Skip to main content
Select Source:

Ewenki

Ewenki

PRONUNCIATION: ee-WEHN-kee

ALTERNATE NAMES: Kamonikan; Suolun; Tongusi; Yakute

LOCATION: China; Mongolia

POPULATION: 30,000

LANGUAGE: Ewenki; Chinese

RELIGION: Traditional beliefs; Lamaism; Eastern Orthodox Christianity

1 INTRODUCTION

Until the mid-twentieth century, the Ewenki living in different areas were called by various names: Suolun, Tongusi, Yakute, and others. In 1957, they chose a unified name: Ewenki, which means "people living in the wooded mountains." The ancestors of the Ewenki lived northeast of Lake Baikal and in the forest bordering the Shilka River. They survived by hunting, fishing, and raising reindeer. In the early 1600s, the Manchus of northeast China conquered the Ewenki (known by a different name then). In the early 1700s, the Qing of China sent Ewenkis to a military post in a grassland region that would later become Mongolia. The Ewenki were allowed to bring their wives and children along, so the ended up settling there, becoming the direct ancestors of the present-day Ewenki. Modern Ewenki are hunters, farmers, or nomadic pastoraliststhose who raise domesticated animals and wander with their herds in search of pasture and water.

2 LOCATION

The Ewenki number over 30,000 people. They are mainly scattered in Inner Mongolia, living together with the Mongols and Chinese. The region where they live in small, tight communities is called Ewenki Autonomous Qi County. It is a hilly grassland with more than 600 lakes, as well as a large number of rivers flowing in all directions.

3 LANGUAGE

The Ewenki language belongs to the Altaic linguistic family. There are three dialects but there is no writing system. Ewenki children are educated in schools set up in pastoral (rural) areas. Schools use the Mongolian language, both oral and written. In agricultural and mountainous areas, however, Chinese language and characters are widely used.

4 FOLKLORE

The origin of humankind is explained in the following Ewenki myth: After the creation of the sky and the earth, the god Enduli made ten men and ten women from the skeletons of birds. Encouraged by his success, he planned to make more men and women, one hundred of each. He made men first, but in the process of his great work, he nearly ran out of bird skeletons. He had to use soil as an extra material to make the women. As a result, the women were weaker, a part of their body being made of soil.

The Ewenki have a special reverence for fire. This may be related to the severe cold of their environment and is reflected in one of their main myths. A woman was injured by a shower of sparks from the household hearth (fireplace). Angered by her pain, she drew her sword and stabbed violently at the hearth until the fire died out. The following day, she tried but could not light a fire. She had to ask for a burning charcoal from her neighbor. Leaving her house, she found an old woman crying miserably, with a bleeding eye. She asked the old woman what had happened to her. The old woman said: "It was you who stabbed me blind yesterday." The woman, suddenly realizing what had happened, asked the Fire God for forgiveness. The Fire God finally pardoned her. From then on, she never failed in lighting a fire. Up to the present, the Ewenki throw a piece of food or a small cup of wine into the fire as an offering to the Fire God before meals. Sprinkling water on a fire or poking a fire with a sword while roasting meat is taboo (forbidden).

5 RELIGION

The traditional beliefs of the Ewenki are rooted in shamanism (the belief in good and evil spirits that can be influenced by the shaman or holy person) and totemism (the practice of having animals or natural objects as personal and clan symbols). Ewenki religion stresses the worship of ancestors, animals, and nature. Special rituals are performed for Jiya (the livestock god), and fire. Fire should never be allowed to die out, even when Ewenki families migrate.

In some areas, all the clans of the Ewenki have a bird totem, such as the eagle, swan, or duck. Whenever a bird flies overhead, they sprinkle a little milk in the air. Killing or doing harm to a bird is considered taboo, especially if the bird is one's own totem. Almost every clan has a shaman, who explains the cause of disease, predicts and explains fortune and misfortune, exorcises (drives out) ghosts, and dances in a trance.

In some pastoral areas, the Ewenki believe in Lamaism, the Tibetan form of Buddhism adopted by the majority of Mongols. In some areas, one finds communities belonging to the Eastern Orthodox Church, a remnant of Russia's influence in the region in earlier centuries.

6 MAJOR HOLIDAYS

Some Ewenki holidays are the same as those celebrated by the Chinese. Unique Ewenki festivals include Aobao Gathering and the Mikuole Festival.

Aobao is a Mongolian term meaning "a pile." It consists of a pile of stones and adobe bricks, surrounded by a particular number of poles from which multicolored silk streamers are hung. Some streamers are covered with sacred Buddhist inscriptions. According to Ewenki shamanic beliefs, the Aobao is regarded as the dwelling of God. In some areas, the Aoboa is a large tree. The Aobao Gathering is one of the most important festivals of the Ewenki. It is held around June or July on the lunar calendar (between June 22 and August 21 on the Western calendar). Oxen and sheep are slaughtered as sacrificial offerings. The festival includes popular sporting events such as horse racing and wrestling.

