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The Growing Shadow Of The Oroqen Language And Culture

Tucked away in the foothills of the Greater Hinggan mountains in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia lies Alihe, a city of quite modest size by Chinese standards, with a population of around fifty thousand. Alihe's main street, one of four paved roads in the city, stretches for about a mile and is flanked by the mounuments of communist China -- gray and white concrete buildings in varying states of disrepair. Ten of fifteen smaller roads intersect the main thoroughfare, all of them eventually leading to what seem endless rows of brick, wood, and packed earth houses. To reach the residential areas, one must first pass a host of shops and restaurants, barely distinguishable from one another save for signs out front identifying their wares. If there is even a trace of daylight, the town's fixed structures are given life by the constant flow of bicycles and taxis, the occasional motorcycle, farmers peddling their produce, teenagers playing billiards at the outdoor tables, the pulsing sounds of radios, and the relatively new addition of SUVs, vehicles of choice for government officials in this area. The city is altogether unremarkable, except for one thing. It is the administrative center for one of China's smallest ethnic minorities, the Oroqens (pronounced "Orochen" with stress on the last syllable).

The Oroqens have left no enduring mark on world history, and perhaps for this reason they are little known outside their tiny sphere of influence in northeastern China. Even within this realm, they have been overshadowed by a linguistically related group, the Manchus, who effected one of the greatest imperial dynasties ever to arise. And yet it is their very obscurity that makes the Oroqens a rich source of information about the nature of human communities and intergroup relations.

Over the past fifty years, the Oroqen world has been completely transformed. As late as the 1950s, the people lived as hunter-gatherers, practiced shamanism, and spoke their own language (also called Oroqen), a tongue completely unrelated to and unlike the Mandarin Chinese used today by most ethnic Oroqen. In the 21st century, they are primarily farmers, and while hunting remains an important marker of their identity, this activity can only be carried out clandestinely, since a ban on hunting has been in effect for many years in this part of China. It seems the shamans are all dead, many of them reportedly killed during the persecutions of Mao's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The Oroqen language is spoken fluently by only one out of six Oroqen, almost all of whom are in the later stages of life. No one learns Oroqen as a first language. This is a society living in the shadow of its own imminent death.

Given the demographics of Oroqen speakers and the fact that Oroqen is not being transmitted to children, it is clear that the language will cease to be spoken in twenty to fifty years barring extraordinary measures by members of the community. Even though there is interest in undertaking such an effort, so many factors weigh against the possibility of Oroqen revitalization that even language activists concede that it may be a lost cause. There are practically no financial resources available; Oroqen has no written form; no dialect is accepted as standard; Oroqen is not used as the dominant language in any social context, including family life; and fluent speakers of Oroqen are not geographically concentrated. Rather, they are dispersed in a number of towns and villages in two different provinces. In every region where the Oroqen live, they are dominated by Han Chinese, and at times by other minorities. The political climate in China, which places a high premium on national unity, does not promote language and culture revival, both of which are often considered acts of political separatism. Such forces all but guarantee that the shadow of Oroqen language and culture grows bigger each year.

While the loss of the Oroqen language has massive implications for the Oroqen themselves, it also represents an intellectual loss to the field of linguistics, since the language contains many unusual, if not unique, features. For example, Oroqen possesses an impressive inventory of suffixes that permit its speakers to derive one word from another (like the English derivational suffix -ish, which creates "fiendish" from "fiend"). Consider the following instances of suffixes being added to the numeral three (ilan) to create a variety of new words: (three animals), ila-la (three days), ila-na (a group consisting of three animals), ila-tal (three each), ila-ra (three times), ila-kan (only three), and ila-ki (third). Other atypical aspects of Oroqen that will be lost before they have been adequately studied include:

- a system of vowel harmony in which all vowels in a word must share certain features of their pronunciation;

- extensive use of case inflections on nouns;

- a set of particles that can be used at the end of sentences to indicate a speaker's attitude toward what he or she is saying; and

- converbs, which are a special kind of participle.

