Reminiscences About the Reindeer Herders of China


Late on a frosty afternoon in fall 1993, we were leaving the mountains of the northern slopes of the Greater Hinggan Range on the back of a rumbling cart, lurching here and there. In one direction the sky glowed red, and in the other it looked like something between rain and snow. A double rainbow arched across the valley behind us—a seal on our memories, locking the scene in the past forever. Nobody said a word. The air was too cold and the wind whistled past our red ears as we concentrated on breathing through our noses. Mighty Nature—sky, taiga, wind, and water—was seeing us off with all her colors and smells, touching our skin and our eyes with her rough tenderness.

In the cart were two other members of the expedition team—Jörg Stoll, an amateur ornithologist from Berlin and Georg Heyne, an amateur anthropologist from Bielefeld—as well as four or five Evenki women, two children, two Chinese, and a Mongolian named Mr. Batburin, who was married to the younger daughter of Evenki shamaness Niura. Batburin was a huge man, well over six feet (about 1.9 meters). He was in his late forties and had hands like shovels. He was my friend from the moment we met in spring 1985. He was fond of clapping me on the shoulder and crushing me in a big bear hug—a truly shaking experience. He was drunk often, but not as often as his wife, Qenxulaan Kaltakun. They had two daughters—nice girls, but with serious mental deficiencies, most likely the result of their mother’s drinking during pregnancy. Batburin was ill, with a temperature approaching 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius), and he had joined us to go to Ôlguya, the small Evenki center, for medical attention. Five hundred people lived in Ôlguya, 200 of whom are Evenki, including the 40 to 50 Evenki living in the surrounding mountain taiga.

Batburin was usually smiling and laughing loudly. But now he was as silent as we were, looking at the evening glow with a sadness in his face I shall never forget. Batburin loved reindeer and living in the taiga, and although he was Mongolian he had managed to become a reindeer herder, an occupation almost exclusively held by Evenkis, because his wife was Evenki. But now he had seen the rainbow seal in the sky and I’m quite sure he was also feeling the presence of a lost past. I have not returned to the area, and I probably shall never go there again. Nearly all the people who were close to me are dead: Maria, Vladimir, Niura, Goshka, Kanda, Kieshka, Yingshan. Even Batburin and Qenxulaan.

I remember Qenxulaan well. The first time I visited the Reindeer Evenki in June 1985, I was the guest of Vladimir Kaltakun, the head of a very traditional urileng (small community of families, usually of the same patrilineage, living and herding together). Vladimir sacrificed a considerable amount of the baijiu liquor we were drinking to the fire spirit, and sang and fed beancakes to the reindeer calves while he was drunk. When I visited again in 1993 he drank greedily and did not offer any liquor to the fire. Qenxulaan came into Vladimir’s juu (tipi) and stood south of the fire. She took her own full glass of baijiu and poured half of it into the fire without saying a word, staring reproachfully at Vladimir all the while. The atmosphere was tense but nothing else happened. Vladimir seemed to ignore her and she left, going back into her own juu to continue drinking. Both had lost hope, but she—as the daughter of the shamaness—stuck to the old ways, even when drunk. It was the twilight of their traditional culture and they knew it.
The First Reindeer Herders

The Reindeer Evenki of China are often incorrectly referred to as “Yakut” because they originally entered China from Yakutia (Sahka Republic) in Russia. Today they number about 200. Two other distinct groups of Evenki live in China today. The largest, formerly known as “Solon,” number more than 25,000. Their ancestors crossed the Heilong Jiang (Amur) River into present-day China to escape Russian colonization in the mid-17th century. Today they live mainly in the Autonomous Banner of the Evenki Nationality, the Autonomous Banner Morin Dawa of the Daur Nationality, and the Oroqen Autonomous Banner. Another 3,000 to 4,000 Evenkis in China, formerly known as “Tungus,” left the area of Chita in Russia about 1917 and now live in the Chen Barag Banner. In 1958, after consultations with representatives from all three groups, the Chinese government announced that the ethnonyms Solon, Tungus, and Yakut should be abandoned, and all three groups should, according to their own wishes, be called Evenki. As a result, the officially recognized Evenki nationality in China today has a population of nearly 30,000 people.

The earliest written accounts of reindeer domestication anywhere in the world are from Chinese sources. Yao Si-lian, who from 629 to 636 A.D. wrote the Liang Shu (Chronicles of Liang Dynasty1), mentions people living in the forests of the north, keeping deer like cattle and using carriages (the Chinese language would not have had a word for “sledges” at that time) pulled by the deer. A more detailed account appears in the Xin Tang Shu (New Book of Tang Dynasty2), written by Ouyang Xiu and Song Qi between 1044 and 1060 AD, where one can find mention of a tribe called Ju, living north of Lake Baikal, “not having sheep nor horses, but deer,” and using the deer to pull a carriage.