The Mikuole Festival is essentially a fair of the livestock raisers. It is held in the last ten days of lunar May (between June 11 and July 21 on the Western calendar). Horses are branded and their long manes are shaved; sheep's ears are tattooed with the owner's mark. This is a special occasion for villagers to call on each other and to gather for dinner parties. The Ewenki also celebrate the Spring Festival (lunar New Year; between January 21 and February 20 on the Western calendar), which is a common holiday for all the nationalities of China.

7 RITES OF PASSAGE

Regardless of gender, the young pastoral Ewenki start to look after calves at age six or seven. Boys learn to ride a horse by age seven, and are taught how to lasso and break in a horse shortly afterward. Girls learn to milk cows at age ten. The children pay due respect to their elders, saluting them by bending at the knee and cupping the hands in front of the chest. The seats and beds in a room are assigned on the basis of generation. Traditionally the Ewenki practiced tree burial (or wind burial). The corpse was placed in a coffin, or wrapped with bark or willow twigs and then hung high in a tree. The blowing of the wind, drenching of the rain, scorching of the sun, and beaming of the moon were believed to transform the dead into a star. Ground burial is now more common under the influence of the neighboring nationalities.

8 RELATIONSHIPS

The visit of a guest is always a happy event. A fur cushion is offered by the host. The guest sits on the cushion wherever it is; any shift of its place is considered impolite behavior. The hostess serves deer milk, deer meat, toasted cake, and homemade wild fruit wine. The host pours a few drops of wine on the fire, takes a sip for himself, and then hands the cup over to the guest.

Hunters store their food, clothes, and tools in their storehouse in the forest, which is never locked. Any hunter is allowed to take food from the storehouse as needed without prior agreement with the owner. When he meets the owner, he should, however, return the amount of food taken.

9 LIVING CONDITIONS

The traditional Ewenki house resembles an umbrella framed by twenty-five to thirty poles covered with birch bark and deerskin. One side with a door is used as the living room. The other three sides are all platforms for sleeping. In the center is a fiery pit with a pan hanging over it. An opening at the top allows for ventilation. The tablet of the ancestors is attached to the top of the central wooden column.

In hunting areas, the house is a wooden cube. The walls are built by piling up logs, and the roof is made of birch bark. In some areas, Ewenki live in a Mongolian-style yurt or ger a framed tent made of felt or hide. Construction of a ger is described in the section on Living Conditions in the "Mongols" article in this chapter.

10 FAMILY LIFE

The Ewenki live in small families that are patrilineal (tracing ancestry through the father's bloodline). Since they need to help each other hunt and search for pastures, they form nomadic villages. Villages, whether nomadic or sedentary (agricultural), have a clan structure in which each family has blood ties with the other families.

Ewenki families are monogamous. In the past, arranged marriage was common. Nowadays, the custom of "elopement marriage" is common. A young man and woman pretend to elope with the participation of both families. (The young man's family even prepares a new house for the couple ahead of time.) The couple enact a sequence of rituals with each family, honoring ancestors, asking forgiveness, and begging both sets of parents to accept their marriage. Afterward, all members of the clan congratulate the couple. A huge banquet follows, with dancing and singing.

11 CLOTHING

In former times, both sexes wore a long fur robe covering the ankles, and a long coat down to the knees. The cuffs and the bottom of the women's robes were embroidered with multicolored figures and designs. They all wore fur hats. Today, Ewenki mostly wear cloth robes, and padded cotton garments in winter. The dress of urban Ewenki is similar to that of the Chinese.

12 FOOD

The Ewenki's staple food is animal meat, including deer meat, mutton (sheep), beef, and pork of wild hog. They also eat grains such as Chinese sorghum, corn, millet, oats, and buckwheat. On account of the cold climate, vegetables are scarce. "Cooked meat held in hand" is very popular during festivals. The meat, attached to the bone, is chopped in big pieces and is half-cooked with a little salt. Gruel (hot cereal) with milk, another popular food, is also a sacrificial offering to the gods.

13 EDUCATION

Most of the Ewenki were illiterate (unable to read or write) in the past. Today, primary school education in the Ewenki Autonomous Qi County has become popular. Eighteen middle schools (junior and senior) have been set up. A growing number of students enroll in the university. Compared to other nationalities, however, education is at a low level.

