This book is translated from Chinese by Bruce Humes. It was highly recommended in a women’s magazine and I noted the title and only just recently saw it in the library.
This is an autobiography of an Evenki woman, from the time she was a child to the time she is a grandmother, and the story spans eighty years. Evenki is a nomadic reindeer herders who live in the Siberia region between China and Russia.
The photo of Evenki women above is found online.
The narrator is the widow of the last Clan Chieftain, and by the time the story ends, most of the tribes were integrated into the Chinese Han community. Sadly, like the aboriginals of Australia, they felt out-of-place in towns and city and became drunks and are seen as trouble makers.
The life of an Evenki family moves according to the food source of their reindeer. To them, the reindeer are like an extended family and they provide milk, hides, and transportation. As soon as reindeer moss is depleted, the family, consisting of two to three generation of about 20 members will move to new pasture for the reindeer to graze.
The Evenki are hunters and consume raw meats of bears, squirrels, deer, and other forest animals. They BBQ their meat or even eat them raw. For clothes, they use the hides of animals for warmth and in a community, there is often a seamstress, a blacksmith and a shaman (witch doctor), who performs miracles like heal the sick, call forth the rain or protect the tribes from evil.
I like this passage about food which they had for a banquet:
The banquet dishes were Zefirina’s handiwork. and the sausages she cooked up were very popular. First, she minced roe-deer meat, mixed in green onions and laosangqin, and just the right amount of salt. She pored this mix into sausage casings and boiled them in an iron pot for three to five minutes. Then she took the sausages out and cut them into short sections. Indescribably delicious! Zefirina also used the hanging pot to cook several wild ducks. She added chopped leek to the soup and the duck tasted meaty but not greasy. Besides this, there was also roe-deer head broth, reindeer-milk cheese, grilled fish fillets and lily bulb congee.
As a child, the young narrator (we never learn her name as she doesn’t want to leave her name behind) sleeps listening to the ‘windsounds’ of her parents’ lovemaking. Together with her siblings and cousins, they learn from young to hunt and do chores.
The tribes barter with other tribes or Russian traders for bullets and ammunition for hunting. We read how the each member of the tribe (and there many names, which the writer helpfully drew a family tree) fell in love, got married and set up their own family. Death happens often, either from accidents, childbirth, sickness, suicides and each kind of death has different way of burials, but the most common is the tree burials.
When Japan invaded China, the men were forced to attend training session at the Japanese camp and the women were left behind to fend for themselves. As they are not Han Chinese, they were treated rather well by the Japanese.
After the Japanese’s surrender, we see a change in China as loggers moved in and cut down many trees, disrupting the Evenki’s way of life. The Chinese government built a township and offered them permanent homes, hospitals and schools. But the Evenki are reindeer herders, and reindeer have to roam. The young moved into the town, leaving behind the old who could not adapt to the town.
The book reads like a documentary on a disappearing tribe. It reminds me of the hill tribes of Sapa, Vietnam, most of them were also forced to abandon their nomadic lifestyle for permanent homes, and they never really flourish, even though the governments think it’s better for them to settle and for the children to be educated.
After reading the book, one feels their loss and a sense of pity that their lifestyle, which they have maintained for generations, were cruelly taken away. But as the narrator says at the end, the forest are gone, and so will their food. It’s with resignation that they accept this.
The most interesting reading is the life of the shaman, how he/she is discovered, and the miracles that he/she performs through the dance and songs.
Evenki’s have really interesting names, and because the book is translated, I can’t tell if some names sound like Evenki’s, Russians or Han Chinese. Also, some of the description in italics are either Evenki’s or Han and were left in the original pronunciation. But because I could read alphabetised Han Chinese, I know the difference. It would be different for a western reader. Examples are shirangju (dwelling which are shaped like umbrellas) which I am not sure if it’s Evenki but baijiu (rice wine) I am sure its Han Chinese.
So, if instead of watching National Geographic, you would rather read about a disappearing tribe, I highly recommend this book then. It’s more intimate (what with all the windsongs going around).