ETHNONYMS: Fishskin Tatars, Gold, Hezhe, Nabei, Nanai, Naniao, Sushen, Wild Nuchen, Yupibu

The Hezhen of northeast Heilongjiang Province are one of China's smallest minorities. Chinese sources suggest that as many as 80 to 90 percent of them died during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria when the Japanese forces removed them from their clan-based villages for resettlement in the marshlands and forests or transported them as forced labor to work the mines and build the rail lines. The spread of opium use at that time also played a role in population decline. In the 1990 census the population was estimated to be 4,245, up from 1,500 in the 1982 census and growing rapidly. The Chinese Hezhen are located mainly along the confluence of the Songhua and Heilong rivers, separated from a larger number of Hezhen in Russia. Their language belongs to the Manchu-Tungus Branch of Altaic.

Aboriginally, they were a distinctive fishing and hunting people, but since the seventeenth century they have been strongly influenced by the Manchu and the Han. The Qing (Manchu) dynasty brought them into the military Banner system, and some Hezhen men entered careers in the military and civil service or participated in patrols on the rivers. Traditional Hezhen society was composed of seven exogamous clans, similar to the Manchu clan system. The clan heads and village heads were elected by all adult members and had the power to order punishments for recognized crimes. The egalitarian social order changed as a result of several factors: the introduction of guns; a growing trade in dried fish, furs, and deer antlers; and the expansion of Chinese settlement into the area. The river fisheries were a particularly rich resource, and fishing became highly commercialized in the early years of the twentieth century. The older system of commonly owned fishing grounds and even division of the catch gave way to private ownership of boats and equipment by a handful of families and hired labor as a livelihood for the majority.

In the twentieth century, intermarriage between Hezhen women and Han men became common: during the Qing dynasty, as Bannerrnen, Hezhen men could marry Chinese women, but Hezhen women rarely if ever married out of the group. The Hezhen still retain their language, elements of traditional dress made of fish skins and deer hide and with floral design embroideries, and items of material culture such as birchbarks (canoes) and dogsleds. In 1945 the area came under Communist rule, and many Hezhen returned to their former home areas. By the early 1950s the government had organized fishing cooperatives. In the late 1950s Hezhen villages were incorporated into communes shared with neighboring Manchu, Koreans, and Han Chinese. Agriculture became a larger part of their economy, along with the farming of fish, deer, and marten. Some ice fishing and forest hunting still continue. Local schools, developed during the 1950s, provide an education in Chinese. There has been continuing intermarriage with neighboring groups. Chinese sources suggest that the Hezhen no longer conduct their traditional shaman-led religious rituals and healing ceremonies.

See also Nanai in Part One ,


Fan Yumei, et al., eds. (1987). Zhongguo shaoshu minzu fengqinglu (Customs of China's national minorities), 26-39. Chengdu: Sichuan Nationalities Press.

Lattimore, Owen (1933). The Gold Tribe: Fishskin Tatars of the Lower Sungari. American Anthropological Association Memoirs. Menasha, Wis.

Liu Zhongpo (1980). "China's Smallest Minority." China Reconstructs 29(5):22-23.

Ma Yin, ed. (1989). Chinas Minority Nationalities, 59-62. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Schwarz, Henry G. (1984). The Minorities of Northern China: A Survey. Bellingham: Western Washington University Press.


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