Farewell to the Orochen: In the Space of a Generation, the Way of Life of China's Third Smallest Minority Has All but Disappeared, Reports Sam Chambers from Inner Mongolia

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My chances of seeing the Orochen in their traditional surroundings were slim, but nowhere near as slim as the chance of getting a seat aboard train N93 to Alihe in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Just one train a day departs from Harbin at 7.15pm and it was already fully booked by early that morning. However, a never-say-never attitude, combined with some surreptitious queue-jumping, ensured a prized seat in the boisterous restaurant car as hundreds of passengers streamed onto the crowded train.

A couple of years ago, a photographic exhibition in Hong Kong by Hing Chao, founder of the Orochen Foundation, had piqued my interest in this people--one of 55 designated minorities in China but allegedly the country's last hunter-gathering society. The photos showed the remnants of this once proud race, which was being rapidly subsumed as the modernisation that accompanied China's dramatic economic development made their way of life increasingly redundant.

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My trip to China's far north confirmed my suspicions that the Orochen's ancient traditions had all but disappeared, assimilated into the dominant Han Chinese culture. It was only on the other side of the Russian border, in the wastelands of Siberia, that the Orochen continue to live off the land.

Alighting at Alihe, I strolled around the town, built low-rise in the classic Soviet style with one eight-lane street bisecting it north to south. The Orochen Museum is in the central town square, where the citizens exercise and dance in the shadow of a bronze statue of an Orochen horsemen each evening. The museum is increasingly a time capsule, preserving the traditions of the Orochen as they disappear in the 21st century. Two blocks away, the giant timber yard illustrates how the environment of the tribe, long associated with the forests and mountains, is changing.

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Rich history

The name Orochen--sometimes spelt Oroqen--is thought to mean either 'people who use reindeer' or 'people who live in mountains'. They are spread throughout Heilongjiang Province and Inner Mongolia in China's far northeast, as well as in Siberia. There are approximately 6,000 Orochen left in China, according to government and local experts, down from 8,500 a decade ago. Of this number, about half are distinct Orochen; the remainder have married Han Chinese or Mongolians.

The Han Chinese speak with a genuine fondness and respect for the Orochen, who are easy enough to spot--small in stature, with high cheekbones, hazel eyes and pale skin. They have their own language, although it's an unwritten one and is spoken only by the oldest members (Beijing is making efforts to preserve it). They were once famous for their singing and dances, which often mimicked animal movements. Nowadays, few people under the age of 55 can sing the folk songs, and the once common Orochen lip harp is rarely seen or heard.

The ancestors of the Orochen were part of the ancient people known as the Shiwei. They originally occupied a region south of the Outer Xing'an Mountains and north of Heilongjiang, but moved near to the Greater and Lesser Xing'an Mountains following Russian invasions in the 17th century. During the Qing dynasty, they were enrolled in the army of Manzu, protecting the northeast frontier from the Russians and the Japanese.

Historically, the Orochen lived in teepees known as cuoluozi, which were covered in the summer with birch bark and in the winter with deer skins. They lived on wild animals and plants and were adept horsemen. They used primitive skis and sledges and beautiful handcrafted birch canoes; their tools were made from birch, animal bone and hide. To this day, the Orochen can make a beautiful array of items out of the birch forest that has been their home for centuries.

The Orochen tended to dress from head to toe in typical hunters' clothing made mainly of deerskin. …