New book records the endangered culture and oral history of China’s Oroqen ethnic minority

By Huang Tingting Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/27 17:43:39


Oroqen performers demonstrate a traditional dance at the Oroqen Autonomous Banner in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Photo: Courtesy of New World Press

Chinese-French anthropologist Yu Shuo held a delicate model of a boat made from the bark of a birch tree sewn together with leather thread. It was a classic example of the type of traditional handicraft that Yu said few people belonging to the Oroqen - or Orochen - ethnic minority still know how to make.

"Oroqen culture is dying. Their language is barely spoken within the group and most of their traditional villages have been torn down," the 60-year-old Yu, a professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (HKPU) and co-editor of the book Mountains, oh Mountains! An Oral History of the Orochen Hunters, told the Global Times on Thursday. 

At a total population of around 8,000 people, the Oroqen are one of the smallest ethnic groups in China. Hunters who used to roam the Greater Khingan Mountains in North China, the Oroqen gradually turned to farming and husbandry after leaving their mountain homes in the 1950s. In 1996, they formally handed in their hunting rifles to the government due to a ban on hunting.

Once brave hunters who traveled on horseback, the group has continued to experience awkward moments adapting to a "modern" way of living.

Mountains, a 500-page book published in June by the New World Press, features simple yet intimate stories told by 37 middle-aged and elderly Oroqen men and women about the changes that have taken place in their lives over the past few decades as their traditional way of life is gradually eclipsed by China's rapid urbanization.

Into the field

Using funding from HKPU and the Hong Kong SAR government and with the support of the Hong Kong-based Oroqen Foundation, Yu, 20 of her students and Hing Chao, founder of the Oroqen Foundation and another co-editor of Mountains, visited the Oroqen Autonomous Banner in North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in 2014. The following year, Chao and Yu returned with 40 students to Inner Mongolia on a field trip to Nanmu Oroqen Ethnic Township. Each time, the group spent weeks interviewing locals to record what remains of the dying Oroqen culture. Since the Oroqen language has no writing system, a majority of the collection efforts involved interviews with locals.

Aside from documenting the personal histories of interviewees from hours upon hours of recordings, the team also managed to draw family trees for the groups at the two location, as well as map out the routes used during the Oroqen's previous nomadic life, establish a dictionary of everyday Oroqen words and record information about the ethnic group's cultural heritage ranging from handicrafts to folk customs. Experts of ethnic studies and leaders within the townships described the accomplishments of the survey team as "truly amazing."

According to Yu, leaders from other Oroqen ethnic townships drove hundreds of kilometers to meet with the survey team and invite them to carry out similar surveys of their townships.

While their research reached a high level of professionalism, none of the members of the survey team were anthropology majors.

"Before they signed up for the course [Minority Cultural Heritage Preservation], many of them hadn't even heard about the Oroqen," Yu said. Yu trained the young project members in how to conduct surveys before they carried out interviews with Oroqen people. Despite numerous barriers, the team managed to integrate themselves into local life in a short time by attending traditional Oroqen weddings, visiting local handicraft workshops and tagging along with veteran hunters as they fished and gathered wild edible herbs in the mountains.

While older Oroqen are still steeped in traditions such as nature worship and making clothing from deer skins, younger members of the group tend to study and live in large cities. Their culture is extremely endangered. In one of the interviews in the book, Guan Yuqing, a 61-year-old Oroqen, pointed out that young people "between 30 and 40 years old no longer speak the Oroqen language."

But now, thanks to the efforts of local and central government organizations and institutions such as the Oroqen Foundation, more Oroqen people have been working to protect and restore their culture in recent years, such as introducing traditional Oroqen songs and dances to the outside world through the annual Bonfire Festival in the Oroqen Autonomous Banner.

Mountains, oh Mountains! An Oral History of the Orochen Hunters Photo: Courtesy of New World Press

Past lessons

"Though representation of the culture is good, the core of the culture is dying," Yu said.

Endangerment of Oroqen culture has much to do with the group's recent migrations.

After government policy enticed many Oroqen to move from mountainous areas during the 1950s, they began to inter-marry with other ethnicities, which caused their culture to blend with cultures from other ethnic groups, especially the Han, China's largest ethnic group.

"We were deeply influenced by the Han people, we learned how to farm from them," said Wu Yugang, a 41-year-old Oroqen, in the book. "And Han people learned hunting skills from us!"

Moreover, according to Oroqen interviewees in the book, local shaman practitioners were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and their traditional shaman dress and instruments were confiscated, which made it impossible for them to pass on their knowledge to a new generation.

Many of the old hunters interviewed by the survey team said they missed their days hunting on the mountains, saying that their rifles were "the basic foundation of our way of life."

Yu, who previously spent a few years in the Alps observing shepherds, pointed out that Oroqen culture, like many other ancient ethnic cultures, provides wisdom concerning how to maintain a balanced and sustainable relationship with nature that can still inspire us today. 

"Oroqen hunters do not kill more deer than is needed for a single meal. When they catch a pregnant boar or baby fish, they release them back into the wild," Yu explained.
Newspaper headline: 'Mountains, oh Mountains!'

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