Profile of Octogenarian Orochen: Folk Song Singer, Folk Tale and Dictionary Compiler

Among one of the first batches of young Orochen (鄂伦春) chosen to receive a formal Chinese-language education in Zhalantun in 1948, E’erdenggua (额尔登挂) was just 17 at the time. She had never been outside her village on the banks of Chuo’er River (绰尔河畔) in Inner Mongolia, and didn’t speak a word of Chinese. Now 84, she was recently profiled in Zhongguo Minzu Bao (老人的鄂伦春文化情缘).

Orochen songstress E'erdenggua (Note the teepee at right, traditional lodging for the Orochen and Evenki)

Orochen songstress E’erdenggua (Note the teepee at right, traditional lodging for the Orochen and Evenki)

Although she later held various jobs with the Bureau of Commerce in China’s first Orochen Autonomous Banner until retirement, she never lost interest in her native language or culture.  A brief list of her achievements as noted in the article:

Orochen dress: Personally handicrafted folk costumes and Shaman ritual attire that are now part of collections at the Beijing History Museum, Inner Mongolia Museum (Hohhot), Hulunbuir Ethnography Museum, Oroqen Museum (Hulunbuir) and Evenki Museum (Hulunbuir).

Folk songs: She compiled and sang Orochen folk songs. Designated as an expert regarding traditional hunting songs known as Zàndárén (赞达仁). Her collection includes love songs, narratives and shamanic chants.

Orochen dictionary: Spent 3 years compiling an Orochen dictionary using IPA. Unfortunately never published for lack of funding.

Orochen folk tales:  Wrote over 100,000 words about Orochen history, customs and heroes. Not clear from the article if ever published.

Given that Orochen does not have a written script, it is interesting to note that her dictionary was never published. Based on my reading since I launched this blog in 2009, it appears that the Chinese authorities are very cautious about the publication of dictionaries for any indigenous language, or the introduction of scripts for them. Most such dictionaries are normally vetted and subsidized by the state (Big Dictionary Project).

While I was researching the Evenki — whose language is closely related to Orochen — I came across articles that indicated that linguists in Russia (Evenki live on both sides of the Amur River that divides China and Russia) have developed a script that is used in Evenki primary school textbooks. But to the best of my knowledge, this script has not been adapted for use among the Evenki in Inner Mongolia.

Chi Zijian, author of Last Quarter of the Moon about the reindeer-herding Evenki, actually grew up in Mohe on the Sino-Russian border. In her Author’s Afterword, she recalls her earliest contacts with the Orochen.

For information on recently opened Orochen-related exhibitions, see Spotlight on the Tungus-speaking Orochen and Evenki.

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