The first contact of the Manju (Manchu) rulers of Qing Dynasty with reindeer-keeping Evenki was apparently in 1636, when a Manju expedition reached the Lena River just where it crosses from present-day Irkutsk Oblast’ into the Sakha Republic (Yakutia). Between 1638 and 1664 these Evenki paid tribute to the rulers of China five times, mainly in the form of sable pelts. After 1664 contact was lost because of the Russian colonization of Siberia (Nentwig, 1991). The forbears of today’s Evenki crossed the Heilong Jiang (Amur) and Ergun (Argun) rivers, entering China around 1825 in search of better hunting grounds. The last group arrived in 1928. (Heyne, 1989) Chinese authorities didn’t learn of the existence of reindeer Evenki in Chinese territory until the first years of the 20th century, when they sent an official delegation into the Greater Hinggan mountains to contact the Evenki and tell them to either go back to Russia or to stop paying taxes to the Russian Czar. Many of their delegation’s horses died, and the travelers were forced to shoot and eat many more to prevent starvation, leaving them stranded in the mountains without transportation. The Evenki rescued the officials, who discovered that the Evenki had better guns than the Qing army of that time, and that they did not understand the concept of citizenship and taxes. In 1909 Song Xiaolian published his report about that embarrassing adventure, which remained the Evenkis’ only contact with Chinese officials until 1949. But throughout this period the Evenki maintained close contact with Russian traders, and their furs, particularly sable, were well-known and appreciated among fur traders throughout Europe.

During the Japanese occupation of China’s northeast (1931-1945), Evenki hunters were forced by the Japanese troops to do military service in a “forest brigade,” leading to clashes with Japanese forces and conflict among the Evenki themselves, who suspected some of their own men of being collaborators. Between 1940 and 1945, the Evenki population declined by about 200. Many died of disease or in military action, while others fled to the Soviet Union because they feared retribution for killing Japanese soldiers. The population decline continued after 1945 for two reasons. In the first place, the Evenki tradition of blood vengeance led to numerous deaths, as some Evenki called others to account for their suspected collaboration with the Japanese. Secondly, the death of the old shamaness, Olga Kudrina, forced the Evenki to endure at least two years without a shaman. During this period, usually a time of social chaos, they endured quarreling, beating, killing, and diseases of all kinds. Of a population of approximately 430 Evenki in 1915, only 170 remained in 1945 and 136 in 1957, when the Chinese state’s first attempt to settle them near Qiqian on the banks of the Ergun River failed. (Nentwig, 1991)

Despite two forced relocations, encroachment into their hunting grounds and reindeer pastures by forestry development, and the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, reindeer-herding Evenki in China persisted in their traditional way of life, in the northern parts of the Left and Right Ergun banners (now called Genhe City and Ergun City, respectively). In the early 1960s, as wild game became rarer in the Greater Hinggan and the Evenki could not survive by hunting only, the Chinese government made a chemical analysis of the reindeer antlers and determined that they could be used as traditional Chinese medicine. Recognizing the economic potential of the antler trade, Chinese officials initiated measures to turn the Evenkis’ small-scale reindeer keeping into larger-scale reindeer breeding. The Evenki started to enlarge their herds to produce more antlers. Every year they would saw off the antlers and sell them to the government (see page 33 this issue). The number of reindeer peaked in the mid-1980s at well over 1,000 head. (Nentwig, 1991) This population increase exceeded the region’s carrying capacity and led to overgrazing of the reindeer lichen (various species of the genus Cladonia), the principal source of food for reindeer. In turn, the deer population declined again, leveling off at around 800 head, which is where it stands today.
The Final Years in the Mountains

When I first visited the reindeer-herding Evenki in China in May and June 1985, I found them in a state that was not much different from that described by Ethel John Lindgren in the 1930s: they could move more or less freely throughout the Greater Hinggan Mountains and even into Heilongjiang Province; hunting and reindeer herding were still their economic mainstays; and they still availed themselves of the powers of a shamaness to maintain the social order. In fact they were much better off than they had been in the 1930s: there were no signs of the tuberculosis that many had suffered from nearly a half-century earlier, the standard of living had improved in many ways, and the people were generally satisfied with their lives. Only later did I realize that the early 1980s had been perhaps the best time in their history, and that in 1985 I witnessed the last of their really good years.

