This ethnic minority is distributed across
seven banners (counties) in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region
and in Nahe County of Heilongjiang Province, where they live together
with Mongolians, Daurs, Hans and Oroqens.
The Ewenki people have no written script but a spoken language
composed of three dialects belonging to the Manchu-Tungusic group
of the Altai language family. Mongolian is spoken in the pastoral
areas while the Han language is used in agricultural regions. The
Ewenki Autonomous Banner, nestled in the ranges of the Greater Hinggan
Mountains, is where the Ewenkis live in compact communities. A total
of 19,110 square kilometers in area, it is studded with more than
600 small and big lakes and 11 springs. The pastureland here totaling
9,200 square kilometers is watered by the Yimin and four other rivers,
all rising in the Greater Hinggan Mountains.
Nantunzhen, the seat of the banner government, is a rising city
on the grassland. A communication hub, it is the political, economic
and cultural center of the Ewenki Autonomous Banner.
Large numbers of livestock and great quantities of knitting wool,
milk, wool-tops and casings are produced in the banner. Some 20-odd
of these products are exported. The yellow oxen bred on the grassland
have won a name for themselves in Southeast Asian countries. Pelts
of a score or so of fur-bearing animals are also produced locally.
Reeds are in riot growth and in great abundance along the Huihe
River in the banner. Some 35,000 tons are used annually for making
paper. Lying beneath the grassland are rich deposits of coal, iron,
gold, copper and rock crystal.
The forefathers of the Ewenkis had originally been a people who
earned their living by fishing, hunting and breeding reindeer in
the forests northeast of Lake Baikal and along the Shileke River
(upper reaches of the Heilong River), tracing their ancestry to
the "Shiweis", particularly the "Northern Shiweis" and "Bo Shiweis"
living at the time of Northern Wei (386-534) on the upper reaches
of the Heilong River, and the "Ju" tribes that bred deer at the
time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in the forests of Taiyuan to
the northeast of Lake Baikal. Later, they moved east, with one section
coming to live on the middle reaches of the Heilong River. In history,
the Ewenkis and the Oroqens and Mongolians living in forests to
the east of Lake Baikal and the Heilong River Valley in the Yuan
Dynasty (1280-1368) were known as a "forest people," and a people
"moving on deer's backs" by the time of the Ming (1368-1644). When
it came to the Qing period (1644-1911) they were called the "Sulongs"
or "Kemunikans" (another tribal people different from the Sulongs
at the time) who knew how to use deer.
In 1635, the Kemunikans came under the domination of Manchu rulers
after their conquest of the Lake Baikal area, to be followed around
the years from 1639 to 1640 by their control of the Sulongs living
to the east of Lake Baikal. From the mid-17th century onwards, aggression
by Tsarist Russia had led the Qing government to remove the Ewenkis
to the area along the Ganhe, Nuomin, Ahlun, Jiqin, Yalu and Namoer
-- tributaries of the Nenjiang River. In 1732, 1,600 Ewenkis were
called up in the Buteha area and ordered together with their family
dependents to perform garrison duties as frontier guards on the
Hulunbuir Grassland. Their descendants are now the inhabitants of
the Ewenki Autonomous Banner.
Economy and Life Style
Immigrations in the past led to population dispersion which in
turn resulted in great unevenness in the social development of the
Ewenki people dwelling in different places with diverse natural
conditions. As a result, some Ewenkis are nomads; others are farmers
or farmer-hunters. A small number of them are hunters.
The Ewenkis in the Ewenki Autonomous Banner and the Chenbaerfu
Banner lead a nomadic life, wandering with their herds from place
to place in search of grass and water. They live in yurts.
The Ewenkis excel in horsemanship. Boys and girls learn to ride
on horseback at six or seven when they go out to pasture cattle
with their parents. Girls are taught to milk cows and take part
in horseracing at around ten, and learn the difficult art of lassoing
horses when they grow a little older.
A "Mikuole" festival is traditionally observed by Ewenki herdsmen
in May every year. At happy gatherings held everywhere on the grasslands,
men, women and children in their holiday best go from yurt to yurt
to partake wine, fine foods and other delicacies prepared for the
occasion. It is a time for nomads to count new-born lambs and take
stock of their wealth, and for young, sturdy lads to demonstrate
their skills in lassoing horses and branding or castrating them.
With the institution of the "eight banner system" way back in
the 17th century, Ewenki nomads were drafted into the army and had
the obligation to pay leopard skins as tributes to the Qing rulers.
This was at a time when they were at the transitional stage from
primitivity to a class society. Helped by the Qing rulers, an upper
stratum of Ewenkis invested with feudal rights then emerged. The
expansion of agriculture and animal husbandry finally brought the
Ewenki nomads to the threshold of a patriarchal feudal society.
A "nimoer" mutual-aid group consisting of a few to 10-odd families
was usually formed by the Ewenkis to pasture their herds. People
in the group were members of the same clan, and there was no exploitation
of man by man at first. But in later years each "nimoer" group came
to be dominated by a feudal lord, who had far more cattle than the
other nomads in the group. In name the pastures belonged to the
"nimoer" group, but in fact it was owned by the feudal chief who
had the biggest herd. The poor nomads in the "nimoer" were at the
beck and call of the feudal chief for whom they had to perform corvee.
A concentration of land also took place in areas where the Ewenkis
lived as farmers or farmer-hunters. In areas near mountains, they
lived by hunting, lumbering and making charcoal, with a few going
in for farming. There emerged landlords, some possessing as many
as 300 hectares of land. Here poor Ewenkis became employed hunters
of landlords who supplied guns, ammunition and hunting horses and
took away the bulk of the game bagged.