14 CULTURAL HERITAGE

Ewenki folk songs, slow and loose, evoke the vast expanses of the grassland. Dancing styles vary according to region and occasion. A dance called Ahanba is performed by women at wedding ceremonies. There are no accompanying instruments; the tempo (speed) is set by the singers' voices. Each group consists of two to four dancers. In the beginning, they cry softly, "A-Han-Ba, A-Han-Ba," while swinging their arms. Then they turn face to face, and bend their knees. The tempo is gradually increased and the rhythm is intensified by the movement of their feet until they are dancing in full swing. Another dance, performed by two young men, acts out a confrontation between a hunter and a wild hog.

Ewenki literature has been handed down orally; it includes myths, tales, folk songs, and riddles.

15 EMPLOYMENT

The frequent migrations of the Ewenki over the course of history have resulted in scattered communities. Due to the significant difference of natural environments in which they lived, their lifestyle varied a great deal. There are four major lifestyles: livestock husbandry (raising domesticated animals), mixed economy (half farming and half hunting), farming, and hunting. Hunters ride deer and are thus called "deer-back-riding Ewenki."

16 SPORTS

The Ewenki start to ride, lasso, and break in horses early in their childhood. Later, they frequently gather to learn arrow shooting, high jumping, pole vaulting, long jumping, and skiing. Brave hunters and capable herders have mastered these skills by the time they are adults. Horse lassoing is a popular competition, and is a part of many festivals.

As early as 1,300 years ago, the ancestors of the Ewenki, called Shiwei, made a primitive form of skis. The skis used nowadays by the Ewenki for hunting are just an improved version of the Shiwei "snow-sliding boards."

17 RECREATION

Most of the areas where the Ewenki live have a movie theater and a television station. Film studios and television broadcasting stations have been set up in Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang Province. Therefore, most Ewenki have access to television on a daily basis.

In remote hunting areas, old hunters are master storytellers, spinning tales about ancient and modern heroes in their fight against the harsh environment and wild animals. This is still the preferred form of entertainment.

Children enjoy outdoor activities. They use pieces of sheep ankle bone, dyed different colors, to play a kind of horse racing game. This could be compared to a homemade board game.

18 CRAFTS AND HOBBIES

The Ewenki excel in designing and producing tools for daily use. They also make toys from birch bark. Painting on birch bark is a common and well-known art of the Ewenki. Canoes made of birch bark, besides their unique design, provide swift and easy transport on the many lakes and rivers of the Ewenki land.

19 SOCIAL PROBLEMS

Poverty and isolation are serious problems confronting the Ewenki. Their scattered communities, harsh environment, illiteracy, and the absence of a market economy make these problems difficult to solve.

20 BIBLIOGRAPHY

Eberhard, Wolfram. China's Minorities: Yesterday and Today. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1982.

Heberer, Thomas. China and Its National Minorities: Autonomy or Assimilation? Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1989.

Ma Yin, ed. China's Minority Nationalities. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1989.

Ramsey, S. Robert. The Languages of China. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

WEBSITES

World Travel Guide. Mongolia. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/mn/gen.html, 1998.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ewenki." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Ewenki." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 17, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ewenki

"Ewenki." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved November 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ewenki

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Ewenki

Ewenki

ETHNONYMS: Sulun, Tungus, Yakut


Orientation

Identification. The Ewenki are one of the fifty-five officially recognized minority nationalities of the People's Republic of China. Also known as "Tungus," "Yakut," and "Sulun," they are mainly found in the Ewenki Autonomous Banner, Chen Barag Banner, Butha Banner, Arun Banner, Ergun Left Banner, Morin Dawa Daur Autonomous Banner, etc. of the Hulun Buir League in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, and in Nahe County of Heilongjiang Province. The description below focuses on the traditional way of life, as changes since 1949 have been major.

Location. Most of their territory is in the forest and on the grassland on the western slope of the Greater Hinggan Mountains, an area also inhabited by Mongols, Daur, Han, and Oroqen. Under the influence of the Siberian winds, the climate is severe, with a long snowy winter and virtually no summer.

Demography. The Ewenki population, according to the 1990 census, is 26,315.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Ewenki language, comprising three dialects, belongs to the Tungus Branch of the Manchu-Tungus Family of Altaic languages. It has no script. Nomadic Ewenki also speak and write in the Mongolian language, while farming Ewenki and those living near the mountains also speak and write in Han Chinese.


History and Cultural Relations

The Ewenki trace their origin to a people known in Chinese history as "Shiweis" who lived by fishing, hunting, and reindeer breeding in the forests east of Lake Baikal and along the Shailka River, the upper reaches of the Heilong (Amur) River. Their name in Tungus means "forest people." Historically they were often grouped together with Oroqens and Daurs, who share much of their cultural tradition, and referred to as the "Sulun Tribes." They were under the rule of the Manchu even before the Russians invaded the Heilong River valley. After the Manchu took over all of China, the Ewenki were organized by the Manchu into zuos, administrative units based on clan organization. The Manchu extracted marten from them as tributes. After the middle of the seventeenth century, because of Russian invasion, the Qing court moved them to the valley areas of the N en River, integrating them into the banner system and recruiting soldiers among them to serve along the northern borders for defense. At the end of the nineteenth century they were part of the Boxer Rebellion, and later they played an important role in the anti-Japanese war. Wars, diseases, etc., drastically reduced their population. After the founding of the People's Republic, the government of China carried out a policy of social reform and economic development; the Ewenki were gradually integrated into the national efforts for modernization.


