Small town in border region bears witness to China-Russia ties over past centuries

By Shan Jie in Ergun Source:Global Times Published: 2019/5/13 18:28:41

Young people from the Russian ethnic group perform a traditional Russian dance during Orthodox Easter celebrations on April 28 in Enhe township, Ergun of North China's Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region. Photo: Shan Jie/GT

Mama Maruse's room would fit most people's idea of what a Russian countryside house should look like.

The small log cabin is hidden at the end of a winding mud path. Its door and window are painted baby blue, just like the April sky outside.

Inside her small room, the ceiling is quite low. A bed lies against three walls, and there is a table by the window. 

Dozens of photos, old and new, hang on the walls decorated with big peony patterns.

"But I dislike the big flowers," the 80-year-old said in Putonghua with a northeastern accent, "I prefer small floral patterns."

She is as talkative as any Chinese northeastern dama.

Maruse is a resident of Enhe township in Ergun city, North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Ergun borders Russia. Historically, Russian and Chinese people have lived side by side in this region.

Maruse is from the Russian ethnic group, which now has about 15,000 members in China.

Her mother is from Russia and father from North China's Hebei Province. She has a Chinese name, Guo Peizhen.

Enhe is the only Russian ethnic minority town in the country. More than half of its residents are from the Russian ethnic minority group or mixed blood.

The Russian ethnic minority group is one of China's youngest, existing only for the past few centuries.

The minority group came about under a certain historical background and has been constantly growing.

After generations of marrying with other ethnic groups, the young generation no longer look as "Russian" as their ancestors.

But they still are trying to keep their traditions, cultures and religions. They have also become a witness to China-Russia ties.

Mama Maruse, a resident of Enhe township in Ergun city, North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Photo: Shan Jie/GT

Historical ties

The marriage between the people of the two countries occurred in the late 17th century, according to a statement sent by the Enhe government.

From the late 19th century to the 1940s, China suffered from many internal and external problems. Immigration from Hebei and East China's Shandong Province to Northeast China was encouraged. 

As a result, millions of men from Shandong and Hebei provinces arrived in northeastern China in pursuit of farmland and gold.

Meanwhile, during World War I and Russia's October Revolution, the Russian Empire sent huge numbers of Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars and other groups to Siberia and Far Eastern regions. Those who escaped from wars also came to the Ergun River area, according to the introduction by the Enhe government.

These Chinese and Russian immigrants, at first appearing to each other as exotic, gradually became good friends. Many started families.

However, because of China's civil war, the souring of China-Soviet Union relations and China's Cultural Revolution (1966-76), many Russian descendants or those with Russian ancestry in the Ergun area returned to the then Soviet Union or went to other countries.

Today, in Ergun city, there are 8,000 people considered to be from the Russian ethnic minority group, mostly living in Enhe.

Fu Xiaomei, owner of Zhenya Bakery in Enhe, holds the Kulich she made for Easter. Photo: Shan Jie/GT

Keeping traditions

The days leading up to Orthodox Easter are the busiest time for Fu Xiaomei, owner of the Zhenya Bakery in Enhe.

For Russian ethnic minority groups, Easter and the Chinese Lunar New Year are the most important festivals of the year.

During these periods, Fu is busy making Kulich, a cylinder-shaped bread baked especially for Orthodox Easter, which is topped with white icing and decorated with flowers. 

Fu's mother-in-law Dayixia was a local legend. Dayixia was from Russia and a master of making "xleb," or Russian bread. But she did not have either Russian or Chinese citizenship when she passed away in 2016 at the age of 86.

Fu herself is from the Mongolian ethnic minority group, but has inherited Zhenya's recipe for making xleb, and strictly observes the Orthodox traditions.

Opposite the bakery is the three-floor building that houses the Enhe government. Slogans of "national unity" in large red Chinese characters can be seen outside the window of the bakery.

The whole baking process lasts two days. 

On the morning before Easter, the making of Kulich enters its final phase: decoration. Fu carefully applies colorful icing onto the Kulich, and two Cyrillic letters and an Orthodox cross on the bread, which she explains are symbols of the Resurrection of Jesus.

Meanwhile, Fu's relatives paint about 200 eggs, which will be distributed to guests the next day.

