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November 18, 2010

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Dying culture of Reindeer People

THERE'S no one to sing the epic tales of the Oroqen people in northeastern China. Their dying language is unwritten and their culture is passed down orally. Du Jie reports.

Seventy-seven-year-old ethnic folk artist Mo Baofeng has no apprentices and no students who want to learn to sing and tell epic stories of her people.

Mo is one of around 8,000 Oroqen people who live in northeastern China and are one of the smallest ethnic groups in China - their unwritten language and culture are dying out.

Oroqen means both "mountain people" and "reindeer herder" in their own language, an Altaic language similar to Mongolian and the languages spoken by people native to Siberia.

She is also only one of a handful who can perform a Mosukun, a traditional Oroqen way of telling a story through song.

"I have no apprentice and no one has told me they want to learn it," she says. "In the past I gave classes in singing the folktales, but only a few students continued to the end."

When performing a Mosukun, a solo performer sings and tells the story alternately in the voices of a child, a man and a woman. The subjects are heroic and epic tales, as well as love stories and tales from daily life. The longest could take days to narrate.

In 2007, Mo was honored as an "outstanding folk art successor" for her Mosukun skills, by the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles and the China Society for the Study of Folk Literature and Art.

"But now it's only me, alone, and I'm too old to teach," she says.

As a people without a written language, the Oroqen people have passed down their culture orally. Thus, the Mosukun folktales are an essential means of recording and transmitting customs and culture.

The Oroqen once lived north of the Amur River in Siberia before they were forced to migrate to northern China in the 18th century by Czarist Russians.

Today most have largely forgotten their language and nowadays mainly speak Mandarin Chinese.

"The Oroqen language is disappearing at a staggering rate," says Oroqen linguist Meng Shuzhen. Many young people don't speak it though in some places people can understand it, he said.

In Baiyinna, an Oroqen-inhabited town in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, the local government encourages the use of the Oroqen language. In primary schools there are Oroqen language courses taught be teachers who speak the language. Folk shows in the language are performed throughout the Oroqen-inhabited area.

"But the Oroqen language isn't a test subject in schools, and students are not taking it serious," Meng says.

Although there are only around 8,000 Oroqen people, their language has a rich large vocabulary describing a wide range of objects and actions, especially regarding nature.

In recent years there has been a steady flow of linguists from Japan and America who are studying the ancient language.

"Many experts are working to save it," says Guan Jinfen, deputy head of Baiyinna town. "But no plausible way has been worked out to transform the Oroqen into a written language.

"Our Oroqen language is very rich in substance, thus more difficult to restore," she says.

Some linguists are trying to use the International Phonetic Alphabet, others are using pinyin, the phonetic system for transcribing Chinese characters.

Guan also says that despite the many linguists specializing in ethnic languages, those who are fluent in Oroqen have an average age of 70 years.

"If the linguistic records of the language are not collected and stored in time, it will be even harder to bring the endangered language back to life," she says.

Like many other marginal cultures, Oroqen culture is fading as modern society spreads and encroaches.

The Oroqen used to live a largely nomadic life in the thick forests of the Khingan Mountains across the northeastern Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and northern Heilongjiang Province.

They used to live in traditional teepee-like tents called cuoluozi, which are supported by long poles and covered with birch bark in summer and fur or deerskin in winter.

Constantly moving around, the Oroqens pulled down their tents before leaving and rebuilt them when they resettled elsewhere.

The people who used to ride horses have become more settled since 1951 when the Chinese government established the Oroqen Autonomous Banner and encouraged Oroqens to move into government-built houses.

Resettlement started in 1953 and nowadays many people live in brick and tile houses and modern, multi-story buildings powered by solar energy.

"Now we have not only land to cultivate, but also government allowances," says folk artist Mo.

"But the unwritten language and the relatively monotonous ancient art forms have been driven into a dead corner, overshadowed by the mesmerizing diversity of modern culture," Oroqen linguist Meng says.

"At this juncture, in order to rescue the disappearing Oroqen language, it's best to set up a special research institute as soon as possible, to study and record the language," says Guan Jinfen, deputy head of Baiyinna town.

"Now it's already a bit late," she says. "I'm afraid as the senior Oroqens die, much of the traditional Oroqen culture might also go.

"So we must take action to save the endangered language and culture."


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