Settlements and Economy

Most of the Ewenki in the Ewenki Autonomous Banner and Chen Barag Banner are engaged in animal husbandry; the Ewenki in Nahe are agriculturists; in Ergun some are hunters and the rest supplement their agriculture with hunting. Pastoral Ewenki live in felt tents, a shelter that suits their nomadic way of life as they move seasonally from place to place looking for good pastures for their horses, oxen, and goats. They organized themselves into nomadic units called nimal, usually comprised of several nuclear households belonging to the same clan. Nimal became feudalistic economic units characterized by owner-tenant relations. Although pasture belonged to the whole nimal, herds were owned privately.

The hunting Ewenki, before they settled down in the 1950s, roamed the primitive forests, driving their reindeer and following the tracks of game, mainly elk, deer, roe deer, and squirrels. They lived in xianrenzhu, a tent with long wooden poles forming a conical hut covered with animal hides or birch bark. They organized themselves into wulileng, comprised of blood-related households, as basic economic units in which they hunted and shared the game equally on the basis of households. The hunter who fired the fatal shot customarily took the least-desirable share, but care was always taken to provide for the aged, sick, and the disabled. They stored their food and other belongings in a casual manner. Anybody in need could take what they wanted and return later, with no consent from the owner necessary. Normally a wulileng would contain five to six householdsat most a dozenunder the leadership of an elected xinmamaleng, who was responsible for organizing collective hunting assignments. Usually hunting was carried out in groups of four to five hunters, called angnaga. Reindeer served as the main transport for their belongings, especially their xianrenzhus. They also rode reindeer when they huntedexcept in winter, when they used ski boards. Hunting dogs were indispensable, and they used shotguns extensively. They maintained regular barter with outsiders, exchanging their game, fur, and forest produce for food grain, clothes, and implements. Today, embroidery, carving, and painting are still popular, and Ewenki like to make bird and animal toys with birch bark.

In recent years their economic life has undergone tremendous change, having diversified into substantial small- and medium-scale industries. They organized hunting in collectives and then production brigades. Tasks in animal husbandry such as grass cutting, transportation, water supply, herd bathing, wool processing, etc., are mechanized.


Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Monogamy is practiced among the Ewenki and clan exogamy has been the norm. Boys and girls enjoy considerable freedom in choosing their spouses, although there have been cases of arranged marriages in which a girl of 17-18 may marry a boy of 7-8. In Chen Barag, elopement still occurs. The couple in love may set up a felt tent with a xianrenzhu beside it. During the night, the girl sneaks out and gallops away with her lover, and in the newly built xianrenzhu an elderly woman marries them simply by rearranging the girl's eight pigtails into two. Normally after the nuptial night spent with the bride's family, the newlyweds set up their own household within the husband's clan. Divorce is rare. Both levirate (excluding the elder brothers of the husband) and sororate (excluding the elder sisters of the wife) were common. Cross-cousin marriage, as the preferential marriage form, is no longer practiced.

Descent and inheritance traditionally followed the male line. The family head was the eldest male, but pieces of family property, such as shotguns and reindeers, were passed on to the youngest son.

Ewenki kinship terminology is partially classificatory and partially descriptive. While terms for father, mother, husband, and wife are definite and clear, other terms are not, making very little distinction between relatives from the father's side and those from the mother's side. Sex distinctions are clear in some instances but not so clear in others. The Ewenki seem to be more conscious of relative age than of generation differences, and sometimes they use the same term for people of different generations.

Socialization is informal and begins early. Hunting and tending herds are the principal themes. Competitions are frequently held to encourage learning of these necessary skills, and both boys and girls participate in horse racing and lassoing horses.

Sociopolitical Organization

The last tribal chief of the Ewenki died in 1761, and with him the tribal organization. Various clans then scattered and moved on their own. Every clan elected its head and his assistant. Their tenure depended on their abilities and behavior; they enjoyed no privilege whatsoever and worked like anybody else. The responsibility of a clan head included settling disputes and calling clan meetings attended by family heads to discuss important issues. The Ewenki used to adopt members of other clans to increase the population of their clans; they even adopted captives for the same reason. Blood feuds were common between clans. Below the clan was the wulileng, a type of family commune; the typical ones were formed by blood relatives, while some others may have included members from different clans. The xinmamaleng, leader of the wulileng, was elected from its members and was usually the best hunter, brave, and candid. Important issues were settled at wulileng meetings attended by either the oldest male or female member of each family. The man with the longest beard enjoyed the most respect.

