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Ewenki: Reindeer Guardian in China’s Northmost Forest

2021-03-04 11:25:43   By:China-ASEAN    Hits:

(By Mo Tingting)Reindeers may not always be seen in Western countries bringing Santa Clause and gifts on Christmas Eve. However, in the Greater Khingan Mountains of China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, one can at least see reindeers scampering over the snow with tinkling bells in the dense birch forests. Known as the last hunting tribe of China, Ewenki people have lived by hunting and raising reindeers deep in the Greater Khingan Mountains for generations.

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The reindeers are Ewenki people's best friends

People living in the mountains

“Ewenki” is the name used by the Ewenki to describe themselves. It means “folks living in mountain forests”, “people moving on deer’s backs” or “people living in the big mountains”. When it came to the Qing period (1644-1911), they were called the “Sulongs” or “Kemunikans”. The joint name “Ewenki” did not emerge as a widely used name until 1957. Ewenki people used to live in the forest north of Lake Baikal and later moved east to the middle reaches of Heilongjiang River. Their homeland is a region of grasslands, dense virgin forests, rivers and lakes. 

Ewenki people living in different areas lead different lives. Those who inhabited Ewenki Autonomous District and Chenba’erhu District traditionally led a stockbreeding life. Those in Nehe County were farmers. Those in Molidawa and Arong Districts and Zhalantun City were hunters and farmers. And those who inhabited the Ewenki Village of Aoluguya in Erguna Zuo District lead a traditional life of hunting. Since reindeer were vital to living, Ewenki people were called “China’s last reindeer-raising ethnic minority group”. As an ancient minority, the Ewenkis are attracting more attention.  

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Elf in the woods (Source: Flickr)

The Ewenkis had no written script but a spoken language before they learned how to write in Manchu script. They speak Tungus-Manchu languages, and look like Mongolians. 

Ewenki women always dress in a fur-gown, reaching below the knee, and tie about the waist with a girdle made of deerskins, having their hair curiously stitched down and ornamented. The dress of Ewenki men consists of a short jacket with narrow sleeves made of deer skin, having the fur outward. Besides, they have a piece of fur that covers the breasts and stomach, which is hung about the neck with a string of leather. 

The Ewenki excels in horsemanship. Boys and girls learn to ride on horseback at six or seven when they go out to pasture cattle with their parents. Girls are taught to milk cows and take part in horseracing at around ten, and learn the difficult art of lassoing horses when they grow a little older. 

The Mikuole Festival is traditionally observed by Ewenki herdsmen in May every year. At happy gatherings held everywhere on the grasslands, men, women and children in their holiday best go from yurt to yurt to partake wine, fine foods and other delicacies prepared for the occasion. The Ewenkis are honest, warm-hearted and hospitable people. Guests in the pastoral areas are often treated with tobacco, milk tea and stewed meat by the Ewenki hosts. It is a time for nomads to count new-born lambs and take stock of their wealth, and for young and sturdy lads to demonstrate their skills in lassoing horses and branding or castrating them. All Ewenki folk dances are simple and unconstrained. The dancers’ foot movements, executed in a forceful and vigorous style and highly rhythmic, are characteristic of the honest, courage and optimistic traits of this ethnic minority.

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House of the Tuvan people


Belief: While believing in animism, Ewenki people also worship their dead ancestors, and lingering influences of bear worship can still be found among Ewenki hunters. When a bear is killed, they do not say it is “dead”, but “sleeping” instead.

The last reindeer-raising tribe in China

Deep inside the Greater Khingan Mountains in China’s far northeast, the camps of the Ewenki people can still be found. They are the last group of people in China who still raise reindeers. The Ewenki provides protection and food for the reindeer, while in return, the reindeers help them carry tents and belongings as well as their capture on long expeditions. The reindeers are the Ewenki people’s best friends when they are wandering and hunting in the forest. They love deer and consider the kind of animal as a symbol of luck and happiness. The tribe has already formalized their way of living with nature in harmony. 

Reindeers feed on moss and mushrooms, and are very sensitive to the environment. In order to find better food for the herd, most Ewenki families still move around the forest with the reindeers several times a year. The herders subsist on reindeer milk, a staple of the Ewenki diet. 

With climate change, compromised habitat due to timber production, and land management that restricts foraging and seasonal migration, the reindeer herding system and reindeer population size are threatened. While there are now only 1,000 reindeers living in the forests here, they still attract tourists to the Ewenki people’s region. In return, the Ewenki protects the reindeers from any harm or hunger.

With temperatures at 40 below in the northwestern Greater Hinggan Mountains, Gu Musen, a web celebrity, called his reindeers out to feed them with moss. Initially lacking experience, Gu once could do nothing but helplessly watch a reindeer die in front of him. But now he has become a reindeer expert and learned a lot including prescribing medicine for sick animals.

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Feeding reindeers

The natural beauty and tranquil life in the mountains have gratified Gu, who thought the peace should be shared with others. Thus, he began to show his daily life on the Chinese video-sharing platform Tik Tok two years ago. Reindeer feeding and calving, vigorous forests, snow-capped mountains and traditional Ewenki customs are all presented in the videos. Now, Gu has attracted more than 200,000 followers on Tik Tok and garnered a total of over four million likes with his 140+ posts. In addition, the videos have drawn more people to Gu’s breeding center to see the reindeers and experience Ewenki culture.

“I used to show little ethnic identity towards my hometown, and considered reindeer breeding tiring and old-fashioned work,” Gu said. “However, I’ve developed a deep connection with these lovely creatures, which exists as belief and spiritual support for the Ewenki.”


Reindeer, listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), are mainly domesticated by the older Ewenkis in China for transportation.

Source: China-ASEAN Panorama






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