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Identification. The Nanai reside in the Russian Far East, mainly in the Khabarovsk District, along the lower Amur River. The autonym, "Nanai," means "local, indigenous person." In the scholarly literature, "Nanai" came into use in the 1930s. Before the 1917 Revolution, their name was "Gol'd," which was used by the neighboring Ul'chi to refer to the entire Nanai population, whereas the Nanai along the lower reaches of the Amur and the Negidal' used it to refer to the Nanai along the upper reaches of the Amur, the present-day inhabitants of the Nanai and Khabarovosk districts. In the seventeenth century, Russian pioneers used local names for Nanai subgroups"Achan," "Natki," "Gold."

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the upriver Nanai groups (those upstream from the present-day Nanai District) called themselves "Kheden" and "Nanai." The downriver groups called themselves "Nani." Other names were based on location and the names of settlements and clans. The Nanai lived in dispersed settlements and had no collective autonym, no unified culture, and no economic unity. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Nanai were fishers and hunters, and their culture during this period is well described in the ethnographic literature.

Location. Nanai settlements are located along a 700-kilometer stretch of the lower Amur River and along its tributaries and nearby lakes. A small group of about 400 lives in the Maritime region, along the Ussuri River, and about 170 Nanai lived on Sakhalin in 1989. The environment of the lower Amur is quite rich. There are over 100 species of fish in the rivers, with the Salmonidae the most important. Each year salmon runs last for almost three months. In the past, the problem for fishers was not too few fish, but how to preserve the large quantity taken. Fish skin was used for clothing, footwear, and other everyday items. In early times, moose, deer, wild boars, and a variety of furbearing animals were hunted.

Demography. Over 88 percent of the total Nanai population of 12,023 (1989) lived in Russia. In 1979 they numbered 10,005. A small group of about 1,000 lives in China.

Linguistic Affiliation. Soviet linguists have expressed various views regarding the Nanai language. Some have classified it within the Manchu Subgroup of the Tungus-Manchu languages, whereas others place it in the "Amur Subgroup" of Tungus. Although Nanai dialectology is not completely studied, some experts classify Nanai dialects as speech varieties and others classify them as subdialects. For example, the speech of the Nanai of the Gorin River is considered a dialect by some experts and a subdialect by others.

Recent research suggets the presence in modern Nanai of features of a Pre-Tungusic language called Palaeoasiatic. Features from Turkic, Mongolian, Tungus, and Manchu languages are also found in modern Nanai; of these, the Tungusic language had the greatest influence on the Nanai language.

History and Cultural Relations

The Nanai have been a distinct culture for thousands of years. Traditional Nanai culture can be traced to the Neolithic period and to the influence of local tribes and migrant groups who entered the region over a long period, moving in from the south and west and later from the north. Tungusic influence on Nanai culture is especially marked and is second in importance only to that of the early aboriginal cultures. Later influences from Mongolian and Turkic cultural traditions are also evident but are of secondary importance. The earliest influences are most evident in Nanai fishing practices; many ancient words associated with fishing are still used. Continuation of past customs is also found in clothing preferences, especially the specialized fishing clothing made from fish skin. As with clothing, most aspects of Nanai culture show traces of complex historical development. These influences from other cultures can be found in building style, religious beliefs and practices, and kinship organization.

The Nanai always allowed the Manchu and the Nanai who resided in Manchu territory to resettle in Nanai territory. Wars with the Mongols in the thirteenth century and wars of unification in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries drove these peoples to the territory of the Amur Nanai, who allowed them to settle along the river bank and on islands; eventually intermarriage and marriage alliances took place.

Between 1858 and 1860 the Nanai were officially incorporated into Russia. By 1870 missionaries were active in the region, baptizing Nanai and opening mission schools. Russians established settlements nearby and greatly influenced Nanai culture. By the beginning of the twentieth century Russian influence was evident in the form of log dwellings, large seines, metal traps, and firearms. Vegetable gardening was also introduced by the Russians. The Russian administration encouraged Nanai participation in self-governance; there were Nanai elders in each settlement, and the Nanai participated in district administration and the courts. At the same time, the Nanai maintained some of their traditional culture into the 1920s, including the interclan courts, the territorial-neighborhood communities, and exogamous marriage rules.

The Soviet presence diminished the role of traditional practices and drew the Nanai into the Soviet nation. Beginning in the 1920s, young people began to travel to Khabarovsk and Leningrad for advanced education, and by the 1940s many young Nanai were employed as teachers and paramedics. Following World War II, a medical school was opened in Khabarovsk, and the Nanai studied there as well as in Leningrad, Novosibirsk, and Vladivostok. Today, about 25 percent of the Nanai live and work in cities in the Russian Far East.

In the 1930s a writing system was created for the Nanai language, and a considerable literature was produced. Writers and poets such as G. Khodzher, A. S. Passar, A. Smar, and others achieved international reputations. Nanai politicians became active in national politics in the 1950s. Nanai scholars are now found in Vladivostok, St. Petersburg, Khabarovsk, and Moscow.

