“Last Quarter of the Moon”: Evenki Place Names behind the Hànzì

I grew up in places with names like “Winnetka” and “Sewickley,” spellings no doubt based on mangled transliterations

1,800+ Evenki place names: many inspired by Russian, Mongolian and Manchu

1,800+ Evenki place names: many inspired by Russian, Mongolian and Manchu

of old, even ancient Native American words. I vaguely recall that Sewickley meant “sweet water,” but no one seemed sure.

How many cities, mountains and rivers in China, I wondered, hide their non-Han origins?

 

Evenki Mountain Name

Chinese Name

Derivation/details

Role in The Last Quarter of the Moon

Aikusk

埃库西牙玛

Means “overgrown with astragalus” (长满黄芪草) in Evenki. Astragalus is used in traditional herbal medicines.

Alanjak

阿拉齐

Means “towering mountain” (高高耸立的山) in Evenki. Located in vicinity of modern-day Genhe City, Inner Mongolia.

One of several mountains that the narrator’s band of Evenki “denominate” (命名) in the novel.

Kilaqqi

开拉气

Means “rocky hills” (多石坡) in Evenki. Located in vicinity of modern-day Genhe City, Inner Mongolia.

One of several mountains that the narrator’s band of Evenki “denominate” (命名) in the novel. The narrator describes it as “the mountain that bares its white rocks” (裸露着白色石头的山).

Listvyanka

列斯元科山

Appears to be borrowed from the Russian for “larch tree mountain” (落叶松山).

One of several mountains in the novel whose name is “denominated” (命名) by the character Puffball (马粉抱). In the novel, the name is translated as “pine tree grove” (松树林). The narrator’s son Andaur (安道尔) is shot and killed here by his older brother Viktor (维克特) who mistakes his deer whistle for a real deer.

Morkofka

莫霍夫卡

Means “[place of] moss and reindeer foodstuffs” (有苔藓、驯鹿食物) in Evenki.

One of several mountains in the novel whose name is “denominated” (命名) specifically by the character Puffball (马粉抱).

Slerkan

什路斯卡

Means “[place where] springs flow” (流出温泉之意) in Evenki.

One of several mountains that the narrator’s band of Evenki “denominate” (命名) in the novel.  Recounts the narrator: “Mountain springs were numerous, and most were cool and sweet, but there was one mountain whose stream had an acrid taste, as if the mountain suffered from melancholy [满怀忧愁], so we named it Slerkan Mountain.”

Yanggirqi

央格气

Means “watershed overgrown with Siberian dwarf pine trees” (长满偃松分水岭). Located in vicinity of modern-day Genhe City, Inner Mongolia.

One of several mountains that the narrator’s band of Evenki “denominate” (命名) in the novel.

 

The reindeer-herding Evenki (鄂温克族) of northeast China once hunted in an area that includes parts of today’s Heilongjiang Province, Inner Mongolia and Siberia. Sadly, due to the vagaries of Sino-Russian politics, Evenki in China have little access to their relatives on the northern side of the Amur—known as the Heilongjiang (黑龙江, “Black Dragon River”) in China—or to their traditional homeland in Russia.

 

Evenki River Name Chinese Name Derivation/details Role in The Last Quarter of the Moon
阿巴河 Ā ba hé The “Shituruyiche Inengi”(斯特若衣查节), a springtime festival where Evenki gathered to trade, feast, sing and dance, was celebrated at Jurgang Village on the Aba River.
Bischaya 比斯吹雅河Bǐ sī chuī yǎ hé One of several rivers that the narrator claims were “denominated” (命名) by the Evenki.
Bistaré 贝尔茨河Bèi ěr cí hé A major tributary of the Argun that originates in the Greater Khingan Mountain Range. Modern-day Jiliu River (激流河). One of the central waterways in the novel, and the river in which the talented Evenki painter Irina (依莲娜) drowns.
Delbur Béra 得尔布尔河De ěr bù ěr hé Béra=river One of several rivers that the novel’s narrator claims were “denominated” (命名) by the Evenki.
Ergune Béra 额尔古纳河É ěr gǔ nà hé As established by the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, this river marks the border between Russia and China for about 944 km, until it meets the Amur River (黑龙江). Generally known in the West by its Russian pronunciation, the Argun. Ergune Bira in Manchu. The livelihood of the Evenki in the novel revolves around this river and its tributaries. They perceive themselves as having been exiled to the Right Bank (south of the river), but have strong historical and emotional ties to their “homeland” on the Left Bank (Russian territory).

 

Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸, aka Right Bank of the Argun), a novel about how the Evenki have abandoned their shirangju (teepees) in the Greater Khingan Mountain Range (大兴安岭) for permanent housing nearer urban centers since the 1990s, features a large amount of place names that needed to be rendered into a readable form for English-language readers.

Intriguingly, the Evenki narrator cites a handful of the names her people have given to the mountains, rivers and villages that they encounter again and again as they hunt, fish and herd their reindeer in the taiga.

The Italian version of the novel, Ultimo Quarto di Luna, was published in mid-2011. The Italian translator’s approach to those place names was to transliterate them using the Chinese pronunciation. But I find this a bit odd. After all, the Evenki had relatively little contact with Han Chinese until the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, and I’d imagine they called those rivers and mountains by their own names, using Evenki, a Tungusic tongue related to Manchu.

