The Oroqen are one of the fifty-five officially recognized ethnic minorities of the People's Republic of China. They are found in Heilongjiang Province (Huma, Xunke, Aihui, and Jiayin counties) and the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region (mainly in Hulun Buir League). Their language,which belongs to the Tungus Branch of the Manchu-Tungus Family of Altaic languages, has no script. "Oroqen" means "mountain people" or "reindeer herders"; both are accurate descriptions of their environment and traditional way of life. Roving in the Greater and Lesser Hinggan mountains during long cold winters and greatly abbreviated summers, they are known as excellent hunters. According to the 1990 census, the Oroqen population stands at 6,965.
History and Cultural Relations
Originally Oroqen lived between the Outer Hinggan Mountains to the north and the Heilong (Amur) River to the south. Together with Ewenkis and Daurs they were historically termed the "Sulun Tribes." To escape czarist Russian invasion and plunder, they crossed the Heilong River and came to their present habitat in the middle of the seventeenth century. During the Qing dynasty under Manchu rulers, they were divided into Horse-Riding Oroqens and Foot Oroqens, with the former incorporated into the Eight-Banner System serving as soldiers, and the latter still hunting to provide precious marten fur to the Qing court. After 1911 warlords recruited Oroqen youth and organized the so-called forest guerrillas. The rest were forced to settle as agriculturalists. The invading Japanese disbanded them in 1931 and drove them into the forest again, with their youth conscripted to form what the Japanese called the "forest detachment." The Japanese introduced opium and sometimes used the Oroqen as guinea pigs for bacterial experiments. The Oroqen population declined drastically, and at the time of Japanese surrender in 1945, barely 1,000 were left. In 1951 the Oroqen Autonomous Banner and several ethnic Oroqen xiangs (local government units comprising several villages each) were established, and the Oroqen people began to be incorporated into the national life of the People's Republic. Besides their principal economic life as hunters and agriculturists, they also serve as forest-fire fighters, being well known for their bravery and dedication.
Traditional Oroqen dwellings are tents constructed of some thirty long poles standing in a circle and tied together at the top, somewhat like Native-American tipis. They are covered with animal skins in winter and birch bark in summer. At the center of the tent is the fireplace for warmth and cooking. These conical dwellings often stand in a single line or form an arch below a mountain slope near a river.
After the 1950s most tents were replaced by houses built with bricks and tiles provided by the local government, as the people were encouraged to settle down for agriculture.
The Oroqen were hunters who also engaged in some fishing and collecting. Hunting dogs were indispensable. Sturdy and large-hoofed horses obtained from the Manchus and Mongols were the principal transport and source of hunting mobility. Use of shotguns enhanced their hunting activities and later led to their excellent marksmanship. They hunted throughout the year, with different purposes in different seasons: in May and June for antlers, in September for venison and male organs of the deer, and after snowfall for furs.
Collective hunting was normally organized within traditional regional communes called wulilengs. Hunting groups of three to five hunters, called anag, were formed under the leadership of a tatanda, who was usually the most senior member in the group, with rich hunting experience. Meat was divided equally among the participating hunters with portions reserved for the aged, sick, and disabled. The head, internal organs, and bones with little meat were cooked and shared by all wulileng members. Anags were temporary and disbanded at the end of each hunting expedition.
Both genders could hunt and fish, though normally these activities were pursued by men. Young women were trained in tanning, drying meat, collecting, and needlework. The Oroqen are excellent tanners and make handsome leather works. Their embroidery is known for its delicate and exquisite designs. They also make beautiful basins, bowls, boxes, and other containers out of birch bark, with bird, animal, and flower designs. The Oroqen came into contact with the neighboring Daurs, Ewenkis, Mongols, Manchus, and Han quite early. They provided the Qing court with fur, leather, and other forest products as tribute and in return received food grain, cloth, and implements as rewards. Later, their trade with the outside was monopolized by Oroqen officials known as andas. In recent years, under China's social reform and economic development policy, the Oroqen economy has been diversified, agriculture and forest-based industry have changed the previous hunting economy, and the Oroqen are becoming more and more integrated into the regional and national economic system. Cultural changes are profound.
Kinship and Sociopolitical Organization
Until the middle of the seventeenth century the Oroqen were organized into seven exogamous clans, called mokuns. A mokunda, the head of a clan, enjoyed high respect and authority. Decisions were made by consensus. Later, to provide marriage partners, new clans evidently split off following solemn religious ceremonies. These clans developed into wulilengs, meaning "offsprings," comprised of patrilineal families. Wulilengs were basic economic units, each managed by a democratically elected tatanda. Use of iron implements, horses, and shotguns soon changed Oroqen social Organization, with nuclear families replacing wulilengs as the basic economic unit. Each family was free to join or leave a wulileng, and the title of tatanda was only used for hunting leaders.
The Oroqen are monogamous. Marriage was traditionally arranged by the parents, with the bridegroom's family paying a bride-price in horses. Before marriage it was arranged for the betrothed to sleep together on the occasion of the marriage contract and the gift-giving ceremonies. The nuptial night was spent in the house of the bride's parents, and the couple went to live with the bridegroom's clan after that. Divorce was not common. After the death of the husband, the widow had to remain unmarried for for at least three years. If a son had been born, she was required to remain a widow all her life. Property was passed down through the male line; a divorced woman was not allowed to take even the dowry she brought from her own parents.
Religion and Expressive Culture
The Oroqen were animists. They worshiped many natural objects and elements with shamans acting as messengers between human beings and gods. Shamans were those who had experienced prolonged illness. Though Oroqens hunted bears, tigers, and wolves, they never dared to mention these animal names as they also would not mention the names of their own ancestors. They called tiger "old man" or "great grandfather" (wutaqi ) and bear "grandfather," "grandmother," or "maternal uncle" (yatai, taitie, and amaha respectively). They held rituals asking for forgiveness before they ate the meat of the bear, and carried out a formal burial for it. Among the gods they worshiped were the mountain god who ensured successful hunting, the fire goddess who provided warmth, and others such as the rain god, thunder god, sun god, moon god, etc. Behind their tents, they hung birch boxes containing their gods, which were not to be touched by women. Women should avoid going behind the tent altogether. In childbirth, a woman had to stay in a small hut built specially for the purpose.
There were many taboos in Oroqen life. They never made specific plans for hunting, believing that animals had the power to detect such schemes. Every year each family held rituals to worship the fire god, offering meat and wine, and at the same time offering prayers for happiness. During the New Year, guests would bring their own meat and wine, and began their visit by worshiping the fire god with the host family. Ancestor worship formed a part of their belief system. Wind burial was practiced, in which the deceased was placed in a hollowed tree trunk suspended on tree studs 1.5 meters from the ground. If the coffin did not fall to the ground within three years, a special ritual was held to redeem the sins of the dead, so that, like others, he or she would be recalled by the sun god to heaven and become a star.
National Minorities Commission, ed. (1981). Zhongguo shaoshu minzu (China's national minorities). Beijing: Peoples Press.
Qiu Pu (1980). Elunchun shehui de fazhan (Social development of the Oroqens). Shanghai: Shanghai Peoples Press.
Qiu Pu (1981). Elunchun ren (The Oroqens). Beijing: Nationalities Press.
Zhongguo da baike quanshu (Encyclopedia Sinica) (1986). Vol. 20, Minzu (Nationalities), 147-148. Beijing: Encyclopedia Sinica Press.