Social control was mainly effected through persuasion and public opinion; to lose face was a grave matter.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Although some pastoral Ewenki are Lamaist Buddhists, the Ewenki as a whole are animists, worshiping many natural elements including the wind god, mountain god, fire god, etc., and various protective gods who ensure their success in hunting and herding and general good health. Totems were prevalent, especially of bears and birds. Although they ate bear meat, they referred to bears with the same terms they would use for their most respected ancestors. The Ewenki conducted a formal ceremony while eating bear meat, following it with the same ritual observed for their own deada wind burial in which they placed the bones in a hollow tree trunk suspended on tree stumps. Ancestor worship was another feature of traditional Ewenki religious practice. They believed in an eternal soul that would separate from the body after death. Because of the influence of the Russian Orthodox church, they have changed from wind burial to earth burial. Maru is the term they used to refer to all gods, including their clan god, shewoke. They offered animal blood, meat, and fat to the gods. It was strictly forbidden for women to go near the shrines.

The Ewenki accepted only some basic ceremonies from the Russian Orthodox church; shamanism remained the prevalent form of religious belief. Shamans were highly respected and expected nothing in return for their services. They could be either men or women who had had the experience of long illness and, especially, mental problems. In many cases, as among the Ewenki in Ergun Banner, the clan chief might be the shaman. The Ewenki relied on shamans to cure the sick and, at the same time, they discovered the curing effects of certain herbs and internal organs of animals. Veterinary medicine was developed for their reindeer.

Bibliography

Jiang Chunfang, Shi Lei, Li Shijie, et al., eds. (1986). Zhongguo da baike quanshu (Encyclopedia Sinica). Vol. 20, Minzu (Nationalities). Beijing: Encyclopedia Sinica Press.


National Minorities Commission, ed. (1981). Zhongguo shaoshu minzu (China's national minorities). Beijing: Peoples Press.

Qiu Pu (1962). Ewenki ren de yuanshi shehui xingtai (Primitive social formations of the Ewenki). Beijing: Zhonghua Press.

LIU XINGWU

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ewenki." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Ewenki." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 17, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ewenki

"Ewenki." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved November 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ewenki

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Ewenki

Ewenki

ALTERNATE NAMES: Kamonikan; Suolun; Tongusi; Yakute
LOCATION: China; Mongolia
POPULATION: 30,200
LANGUAGE: Ewenki and Chinese
RELIGION: Traditional beliefs, Lamaism, and Christianity
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: China and Her National Minorities

INTRODUCTION

The ancestors of the Ewenki dwelled northeast of Lake Baikal and in the forest bordering on the Shilka River. They lived from hunting, fishing, and raising reindeer. The Ewenki are historically linked to the Shiwei (especially the Bei Shiwei and the Bo Shiwei), as recorded in the ancient books in the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534). In 544, the Shiwei began to pay tribute to the Eastern Wei Dynasty (534–550). The imperial Tang Dynasty (618–907) set up a government office in the area where the ancestors of Ewenki dwelled. Later on, they moved eastward. A branch moved as far as the middle reaches of the Heilongjiang River. The ancient books in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) called them "the forest people." Under the Ming (1368–1644) and the Qing (1644–1911) dynasties they were called "the northern mountains deer riding people." From 1633 to 1640, the Manchus of northeast China conquered the Ewenki (at that time called "Kamonikan" and "Suolun"), who had to pay tribute to the Qing imperial government. After the mid-17th century, because of the invasion of Manchu territory by czarist Russia, the Qing moved the Ewenki to the Nen River Valley, close to the Greater Xing'an Mountains. In 1732, the imperial Qing placed more than 1,600 "Kamonikan" soldiers in garrison in the Hulunbeir grassland. They were allowed to bring their wives and children along. They finally settled there and became the direct ancestors of the present-day Ewenki.

LOCATION AND HOMELAND

The Ewenki amount to more than 30,200 people in 2000. They are mainly scattered in Inner Mongolia, living together with the Mongols, Daur, Chinese, and Oroqen. The region where they live in compact communities is called Ewenki Autonomous Qi County, a hilly grassland with more than 600 lakes as well as a large number of rivers flowing in all directions. Ewenki villages are also found in Nehe District in Heilongjiang Province.

LANGUAGE

Ewenki belongs to the Altaic linguistic family, Manchu-Tungusic group, Tungusic branch. There are three dialects but no writing system. Ewenki children are educated in schools set up in pastoral areas using Mongolian language, both oral and written. In agricultural and mountainous areas, however, Chinese language and characters are widely used.

