China's reindeer people: a Hongkonger helps revive lost way of life

Nomadic hunter-gatherers, the Orochen of China's forested northeast were brutally assimilated in the mid-1960s. Hing Chao sees progress in race against time to guard what's left of their heritage

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 August, 2015, 12:48am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 August, 2015, 12:48am

For centuries, the remote Khingan mountains were home to the nomadic Orochen, or reindeer people, who roamed an area roughly the size of Austria. In the boreal forests in today's Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang province of northeastern China, these hunter-gatherers lived in groups of no larger than 50, tending reindeer before they acquired horses.

The Orochen lived a simple life in harmony with the land, making clothing from animal hides, particularly reindeer, which also served as covers for their conical tents. In the summer, they draped the tents in birch bark, a material for which they found many uses, including utensils and canoes.

In the early 1950s, after the founding of the People's Republic of China, the government sought to bring the Orochen into the socialist fold and began a campaign to settle the nomads in villages. Life went on largely as before, however, until the Cultural Revolution erupted in the mid-'60s. A brutal campaign of assimilation and "modernisation" led to leaders being lynched, weapons seized and the Orochen's animistic beliefs repressed. Migrants from cities were sent in droves to tap the Orochen's native forests, which were rich in timber and gold.

More than 50 years on, almost nothing remains of their traditional way of life, says Chao Sih-hing, who established the Orochen Foundation in 2004 to preserve and revitalise the culture of the people, who are among the smallest of China's 56 recognised ethnic minority groups.

"They're all settled now, so there are virtually no camps in the wild any more," says the businessman, better known as Hing Chao. "We know old people who have 'farms' in or close to the forest, or who still go into the forest from time to time to gather and hunt, but these are really a handful of people. For the majority, the way they live today has very little bearing on their past whatsoever."

Confinement in settlements for decades resulted in high rates of suicide and alcoholism among the Orochen. With no direct connection to their elders' hunter-gatherer ways, the younger generation either leave to seek employment elsewhere or stay and work for the government, Chao says. Some villages have benefited from agricultural policies that grant residents land. Farming being an alien concept to the Orochen, they tend to lease it out.

In many villages, however, unemployment is a grave social problem.

"The general cultural environment is not particularly great," he says. "Young people today, of course, have grown up in settlements so they don't know anything else. It is less of a problem with them."

Chao, a scion of the Wah Kwong shipping empire, had not heard of the reindeer people before he visited Inner Mongolia in 2001. "When I encountered the Orochen, they took me completely by surprise because I could not have imagined how people could have pursued a spiritually rich but materialistically limited way of life and yet be content."

He spent a year living with the Orochen and discovered that in common with other people from the Arctic region, they have a close relationship with nature. The forests were a source of spiritual and moral sustenance, and elderly Orochen continue to make a simple dedication to the elements before they eat as a sign of gratitude, Chao says. They also venerate certain animals; there is a common myth in the borderlands that the people and bears share a common ancestry.

With no tradition of written language, Chao says it is a race against time to save what remains of Orochen heritage before the older generation take their knowledge to the grave.

Since setting up the foundation, Chao has piloted a number of initiatives, such as building an archive of artefacts, photographs and oral histories, organising exhibitions, and helping with programmes to re-educate the youth about their culture.

Besides his day job as managing director of Wah Kwong Properties Holdings, Chao is a part-time lecturer at Polytechnic University, where he teaches a course on the cultural heritage of the peoples of Inner Mongolia and northern China. Students are required to visit the region for 10 days for community service work.

"They work with me and the foundation to collect oral history and do their community service at the same time," he says.

"We have accumulated a lot of information. It has been our aim for a long time to make this information available to the public, more specifically to the community via the internet, so we thought the best way to do this would be to create an archive. We've been talking to PolyU for some time about this project. It's yet to be implemented because we're still looking for various funding opportunities, which are hard to come by."

Last month Chao visited Britain's Cambridge University, where he discussed the possibility of cooperation to organise a comprehensive Orochen exhibition in Hong Kong and China in 2017. It would comprise collections from the foundation, Cambridge, Germany, Russia and China.

The Cambridge University collection includes 170 objects and thousands of photographs taken between 1929 and 1931 by ethnologist Ethel Lindgren, one of the first Westerners to study the region.

"It will be the first time all these important Orochen collections will be in one place. This will be a very significant step towards reconstructing the real history of the people. So far there are discourses, narratives, about the Orochen which in our view are biased and often motivated by ideology or politics," Chao says.

Since 2005, the foundation has been working with the Chinese National Museum of Ethnology to reconstruct the people's material culture. "We mobilised the elders to make as many items that they once used in the forest as possible, and have gathered over 200 objects. We have everything from tents to boats, horse saddles, clothes and hats."

After years of suppression, township authorities have implemented policies to revitalise Orochen culture, Chao says, albeit in an ad hoc, unsystematic manner, such as building museums, organising one-off workshops, launching incentive schemes to promote handicrafts or organising dance and music troupes.

Such initiatives have helped spark a resurgence of interest among the younger generation.

"When I first visited the Orochen, the young people were seldom interested in traditional culture, and that has changed a lot. Young people are now participating much more in an effort to learn about the past and, as far as I know, are actively organising dance troupes with just volunteers performing."

Traditional hunting and Orochen language remain among the bigger challenges in preserving the old Orochen way of life, Chao says.

In the absence of a more proactive state policy to reintroduce hunting in a sustainable manner, the practice is unlikely to survive much longer. Heilongjiang has launched policies to reintroduce hunting and land has been designated for that purpose. Inner Mongolia is considering a similar initiative. "The question is how they will implement it and whether it will bear any semblance to tradition," Chao says.

Meanwhile, the lack of a written script poses a problem in transcribing and preserving the language, and younger Orochen increasingly communicate in Putonghua. Also, the government does not have the know-how to document indigenous languages.

"That's a big challenge. That's why the foundation plans to engage more deeply with universities to do this work. We think it's the only way to do it."

Ultimately, Chao is sanguine about prospects for retaining the knowledge that has so far survived against difficult odds.

"Young people are taking an interest; the government is no longer so much in favour of pursuing a simple assimilation policy. So I think the political and cultural environment is better today than it has been for the past decades. Something can be done."

The Orochen origin myth

Once upon a time, there was a hunter alone in the forest. As darkness fell, he saw a beautiful, naked woman by the river. Enchanted, he approached. As he got closer, however, the woman turned around, revealing herself to be a bear.

The bear seized the hunter and took him back to her cave. Every night, when the bear went out hunting, she placed a large boulder over the cave's entrance so the hunter could not run away.

Over time, they developed a mutual trust and had a child together. Eventually, the bear stopped blocking the mouth of the cave when she left.

Once, when the bear was out, the hunter decided to escape and ran out of the cave. When the bear returned, she saw him already halfway across the river. In a rage, she grabbed the child and tore it in half. She threw one half across the river, and it became Orochen. The other half became bear.