From a global perspective, of course, the decline of the Oroqen language can be seen as just one more example among thousands of cases in which a small speech community is shifting away from the language of its heritage. We must be careful, however, not to let the ubiquity of these shifts blind us to the fact that each case was brought about by a specific set of historical and social factors. In the case of Oroqen, these are well worth exploring, since they have brought the shift about so quickly. In the course of just one generation, the Oroqen community has gone from a state in which everyone was speaking Oroqen and almost no one speaking Chinese, to just the opposite.

In 1958, Chairman Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, an attempt at economic revitalization in China which, among other things, involved the rapid expansion of infrastructure and increased exploitation of natural resources. As the railways pushed northward, the Oroqen were brought into sustained contact with industrial China for the first time. Observing the primitive lifestyle of these nomads, Mao's regime conceived of a better way of life for the Oroqen, one which would literally take them out of the woods and give them access to a series of promised material and social benefits -- economic opportunity, free health care, and education. In the name of modernization, the Oroqen were compelled to denounce their traditional hunter-gathering activities in favor of communal living with other minorities and the Han majority. Diseases brought north by the massive migration of Han people reduced the already small Oroqen population. Their hunting grounds were turned over to a swelling forestry industry and to collective farming. They quickly became persecuted and socially marginalized.

During the Cultural Revolution, consistent with events occurring around China, many of the prominent Oroqens -- shamans, clan leaders, teachers, and low-level government officials -- were persecuted and tortured. Many Oroqen were considered members of the Inner Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, hence, enemies of the people. They were harassed, arrested, and imprisoned. They underwent incessant interrogation. Whenever a public rally was held, they were paraded around wearing placards announcing their counter-revolutionary status. The physical abuse and psychological torture were overbearing; some committed suicide.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution and Deng Xiaoping's ascension to power, the government's policies toward minorities were recognized as having created, not an improved way of life, but alienation, poverty, and suffering. Interest in providing better living accommodations, education, and opportunities for minorities was renewed. Special dispensations were offered to minority groups: they were exempted from the "one child per family" limit imposed on the Han majority; they were given money to school their children; some were appointed to local ruling bodies; and so on. The impulse behind the policy shift appeared pure, but the expected response did not occur, at least for the Oroqen. Rather than bolstering Oroqen culture, the government action led to an explosion in the number of Han who married Oroqen in order to gain the privileges of their minority status. The dramatic increase in inter-marriage meant an even more rapid dissipation of traditional Oroqen ways. Rather than undergoing any sort of natural transformation, the culture was simply eliminated.

While Mao's China and more recent government policy represent the most obvious causes of the decline of Oroqen traditional culture, it is overly simplistic to understand the decline in only these terms. Earlier episodes in the region's history had a role to play. It is the Oroqen's unfortunate lot to have set up hunting grounds on real estate that has served as a corridor for a succession of military powers. The Russian Tsars, the Manchu Qing dynasty, the Japanese, and the Chinese Republican Army have all controlled Manchuria in the past 200 years. The Oroqen's subjugation and use by each of these groups so disrupted their lives, ensured their political marginality, and decimated their numbers (the population of Oroqen was reduced by half in the first part of the 20th century alone) that the Oroqen communities were highly vulnerable long before the formation of the People's Republic of China.

Are the Oroqen culture and language destined to become historical artifacts? Probably -- but the social, political, and economic changes occurring in China present a glimmer of hope. Individual prosperity opens the possibility that financial resources for Oroqen revitalization will be made available by concerned citizens. Increased political freedoms might remove some of the obstacles that now prevent the practice of traditional religion and the use of Oroqen in the schools. No one who has had the chance to observe the changes in China over the last twenty years would be so foolish as to make strong predictions about what the next two decades will hold. The right mix of shifting circumstances just might redirect the trajectory of Oroqen decline. The Oroqen might push back the shadow.

In the end, what is most notable about the Oroqen is that they represent the "typical" story of a vast majority of cultures, both past and present. The great civilizations of the Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Egyptians, Persians, and Incas, to name a few, demand attention because they are atypical. In their successes and failures, they disrupted the patterns that normally hold sway in human society. For this very reason, however, they do not reveal the full genius of human culture, nor can they provide a comprehensive notion of the dynamics of culture formation, development, and decline. For this, we look toward groups like the Oroqen, a civilization whose existence comes and goes, as T. S. Eliot would say, not with a bang, but a whimper.

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