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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

The Tungusic community, which who brought us the term “Shaman”

Alexandra Lavrillier

Texte intégral

1February 2009

2“Tungusic” is reverberated in the works dedicated to Shamanism, Animism or to the social organisation of a number of Western anthropologists (F. Boas, Lévi-Strauss, Hamayon, Descola, etc.). It refers to a culturally coherent group of people who were originally hunters in Siberia and Manchuria.

  • 1 Hamayon, R., «Le concept de chamanisme: une construction occidentale», Religions et histoire. Cham (...)

3The word, “Shaman” came from their languages, Saman, and assimilated itself into Russian in the 16th century through a story told by Avvakum, an orthodox priest. In the following two centuries, a story of two Dutch travellers, published in German and translated into English and French, eventually made this term well-known. This simple word for a ritual specialist – an intermediary between mankind and nature – was, for centuries, somewhat thought-provoking for representatives of imperial power, such as Pierre Le Grand or Catherine II, theorists and philosophers. The Shaman and his rituals inspired many fantasy and romance novels before being considered worthy of study by the social science. Having no fixed definition, this Tungusic term, “Shaman”, was gradually used to refer to the world’s ritual specialists whose title was difficult to determine, replacing former terms such as “witch doctors”, “healer”, “psychic”, etc.1 Other aspects of the Tungusic culture, such as their social organisation, have caught the attention of general anthropology. The Tungusic people experienced pressures of imperial and Communist policies on both sides of the Chinese-Russian border. They have shown a great capacity to adapt. Today, however, they are confronted with the market economy from the Russians, and a neo-Communist economy from the Chinese. Those who remained, including nomads (despite the process of settling down), reindeer, horse and cattle breeders, now face the effects of climate change.

4Who are the Tungusic people? Stemming from the complex history of the Russian colonisation of Siberia, the word, “Tungusic”, has several meanings that are nonetheless coherent. In various periods, “Tungusic” in Russian and Western sources sometimes referred to the Evenks alone, and sometimes to the Evenks and closely related communities, the Evenes, both of which were essentially reindeer breeders and hunters. When referring to the ethnic groups speaking the Tungus-Manchu languages, the term had a more strictly linguistic meaning. In this case, the term, “Tungusic” was the opposite of Turkish and Mongolian as a branch of the Altaic family. According to sources, this group of people was sometimes divided into three cultural subgroups: the Evenks (35,000 individuals in Russia, 35,000 in China and 1,000 in Mongolia) and the Evenes (19,000 in Russia) among whom included the “Tungusic people of the Amur Basin” that are, the Negidals in Russia (1,000), the Ulchs (3,000), the Orotchs (1,000), the Oroks (300), the Odegheis (2,000) and the Nanaïs (12,023). There are 4,200 Nanais in China – the group to which the famous hero of Arseniev and Kurosawa, Dersou Ouzala, belonged – where they were called the “Hedje”. The third subgroup, and the largest in number were the “Manchus”. The groups speaking Tungus-Manchu languages, including 10 million individuals, were spread over nine thousand kilometres from the east to the west and three thousand kilometres from the north to the south. A historical point to note was that the languages of two founding dynasties, Jurchen (Jin dynasty 1115-1234) and the Manchus (Qing dynasty 1644-1911) that ruled China, belonged to this linguistic branch.

5Where does the word, “Tungusic”, come from? Unfamiliar to the Tungus-Manchu languages, it came into existence in the Russian language in the 16th century, at the same time as the word “Shaman” came to Western countries. According to a number of hypotheses, it probably came from the Yakut, Chinese, Turkish or even Nenet culture. The Nenents would have given this name to their neighbours (the Russian colonisers) the Evenks. In China, this name came from the Russian language in the 20th century. Each group of people making up the “Tungusic” had one or several auto-ethnonyms. The Chinese policy of ethnic classification was the most complex and resulted in a confusing situation. The Chinese forms of ethnonyms were “Elunchun”, “Evenk”, “Oroqen”, “Solon”, “Khamnigan” and “Hedje”. The Russian Soviet regime in the 1930s changed the names of several Siberian ethnic groups, abandoning those given by the Tsarist Empire.

6The troubled history of Sino-Russian relations had several consequences for the Tungusic people. In China and Russia, certain nomads were relocated and entrusted with protecting parts of the border. In times of peace, the Nomads frequently went from one side of the border rivers to the other – Ussuri and Amur – to meet and to go to fur fairs. A large number of the Han and Manchu community settled down on the Russian side. In 1901, after the armed conflicts, Nicolas II ordered the expulsion of these people and destroyed their places of worship. However, it was in the second half of the 20th century, with the definitive closure of the Sino-Russian border that the Tungusic people were divided into two. Having previously enjoyed stable relations, these groups of people had since experienced different fates, divided by history and science. Separate studies were thus conducted on them by both sides of the border. The last of the pan-Tungus studies date back to the 1930s, conducted by S. M. Shirokogoroff, the Russian ethnographer who immigrated to China after the Soviets had taken power. Several well-known Western anthropologists quoted his works that were published in English.

