His face ruddy from the sun, Bai Sezhu, 61, carries the weary air of experience. Wiping sweat from his brow, he stoops, plunging his threshing fork deep into a bundle of grass drying in the heat of the midmorning sun. Dust rises into the clear blue sky. He has been up since 4am, preparing stores of food that will see his three horses through the coming winter.
“No one hunts any more,” he says with a lilt, in Mandarin, “and the young don’t even speak their own language. I talk with my horse in Oroqen. He understands.”
Bai is a member of one of the smallest of the ethnic minorities recognised by the Chinese state, the Oroqen
, who number about 8,500, according to 2010 census figures. Just a few generations ago, Bai’s ancestors navigated the verdant mountains of Siberia and northern China on horseback, sleeping under the stars and moving with the seasons.
Hunting was central to Oroqen culture, with kills shared among families. The semi-nomadic people lived along the banks of the Heilongjiang (“black dragon river”), a long, dark, snaking body of water forming the border between northeast China and Russia, in tepee-like structures called djiu, which were built of birch bark. Society was arranged in non-hierarchical groupings called mokun, with several large family units (or wulileng) at each clan’s core. Shamans, who could, it was believed, communicate with the spirit world, provided guidance and medical aid.
The shamans have all but disappeared, lost during the chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and many Oroqen are no longer clan-based forest dwellers with no clearly defined national identity. Their young are now often deeply sinicised urbanites, seeking careers as engineers, politicians and businesspeople.
Bai rides only occasionally now and lives in a bungalow built by the state. Tuohe, the remote settlement he calls home, stands in the Oroqen Autonomous Banner, a 60,000 sq km region on the northern plains of Inner Mongolia. The banner, which is almost twice the size of Taiwan and contains seven Oroqen settlements (there are another six in Heilongjiang province), was demarcated in 1951, the aim being to provide an administrative centre for the minority.
Single-floored concrete houses line a straight, thin road running through Tuohe. Dogs roam freely. The closest major town, Jiwen, is a three-hour minibus ride away, and like many of the local youth, Bai’s son and daughter have left to work in Alihe, the banner’s administrative hub and largest town.
When American linguist Lindsay Whaley visited Alihe in 2001, he encountered “a society living in the shadow of its own imminent death”. Predicting bleakly that the Oroqen’s language would disappear in 20 to 50 years, he described the tongue as being “completely unrelated to and unlike the Mandarin Chinese used today by most ethnic Oroqen”.
“Obviously the loss of language is by far the most severe threat to these communities,” says Richard Fraser, a research associate at Cambridge University’s Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit who has worked closely with Oroqen communities for the past decade. “When you lose a language you don’t just lose vocabulary, you literally lose an entire way of seeing and expressing the world.”
A small, poor population spread across a huge area and the social dominance of other ethnic groups are both factors that are contributing to the demise of the Oroqen language. Complicating matters further, the language has no written form or standardised spoken format, with numerous linguistic variations spread across families and locations.
Whaley perceived a distinct divide across generations, with only one in six Oroqen speaking the language fluently, and most regular speakers advanced in age. The Endangered Languages Project, an online collaborative effort bringing together researchers and indigenous community organisations from around the world, considers Oroqen to be “severely endangered”, with fewer than 2,500 native speakers.
Its fate can be seen in indigenous languages worldwide. According to the United Nations, at least 43 per cent of the 6,000 languages currently being spoken are endangered, and only a few hundred have meaningful and enduring places in national education systems.
Alihe has changed dramatically in the 18 years since Whaley’s visit. Statues portraying a romanticised vision of traditional Oroqen culture stand by the sides of newly built roads and in minority settlements throughout northern China. A recently renovated museum in Alihe’s city centre holds a sizeable collection of cultural artefacts documenting the history of the Oroqen and related ethnic groups.
“Self-recognition among ethnic minorities was quite low 10 years ago,” says Bai Ying, the museum’s creator, who is Oroqen and a researcher at the Chinese National Museum of Ethnology, in Beijing. “People didn’t really talk about cultural protection; they were just talking about making money. But in recent years, I feel that people are more conscious of their own culture and language, and how to protect it.
“They have awareness now, and that’s very important. Without it, the ethnic group is doomed.”
Bai has been responsible for an array of projects focused on cultural revitalisation within the community, and led the recent construction of an Oroqen settlement on the outskirts of Alihe. Oversized log cabins and djiu have appeared in the forests and a sizeable tarmac car park has been freshly installed. Upon opening, it is hoped that the site – complete with museum displaying traditional crafts, photo exhibitions, performances of rituals and resident Oroqen acting as guides – will tap into a rapidly expanding domestic tourism industry.
