legends, customs, philosophy, religion, and history. These sung stories are regarded not only a means of communication between people, but also with the spirits. The Hezhen think that the gods like to listen to these songs. Singing them, they believe, will help them gain the favor of the gods and bring them good health, abundant hunts and good luck. The demons, on the other hand, don’t like yimakan. While listening to these songs, that sometimes narrate tales of the heroic Hezhen shamans, they get scared and don't dare bother the people.*\

The yimakan are always sung at night, accompanied by a dances, whose rhythms and movements bear a certain resemblance to the dance of the shamans. It is thought that dances and perhaps the yimakan originated in ancient shamanic songs and ceremonies. The sense of magic and spirituality found in this type of song, the Henzhen believe, allows people to communicate with the gods and demons. By imitating the actions of the shamans the Hezhen believe that they can produce a similar result among the singers. *\

Yimakan are important in the lives of the Hezhen. Any important event, such as weddings, funerals or the arrival of guests, is always accompanied by the singing of the yimakan. Their function is particularly important in hunting expeditions and during the fishing time. If a group leaves for a hunt, when they come back to the camp at night, it is necessary to sing the yimakan. The singer of the yimakan is the most important person in the group of hunters. *\

In the fishing season, usually in the spring and autumn, Hezhen spend the night on the river singing their yimakan. They believe that in this way they can encourage the river deities to provide them with abundant fishing the following morning. Neighboring peoples have sung stories similar to the yimakan. Some scholars think that the existence of this literary genre harks back to the remote past of the Hezhen. *\

"Wurigong" and Hezhen Fish Sports

The "Wurigong" is a new holiday created in 1985. Lasting for three days, it is held biennially held in the fifth or sixth lunar month on the Chinese calendar. "Wurigong" means “fun day’ or “sports meeting.” Hezhen' communities take turns hosting the festival. Competitive activities such as swimming, boating, net-casting, push-and-pulling, straw fish forking, straw target shooting and archery. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]

Among the sports, weed ball spearing is perhaps the most characteristic and unique. A test of fish spearing skills, it uses a football-size ball made wet weeds. There are two kinds of games. In one, participants throw the wooden spear, which is one to two meter long and has three prongs, at balls some distance away from them. The winner is the one who spears the ball. In the other game, participants are divided into two teams. Team one throws the ball into the air, and team two tries to spear the ball before it hits the ground. If team two does it successfully, they may walk forward by fifteen to twenty paces; if they fail, they have to walk backward the same distance. Then the teams reverse roles. The winner is the team that get to the finishing line first.

At night, people make bonfires by the river. They hold banquets where they eat and drink together, and sing and dance swan dances, shaman dances, osprey dances and dances performed to the beats of divine shaman drum and the melodies of folk songs. In March 2001, a Wurigong event was held in Beijing. In recent years, members of the Russian Nanai ethnic group been invited to the Wurigong Festival. Old Hezhen men who spoke Hezhen language could communicate with Nanai, who used their own language.

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, kepu.net.cn ~]

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.

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.

Hezhen Tourism and Preserving Hezhen Fishskin Culture

The area where the Hezhen live is a beautiful area with green hills and the clear waters in crisscrossing rivers in the summer and equally lovely in the winter when the landscape and rivers are covered by ice and snow. At present, there are the Hezhen-styled garden and tourist villages in Jiejinkou Township of Tongjiang, and Sipai Township of Raohe County. There, visitors can see performances of folk songs and dances, sample the delicious food of fishing families, and experience the traditional Hezhen way of life. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]

There is two million mu of grassland, 1.59 million mu of woodland (mostly secondary forests), 1.33 million mu of water area and 73 species of fishes in the city of Tongjiang itself. The city of Tongjiang was set as a treaty port more than a century ago. In 1994, it was designated by the Foreign Ministry to be an international port. It is easily accessible to tourists from Russian cities like Khabarovsk and Komsomolsk. Tourists from Japan and South Korea can also reach it.

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. ***

“Liu Sheng said she is the only person who still makes the traditional Hezhen fish-skin clothes. Her efforts paid off. In 2004, her entry, clothes made of salmon fish skins, won the gold prize at the "Mountain Flower Prize" national folk art contest, following local honors in 2002 and 2003. Hard labor was not the only challenge. Making the clothes and championing the "fish-skin culture" at folk art exhibitions around the country burned up much of her savings. She and her husband are not rich, living on their pensions, a meager 1,000 yuan (US$125) each month for Liu Sheng, and 1,700 for her husband. "I know our local government is not rich, so I didn't expect to get a single yuan of public money," Liu said. ***

“Liu Sheng's crusade moved to new fronts when she was hired as visiting professor teaching Hezhen culture by the Humanities School of Jiamusi University in Heilongjiang Province. She was excited to learn that the fish-skin clothes making techniques have been listed by the Central Government in the Intangible Culture Heritage as part of China's efforts to preserve cultures of some ethic groups on the verge of extinction. Following the listing, the Heilongjiang provincial government has asked her to recruit apprentices to pass down the fish-skin clothing skills.” ***

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 June 2015

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