River Chol twirls around the verdant hills of the western Great Khingan Mountains like a giant silver snake. In spring and summer when the sky is heavy with rain, big boulders tumble downstream and create torrents of rolling white water, which the Orochen describe by the word “chol”, thus giving the name to the river. For generations the area around Chol-do (Chol River) and its tributaries were the hunting ground of the Orochen and their kinsmen, the Solon (Solon Ewenki), with whom they shared the territory. Orochen bands living in these areas were known as “Cholchen”, or “people of River Chol”.
Cholchen were the western vanguards of the Orochen. By the turn of the 20th century Cholchen had pushed beyond the boundaries of the Great Khingan Mountains and ventured onto the grassland. Cholchen had large herds of horses, kept cattle as livestock, and carried lively trade with Mongolians, Daghurs, and the Chinese, with whom they bartered with hides and fur.
From Ethel John Lindgren’s photographs, who made several ethnographic fieldtrips to Hulun Buir and the Great Khingan Mountains between the late 1920s and 1930s, we see members of Orochen hunting bands inhabiting this forest-steppe transitional zone alreday adopting certain aspects of steppe culture, such as the use of the ger (yurt) in place of the sierranju (conical tent with bark, rattan or hide cover) as lodges. We do not know when the Cholchen made their home around this area, but by all accounts by the 1920s they were well settled in the territory, had gained considerable wealth and prestige (it is said the Mongolians did not venture into territory occupied by the Orochen for fear of retribution), and were thriving under a mixed economy.
Sadly, little ethnographic study had been done on the Cholchen since the 1930s, particularly after the Revolution in China. After the 1950s political dynamics in Inner Mongolia increasingly shifted research attention away from the Cholchen to centres of Orochen and Ewenki political administration, in Alihe Orochen Autonomous Banner and Nantun Ewenki Autonomous Banner, and the Cholchen were relegated to the margins of Orochen cultural activities and interest.
In my view, research on the Cholchen is an important part of North Asian and Tungusic studies, for it can potentially shed light on several key, but poorly researched, areas such as kinship relations between the Orochen and Solon, the implications such kinship ties may have on political and military alliances, which may in turn account for the Orochen’s ability to extend their territory to the Hulun Buir plains. Such research may contribute new insights into the relationship between corporate kinship groups across ethnic boundaries, particularly between the Orochen and Solon, but perhaps also the Daghur, and quite possibly yield new perspectives on ethnicity in this multi-ethnic and culturally complex part of Inner Mongolia.
Armed with this notion, together with my colleague Professor Yu Shuo I brought 40 university students from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University to Nanmu Orochen Autonomous Township for a short period of intensive fieldwork this May. During this period the students interviewed elders and selected members of the community, constructed lineage charts and drew detailed migration maps for the different hunting bands up to the settlement period in 1949-1957, and collected oral history, stories and hunting lore. In addition, as part of Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Service Learning programme, students were required to offer concrete social service to the community. In this case, they made a preliminary study for sustainable tourism development for the Nanmu township, which is the Cholchen’s main settlement, offered training to local entrepreneurs and family-run bed-and-breakfast, helped a local museum with display and archiving, and offered classes at a local school.
The participation of our wonderful group of students has played a vital role in documenting the oral history of the Cholchen. It is our hope that through our on-the-ground studies we will be able to shed light on the Lindgren collection at the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology at Cambridge University, which we hope will in turn help revitalize the Cholychen’s collective memory.
From June 23 to September 27 2015, Ethel Lindgren’s photographs will be exhibited to the public for the first time alongside with the photographs of the Russian ethnographer, Sergei Shirokogoroff.
Entitled “River Stars Reindeer: Imaging Evenki & Orochen Communities of Inner Mongolia & Siberia”, this exhibition is a collaboration between MAA, Cambridge, and MAE (Kunstkamera), St Petersburg, which aims to reconnect Orochen and Ewenki communities from Inner Mongolia and Siberia with their images, their histories, and their stories.
River Stars Reindeer: Imaging Evenki & Orochen Communities of Inner Mongolia & Siberia
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge University, Downing Street, Cambridge CB4 2DJ
Open Tuesday – Saturday 10.30am – 4.30pm | Sunday 12pm – 4.30pm