The commercialisation of indigenous cultures has had a problematic recent history in China, though. Scholars have observed that it may exacerbate stereotypical views of the minority group in question. This can perpetuate inequality and feed into a misleading political narrative of national unity that is imposed by Beijing. However, Fraser has seen interest among the Oroqen in maintaining traditions across generations: “The truth is, there are settlements where if there wasn’t some kind of tourism infrastructure, it’s hard to imagine what there would be that would maintain any kind of local cultural life-world.”
The deer hunters
Recognising that for many young Oroqen, their connection with their heritage has been fractured in the modern world, Fraser has collaborated with Bai on projects exploring cultural and linguistic revitalisation. One of these has been the digitisation of an archive of about 18,000 photographs, taken by anthropologists Ethel Lindgren and Sergei Shirikogoroff on separate trips to study nomadic peoples in northern China in the early 20th century. Fraser describes the project as a “cultural sharing initiative”. He has shared the images with local museums, and used them as visual prompts in his fieldwork.
“The photographs have the potential to […] re-spark memories about the olden days, but also re-spark discussions about the future,” says Fraser. “Because the photographs are historical they are not so problematic, people feel easier talking about government policy, etc.
“The environment is a common topic of discussion,” he says, using snowfall as an example, as well as the state of the forests, the depth of rivers, climate change and the species of fish that can no longer be caught.
With funding from the British-based Arts and Humanities Research Council, Fraser and Bai have also begun to develop an app-based game that will reinterpret folk stories and songs from the forest. The aim is to introduce Oroqen vocabulary to local children and instil an interest in traditional culture at an early age.
Fraser has noted a growing trend of investment in ethnographically focused tourism in the region. Part of a drive to redefine the area within the aesthetic of a green, zero-carbon future for the country, this reflects a history of top-down management of the landscape and economy that can be traced back to 1949, when the fledgling Communist state first settled the Oroqen.
Following the revolution, authorities moved quickly to officially identify the 56 ethnic groups that make up the nation. The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, in its first plenary session in 1949, adopted the Common Programme, the country’s de facto constitution for the next five years, which stated: “All national minorities have the freedom to develop their (spoken and written) languages, and to maintain or reform their customs, habits and religious beliefs.”
Promises of free housing, health care and food led many Oroqen to settle on the plains south of the Greater Khingan Mountains, in wooden houses or mud-brick huts dispersed across 10 localities in Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang. The Oroqen were encouraged with varying degrees of success to turn their back on their hunting culture and become agriculturalists, their children went to school with their Han peers and intermarriage with other ethnic groups became widespread. The Oroqen made attractive spouses due to certain privileges (they were exempt from the one-child policy and had easier access to university, free housing and financial payouts).
Meanwhile, the resource-rich forests of Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang were earmarked for the vast expansion of a logging industry that would fuel the rapid development of the country. Long recognised for the richness and diversity of its wildlife, the region saw widespread ecological devastation throughout the second half of the 20th century.
A huge inward migration provided the labour. In 1951, when the region was founded, within the autonomous banner, the Oroqen made up 99 per cent of the population: 778 people living permanently in the expanse. By 1999, the total population of the area had risen to 316,969, the Oroqen accounting for less than 1 per cent.
A hunting ban enforced in 1996 and other tightening regulations have made it illegal for most Oroqen to own a gun. Their traditional hunting culture has almost disappeared.
Viewed as primitive and superstitious, there has been no place for shamanism within the modern state.
American anthropologist Richard Noll describes the fate of Chuonnasuan and Zhao Li Ben, two of the most well-known shamans of their time. According to Noll’s records, they were compelled by the authorities to ask the Oroqen spirits to “go away” in a three-night ritual in 1952, despite reluctance among the local community. Chuonnasuan never openly practised shamanism again.
Nine hours’ drive north of Alihe sits the “dusty People’s Liberation Army garrison village of Shibazhan”, in Heilongjiang. It is here that Noll first met Chuonnasuan, in 1993.
“He stood in the middle of an intersection of two dirt roads, a look of amusement on his face,” writes the anthropologist. “Wearing a blue cotton Mao jacket and matching cap, he looked more like a party cadre than a shaman. After a brief introduction he led us down the road to his orange-brick home. His mother and brother were in the front yard awaiting his return. All three had been busy making birch-bark canoes.”
