Nathan Gibson

Wavering Shadows 

One of China's smallest ethnic minorities faces the imminent extinction of its language.

Amidst adversity its community considers linguistic revival and their changing place in the modern world.   

Dispersal of Oroqen settlements throughout Heilongjiang Province and Inner Mongolia - map © Ross Fleming

Dispersal of Oroqen settlements throughout Heilongjiang Province and Inner Mongolia - map © Ross Fleming

With his face reddened by the sun, 61 year old Bai Sezhu carries the weary air of experience. Wiping sweat from his brow, he stoops, plunging his threshing fork deep into the bundle of grass drying in the heat of the mid-morning sun. Dust rises into the clear blue sky. He has been up since 4am, preparing the food stores that will see his three horses through the coming winter. “No-one hunts anymore,” he sighs with a lilt “and the young don’t even speak their own language. I talk with my horse in Oroqen. He understands.”

Bai is an Oroqen. One of the smallest of the ethnic minorities recognized by the Chinese state, they numbered around 8,500, according to official census figures. Their indigenous language is under threat of extinction within decades. Just a few generations ago his 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 amongst 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 temporary tepee like structures named djiu, that 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 communicate with the spirit world, provided guidance and medical aid. 

Today the shamans have all but disappeared, most lost during the chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution, and the Oroqen have moved far from their beginnings as clan based forest dwellers with no clearly defined national identity. Many of their young people have become urban citizens widely integrated into mainstream Chinese society, seeking careers as engineers, politicians and businesspeople. Now, Bai rides only occasionally and lives in a bungalow built by the state. Tuohe, the remote settlement he calls home, resides in the Oroqen Autonomous Banner, a vast region of 60,000 square kilometers located in the northern plains of Inner Mongolia Province. The area, which is bigger than Switzerland, was demarcated in 1951, with the intention of providing an administrative centre for the group.  Single floored concrete houses line a straight, thin road running through the township’s centre and if looking to buy clothes or visit a supermarket, the first major town, Jiwen, is a three hour minibus ride away. Dogs roam the streets freely, and like many of the local young people, Bai Sezhu’s son and daughter have gone to live and work in Alihe, the Autonomous Oroqen Banner’s administrative hub and largest town in the region. 

When linguist Linsay J. Whaley visited Alihe in 2001, he saw the town’s downtrodden appearance reflected in “a society living in the shadow of its own imminent death”. Predicting bleakly that the Oroqen’s language would disappear within a period of twenty to fifty years, he considered little hope for the future of the indigenous community’s native tongue, one that was “completely unrelated to and unlike the Mandarin Chinese used today by most ethnic Oroqen”. An almost complete lack of financial resources, small population spread across a huge geographical space, and social dominance of other ethnic groups all contributed to the precarious status of the language’s status. In addition, it had no written form or standardized spoken format, with numerous linguistic variations spread across different families and locations. He perceived a distinct divide across generations, with only one in six Oroqen speaking the language fluently, and the majority of regular speakers advanced in age. Today the Endangered Languages Project, an online collaborative effort bringing together researchers and indigenous community organizations, considers Oroqen to be severely threatened, with less than 2,500 native speakers. Its fragility is a pattern seen in indigenous languages worldwide. According to the UN, at least 43% of the 6,000 languages currently spoken are endangered, and only a few hundred have meaningful and enduring places in national education systems. In February 2018, Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO reflected that “A language is far more than a means of communication; it is the very condition of our humanity. Our values, our beliefs and our identity are embedded within it.”

However, today’s Alihe has changed dramatically since the time of Whaley’s visit. Statues portraying a romanticized vision of traditional Oroqen culture are littered by the sides of the newly built roads and in Oroqen settlements throughout northern China. A recently renovated museum in Alihe’s city centre holds a sizable collection of cultural artifacts documenting the history of the Oroqen and other related ethnic groups. For the museum’s curator, Bai Ying, who is himself Oroqen and a researcher at China National Museum of Ethnology in Beijing, this reflects a changing consideration of culture within the Oroqen community itself.

“Self recognition among ethnic minorities was quite low ten years ago. 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 around cultural revitalization within the community, and has led the construction of a recently developed Oroqen settlement built on the outskirts of Alihe. A cluster of oversized log cabins and djiu have appeared in the surrounding forests and a sizeable tarmac car park has been freshly installed. Upon opening, it is hoped that the site can tap into a rapidly expanding domestic tourism industry bolstered by an affluent and rising Chinese middle class.

The commercialization of indigenous culture has a problematic place in recent Chinese history.  Scholars have observed that it may exacerbate stereotypical views of the minority groups in question. This can perpetuate inequalities and feed into a political narrative of national unity that is imposed top-down. However, Richard Fraser, an anthropologist who has worked closely with Oroqen communities for the last decade, has witnessed some growing interest in maintaining traditional Oroqen craft and culture across generations, with a new space carved out for bottom-up entrepreneurialism in communities where alternative employment opportunities are lacking. 

“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.”

Recognizing that for many young Oroqen people the complexities of modern life have fractured their connection with their ancestral and linguistic past, Fraser has collaborated with Bai Ying on a number of projects exploring cultural and linguistic revitalization. In one, an archive of around 18,000 photographs taken by the anthropologists Ethel Lindgren and Sergei Shirikogoroff on separate trips studying nomadic peoples of northern China in the early 20th century, has been digitized for use in the region. With physical copies of the images held at Cambridge University, 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. Utilizing funding from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, Fraser and Bai have also begun development of an app-based game that will reinterpret folk stories and songs from the forest. This will aim to introduce Oroqen vocabulary to local children and instill an interest in traditional culture at an early age. 

