The Nanai have been a distinct culture for thousands of years. Traditional Nanai culture can be traced to the Neolithic period and to the influence of local tribes and migrant groups who entered the region over a long period, moving in from the south and west and later from the north. Tungusic influence on Nanai culture is especially marked and is second in importance only to that of the early aboriginal cultures. Later influences from Mongolian and Turkic cultural traditions are also evident but are of secondary importance. The earliest influences are most evident in Nanai fishing practices; many ancient words associated with fishing are still used. Continuation of past customs is also found in clothing preferences, especially the specialized fishing clothing made from fish skin. As with clothing, most aspects of Nanai culture show traces of complex historical development. These influences from other cultures can be found in building style, religious beliefs and practices, and kinship organization.
The Nanai always allowed the Manchu and the Nanai who resided in Manchu territory to resettle in Nanai territory. Wars with the Mongols in the thirteenth century and wars of unification in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries drove these peoples to the territory of the Amur Nanai, who allowed them to settle along the river bank and on islands; eventually intermarriage and marriage alliances took place.
Between 1858 and 1860 the Nanai were officially incorporated into Russia. By 1870 missionaries were active in the region, baptizing Nanai and opening mission schools. Russians established settlements nearby and greatly influenced Nanai culture. By the beginning of the twentieth century Russian influence was evident in the form of log dwellings, large seines, metal traps, and firearms. Vegetable gardening was also introduced by the Russians. The Russian administration encouraged Nanai participation in self-governance; there were Nanai elders in each settlement, and the Nanai participated in district administration and the courts. At the same time, the Nanai maintained some of their traditional culture into the 1920s, including the interclan courts, the territorial-neighborhood communities, and exogamous marriage rules.
The Soviet presence diminished the role of traditional practices and drew the Nanai into the Soviet nation. Beginning in the 1920s, young people began to travel to Khabarovsk and Leningrad for advanced education, and by the 1940s many young Nanai were employed as teachers and paramedics. Following World War II, a medical school was opened in Khabarovsk, and the Nanai studied there as well as in Leningrad, Novosibirsk, and Vladivostok. Today, about 25 percent of the Nanai live and work in cities in the Russian Far East.
In the 1930s a writing system was created for the Nanai language, and a considerable literature was produced. Writers and poets such as G. Khodzher, A. S. Passar, A. Smar, and others achieved international reputations. Nanai politicians became active in national politics in the 1950s. Nanai scholars are now found in Vladivostok, St. Petersburg, Khabarovsk, and Moscow.
Today, the Nanai face many problems related to local ecology and the near-disappearance of the Nanai language. For some time the Nanai have constituted only about 10 percent of the regional population, which has contributed to the disappearance of the language among those in the 20- to 30-year-old age group. For several years, efforts to revive the language have focused on language classes taught in the local schools.
Although some old traditions—especially as regards material culture—survive, the Nanai are today a modern people with a relatively high educational level. On the collective farms, fishers are mostly the elderly. In villages and cities the Nanai work in a range of occupations and are often highly trained and skilled. Women work mostly in service occupations, especially as teachers and in health care.