Sustainability of Shaman Culture in Oroqen

By Zhao Wunaji

Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. The Oroqen People and Shamanism

3. Cultural Sustainability of Shaman Among the Oroqen

4. Strategies for Preservation

4.1 Redefining Shamanism in Minority Education

4.2 Applying for World Intangible Cultural Heritage

5. Conclusion

6. References

7. Actual Materials

8. Notes

9. About the Author

1. Introduction

The word shaman originates from the Tungus tribe in Siberia. Anthropologists have used this term to refer to spiritual and ceremonial leaders of indigenous cultures worldwide. Shamanism encompasses ancient healing traditions and spiritual practices of these indigenous cultures that determine their way of life, closely intertwined with nature and all of the world’s creatures. 

Shamanism is also an ancient and mysterious part of the original culture of the Oroqen people in China. These days, however, it is on the verge of extinction as the cultural identity of the Oroqen tribe has been weakened due to a decrease in the number of the population, and sinicization or assimilation into the Chinese culture. This entry discusses the historical background of the Oroqen people and shamanism, the sustainability of shaman culture, and the dilemma it is facing. Finally, it puts forward practical and effective strategies for cultural sustainability and rejuvenation of Oroqen shamanism in the new era.

2. The Oroqen People and Shamanism

The Oroqen, also called Orocen or Orochon (or Elunchun in Chinese), traditionallylive in the south of the Heilongjiang (Amur) River in the forests and the rivers of the Lesser and Greater Khingan Range and Ilkhur Moutains of northern Manchuria. The Oroqen is among the smallest of the 56 ethnic minority groups (registered minority groups) in China. According to the demographic data of The Sixth National Population Censusof thePeople’s Republic of Chinain 2010, there are only 8,659 Oroqens in China. The Oroqen people do not have a written language (Noll and Shi, 2004) and today few of them can speak their own native language. 

Shamanism is the earliest religious belief of the Oroqen people. The Oroqens were mainly nomadic hunters who lived by fishing, hunting, and gathering. The shaman ceremonies were often held before hunters went into the forest. They prayed to god to ask for the hunters’ safety and good prey. Shamanceremonies included the presentation of a variety of cultural forms such as folk dance and music, national musical instrument, ballads, handicraft, painting, mythology, literature, and language. All of them represented spiritual, art, and ecological values of this minority eco-culture.

In 1953, the Oroqen people were forced to settle down in ‚’Ethnic Villages’ constructed by the local government at the foot of the mountains. At that time shamanism was still popular among the Oroqen. After the settlement, the influence of Shaman culture started weakening (Noll and Shi, 2004). Due to the implementation of the ban on hunting in 1996, the Oroqenclans could not engage in the traditional forest hunting life, and the associated shamanistic culture started to gradually disappear. Nevertheless, as a nation's traditional culture, it still has a deep influence on the older generation of Oroqens.

After the death of shaman Meng Jinfu, Guan Kouni became the only surviving shamana (Kister, 1999). She was born in the Huma river basin in 1935. When she was 17 years old, she once was badly ill and modern medicinedid not work. Then she practiced the traditional dance to the shaman divine tune and made an amazing recovery. Currently, Guan Kouni lives alone in Baiyinna township. She wanted her daughter to step into her shoes to become a shamana, but ‘the god’s will’ did not seem to agree - her daughter passed away soon after the inheritance ceremony. She has not found a suitable Oroqen as an inheritor, which means that that there will likely be no shaman to save cultural memory, and Oroqen shamanism will belost.

A new generation of Oroqen has no faith in shamanism, as they are either influenced by mainstream religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and others, or have been sinicized and have become atheists. The primary reason for this is for the Oroqens to join the communist party. Another reason is that the younger generation of Oroqens has hardly seen a shaman and has little knowledge of shamanistic cultures; few have heard about the legends of shamans. Now they only have a surface understanding of shamanism as part of culture, not faith. The days of shamanism as religion belief have passed, and the primitive spiritual sustenance of gods has become history. The language, religion, and culture of this minority is under threat of disappearing; therefore preservation of elements of the cultural group is a pressing issue.

3. Cultural Sustainability of Shamanism among the Oroqen

Culture is included as an important aspect of education for sustainable development. From global perspectives, UNESCO has done a lot of work to prevent the loss of civilizations and cultures, especially of small ethnic minority groups. These actions could protect the diversity of the world to help deal with the current situation of national assimilation. The WCCD ReportOur Creative Diversity (Wilson, 1997), Convention of Protection and Promotion Diversity of Cultural Expressions (UNESCO, 2005) and some other relevant documents have reflected the urgency of protecting cultural diversity.

The Oroqen is a small ethnic minority group in China with hundreds of years of history. Its unique culture helps complete China's national identity, comprised of 56 different ethnicities. For China, protecting shamanismis an important means to maintain cultural sustainability of a small group. In addition, protecting their cultural sustainability is an important means to raise the minority groups’spirituality, identity, language, and self-esteem. There are, however, some challenges for the preservation of the vitality of the shaman culture of the Oroqen. It is urgent for Oroqen clans and people to work to preserve shamanism. The next section discusses some strategies.