Today, the Nanai face many problems related to local ecology and the near-disappearance of the Nanai language. For some time the Nanai have constituted only about 10 percent of the regional population, which has contributed to the disappearance of the language among those in the 20- to 30-year-old age group. For several years, efforts to revive the language have focused on language classes taught in the local schools.

Although some old traditionsespecially as regards material culturesurvive, the Nanai are today a modern people with a relatively high educational level. On the collective farms, fishers are mostly the elderly. In villages and cities the Nanai work in a range of occupations and are often highly trained and skilled. Women work mostly in service occupations, especially as teachers and in health care.


Each traditional Nanai settlement was a territorial unit, composed of several families from different clans. Most settlements had two to five dwellings, with larger ones having from ten to fifteen.

Many structures used by the Nanai into the nineteenth century had features that can be traced to the origin of Nanai cultural development. These include semispherical huts (khomira, khomara ), peak-roofed and pyramid-shaped hunting shelters (ventekhe ), and fish racks (diamko, degbimu ). When the housing style changed to one with heated sleeping benches, traditional terms continued to be used to refer to the new features. The Nanai also used conical huts of the Tungus type.


The family was the basic socioeconomic unit and owned all the basic tools and implements, buildings, means of transport, and sled dogs. Hunting territories were not owned by individuals, the family, the clan, nor the community. Hunting and fishing were carried out freely, wherever one wanted. There were traditional rules, however, that regulated the use of hunting territory (especially in the lower Amur region) and prevented disputes. The absence of laws and disputes governing land use was a result of the small number of Nanai using a very large territory, although it was also explained by some writers as a product of the "communistic" outlook of the Nanai.

Economic differentiation developed early among the Nanai owing to the fur trade with the Manchus and Chinese. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries there were trade fairs on the Sungari River, which were popular with the indigenous peoples of the region. Nanai traders served as middlemen.

Kinship and Sociopolitical Organization

The diverse origins of the Nanai are reflected in their clan composition. In the nineteenth century, there were nineteen clans ranging in size from 40 to 60 persons up to 900. Since 1897 this Nanai clan structure has remained stable. All clans on the Amur are classified into two larger groupings"downriver" (below Lake Bolon), consisting of the Samar, Gaer, Tumasli, most of the Kile, and Khodzher, and "upriver," consisting of the Perminkan, Donkan, most of the Bel'da, and others.

Each clan consisted of several branches of different origins, and in the larger clans, such as the Bel'da and Khodzher, the subclans numbered several dozen. Members of each clan were dispersed across a number of settlements (even members of the smallest clans lived in two or three villages), often at great distances from one another. Marriage was clan exogamous, making marriage alliances an important feature of Nanai cultural cohesion and cooperation. Clans with few members, those whose populations were reduced by epidemics, and migrant groups all sought unions with other clans that would benefit them. The fusion of several Nanai clans can be traced through both documentary information and legends.

Every Nanai clan was, in its origin, a complex union, the result of resettlement, fusion, enlargement, fission, and ties to other ethnic groups. Thus the development of each clan to the modern form was an extraordinarily complex process. The clans of the nineteenth century were also affected by more recent events, including the decline of some clans, the fragmentation of others, and the fusion of others. The largest clans were the Bel'da, Khodzher, Samar, and Kile. The fragments of disappearing clans were often eager to fuse with the Bel'da clan.

Small clans such as the Odzial, Saigor, Gaer, and others formed a distinctive type of alliance, the dokha, for mutual assistance. These clans were also exogamous, although a person in great need of a spouse for support, such as a widow, would sometimes be allowed to marry a man from another clan within the same dokha.

Alliances of various types were a vital component of Nanai culture and provided mutual assistance on a regular basis as well as an accompanying sense of security for individual Nanai. Mutual assistance was obligatory for all Nanai as well as outsiders; the Nanai, like their neighbors, often aided others from different ethnic groups.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Nanai religious beliefs are similar in many ways to those of other Siberian peoples, including strong beliefs in the sky and earth and animism. In the east, and especially among the Nanai of the Amur region, religious beliefs and practices have some more distinctive elements, including a belief in the soul, an interest in twins, and the shaman's role as the protector of children and adolescents.

See also Hezhen in Part Two, China


Avrorin, V. A. (1968). "Nanaiskii Iazyk (Nanai language)." Iazyki Narodov 5:129-130.

Bruk, S. I. (1981). Naselenie Mira (World population). Moscow.

"The Nanays." (1964). In The Peoples of Siberia, edited by M. G. Levin and L. P. Potapov, 691-720. Translated by Stephen P. Dunn and Ethel Dunn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in Russian in 1956.

Smolyak, A. V. (1975). Etnicheskie protsessy u narodov nizhnego Amura i Sakhalin (Ethnic process and peoples of the lower Amur and Sakhalin). Moscow.

Smolyak, A. V. (1978). "Some Notes on the Human Soul among the Nanais." In Shamanism in Siberia. Budapest.

A. B. SMOLYAK (Translated by Lydia T. Black)