Chuonnasuan, the last Oroqen shaman in 1994; He died in 2000

The Oroqen are one of the smaller minorities in China. Also known as the Orochen, Orochon, Elunchun, they are scattered over a large area of Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia in northeast China. Up until the last couple of decades many Oroqen were hunters and forest nomads, similar to tribes found in Siberia. Most are settled now. Oroqen can mean both “mountain people” and “reindeer herder.” [Source: Liu Xingwu, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]

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

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

Oroqen Population and the Region Where They Live

The Oroqen are the 51st largest ethnic group and the sixth smallest minority of 55 in China. They numbered 8,659 in 2010 and made up 0.0006 percent of the total population of China in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census. Oroqen population in China in the past: 8,216 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 6,965 in 1990 according to the 1990 Chinese census. The Oroqen population stood at 4,000 in 1917, dropped to 3,700 in 1943. A census taken in 1953 showed that their number had plummeted to 2,262. There were 2,709 in 1964 and 2,280 in 1982. The population has started to grow after that. [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia, China.org |]

where the Oroqen live

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

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

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

Origin of the Oroqen

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

It is widely believed that the ancestors of the Ewenki and Oroqen and other groups lived in the forests northeast of Lake Baikal and in the forest bordering the Shilka River (upper reaches of the Heilong River). They survived by hunting, fishing, and raising reindeer. Historically they were often grouped together with Daurs, who share much of their cultural tradition, and referred to as the “Sulun Tribes."

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

History of the Oroqen

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

In Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368), they were called "People in the forest". In Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), they were known as the "Barbarian race in the Northern Mountain". The introduction of iron articles and guns and the use of horses during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) raised the productive forces of the Oroqens to a higher level. This gave rise to bartering on a bigger scale. That brought about profound social, economic changes. Individual families quit the clan group and became basic economic units although the clan groups did live or hunt together in the same area.

left During the Qing dynasty under Manchu rulers, the Oroqen were divided into Horse-Riding Oroqens and Foot Oroqens, with the former incorporated into the Eight-Banner System as soldiers, and the latter put to work hunting marten fur for the Qing court. Many Oroqen settled and devoted themselves to providing the Qing court with precious furs. Many Oroqen soldiers sent to fight in Xinjiang, Yunnan, Taiwan and other places lost their lives. |

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

Oroqen Under the Japanese and Communist Chinese

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

The Japanese banned Oroqen from communicating with other ethnic groups and forced them to hunt animals for them in exchange for rations and clothing which were sometimes insufficient for survival, and sometimes lead to deaths from starvation and exposure. Opium was distributed to Oroqen adults older than 18 as a way of controlling them. After two Japanese troops were killed in Alihe by an Oroqen hunter, the Japanese poisoned 40 Oroqen to death. The Japanese forced Oroqen to fight on their side in the war which also led to a population declines. Even Oroqen who tried to evade Japanese control were threatened by Chinese Communist, anti-Japanese forces who in some cases viewed the Oroqen as Japanese collaborators. [Source: Wikipedia]

20080306-orochi coffin Donsmaps.jpg
Tree coffin, early 19th century
Many Oroqen continued to practice their nomadic ways until the 1950s when the Chinese government encouraged them to settle down in houses built by the government and began to be incorporated into the national life of the People's Republic. Besides their principal economic life as hunters and agriculturists, they also serve as forest-fire fighters, being well known for their bravery and dedication.

Most Oroqen now live on the Oroqen Autonomous Banner of the Hulun Buir League, Inner Mongolia. In 1951, Oroqen leaders negotiated the formation of the Oroqen Autonomous Banner, a type of administrative division that that dates back to the Manchu period, encompassing 23,000 square miles in Inner Mongolia near the Russian border. On why they agreed, a leader named Baiyaertu later told Time, “There were so many of them and so few of us. What could we do?” At the Oroqen Museum in Alihe a display card reads: “Before liberation Oroqen went to the edge of extinction” and with the help of the Communist Party the “Oroqen are marching towards the magnificent future.” To help the Oroqen, the Chinese government provides free housing, farming assistance and education.

Development of the Oroqen

In 1951 several ethnic Oroqen xiangs (local government units comprising several villages each) were set up along with the the Oroqen Autonomous Banner. After that the Oroqen's life changed. By 1958 there were no nomad Oroqen any more. They still made some hunting expeditions, but the decrease of the game in the 1990s put an end to the traditional way of life of the Oroqen. In 1996 the Oroqen Autonomous County government banned hunting wild animals in order to protect the dwindling numbers of animals that remained. *\

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

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

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

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

Oroqen Language

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

Tungusic languages (also known as Manchu-Tungus and Tungus) 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". [Source: Wikipedia]

Oroqen Religion and Shaman

The Oroqen have traditionally been Shamanists or animists. They worshiped nature and their ancestors, and believe in the omnipresence of spirits. Their objects of worship are carefully kept in birch-bark boxes hung high on trees behind their tents. The Oroqen were mostly animists. They worshiped many natural elements, including a wind god, mountain god and fire god. Bears, tigers, wolves and other animals were revered and were often addressed and treated as if they were family members or ancestors. During major holidays and festivals offerings were of meat made to important gods. Ancestor worship was also practiced and shaman were consulted for spiritual matters and health problems. [Source: Liu Xingwu, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

Liu Xingwu wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Though Oroqens hunted bears, tigers, and wolves, they never dared to mention these animal names as they also would not mention the names of their own ancestors. They called tiger “old man" or “great grandfather" (wutaqi ) and bear “grandfather," “grandmother," or “maternal uncle" (yatai, taitie, and amaha respectively). They held rituals asking for forgiveness before they ate the meat of the bear, and carried out a formal burial for it.

"Among the gods they worshiped were the mountain god who ensured successful hunting, the fire goddess who provided warmth, and others such as the rain god, thunder god, sun god, moon god, etc. Behind their tents, they hung birch boxes containing their gods, which were not to be touched by women. Women should avoid going behind the tent altogether. In childbirth, a woman had to stay in a small hut built specially for the purpose. |There were many taboos in Oroqen life. They never made specific plans for hunting, believing that animals had the power to detect such schemes.

In the 1950s Chinese Communist Party cadres urged the Oroqen to give up their "superstitions" and abandon shamanism. The last living shaman of the Oroqen, Chuonnasuan died at the age of 73 on in 2000. In July, 1952, he presided over a three night in which the Oroqen begged the spirits to leave them forever. In accounts of his career Chuonnasuan talked about using spirit songs and visual mental imagery during altered states of consciousness and visiting a lower world, or land of the dead, called Buni. His descriptions are almost identical to those of Nanai people shaman of Siberia in the early 1900s. [Source: Wikipedia]

Oroqen Burials and Festivals

In the old days, the Oroqen practiced wind burial, in which the bones of the dead were hung in hollow trees in the forest suspended on tree stumps or two-meter high supports with the head pointing south . If the coffin did not fall to the ground in three years a special ritual was conducted so the sins of the dead would be cleansed and he or she could ascend to heaven and become a star. Sometimes the horse of the deceased is killed to accompany the departing soul to netherworld. Only the bodies of young people who died of contagious diseases are cremated. [Source: China.org]

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Every year each family held rituals to worship the fire god, offering meat and wine, and at the same time offering prayers for happiness. During the New Year, guests would bring their own meat and wine, and began their visit by worshiping the fire god with the host family. Ancestor worship formed a part of their belief system.

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

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 *\; 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, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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