4. Strategies for Preservation

4.1. Redefining Shamanism in Minority Education 

Sustainability as a common goal for development requires actors to find ways to improve quality of life without damaging the environment or passing problems to people in other parts of the world or to future generations. To confront challenges for the sustainable future of humanity, education of the younger generations holds a pivotal position amidst other strategies (Kwo, 2011). Modern Oroqen minority education plays an invaluable role in the sustainable development of shaman culture. The Chinese Government has issued a series of education policies at different levels for grooming exceptional Oroqens to preserve and revitalize the vibrant culture of Oroqen. However, there are still some sensitive issues of Oroqen minority education that should not be ignored. 

When the Oroqen clan encountered modern civilization, the younger Oroqen generation accepted modern education. From the perspective of science, demands for eradicating shamanism have become more and more strident. In the context of cultural assimilation, the concept of shamanism as a faith has been question and relegated to the realm of superstition.  To develop shaman cultures in minority education, we need to redefine shamanism in minority education.

First, we should put emphasis on the definition that shamanism is a natural theology that builds a close relationship between science and religion. In addition to this, shaman culture should be emphasized as a folk art, which is in need of recording in national course construction in relevant colleges and universities. This field should be explored further, and more research should be done to facilitate future studies. Thus far, the cultures of small ethnic minority groups have not drawn enough attentions from academia. The number of majors related to minority cultures at Chinese universities is very small. Only Central University for Nationalities, Hebei Normal University, Nanjing University, Southeast University, Zhongshan University, and a few others have any courses related to folk art (Shanshan, 2014). Furthermore a focus on shaman culture study is absent. 

4.2. Applying for World Intangible Cultural Heritage

Stefano, Davis, and Corsane (2012) point out that intangible cultural heritage can represent nearly everything to some extent, including the immaterial elements that influence and surround all human activity. At present, the Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage Directory has included Oroqen shamanism to some extent, but for further preservation, it is not enough. The Oroqen clan is sparsely populated and their ancient shaman culture is in need of protection from international perspectives. If the Oroqen shaman culture can gain WorldIntangible Cultural Heritage status, this can fuel relevant academic research, government investment, cultural protection, promotion in mass media, and the construction of ethnic eco- tourism villages which can be conducive to the continuation of Oroqen shaman culture. At local, national, and global levels, the pressures for change should be centered around issues of equity in respect for cultural heritage, which is far beyond sector concerns for environmental protection and economic growth (Kwo, 2011).

There are a few mentions of the urgency to include shaman culture in the 429 World Intangible Cultural Heritage list. There are eight cultures that are on the list that are influenced by shamanistic cultures, threeoin China.For example, the Pansori originated in south-west Korea in the 17th century, probably as a new expression of the narrative songs of shamans. The annual Gangneung Danoje Festival in South Korea includes a shamanistic ritual on the Daegwallyeong Ridge. Mak Yong, an ancient theatre form created by Malaysia’s Malay communities, is also associated with rituals in which shamans attempt to heal through songs, trance-dance, and spirit possession. Ancient practices in the Boysun District located in south-eastern Uzbekistan are still often used to conduct shamanistic rituals to cure the sick. Nha Nhac in Vietnam provide a means of communication with and paying tribute to the gods and kings as well as transmitting knowledge about nature and the universe (UNESCO, 2008). In China, Yimakan storytelling in the Hezhen ethnic minority group of north-east China preserves traditional knowledge of shamanic rituals, fishing, and hunting (UNESCO, 2008). The Humai ethnic minority group in Mongolia has as part of its culturesinging usually done by shamanas. Manas in the Kirgiz ethnic minority group showe various shaman customs before they formed a new belief in Islam. 

5. Conclusion 

This entry has observed the disappearance of shamanism and its relevance, in relation to the potential extinction of a cultural group. Understanding the importance of preservation of this culture has a potentially far-reaching effect as it would lay down a platform for cultural preservation of dozens of other small ethnic minorities which are integral to the cultural makeup of world civilization. 

6. References

Kwo, O. (2011). Strategic Dialectic Action for Teacher Education in ESD: A Framework for a UNESCO-led Leadership Force. Hong Kong, The University of Hong Kong.

Kister, D. (1999). Present-day Shamanism in Northern China and the Amur Region. Shaman,7.77-95.

Noll, R., & Shi, K. (2004). Chuonnasuan (Meng Jin Fu) - The Last Shaman of the Oroqen of Northeast China. Journal of Korean Religions6. 135-162.

Shanshan, W. (2014). Research on Protection of Intangible Cultural Heritage in China.Jinan, China: Qilu University of Technology. 

Stefano, M., Davis, P., & Corsane, G. (2012). Touching the Intangible: An introduction. Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage, 1-8.

UNESCO. (2005). Convention of Protection and Promotion Diversity of Cultural Expressions. Paris: The Author.

The Population Census Office of the State Council. (2010). The Sixth National Population Census of the People’s Republic of China in 2010.Retrieved from

Wilson, R. A. (1997). World Commission on Culture and Development (1995). Our Creative Diversity. Paris: UNESCO.

Xiaoyun, G., & Honggang, W. (1998). Elunchun zu saman jiao diaocha [A Study of Oroqen Shamanism]. Shenyang, China: Liaoning People’s Publishing House.

About the Author

Zhao Wunaji

MEd, The University of Hong Kong