Until the mid-20th century, the Ewenki living in different areas were called by various names: Suolun, Tongusi, Yakute, and so on. In 1957, according to their will, a unified name was adopted: Ewenki, which means "people living in the wooded mountains."

FOLKLORE

The origin of mankind is explained as follows in an Ewenki myth: After the creation of the sky and the earth, the god Enduli made 10 men and 10 women from the skeletons of birds. Encouraged by his success, he planned to make more men and women, 100 of each. He made men first, but in the process of his great work, he nearly ran out of bird skeletons. He had to use soil as a supplement to fashion the women. As a result, the women were weaker, a part of their body being made of soil.

The Ewenki have a special reverence for fire. This may be related to their tough Nordic environment and is reflected in one of their main myths. A woman was injured by a shower of sparks from the household hearth. Angered by her pain, she drew her sword and stabbed violently at the hearth until the fire died out. The following day, she tried in vain to light a fire. She had to ask for a burning charcoal from her neighbor. Leaving her house, she found an old woman crying miserably, with a bleeding eye. Replying to her queries, the old woman said: "It was you who stabbed me blind yesterday." The woman, suddenly realizing what had happened, kowtowed to the Fire God and asked for her forgiveness. The Fire God finally pardoned her. From then on, she never failed in lighting a fire. Up to the present, the Ewenki throw a piece of food or a small cup of wine into the fire as an offering before meals. However, sprinkling water on a fire or poking a fire with a sword during meat roasting is taboo.

RELIGION

The traditional beliefs of the Ewenki are rooted in shamanism and totemism, stressing worship of ancestors, animals, and nature. Special rituals are performed for Jiya (the livestock god) and fire. Fire should never be allowed to die out, even when Ewenki families migrate. Among the hunters, a number of rites and taboos demonstrate their reverence for the bear. When a bear is killed in hunting, they wrap its head, bones, and internal organs in birch bark or straw, then hang them in a tree. They kowtow, pretend to cry, and offer tobacco. In some areas, all the clans of the Ewenki have a bird totem, such as the eagle, swan, or duck. Whenever a bird flies overhead, they sprinkle a little milk in the air. Killing or doing harm to a bird is considered taboo, especially if the bird is one's own totem. Almost every clan has a shaman. He is not a professional, often playing the role of headman of a clan or a tribe and enjoying high status. The shaman explains the cause of disease, divines fortune and misfortune, exorcizes ghosts, and dances in a trance. He expects no reward.

In some pastoral areas, the Ewenki believe in Lamaism, the Tibetan form of Buddhism adopted by the majority of Mongols. In some areas, one finds communities belonging to the Eastern Orthodox Church, a remnant of czarist Russia's influence from the 17th to the 19th century.

MAJOR HOLIDAYS

In agricultural areas, the festivals of the Ewenki are not different from those of the Chinese. In pastoral areas, their festivals include Aobao Gathering and the Mikuole Festival. Aobao is a Mongolian term meaning "a pile"; it consists of a pyramidal pile of stones and adobes, flanked by a certain number of poles from which float multicolored silk streamers. Some streamers are covered with sacred Buddhist inscriptions. The Aobao is regarded as the dwelling of God in shamanism. In some areas, the Aoboa is a large tree, called the Aobao tree. The Aobao Gathering, one of the most important festivals of the Ewenki, is held around June or July on the lunar calendar (Western calendar, between June 22 and August 21). Oxen and sheep are slaughtered as sacrificial offerings. The festival includes popular sporting events, such as horse racing and wrestling. The Mikuole Festival is essentially a fair of the stock raisers. It is held in the last ten days of lunar May (Western calendar, between June 11 and July 21). Horses are branded and their overlong manes are shaved; the sheep's ears are incised with the owner's mark. This is a special occasion for villagers to call on each other and to gather in dinner parties. The Ewenki also celebrate the Spring Festival (lunar New Year; Western calendar between January 21 and February 20), which is a common holiday for all the nationalities of China.

RITES OF PASSAGE

Regardless of gender, the young pastoral Ewenki start to look after calves at six or seven. Boys learn to ride a horse at seven and lasso and break in a horse shortly afterwards. Girls learn to milk cows at 10. The children pay due respect to their elders. Meeting them, the youngsters always salute by bending at the knee and cupping the hands in front of the chest. The seats and beds in the room are assigned on the basis of generation. Traditionally, the Ewenki practiced tree burial (or wind burial). The corpse was placed in a coffin or wrapped with bark or willow twigs and then hung high in a tree. The blowing of the wind, drenching of the rain, scorching of the sun, and beaming of the moon were regarded as effective in transforming the dead into a star. Ground burial is now more and more prevalent under the influence of the neighboring nationalities.