In 1986 the Evenki experienced a devastating death toll because of alcohol abuse. And when I visited them again in September 1993 everything had changed. Not only the advantages but also the disadvantages of Chinese reform politics had reached the Evenki. Liquor could be bought freely; Chinese poachers roamed the forest, shooting whatever they could get; and the overall mood among the Evenki was desperate and hopeless. Vladimir wanted to know whether the Chinese government would grant the Evenki permission to migrate to Russia.

In March 2002 the Chinese government announced it would dismantle the village of Ôlguya and relocate it to a place near Mangui, about 20 kilometers south. The official reason given by the authorities is “to preserve the ecological balance of the mountains.” News reports say the Evenki will live in brick houses built by the government, and will continue to raise reindeer, spotted deer, and red deer. What the news report does not explicitly state is that government officials will try to set up a deer farm. The problem is that the reindeer must move; they cannot be kept in large numbers on a farm, and cannot survive without reindeer lichen. It would be impossible to range far and wide throughout the rugged and expansive mountains to gather up enough of the widely dispersed reindeer lichen to sustain large herds of reindeer on a farm. What’s more, reindeer need to be able to go up to the cooler air of the highest altitudes in the summer to minimize contact with bloodthirsty swarms of insects. Such freedom of movement will not be possible if the reindeer are penned on a farm.

So, with news of the dislocation of Ôlguya, it seems that 2002 was the final year of the reindeer-herding Evenki culture in China. The story has come to an end. I shall forever remember the double rainbow and the face of Mr. Batburin, and I shall sometimes reminisce about the lucky days in June 1985, when Vladimir and I, both tipsy on baijiu, sang soft songs while feeding the reindeer calves beancake.
1. The Liang Dynasty, 502-557 AD, was the third of four so called “Southern Dynasties” of China.
2. Tang Dynasty, 618-907 AD.
Ingo Nentwig (ingo.nentwig@mvl.smwk.sac studied sinology, ethnology and philosophy, Chinese folklore, and Mongolian language at universities in Münster, Hamburg, Shenyang, and Berlin. In 1994 he received his doctorate in philosophy with a thesis about shamanism in the oral traditions of Daur, Evenki, Oroqen, and Hezhen peoples of northeastern China. Since June 1994 he has curated the East Asian Department of the Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig.
References and further reading
Heyne, F.G. (1989). Die Jagd in den Wäldern des Großen Hinggan. Ein Beitrag zur Wirtschaftsethnologie der chinesischen Rentier-Ewenken. Jahrbuch des Museums für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig Vol. XXXVIII, pp 32-100.
Heyne, F.G. (1994). Bärenjagd und Bärenzeremoniell bei den Rentier-Ewenken in der Taiga Nordost-Chinas. Jahrbuch des Museums für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig Vol. XL, pp 122-135.
Kajgorodov, A.M. (1968). Evenki v Trechrec’e. Sovetskaja Etnografija No. 4, pp 123-131.
Kajgorodov, A.M. (1970). Svad’ba v tajge. Sovetskaja Etnografija No. 3, pp 153-161.
Kong, F. (1985). Aoluguya Ewenke liemin shihua (The History of Ôlguya Evenki Hunters). Hailar, P.R. of China.
Kong, F. (1989). Aoluguya de Ewenke ren (The Evenki of Ôlguya). Tianjin, P.R. of China.
Lindgren, E.J. (1930). North-Western Manchuria and the Reindeer-Tungus. Geographical Journal Vol. LXXV, pp 518-536.
Lindgren, E.J. (1935). The Reindeer Tungus of Manchuria. Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society Vol. XXII (2), pp 221-231.
Lindgren, E.J. (1935/1936). Notes on the Reindeer Tungus of Manchuria. Their Names, Groups, Administration and Shamans. Ph.D. Diss., Cambridge University Library. Cambridge, UK.
Nentwig, I. (1989). Bericht von einer Exkursion zur Ewenkischen Gemeinde Aoluguya im Linken Ergun-Banner der Inneren Mongolei (VR China). Jahrbuch des Museums für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig Vol. XXXVIII, pp 101-127.
Nentwig, I. (1991). Jagd und Wanderviehwirtschaft in der Taiga Chinas: Zur Situation der Rentier-Ewenken im Großen Hinggan-Gebirge. In Nomaden, Mobile Tierhaltung. Zur gegenwärtigen Lage von Nomaden und zu den Problemen und Chancen mobiler Tierhaltung. Scholz, F., Ed. Berlin, Germany: Verlag das Arabische Buch. Pp 165-187.

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