7The Evenks, the largest Tungus group after the Manchus, were undoubtedly the most spread out and diversified people of Siberia. They settled in small groups on the vast territory stretching from the Yenisei River to the Sea of Okhotsk, and from the Arctic Ocean to the Amur River.

8Early Siberian explorers and ethnographers had often preferred to employ the Evenks as guides. This was the case of the Frenchman, J. Martin, who brought back one of the richest Shamanic costumes, which can be seen today among the collections in the Quai Branly museum. According to the stories of travellers, these guides would have probably been passionate about discovering unknown spaces, accepting the most dangerous of adventures. The model of their engravings of water systems on bark coming from the birch tree was the first map of Siberia. The region memorised by the Evenks went beyond their own nomadic area.

9From the 17th century, the Russians settled down on lands belonging to the Evenks. They had to pay tax on fur and campaigns promoting Christianity. Under Catherine II, this tax collection represented a third of the empire’s fortune. The Soviet power confiscated herds of reindeer and other cattle and built state farms on which the nomads worked. The gold mines from the state farms paid for the services of men and their reindeer to carry out work in the forest. A part of the Evenk population settled down in the newly constructed villages. Some were employed in Russian universities to become the future indigenous intelligentsia, who play a leading role in society today. The atheist campaigns promoting Communist power, banning rituals, imprisoning the Shamans and confiscating or destroying ritual objects, could have been due to the religious system of these people. In spite of these changes and with the number of Shamans dying out, the most important thought – on which depends the chance for hunting, the reproduction of herd and happiness – remains, to this day, the mentality that governs the natural universe. “We are not believers!” they proclaim, “What would be the use of it? We have nature that nourishes us!” On the Chinese border, the Evenks experienced a similar type of pressure, in addition to the politics of “de-Manchurisation” from the north of China, the Sino-Japanese war and then the fall of the Manchukuo. Despite this, certain aspects of Shamanism continue to exist.

10The Evenks, like other ethnic groups from Siberia or Manchuria, have shown a great capacity to adapt their ritual practices. They created a professional Soviet celebration that was to replace their rites, a collective ritual with a Shamanic influence (but without a Shaman), fulfilling the values of the Evenk New Year that had been banned by the same regime. Certain Shamans were able to escape the repression by accepting to be “Shaman impersonators”. They had to represent a ritual specialist on stage, which the Communist propaganda called “the parasite on the body of an indigenous worker”. At the same time, they discreetly practised other rituals within the forest. After the fall of Communism, the intelligentsia successfully lifted the seventy-year ban on the Shaman New Year in its own way. In the absence of the Shaman, the children of folk dance groups represented this ritual specialist dressed in costumes. Everyone expected a symbolic effect from these rites.

11One of the Evenks’ specificities is their resistance to neo-Shamanism and major religions. While several ethnic groups in Siberia adhere to neo-Shamanist movements or convert to Orthodox proselytism, Evangelism or Pentecostalism, the Evenks are increasing the ritual expressions of their real or idealised attachment to nature. The nomads practise various small ritual gestures and wait for new additions to their herds and human race from the spirits of game animals. The indigenous population take part in two collective rituals during the year, passing on their “traditions” and asking the spirits of nature for luck in life.

12Today, however, two new factors of change seem to redefine many aspects of the Tungusic culture. The market economy rationale is emerging in the community, which was previously based on reciprocity. The effects of climate change, such as the extinction of certain animal and vegetal species, the increase of parasitic diseases in wild and domestic animals, a rising scarcity of game animals, the emergence of new species of insects, and the increase in mortality among reindeers are more frequently recorded. Aware of the deterioration of the natural environment, nomads and indigenous groups are concerned that their people and culture will die out. It is in light of this that the nomads, in their folk stories, tell of the next revival of Shamans, which had defeated the spirits responsible for the smallpox epidemic in the early 19th century. Having said that, some of the indigenous people are selling the farming rights of their lands to mining companies for the best price.


1 Hamayon, R., «Le concept de chamanisme: une construction occidentale», Religions et histoire. Chamanismes, Vivre avec les esprits, no 5, 2005.


Doctor of Ethnology of the École pratique des hautes études

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