How the last hunters in China became an endangered species
The art of the Orochen people gives a rare and revealing glimpse of a fast-vanishing way of life, writes Jade Lee-Duffy
One day in the summer of 2001, Hing Chao stepped into a rundown three-storey museum in Inner Mongolia. Inside, he glanced at weathered dinosaur bones, photographs from 1949 when the Communist Party took over China, dusty soldiers' uniforms and antique military guns - items that didn't hold any appeal for him.
However, in the museum's ethnographical gallery he became fascinated by a four-metre high sierranju, a tepee-like structure made from deerskin. He was also intrigued by: a thick deerskin coat with matching trousers, hat and mitts; birch bark items made into boxes and a large canoe; and old black and white photos of the Orochen, one of China's last hunter-gatherer tribes.
'I found it fascinating how people could live with so little material wealth - living so close to nature and in such a harsh environment,' Chao says.
The experience drove him to learn more about an indigenous people that had lived in the Khingan Mountains of northeastern China for centuries.
Last year, Chao established the Orochen Foundation, a charity aimed at preserving the culture, language and identity of the little-known minority.
'Minorities the world over are highly endangered, they are the least privileged people,' he says. 'Minorities in Siberia, the Americas and Australia all have some sort of representation. But in northeastern China, apart from ourselves, there's absolutely no non-government organisation present, and most people in the world aren't even aware that these people are disappearing.'
As a way of gaining awareness, the foundation has organised its third art exhibition, Last Hunters of China's Vanishing Forest, a collection of works by Orochen artists. Through Chao's extensive travels in the region, he found the artists by word of mouth and reputation. He says there are only a handful of true Orochen artists and even fewer who are academically trained. The exhibition includes works by Bai Ying, Lui Ba, Mo Hung Wei and Wu Jun, plus photos by foundation members Chao and Vicentia Cheng.
One of the most striking pieces is a painting titled New Home by Bai, which mirrors the Orochen's current living conditions. At first glance, it's a side-angle view of an elderly man looking off into the distance, with a sturdy brick house in the background. The light catches his face and he's dressed in a warm deerskin coat. But Chao says the man longs for his home in the forest, which no longer exists.
A generation ago in the forests of Manchuria, the Orochen were nomadic hunters and gatherers, free to roam China's largest mountain range. However, in the past five decades, the Orochen have been pushed towards modernisation and forced to settle in ethnic townships and villages in Heilongjiang province and Inner Mongolia. The transition has been met with innumerable problems for the Orochen, who struggle to adapt to an urban lifestyle. The name Orochen means 'people of the reindeer'. Originally, they were reindeer herders, but in the 18th century the tribes adapted to herding horses, which were more prized during the Manchurian period.
Due to the industrialisation of China and the Cultural Revolution's liberalisation phase in the 1950s and 1960s, the Orochen were then resettled into brick houses and taught to survive on an agricultural existence.
As the Orochen traditionally relied on the forest for their existence, birch bark was integral to their lives. They built everything out of the material, from canoes and water containers to fishing baskets.
They also used it for art. In stunning birch bark collages, Mo has created images of traditional life for the Orochen. Using large strips of flattened bark or tiny shreds, the artwork in varying shades of brown has been assembled like an intricate jigsaw puzzle.
With a population of 8,000, nowadays only a handful of the Orochen elders venture back into the forest.
During the summer, they renew their relationship with nature for a week at time - hunting mainly deer or hare, fishing and gathering wild vegetables and fruits. Some of the younger generation also spend time in the forest, but only those who have descended from skilled hunters.
For the past 50 years, the problems of deforestation, gold mining and immigration by Chinese Han people have pushed the Orochen culture to the brink of extinction.
'The Han people moved into the area in the late 1960s and 1970s and began decapitating the forest,' says Cheng. 'They rely on agriculture.'
Gold mining is another problem, she says, because it ravages the earth and pollutes the water sources with chemicals.
With fewer Orochen remembering the ancestral customs and language, Cheng says she's committed to preserving this vanishing minority. 'The elderly experienced so much during the Cultural Revolution,' she says. 'They've lived in the forest and now they live in modern society, but yet I feel their inner strength.
'It's made me realise that it's not what you have sometimes - it's a relationship with the people around you and your relationship with nature.'
Last Hunters of China's Vanishing Forest, The Economist Gallery and Fringe Gallery, Aug 18-Sept 3, Mon-Sat, noon-10pm, Fringe Club, 2 Lower Albert Rd, Central. Inquiries: 2521 7251 or go to www.orochenfoundation.org