“Obviously the loss of language is by far the most severe threat to these communities. When you lose a language you don’t just lose vocabulary, you literally lose an entire way of seeing and expressing the world… One of the main pressing issues is how to get people interested in their traditional past and one of the ways we think is through new technology.”

In his recent research, Fraser has noted a growing trend of widespread investment in ethnographically focused tourism in the region. Part of a policy led 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 on the region, that can be traced back to 1949 when the fledgling Communist state first settled the Oroqen. Following the revolution, authorities moved quickly to identify along official lines the 56 ethnic groups making up the nation. In the 1949 common program of the Chinese Peoples’ Political Consultative conference, it was stated: “All minority nationalities 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, healthcare and food provisions led many Oroqen people to settle in the plains south of the Greater Xing’an Mountains, in wooden houses or mud-brick huts dispersed across ten main localities throughout Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang Provinces. Oroqen people 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 (a relaxed approach to the one child policy, easier access to university, free housing, and some small financial payouts). Viewed as primitive and superstitious, there was little place for shamanism within the newly formed modern state. In one account, the anthropologist Richard Noll describes the fate of Chuonnassuan and Zhao Li Ben, two of the most well-known shamans of their time. According to Noll’s records, they were compelled by authorities to ask the Oroqen spirits to “go away” in a three-night ritual in 1952, despite reluctance amongst the local community. As a result, their religious life was severely disrupted, and Chuonnassuan never openly practiced shamanism again. 

At the same time, the resource rich forests of Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang were designated for the vast expansion of a logging industry that would fuel the rapid development of the country. Long recognized for the richness and diversity of its wildlife, the region saw widespread ecological devastation throughout the second half of the twentieth century, and a huge influx of inward migration to provide labour. In 1951 when the region was founded, within the Autonomous Oroqen Banner alone, the Oroqen made up 99% of the population when only 778 people lived across the expanse. Following several decades of inward migration, the total population of the area in 1999 was 316,969. The Oroqen made up less than 1% of this number. A hunting ban enforced in 1996 and tightening regulations have made it illegal for the majority of Oroqen people to own guns. As a result, their traditional hunting culture has almost disappeared

In the neighboring Heilongjiang Province, nine hours’ drive north of Alihe, sits the “dusty People’s Liberation Army garrison village of Shibazhan”. It is here that anthropologist Richard Noll first met Chuonnassuan in 1993.

“He stood in the middle of an intersection of two dirt roads, a look of amusement on his face. 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 renew Oroqen language amongst 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 colored 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 pictures, the guests are briskly whisked inside. As they are guided to an empty classroom, the children file in through a separate door and disperse among the school corridors.

The visitors are a mix of party cadres, local community leaders and visiting teachers who have come to learn about attempts at language revitalization, a burgeoning tourism industry and a new Oroqen settlement built nearby. In various classrooms throughout the school, the children gather in smaller groups to perform songs, display their Oroqen speaking skills and demonstrate traditional craft. As the adults hang over them snapping photographs, the students take strips of birch bark and cut them into smooth spiral shapes, following the patterns of traditional Oroqen craft.

The children here have classes in Oroqen twice a week” a teacher explains. “That doesn’t seem a lot” exclaims a visitor in reply. 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 in the classroom.

Cong Shan, the only postgraduate student to be studying Oroqen grammar in the country, sees some enthusiasm for learning the language amongst younger generations, but is realistic about its fragility. She believes that of the 3,000 Oroqen now living within the Oroqen Autonomous Banner, the number of native speakers is less than 100. 

“The platform is definitely helpful, but it’s not enough. Without interaction at home, language learning is restricted to the classroom.”

An hour’s drive east of Shibazhan, sits Baiyinna, one of the northernmost Oroqen settlements in Heilongjiang Province. Close to China’s most northern point, and surrounded by dense forests, the Heilongjiang River, and the border with Russia, is less than an hour’s drive to the east. 

Here lives Garulie, a wily 80 year old woman 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 dominant official language of China. Through her niece, she describes her early days living in the forest, and her community’s move to permanent housing. The musical sounding inflections of the Oroqen she speaks sound completely different from Mandarin. Her cracked voice recounts the journey that all shamans went through 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. And so long as the shamans danced to summon the gods, the patient would be cured. 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 mile east, at the banks of the Heilongjiang River, locals speak of a not so distant time when fishermen would cross to the Russian side, socializing and trading with their Slavic counterparts. Since Putin’s rise to power that border has reportedly firmed, fishermen no longer cross and Chinese soldiers climb onto motorboats to set out for patrol. On a semi-grounded cruise boat, Oroqen elders dine and drink together in the lower decks whilst youngsters home for the holidays share barbecue and beers on the ships deck. Someone sings an ancient Oroqen folk song, a story of the forests, but none of the young people here here can speak any more than a few Oroqen words. China’s 2010 census put the number of Oroqen people with a college level education at 23.3%, 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 Richard Fraser. His view is positive but pragmatic, seeing the need for continued 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.”