 

Evenki River Name Chinese Name Derivation/details Role in The Last Quarter of the Moon
Hologuya Béra 敖鲁古雅河Áo lǔ gǔ yǎ hé Hologuya is Evenki for “place of lush poplar groves” (杨树林茂盛的地方). Olguya in Russian. One of several rivers that the novel’s narrator claims were “denominated” (命名) by the Evenki. Although the term “Hologuya” does not otherwise appear in the novel, it is the name of the group of reindeer-herding Evenki—often spelled Aoluguya—upon whom much of the novel’s fictionalized story is based.
Imaqi 伊马其河Yī mǎ qí Imaqi means “to dig for salt with the hoof ” (用蹄子刨碱). The river was so named because elk, horses and deer liked to munch on the river’s salty ice in the winter. Site chosen by the narrator for the first of her cliffside paintings.
Iming Do 伊敏河Yī mǐn hé The river’s name comes from Evenki for “imung,” oil or oily, because the river surface appears to be coated with a thin layer of oil. One of several rivers that the novel’s narrator claims were “denominated” (命名) by the Evenki.
Jiin Béra 金河Jīn hé “Jiin” is Evenki for the loin of elk and deer. Legend has it that an Evenki woman was transporting her fresh kill on a reindeer, and the choice loin meat accidentally fell in this river. The Jiin River Basin is the site most associated with tragedy in the novel, for one death occurs on the river and another on a mountain nearby: the narrator’s son Andaur (安道尔) is shot by his older brother Viktor (维克特) who mistakes his deer whistle for a real deer; and Tibgur (耶尔尼斯涅), beloved son of the female Shaman Nihau (妮浩), drowns after he is enticed into the waters of the Jiin by a deformed reindeer fawn.
Keppe 克坡河Kè pō hé Evenki for “river that easily overflows.” Famous rock paintings have been discovered in forested hunting grounds of the Keppe River Basin. The river where the Evenki are hunting when Ivan (依万), moved by the sight of a lovely Russian maiden named Nadezhda (娜杰什卡) who is about to be forced into prostitution, exchanges a bundle of furs for her freedom, and then marries her despite his father’s admonitions.
Lena 勒拿河Lēi ná hé Russia’s longest river, originates in the Baikal Mountains south of the Central Siberian Plateau. In the novel, the narrator speaks of a golden period of sorts, the “Lena River Era” (勒拿河时代), over three hundred years ago, when the Evenki—12 clans strong—were  active around this long Russian river.  But then they were forced by warring Russians to leave Yakutia and to cross the Argun, and by the 20th century consisted of just 6 clans living on the “Right Bank.”

 

Indeed, a book called <鄂温克地名考> (Evenki Place Names), compiled by a committee of Evenki scholars in 2007, confirms that those names definitely exist. This book alone cites some 1,800 Evenki place names, and the overwhelming majority are not translations from the Chinese, although many have been influenced by Russian, Mongolian and Manchu names.

As might be expected in politically correct China today, the book cites only those place names that are located within the People’s Republic of China. Considering that the Evenki traditional homeland extended into Russia, that’s an annoying blind spot!

I have found the same approach in other Evenki-related reference works written and published in China. For instance, <鄂温克语:参考语法> (Evenki: A Reference Grammar), by the respected Evenki scholar Dr. Chao Ke (朝克) who earned his doctorate in Japan, is a 365-page tome which mentions that about half of all Evenki live in Russia, and speak a dialect that differs somewhat from those spoken in China. Period. There is no further discussion of how this dialect has been impacted by contact with a Slavic language, for instance, or how it otherwise differs from those spoken on the Chinese side of the border.

 

Evenki River Name Chinese Name Derivation/details Role in The Last Quarter of the Moon
Onion 阿娘尼河Ā niang ní hé In Evenki, literally “cliffside painting.” (岩画). Also the site of many rock paintings discovered by archaeologists.
Taliyan 塔里亚河Tǎ lì yǎ hé One of several rivers that the novel’s narrator claims were “denominated” (命名) by the Evenki.
Uldihitt 乌力吉气河Wū lì jí qì hé Evenki for “place where sacrifices have been made to the Spirits” (举行过祭祀活动的地方). The seat of the government of Jiliu Township was located near this river. In the novel and historically speaking, Jiliu Township was a “permanent settlement” intended by the government to house Evenki once they moved out of the forested mountains. But their nomadic hunting and reindeer-herding activities made such settlements unfeasible as long as they continued to live their traditional lifestyle.
Untuung Béra 温都翁河Wēn dōu wēng hé Name given by the narrator to a previously unnamed river, and the site of her favorite rock painting. “Untuung” (温都翁) means “Spirit Drum” (神鼓), the drum that a Shaman beats during the “Spirit Dance” (跳神), also known as a “Trance Dance.”
Yuksagan 约谷斯根河Yuē gǔ sī gēn hé It is near the banks of the Yuksagen that two brothers compete for the hand of beautiful Tamara (达玛拉). The winner of the archery contest is Linke (林克), who marries Tamara and fathers the narrator; the loser later becomes Nidu the Shaman (尼都萨满).

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