Today, Shibazhan is the site of one attempt to rekindle the Oroqen language among children. On a summer morning, a tour bus pulls into the dusty playground at the local school. The students stand hand in hand, dressed in brightly coloured approximations of traditional clothing, and dance to the music blasting across the playground. As the passengers spill out into the school grounds they raise their cameras, and the children dance around wooden fire sculptures. “What we see here is the Oroqen ethnic dance,” a teacher-cum-guide dressed in white declares, a microphone clipped to her ear with a speaker held at her hip. After a few minutes of picture taking, the guests are whisked inside. As they are guided to an empty classroom, the children file in through a separate door and disperse among the corridors.
The visitors are a mix of party cadres, local community leaders and visiting teachers who have come to learn about attempts to revive the language, the tourism opportunities and a new Oroqen settlement being built nearby. In the classrooms, the children gather in smaller groups to perform songs, display their Oroqen-speaking skills and demonstrate traditional crafts. As the adults hover over them snapping photographs, a group of students take strips of birch bark and cut them into smooth spirals, following the patterns of a traditional craft.
“The children here have classes in Oroqen twice a week,” a teacher explains.
“That doesn’t seem a lot,” exclaims a visitor.
Oroqen children are, in fact, in a minority here, and many of those identified as Oroqen have at least one parent from either another ethnic minority group or from the majority Han population.
“Our goal is to raise a new Oroqen generation that is honest, brave, good at singing, dancing and skilled at handicraft,” the delegates are told.
The children recite the Oroqen words and numbers they have learned to an appreciative audience. A new digital learning platform, replete with cartoons and games in Oroqen, is demonstrated.
“The platform is definitely helpful, but it’s not enough,” says Cong Shan, 27, who is taking the tour and is researching Oroqen grammar for a PhD at Nankai University, in Tianjin. She sees some enthusiasm for learning the language among the young, but is realistic. “Without interaction at home, language learning is restricted to the classroom.”
She believes that of the 3,000 Oroqen now living within the autonomous banner, the number of native speakers has fallen to fewer than 100.
An hour’s drive east of Shibazhan stands Baiyinna, one of the northernmost Oroqen settlements in Heilongjiang. The tiny village is close to China’s most northerly point and surrounded by dense forests. The Heilongjiang river and the border with Russia are less than an hour’s drive to the east.
Here lives Garulie, a wily octogenarian widely regarded as the last remaining Oroqen shaman. Standing at barely five feet tall, she shuffles around her flat smoking almost constantly, regarding the room with quietly amused eyes. She is unable to speak Mandarin. The musical inflections of the Oroqen she speaks sound completely different from China’s national language.
With her niece translating, her cracked voice recounts the journey that all shamans undertook to achieve their status, one of an extended sickness followed by communal healing rituals, to form a link with the spirits existing on three planes of reality.
“When people fell sick, they went to the shamans no matter how far they had to travel,” Garulie says. “And so long as the shamans danced to summon the gods, the patient would be cured.”
She tells us of being settled and of having to adapt to new living arrangements: “When I first slept in a house, I awoke one night and thought I had died. When we were in the djiu, I would be able to look up at the stars but under the roof all I could see was darkness.”
A few miles east, on the banks of the Heilongjiang, locals speak of a not too distant past when fishermen would cross to the Russian side, socialising and trading with their Slavic counterparts. Since Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, that border has reportedly closed and Chinese soldiers patrol the river in motorboats.
On a semi-grounded cruiser, Oroqen elders dine and drink together on the lower decks while youngsters, who are home for the holidays, share barbecued meat and beers on the top deck. Someone sings an ancient Oroqen folk song, a story of the forests, but none of the young people here can understand any more than a few words.
China’s 2010 census put the number of Oroqen people with a college-level education at 23.3 per cent, making them (statistically speaking) the fourth-most educated minority group in China. In the coming days, these young people will return to Tianjin, one of China’s biggest cities and an important industrial and economic hub, to continue their studies at university.
“There’s a huge pressure on them to succeed in life. They have to learn Chinese to get jobs and go to university, and also probably learn English. That means Oroqen is third on their list,” says Fraser.
His view is positive but pragmatic, seeing the need for more investment in education focused on modern technology if the language has any hope of surviving.
“I’m more optimistic now than I was when I first arrived here. People are waking up to the fact that in the next decade most of the old generation, fluent speakers, will have passed away.”