Population and Distribution
One of the smallest ethnic groups in the People's Republic of China is the Hezhens. With a population of 4,640, these nomadic people mainly live in the Tongjiang, Fuyuan and Raohe counties by the rivers of Songhua, Heilongjiang and Wusuli in China's northeastern Heilongjiang Province. They live on dog-drawn hunting and fishing.
Their ancestry are the Nuzhens, a race of Tartar horsemen who ravaged the northern borders of several Chinese dynasties. The Hezhens of different regions used to call themselves by various names, famous among which are Heijin, Heiqi, Hezhen, and Qileng. The Hezhen ethnic group was one of the groups of the Jurchen tribe during the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644). In the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911), they were incorporated into the 'eight banner' system of the Manchu rulers.
Hezhens were still in their primitive societal stages even at the beginning of the twentieth century. These primitive ways were observed by means of their clothing and way of life. They used to wear clothing made of fish skins and employed dogs for hunting which earned them the titles Yupi Tribe (Fish Skin Tribe) and Shiquan Tribe (Dog-using Tribe). During the Japanese occupation, the Hezhen ethnic group was almost wiped out. Prior to 1949, there were only about three hundred Hezhens living in China. They were formally named the 'Hezhen Ethnic Group' after the founding of the People's Republic of China.
The Hezhens have their own language which belongs to the Manchu-Tongusi group of the Altaic language family. Their language has two dialects. As the result of frequent contact with the Hans, Chinese is widely used. Only those who are above 50 years old can still speak the Hezhen language. They do not have a unique system of writing and use Chinese characters for written communication.
The Hezhen people used to practice Shamanism. They believe that everything in the universe has a spirit. The religious head is more like a sorcerer and is believed to have the power to dispel evil spirits by praying to the gods for protection. Now, few of them believe in Shamanism.
The fishing industry is the main source of livelihood for most Hezhens. Old and young, male and female, they are all good at fishing. They have gained superb skills and knowledge in fishing through time-tested experience. They are very familiar with the habits of various fishes and can tell exactly the species of the fish by the ripples it makes.
Hunting is another source of income. People living in the Fujin county considers hunting as their main business with fishing as a part-time income-earning activity.
Fish is their staple food. They have many different ways of eating it. Raw fish, in particular, is part of their traditional diet. They often eat it raw, seasoned with ginger, salt, green onion and other condiments. The Hezhen people often entertain their guests with raw fish to show their respect. Raw fish with cold sauce is the most common traditional dish that is both delicious and nutritious.
Nowadays, some Hezhens produce wheat flour and rice in their farms. These staple foods regularly appear on their dinner table and sometimes replace fish.
The Hezhens lived by the three rivers (Songhua, Heilongjiang and Wusuli) for generations. In the past, they lived in crude birch-bark sheds. Now, most of them prefer stone houses with tile roofs. Some Hezhens also live in houses with earthen walls and thatched roofs. The Hezhens often build houses using heated bricks called kangs to keep them warm during winter.
The clothing of the Hezhens is almost the same as that of the Hans. The only difference is in the material they use. In the past, their clothes were mostly made of either fish skin or deer skin, and the fish skin dresses were considered to be national dresses worn by the Hezhens.
The process of making fish skin is very interesting. First, the full skin of silver carp or chub is taken off and dried. People remove the fish scales on the skin and hammer it with a wooden mallet to make the skin as soft as cotton cloth. Afterwards, people sew the fish skin together with silver carp skin threads and make it into clothes.
Influenced by the Manchus, the clothing style of the Hezhens is close to cheongsam. The length of the dress is over the knees. It has loose and short sleeves but has no collar. The dress and trousers are fat, edged with colored cloth, embroidered with patterns, or it may be decorated with copper bells. Fish skin trousers are made entirely different for males and females. Big fishes, weighing about 50 kilograms, are good enough for making trousers. Fish skin trousers are durable and at the same time resistant to cold weather and water.
Besides clothing made of fish skin, the Hezhens also wear dresses made either of deer skin or roe skin. They often wear fur caps and thick boots made of bear skins and birch bark during winter.
In the past, unmarried girls usually tie their hair in one braid, while married women or widows wore two. Bracelets were common ornaments for all women, but only old women wore earrings.
With the improvement of living conditions, the material and design of the clothes of the Hezhen people have changed radically. Nowadays, cotton has been the frequently used material for clothes.
The Wurigong Festival, meaning fun day or sports meeting, is a new holiday created in 1985. It is biennially held in June and August, and lasts for three days. Competitive activities such as swimming, boating, net-casting, push-and-pulling, straw fish forking and straw target shooting are held during daytime. At night, people make piles of bonfires by the riverside. They hold banquets where they eat and drink together. After the celebration, they sing and dance hand in hand around the bonfires. Their tuneful folksongs carry far in the evening air.