One street away, in Enhe's square besides the Ergun river, young people are rehearsing for a dance performance to loud and lively music.

Liu Jianhua, or Sasha, 28, is tall and slim with yellow hair and pale skin. A worker at a nearby tree farm, he started dancing at the age of 6 by learning from the old men in town.

Liu is a good dancer, and has even been invited to Russia to perform.

"They have many kinds of beers," he told the Global Times when asked about his impression of Russia.

Liu admitted that he can only speak a few simple Russian words. "Young people don't have many opportunities to speak Russian or practice their traditions," he said, adding that he hopes to help continue his ethnic minority group's heritage.

Thanks to its unique Russian style, Enhe has become a popular tourist destination in the past decade.

There are more than 110 family businesses engaged in tourism. In 2016, tourists made about 600,000 trips to the township, and the average annual net income of these families increased to about 90,000 yuan, according to the Xinhua News Agency in December 2017.

The Saint Innokenty Church is Ergun's only Orthodox church. Photo: Shan Jie/GT

First ceremony

At midnight before Easter Day, some 80 Orthodox Christians flocked to the Saint Innokenty Church in the south of Labudalin, where the Ergun government is located.

The ceremony was led by 44-year-old Sun Ming, who was born and raised in Enhe.

It was Sun's first Easter ceremony after he was ordained in St. Petersburg in November 2018, and also the first one with a priest in the region in about six decades.

"The Easter ceremony went pretty well," Sun told the Global Times later. "Many people heard there was a formal Easter ceremony and traveled to the church from their towns and villages."

Previously, Sun thought that at most 50 people would come.

Sun is China's second Orthodox priest in 60 years, after Yu Shi in Harbin, Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province was ordained in 2015.

There are 15,000 Orthodox Christians in China today, according to a Russian Orthodox Church report. Chinese scholars believe there are probably a few thousand and Sun assumes there are no more than 3,000.

The Saint Innokenty Church is the only Orthodox Church in Ergun, and one of the only four in the Chinese mainland - there are two in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and one in Harbin.

Sun told the Global Times that there had been 18 Orthodox churches in the Ergun region, but all have been demolished. "The last one was torn down in 1962, when a fire burned for three days."

The Saint Innokenty Church was built in 1992, but did not open until 2009. 

Sun is satisfied with the Easter ceremony, and now has many plans for the church. He wants to hold a baptism there soon and establish a choir. 

He also plans to localize the ceremony. "Chanting and ceremonies are conducted in Slavic right now. But Chinese Putonghua is the tendency."

Danila Kaigorodov (right) and his father Misha (left) from Russia watch Easter celebrations in Enhe. Liu Jing (middle), from China's Russian ethnic minority group and the same family as Danila, serves as an interpreter. Photo: Shan Jie/GT


On the morning of Easter Day, everybody in Enhe gathers on the square to celebrate.

Fu brings her elaborately-decorated Kulich to the Xleb competition, while Maruse, together with other senior Enhe residents, serve as judges.

The festival also attracts hundreds of tourists. The celebration of Orthodox Easter lasts for seven days in the Ergun region.

Liu and his mates don white and blue traditional costumes of Russia. His Cossack jump dance was the highlight of the celebration, drawing applause from the audience.

Among the audience, 22-year-old Danila Kaigorodov stood out in his olive-green military uniform.

Danila is a student from Moscow's Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas. This time he came with his father Misha and uncle Aleksandr to Ergun, to find out more about how their ancestors lived.

Danila's grandparents and great-grandparents had lived in Xiahulin village, which is now administered by Sanhe Hui Autonomous Township of Ergun. The family moved back to the Soviet Union 60 years ago.

"It is my first time in China," Danila later told the Global Times. "It is wonderful."

His uncle Aleksandr Kaigorodov was born in Xiahulin village in the 1950s. During this visit in Ergun, Aleksandr visited Xiahulin and found the old wooden house where he used to live.

The Russian visitors also donated some old family photos and souvenirs to the Ergun Ethnic Museum.

"Ergun will always be the hometown for our family," Aleksandr said emotionally. The visitors hope to maintain their ties with Ergun and remember that period in history.

Newspaper headline: Mixed heritage

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