Population and Distribution
The Ewenki ethnic group has a population of 30,505 (in the year 2000) that is sparsely distributed across seven banners (counties) in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and in Nahe County in Heilongjiang Province, mixing together with the Mongolians, Daurs, Hans and Oroqens.
'Ewenki' is the self-given name meaning 'people living in big mountain forests'. They used to be called 'Suolun', 'Tonggusi', 'Yakut', etc in different periods. In 1957, they were officially named Ewenki based on the will of the people.
The ancestor of Ewenki people originally lived in the forests northeast of Lake Baikal and along the Shileke River (upper reaches of the Heilong River). They mainly engaged in fishing, hunting and breeding reindeer and have an intimate relationship with the 'Shiweis', particularly the 'Northern Shiweis' and 'Bo Shiweis' and the 'Ju' tribes lived in the forests of Taiyuan to the northeast of Lake Baikal in the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907).
Later, they continually moved east. One branch came to settle down in the middle reaches of the Heilong River which was known as a 'forest people' in the Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368) and people 'moving on deer's backs' by the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644). In the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911) they were called the 'Suoluns' or 'Kemunikans' who knew how to use deer.
As soon as the Manchu established the Qing, they brought the Suoluns under their control. In 1732, over 1,600 soldiers, together with their families were dispatched to the Hulun Buir Grassland. Their descendants are now the inhabitants of the Ewenki Autonomous Banner.
The spoken language of the group is comprised of three dialects, belongs to the Manchu-Tungusic group of the Altai language family. The Ewenkis' language has no written form and Mongolian is spoken in pasturing area while the Han language is used in farming regions.
Most Ewenki people believe in Shamanism while those living in the pastoral areas are followers of Lamaism. There are also a small number of them living in the Chenbaerhu area are believers of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The Ewenki worship fire and think the master of fire is God. The fire-master of each family is their ancestor. If they lost their fire-master, this family would not have offspring. Taboos regarding the fire include poking into the fire, extinguishing it with water, throwing unclean objects into it, and women's stepping over or stamping on it. They must salute fire before eating meat or drinking wine. Every December 23rd, the Ewenki people in pasturing areas will hold a rite to offer a sacrifice to fire.
They worship bears as well. After killing a bear, they would conduct a series of rituals at which the bear's head, bones and entrails are bundled in birch bark or dry grass and hung on a tree to give the beast a 'wind burial'. The hunters weep and kowtow while making offerings of tobacco to the dead animal. The Ewenki people also worship their ancestors 'Aojiaole', who was said can expel ghost and evil spirit.
Ewenki Autonomous Banner is the main living area of the Ewenki ethnic group. It covers an area of 19,110 square kilometers, in which some 9,200 square kilometers are natural pasture. With several rivers originated in the Great Xingan Mountains flowing through and over 600 lakes dotted everywhere, this prairie has abundant water resources. The region they inhabit is rich in coal, iron, and petroleum and is also home to the reindeer that the Ewenki both hunt and herd.
The occupations and life-style of Ewenkis varies a great deal depending on the areas they live. Some are engaged in animal husbandry, some in agriculture and others live solely or partly by hunting.
It is the only ethnic group in China who raises deer and reindeer. The deer, originally wild, is mild in temper, docile and adept in walking across dense mountain forests, swamps, as well as, in deep snow. The Ewenkis have tamed the animal and made it an enormously helpful transport instrument with which to hunt and live.
The Ewenkis in farming region have the same diet as the Han people, while those in pasturing area take meat, wheat, and milk as staple food. Meat from ox, sheep, and wild animals are the main meat resource. They also eat fish and drink deer milk. They seldom eat vegetable. They often treat guests to tobacco, milk tea and stewed meat.
The cooking utensils of the Ewenki people are unique. Chopsticks made of animal bone, cups made of antler, plackets made of deerskin, etc all can be found in their homes.
In the past, living on a nomadic life, the Ewenki people did not have a fixed dwelling place. They normally live in a round tents which known as 'Cuoluozi' in their language. The size of the tent is built according to the population of the family and seasons. Generally, it is three meters high and five meters in diameter, but larger in summer than in winter. It is umbrella-shaped and is simply framed with larch logs and covered with birch bark in summer and deer hides in winter. The door often faces the east. It has a need-fire in center, which is used to warm people and cook meals. When the hunters were on the move, their tents and belongings as well as their capture were carried by reindeer, which lived on moss.
Due to the different occupation they engage in, the costume of the Ewenki people vary. Herdsmen often wear loose cloth buttoned down on one side.
In winter, they wear jackets and pants made of long haired, thick rawhide, together with boots, hats and gloves all made from animal skin. Men's hats are conical, with red tassels on the top, and the surface sewn with blue cloth. Women's headdresses are made by stringing together two black-cloth tubes decorated with silver laces. Ornaments like earrings, fingerings and bracelets are also part of the Ewenkis' traditional dress.
The important festivals of the Ewenki people include Spring Festival, Mikol and Aobao festivals. The Mikol, a traditional Ewenki festival, is observed in Chenbaerhu Banner on May 22. It is day that people celebrate their harvest. On that day, people are finely dressed in their ethnic costumes. A sacrifice ceremony will be held to pray for safety and health. Later, men will join the horse-racing to lasso horse. Once the horse is trapped, all the participants dash toward the horse to cut off the mane. When the ceremony of cutting sheep's ears begins, the elder people will give each of their children and grandchildren a lamb as gift and wish them a happy prosperous life blessed with a property of abundant sheep. Afterwards, each family hosts a banquet to entertain their relatives and friends. When one banquet is over, the next begins in another household. When night falls, a bonfire is set up and young men and women gather round it singing and dancing joyfully.
The Ewenki people have a rich oral literature including myths, fables, ballads, and riddles. They like singing and dancing and adept at horsemanship. Boys and girls learn to ride on horseback at six or seven when they go out to pasture cattle with their parents.