When discussing the ethno-genesis of small ethnic groups from north-east China, conventional academic opinion in the country tends to associate present-day minorities, such as the Orochen and Ewenki, with ancient peoples such as the Shiwei and Sushen, who were active in these areas in early dynastic times. Typically, the reasons given for this identification are based on the evidence of material culture, often citing records of the Shiwei living in ‘birch bark lodges’ and other aspects of their culture as ‘proof’ they were ancestral to the Orochen and Ewenki, who also lived in birch bark tents and practiced nomadism.

However, there are limits to the heuristic value of material culture when considered alone. Technological adaptations using locally available resources are fundamental to survival in extreme ecological conditions, such as in the Great and Lesser Khingan Mountains, where temperatures plunge to minus 40 degrees Celsius in the winter.

From a geographical perspective, across the transcontinental taiga stretching from present day Scandinavia and Finland to Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang province in People’s Republic of China, a multitude of cultural and linguistic groups such as the Orochen, Evenks, the northern Yakuts, Yukaghir, Kets and Sami, have adopted similar survival strategies.

Primarily hunter-gatherers, until the 20th century most of these groups lived in conical tents made with bark and hide covers, and their livelihood depended on a mixed economy of foraging, fishing, and occasionally tending small herds of reindeer, horses or cattle. The animal skins were used for clothing, tent covers, and articles of home furnishing such as rugs and sleeping bags. These were supplemented by objects fashioned out of wood and, more importantly, birch bark, which are lightweight but durable and easy to carry. Therefore, despite significant linguistic differences between these groups and a wide geographical spread across Eurasia, one could find many similarities in their material culture.

Clearly, this alone is insufficient to establish the relationship between contemporary ethnic / cultural groups and historic peoples, particularly when tracing as far back as the Sushen and Shiwei. Instead, the genesis of the Orochen and Ewenki must be sought elsewhere, in the domains of comparative linguistics and the social history of Siberia and north-east China.

The Orochen first appeared in Chinese historic records in the early Qing period. They are described as a ‘deer-herding’ people who practiced hunting and fishing, and the ethno-nym the Manchus applied to them, ‘Oron-chon’ or ‘E-lun-chun’ in Chinese, means literally ‘reindeer people’. In time, the Orochen gave up reindeer herds and some of them replaced them with horses. This process of cultural change accelerated after the Kangxi period when the Orochen were formally incorporated into the banners system, and some of them became merged with the Solon who came to play a key role in Qing military conquest from the Qianlong reign onwards. Historic annals from this period contain records of the Orochen engaging in trading activities, often illicitly with neighbouring peoples such as the Mongols and Daghurs, with whom they exchanged sable pelts and animal skin for horses, which they sometimes also obtained by horse-theft.

From these descriptions we clearly see a people whose culture and way of life was in transition. The reason behind this is that the Orochen had migrated to the hinterland of northern Manchuria around the late Ming and beginning of Qing, largely as a ripple effect of a general west-east movement of indigenous peoples across Siberia, which was precipitated by the Cossack invasion, who had reached Eastern Siberia as far as the Amur by the mid-17th century.

In recent years, scholars have begun to reconstruct the historiography of Siberia during the period of Russian imperial expansion. This process witnessed the displacement of a large number of indigenous groups. Among the most severely affected were the Evenki, who put up one of the most significant efforts to repulse the invading Cossacks. A confederation of tribes around the Yenisei River staged a fierce resistance, but they were ultimately defeated and many Evenki clans proceeded to migrate east. While further research is required to reconstruct this demographic movement – perhaps one of the most momentous movements in the history of Siberia and Inner Asia – it is not difficult to perceive the trickling effect it had on indigenous groups (including eastern Evenki – called the ‘Oronchon’) then inhabiting the Transbaikal and Amur territories.

As a corollary to this, from around the same period early Qing annalists began to note Oronchon tribes moving southward from Stanovoy ranges to settle in Great and Lesser Khingan Mountains. Indeed, as the Qing and Russian empires converged in the Amur region, Manchu and Cossack forces came to a military standoff, and this was the point when Emperors Kangxi and Yongzhen, astute as ever, began to draft various Tungusic groups – who had erstwhile laid outside their political ambit – into the Qing imperial administration and military machinery.

Kangxi took initial steps to incorporate the Oronchon (i.e. Orochen) into the banners, a policy which was continued by Yongzhen. But it fell to Qianlong to integrate Northern Tungusic tribes into the Manchu war machine, and to make use of them in a more strategically meaningful way. The resettlement of the Solon, who were subjugated by Abahai in the years immediately preceding Manchu conquest of China in the 1630s, in the Hulun Buir grassland as a strategic buffer between the Qing state and Imperial Russia, belies the long-held historical view that Manchu rulers were ignorant of the geography of their empire in the far north.

In any case, what this history reveals is that the Orochen originated in the Transbaikal and Amur regions, and migrated to present-day Khingan Mountains range as a result of Cossack military pressure. It is unclear how long their ancestors had been in the Transbaikal and Amur areas prior to this, but clearly the groups nowadays identified as ‘Orochen’ had not always lived in their present locations, and in fact only moved into China from the early Qing, less than four hundred years ago.  

Comparative linguistics shed further light on the identity and origin of the Orochen. Linguists have identified the Orochen language as ‘Northern Tungusic’, and noticed its closely relationship to the Evenki and Even languages in Russia. Recent studies by linguists in the United States of America (chiefly Prof. Lindsay Whaley) and Russia have established a clear affinity between the northern Tungusic languages in China and Russia. In fact, the differences between these languages are so small and the underlying similarities so great, that scholars are increasingly inclined to consider them dialects of the same Evenki language; or, according to the classification of Evenki scholars in Russia, variations of two main linguistic groups sub-divided into the Evenki (western groups) and Oronchon (eastern groups).

Interestingly, in Manchuria (roughly present-day Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces and the north-eastern part of Inner Mongolia) and the Russian state of Amur, most of the indigenous groups belong to the Southern Tungusic linguistic family, while Northern Tungusic groups are by and large late-comers to the region. Another interesting point is that there are far more variations and differences in Southern Tungusic languages than is the case with Northern Tungusic dialects, which suggests a longer period of evolution and development. This suggests the Northern Tungusic groups had a relatively independent development away from the hub of the Southern Tungus around Manchuria and the Amur region, and the two linguistic families did not come into regular contact until quite recently – possibly in the early 17th century when the Russian and Manchu imperial expansion pushed some of the Northern Tungus to relocate to their present locations.

There is much we still do not know about the early social history and cultural development of the Northern Tungus, including the Orochen. Ethnographic studies, including detailed research on material culture and belief-systems, will no doubt cast new light on their historic development. For example, the important Orochen and Evenki collections in the national ethnographic museums in Germany, and at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge University, point to a much greater degree of cultural diversity among the various Northern Tungus groups in China in the early 20th century than is evident today.

The precious material objects and photographic records also provide valuable, if incomplete, clues to the interaction between the Northern Tungus with neighbouring communities such as the Mongols, Daghurs, and Hezhen. Clues to the social history of the Northern Tungus is also partially encoded in the endangered languages and dialects which are fast disappearing, and with them, not only signposts to the past but entire knowledge systems, the value of which we are just dimly beginning to realise. 

Hing Chao will be giving a talk on April 8 at the AWA in Sheung Wan, titled "Orochen Cultural Heritage: Restoring an Ancient Legacy". To reserve seats, please email memberservices@friendscuhk.com.

Tags: Hing Chao, Heritage, China, Culture, Orochen, Ethnic Minorities