INTERPERSONAL RELATIONS

"People coming from afar," the Ewenki say, "cannot carry their own house on their back; nor can we when we go out." The visit of a guest is always a happy event. A fur cushion will be offered by the host. The guest sits on the cushion wherever it is; any shift of its place is considered impolite behavior. The hostess will carry a birch wood tray and serve deer milk, deer meat, toasted cake, and homemade wild fruit wine. The host will pour a few drops of wine on the fire first, then takes a sip for himself and finally hands the cup over to the guest.

The huntsmen store their food, clothes, and tools in their storehouse in the forest, which is never locked. Any huntsman is allowed to take food from the storehouse as needed without prior agreement with the owner. He should, however, return the amount of food taken when he meets the owner.

Arranged marriages are now abandoned. The youngsters will not lose any opportunity to choose a partner. Unfortunately, opportunities are rather limited in the pastoral areas on account of the great distance between villages and of the clan structure of individual villages.

LIVING CONDITIONS

The traditional Ewenki house resembles an umbrella, more than 10 ft in height and 13 ft in diameter, framed by 25–30 poles covered with birch bark and roe or deer skin. One side, provided with a door, is used as the living room. The other three sides are all platforms for sleeping. A fiery pit is in the center, with a pan hanging over it. There is an opening at the top for ventilation. The tablet of the ancestors is attached to the top of the central wooden column.

In hunting areas, the house is a wooden cube. The walls are built by piling up logs. The roof is made of birch bark. In some areas, they live in Mongolian-style yurt.

Bicycles, horses, and cars are the main modes of transport of the Ewenki. The epidemic and endemic diseases of bygone days have now been controlled. Hospitals have been set up in various localities of the Ewenki Autonomous Qi County.

FAMILY LIFE

The Ewenki live in small patrilineal families. Since they need mutual help in hunting and in searching pastures, they form nomadic villages. Villages, whether nomadic or sedentary (agricultural), have a clan structure in which each family has blood ties with the other families.

Ewenki families are monogamous. Marriage practices retain remnants of clan society, such as the marriage of cousins and inter-clan marriage. In bygone days, arranged marriage was prevalent. The parents of two families "engaged" their children when they were just a few years old or even before they were born. This led to precocious marriage. As an alternative, the custom of "elopement marriage" emerged. The date of elopement is agreed upon by the young man and woman who are passionately in love. The parents of the male side prepare a new house beforehand and an old woman is waiting there for the eloping girl. After dark, the girl escapes from her family. Riding on horseback, she comes directly to the new house. The old woman unties the girl's eight braids and combs her hair into two large ones. This is a symbol that the marriage is now "legal." Before dawn, the couple goes to the man's paternal house and kowtows to the fire and to the tablet of his ancestors. Then, two persons are sent to the bride's family, first to offer hada (a ceremonial silk scarf) to her ancestors and then to kowtow. They explain their purpose in coming, ask forgiveness and promise obedience. After long hours of persuasion, the bride's parents finally agree. Consequently, all members of the clan congratulate the couple, who kowtow to the clan's ancestors, to the village Fire God, and to the bridegroom's parents. A sumptuous banquet follows, guests and relatives dancing and singing with utter delight.

There has been no inhibition of intermarriage between the Ewenki and other nationalities. The intermarriage with the Daur has a long history and is very popular. Some families and clans intermarried for generations. Thus, the Ewenki and the Daur are called two "familial nationalities."

CLOTHING

In former times, both sexes donned a long fur robe covering the ankles and a long coat down to the knees. The cuffs and the bottom of the women's robes were embroidered with multicolored figures and designs. They all wore fur hats. Today, they mostly wear cloth robes and cotton padded garments in winter. Urban Ewenki dress is similar to that of the Chinese.

FOOD

The Ewenki's staple food is animal meat, including deer meat, mutton, beef, and pork of wild hog, supplemented by grains, such as Chinese sorghum, corn, millet, oats, and buckwheat. On account of the Nordic climate, vegetables are scarce. They like roasted meat. "Cooked meat held in hand" is very popular during festivals. The meat, attached to the bone, is chopped in big pieces and is half-cooked with a little salt. They hold the big piece with their hand while eating. They like gruel with milk, which is also a sacrificial offering to the gods. The diet of Ewenki farmers is not much different from that of the local Chinese or Manchus.

EDUCATION

Most of the Ewenki were illiterate in the past. Today, primary school education in the Ewenki Autonomous Qi County has become popular. Eighteen middle schools (junior and senior) have been set up. Quite a number of youngsters enroll in the university. Compared to other nationalities, however, their education is at a low level.

