Reclaiming the Evenki Narrative: Last Shaman’s Daughter Tells her People’s 20th-century Tale

There are only 30,000 or so Evenki (鄂温克族) on the Chinese side of the Sino-Russian border. But this Tungusic-speaking, reindeer-herding people — particularly the group known as the Aoluguya Evenki — has been the subject of several award-winning documentaries and even a novel that won the Mao Dun Literature Prize in 2008. According to an article on the China Writer’s Association web site (最后一位萨满之女), a new novel featuring the Evenki will launch end April.

During 2007-14, Gu Tao (顾桃) shot five films documenting the twilight of the Evenki way of life, including Yuguo and his Mother (雨果的假期) and The Last Moose of Aoluguya (犴达罕). (For an excellent backgrounder on his works in French, click here) Chi Zijian’s novel, The Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸), is based loosely on the same tribe’s often reluctant interactions with outsiders, first with the Japanese invaders under “Manchukuo,” and then the rapacious Han loggers and Marxist cadres of post-1949 “New China,” and has been translated into English (my version), Dutch, Italian, Spanish and Japanese, and will soon be available in French.

Screen Shot 2021-01-30 at 9.14.36 PMBut take note: Neither Gu Tao and Chi Zijian are Evenki, though the former’s mother is Manchu. As far I know, their works have largely been well received in China, but they are not without potential controversy. I have watched several of Gu Tao’s documentaries on a set of CDs (not sure if these are final versions shown at film festivals abroad), and at times they are disturbing, the raw footage of some hard-drinking Evenki in particular. Chi Zijian’s novel is a bold experiment in its own right, as she, a monolingual Han writer, puts herself inside the head of the female Evenki narrator and recounts the entire tale in the first person.

In both cases, I can’t help wondering how these works of art would be viewed by indigenous peoples in Australia, Canada or the US, where “reclaiming the narrative” back from one’s colonizers is nowadays considered absolutely imperative.

With the coming launch of the novel 驯鹿角上的彩带 (lit., colored ribbon on the reindeer’s horns, see cover above left), we should have a new voice: That of an Evenki narrator telling an Evenki love story that spans the 1900-1950 period. The author is a 74-year-old Evenki woman named Balajieyi (芭拉杰依) whose mother was Aoluguya’s last practicing shaman (note: shaman is an Evenki word brought into English via Russian explorers). She explains her motivation for writing the book (my translation, excerpted from the article):

“Since mother departed, no one has donned that Shaman Spirit Robe made of metal and leather, or struck the Spirit drum to pray for the Evenki.” No one has inherited the shaman’s role. The tribe has lost the person who conversed with the Ancestors and the Spirits, and that makes her feel great regret. “There are some things that, if I don’t record them, will truly be forgotten. I began collecting and collating our traditional handicrafts and legends. I want to use words to leave a record of everything about us Evenki. This is our people’s collective memory,” says Balajieyi. “I want to leave this for the children who love the forest.”

The Mongolian writer known as Black Crane (黑鹤, aka Gerelchimig Blackcrane), author of Black Flame, played a role in the initial editing of the novel. According to the article, the novel’s publication is being crowd-funded.

It will be interesting to see which aspects of Evenki culture Balajieyi chooses to depict in detail, and how her account differs from Chi Zijian’s, particularly as regards the practice of shamanism. Last year I took part in a Beijing bookclub discussion (via Skype here in Penang) of Last Quarter of the Moon. One reader was frankly upset by the fact that — in the novel — each time the female shaman (Nihau) did a Spirit Dance and saved someone’s life, inevitably she lost one of her own children as a result. She wondered: Was that portrayal based on shamanistic beliefs as it is practiced in northern China, or simply a dramatic device invented by the author?

For a marvelous visual introduction to Evenki lifestyle and culture, visit Northern Hunting Culture.

One thought on “Reclaiming the Evenki Narrative: Last Shaman’s Daughter Tells her People’s 20th-century Tale

  1. I like Black Crane’s writing. Hopefully Balajieyi will also be a good storyteller.
    Nihau’s Spirit Dance and her children’s deaths are truly disturbing, but also memorable. Serves as an excellent subplot for the novel, which makes me wonder if it is just literary imagination.


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