In the forests of the Ergunazuo Banner were Ewenki hunters who,
having no permanent homes, wandered from place to place with their
reindeer in search of game. When they stopped in the hunt, these
Ewenki hunters lived in make-shift, umbrella-shaped tents built
on 25 to 30 larch poles. In summer these tents were roofed over
with birch bark, and in winter with reindeer hides. When the hunters
were on the move, their tents and belongings as well as their capture
were carried by reindeer, which lived on moss.
The roving Ewenki hunters were still in the last stage of the
primitive society on the eve of liberation. Five or six to a dozen
families who were very closely related were grouped under a clan
commune, the chief of which was elected. All in the commune took
part in hunting, and the game bagged was divided equally among the
families. However, changes were already taking place in the clan
commune system at the time of liberation when shot-guns, reindeer
and the much-prized squirrel pelts were coming into the possession
of individual families.
The Ewenkis are an honest, warm-hearted and hospitable people.
Guests in the pastoral areas are often treated to tobacco, milk
tea and stewed meat by the Ewenki hosts. Such delicacies as reindeer
meat, venison, elk-nose meat sausages are generously offered in
the hunting areas. /When Ewenki hunters go out on long hunting trips,
they leave whatever they cannot take along -- foodstuffs, clothing
and tools in unlocked stores in the forests. Other hunters who are
in want, may help themselves to the things stored without the permission
of their owners. The things borrowed would be returned to the store
owners when the hunters happen to meet them at any time in future.
Monogamy is generally practiced. In old days exogamy was strictly
observed. Members of the same clan were not permitted to marry one
another, and those going against this unwritten law would be punished.
An Ewenki wedding is an occasion for dancing and merry-making.
All Ewenki folk dances are simple and unconstrained. The dancers'
foot movements, executed in a forceful and vigorous style and highly
rhythmic, are characteristic of the honest, courage and optimistic
traits of this ethnic minority.
Myths, fables, ballads and riddles form their oral literature.
Embroidery, carving and painting are among the traditional lines
of modeling arts as commonly seen on utensils decorated with various
floral designs. An adept hand is also shown by the Ewenkis at birch
bark carving and cutting in producing all kinds of fancy beasts
and animals as toys for children.
Most Ewenkis are animists while those in the pastoral areas are
followers of the Lamaist faith. A few living in the Chenbaerhu area
are believers of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
While believing in animism, Ewenkis also worship their dead ancestors,
and lingering influences of bear worship is still found among Ewenki
hunters. After killing a bear, the Ewenkis would conduct a series
of rituals at which the bear's head, bones and entrails are bundled
in birch bark or dry grass and hung on a tree to give the beast
a "wind burial." The hunters weep and kowtow while making offerings
of tobacco to the dead animal. In the Chenbaerhu area every clan
has its own totem -- a swan or a duck -- as an object of veneration.
People would toss milk into the air upon seeing a real swan or duck
flying overhead. No killing of these birds is permitted.
Wind burial was originally given to the dead. But it has now been
replaced by burial in the ground, thanks to the influence of other
ethnic groups living nearby, then and now.
Dispersed to live in different places and with many Ewenkis dragged
into the army by the Qing rulers, the Ewenki ethnic group was threatened
by extinction. Of a total number of 1,700 Ewenki troops sent to
suppress a peasant army of other nationalities that rose against
the Qing government in 1695, only some 300 survived the fighting.
Following their occupation of northeast China in 1931, the Japanese
imperialists not only intensified their exploitation of Ewenki people
but drafted many of them into the Japanese army. They lured Ewenkis
into the habit of opium-smoking and used some of them for bacteria
experiments. All this, coupled with the spread of smallpox, typhoid
fever and venereal diseases, brought about a sharp population decline.
For example, there were upwards of 3,000 Ewenkis living along the
Huihe River in 1931, but less than 1,000 remained in 1945.
Things took a turn for the better for this ethnic minority after
the Japanese surrender in 1945. Two years later democratic reforms
were carried out in both the pastoral and farming areas. As for
Ewenki hunters roving in the forests, efforts were made to help
them develop production and raise their cultural level. With the
setting of cooperatives, these hunters, who were then at the transitional
stage from primitivity to a class society, leap to socialism. Socialist
reforms in most of the Ewenki area were completed towards the end
The Ewenki Autonomous Banner was established on August 1, 1958,
in the Hulun Beir League (Prefecture). Five Ewenki townships and
an Ewenki district were set up later. A large number of Ewenkis
were trained for administrative work.
A series of measures, including the introduction of fine breeds
of cattle, the opening of fodder farms, improved veterinary services,
building permanent housing for roving nomads and the use of machinery,
have been taken to boost livestock production in the Ewenki Autonomous
Banner. In the forested areas, Ewenki hunters, who used to be on
the move after their game, now live in permanent homes. They still
hunt, but they have also gone in for other occupations.
In the old days almost all the Ewenkis were illiterate. Today
more than 90 per cent of all school-age children are at school.
Some Ewenkis have been enrolled in the Central Nationalities Institute
in Beijing, Inner Mongolia University in Hohhot and other institutions
of higher learning.
With improved health care, TB, VD and other diseases that used
to plague the Ewenki people have been put under control. Hospitals,
maternity and child care centers, TB and VD prevention clinics are
now at the service of the Ewenkis who knew no modern medical care
formerly. As a result the population in the banner, which had dwindled
for a century or more, has increased by many folds in the past four
decades. The Ewenki ethnic group which was dying out is freed from
the threat of extinction.