CULTURAL HERITAGE

Ewenki folk songs, slow and unconstrained, evoke the vast expanses of the grassland. Dancing styles vary according to region and to occasions. A dance called Ahanba is performed by women at wedding ceremonies. There are no accompanying instruments; the tempo is set by the singers' voices. Each group consists of two to four dancers. In the beginning, they cry softly, "A-Han-Ba, A-Han-Ba," while swinging their arms. Then they turn face to face and bend their knees. The tempo is gradually hastened and the rhythm is intensified by the movement of their feet. Ultimately, the dance bustles in full swing. Another dance is performed by two young men. One of them is a hunter, the other dresses up as a wild hog. With their hands behind their back, they hit each other with their shoulders while roaring. A group led by a singer encircles the two actors, moves around a bonfire, and dances while singing.

Ewenki literature has been handed down orally; it includes myths, tales, folk songs, and riddles.

WORK

The frequent migrations of the Ewenki in the course of history have resulted in scattered communities. Because of the significant difference of natural environments in which they dwelled, their mode of production and lifestyle varied a great deal. Those living in Ewenki Autonomous Qi County and in Chen Barag Qi practice livestock husbandry; those dwelling in Butha Qi, Arun Qi, and Morin Dawa Qi have a mixed economy, half farming and half hunting; those inhabiting Nehe in Heilongjiang Province are farmers; those inhabiting Ergun Zuo Qi are huntsmen, riding deer while hunting, and are thus called "Deer back riding Ewenki."

SPORTS

The Ewenki start to ride, lasso, and break in horses early in their childhood. Later, they frequently gather to learn arrow shooting, high jumping, pole vaulting, long jumping, and skiing. Brave hunters and capable herdsmen have mastered these skills by the time they are adults. Horse lassoing is a popular competition mostly held on festivals.

As early as 1,300 years ago, the ancestors of the Ewenki, called Shiwei, fashioned a primitive form of skis. The skis used today by the Ewenki for hunting are but an improved version of the Shiwei "snow-sliding boards."

ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION

Most of the Ewenki areas are provided with a movie theater and a television station. Film studios and television broadcasting stations have been set up in Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang Province. Therefore, most of the Ewenki can enjoy watching television as daily entertainment. In hunting areas, old hunters are master storytellers, spinning tales about ancient and modern heroes in their fight against the harsh environment and wild animals; this is still the preferred form of entertainment.

FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES

The Ewenki excel in designing and producing implements for daily necessities as well as toys from birch bark. Painting on the birch bark is a hallmark of the Ewenki. Canoes made of birch bark, besides their unique design, provide swift and easy transport on the many lakes and rivers of the Ewenki land.

SOCIAL PROBLEMS

Poverty and isolation are serious problems confronting the Ewenki. Community fragmentation, harsh environment, illiteracy, and the absence of a market economy, make it difficult to implement a short-term, global solution for the whole population. It seems the situation can only be improved gradually in the long run.

GENDER ISSUES

The Chinese constitution states that women have equal rights with men in all areas of life, and most legislation is gender neutral. However, there are continued reports of discrimination, sexual harassment, wage discrepancies, and other gender related problems. The gap in educational level between women and men is narrowing with women making up 47.1% of college students in 2005, but only 32.6% of doctoral students.

China has strict family planning laws. It is illegal for women to marry before 20 years of age (22 for men), and it is illegal for single women to give birth. The Family Planning Bureau can require women to take periodic pregnancy tests and enforce laws that often leave women with no real options other than abortion or sterilization. While minority populations were previously exempt from family planning regulations, policy has changed in recent years to limit minority population growth. Today, urban couples may have two children while rural couples may have three or four.

Prostitution and the sex trade is a significant problem in China involving between 1.7 and 5 million women. It involved organized crime, businessmen, the police, and government workers, so prosecution against prostitution has limited success. In 2002, the nation removed homosexuality from its official list of mental illnesses, and though it is still a taboo topic, homosexuality is increasingly accepted, especially in large, international cities.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Chiao, Chien, Nicholas Tapp, and Kam-yin Ho, ed. "Special Issue on Ethnic Groups in China." New Asia Bulletin no 8 (1989).

Dreyer, June Teufel. China's Forty Millions. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Eberhard, Wolfram. China's Minorities: Yesterday and Today. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1982.

Gustafsson, Bjorn A., Shi, Li, and Sicular, Terry, eds. Inequality and Public Policy in China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Heberer, Thomas. China and Its National Minorities: Autonomy or Assimilation? Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1989.

Ma Yin, ed. China's Minority Nationalities. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1989.

Ramsey, S. Robert. The Languages of China. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Shin, Leo Kwok-yueh. The Making of the Chinese State: Ethnicity and Expansion on the Ming Borderlands. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

—by C. Le Blanc

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ewenki." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Ewenki." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 17, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ewenki-0

"Ewenki." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. . Retrieved November 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ewenki-0

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.