South China Morning
The art of the Orochen people gives a rare and revealing glimpse
of a fast -vanishing way of life, writes Jade Lee-Duffy
One day in the summer of 2001, Hing Chao stepped into a rundown
three-storey museum in Inner Mongolia. Inside, he glanced at
weathered dinosaur bones, photographs from 1949 when the
Communist Party took over China, dusty soldiers' uniforms and
antique military guns - items that didn't hold any appeal for
However, in the museum's ethnographical gallery he became
fascinated by a four-metre high sierranju, a tepee-like
structure made from deerskin. He was also intrigued by: a thick
deerskin coat with matching trousers, hat and mitts; birch bark
items made into boxes and a large canoe; and old black and white
photos of the Orochen, one of China's last hunter-gatherer
"I found it fascinating how people could live with so little
material wealth - living so close to nature and in such a harsh
environment," Chao says.
The experience drove him to learn more about an indigenous
people that had lived in the Khingan Mountains of northeastern
China for centuries.
Last year, Chao established the Orochen Foundation, a charity
aimed at preserving the culture, language and identity of the
"Minorities the world over are highly endangered, they are the
least privileged people," he says. "Minorities in Siberia, the
Americas and Australia all have some sort of representation. But
in northeastern China, apart from ourselves, there's absolutely
no non-government organisation present, and most people in the
world aren't even aware that these people are disappearing."
As a way of gaining awareness, the foundation has organised its
third art exhibition, Last Hunters of China's Vanishing Forest,
a collection of works by Orochen artists. Through Chao's
extensive travels in the region, he found the artists by word of
mouth and reputation. He says there are only a handful of true
Orochen artists and even fewer who are academically trained. The
exhibition includes works by Bai Ying, Lui Ba, Mo Hung Wei and
Wu Jun, plus photos by foundation members Chao and Vicentia
One of the most striking pieces is a painting titled New Home by
Bai, which mirrors the Orochen's current living conditions. At
first glance, it's a side -angle view of an elderly man looking
off into the distance, with a sturdy brick house in the
background. The light catches his face and he's dressed in a
warm deerskin coat. But Chao says the man longs for his home in
the forest, which no longer exists.
A generation ago in the forests of Manchuria, the Orochen were
nomadic hunters and gatherers, free to roam China's largest
mountain range. However, in the past five decades, the Orochen
have been pushed towards modernisation and forced to settle in
ethnic townships and villages in Heilongjiang province and Inner
Mongolia. The transition has been met with innumerable problems
for the Orochen, who struggle to adapt to an urban lifestyle.
The name Orochen means "people of the reindeer". Originally,
they were reindeer herders, but in the 18th century the tribes
adapted to herding horses, which were more prized during the
Due to the industrialisation of China and the Cultural
Revolution's liberalisation phase in the 1950s and 1960s, the
Orochen were then resettled into brick houses and taught to
survive on an agricultural existence.
As the Orochen traditionally relied on the forest for their
existence, birch bark was integral to their lives. They built
everything out of the material, from canoes and water containers
to fishing baskets.
They also used it for art. In stunning birch bark collages, Mo
has created images of traditional life for the Orochen. Using
large strips of flattened bark or tiny shreds, the artwork in
varying shades of brown has been assembled like an intricate
With a population of 8,000, nowadays only a handful of the
Orochen elders venture back into the forest.
During the summer, they renew their relationship with nature for
a week at time - hunting mainly deer or hare, fishing and
gathering wild vegetables and fruits. Some of the younger
generation also spend time in the forest, but only those who
have descended from skilled hunters.
For the past 50 years, the problems of deforestation, gold
mining and immigration by Chinese Han people have pushed the
Orochen culture to the brink of extinction.
"The Han people moved into the area in the late 1960s and 1970s
and began decapitating the forest," says Cheng. "They rely on
Gold mining is another problem, she says, because it ravages the
earth and pollutes the water sources with chemicals.
With fewer Orochen remembering the ancestral customs and
language, Cheng says she's committed to preserving this
vanishing minority. "The elderly experienced so much during the
Cultural Revolution," she says. "They've lived in the forest and
now they live in modern society, but yet I feel their inner
"It's made me realise that it's not what you have sometimes -
it's a relationship with the people around you and your
relationship with nature."
Last Hunters of China's Vanishing Forest, The Economist Gallery
and Fringe Gallery, Aug 18-Sept 3, Mon-Sat, noon-10pm, Fringe
Club, 2 Lower Albert Rd, Central. Inquiries: 2521 7251 or go to