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Nanai people

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Nanai / Hezhen
нанай, нани, хэдзэни
Nanai children. Girls are in traditional costume "pokto".
Total population
c. 18,000 (est.)
Regions with significant populations
Russia, China
 Russia 12,160[1]
China (Heilongjiang)5,354[2]
Nanai, Russian (in Russia), Mandarin Chinese (in China)
Tibetan Buddhism
Russian Orthodox
Related ethnic groups
Evenks, Oroqen, Manchus, Udege, other Tungusic peoples

The Nanai people (Russian: нанайцы, romanizednanaitsy) are a Tungusic people of East Asia who have traditionally lived along Heilongjiang (Amur), Songhuajiang (Sunggari) and Wusuli River (Ussuri)[3] on the Middle Amur Basin. The ancestors of the Nanai were the Wild Jurchens of northernmost Manchuria (outside China- Russian Manchuria).

The Nanai language belongs to the Manchu-Tungusic family. According to the 2010 census there were 12,003 Nanai in Russia.


Nanai family, Amur region

Common names for these people include Nanai (Nanai: нанай, нани, IPA: [nanai], lit.'natives, locals, people of the land/earth') and Hezhen (хэдзэни, IPA: [χədʑən]; Chinese: 赫哲族; pinyin: Hèzhézú). There are also terms formerly in use: Goldi,[4] Golds,[3] Goldes, and Samagir.

Other self names are Qilang (IPA: [kilən], lit.'those who live by the river'; Chinese: 奇楞), [nanio] and [nabəi].[5] [na] means 'land, earth, ground, country' or, in this context, 'native, local'; [nio], [bəi], or [nai] means 'people' in different dialects.

The Russian linguist L. I. Sem gives the name Hezhe nai (хэǯэ най) or Hezheni (хэǯэны, [xədʑən]) and explains it as the self-name of the Nanai of the lower Amur, meaning 'people who live along the lower course of the river'.[6] It is the source of the Chinese name for the Nanai, Hezhe (赫哲), formerly Heijin (黑斤) and Hezhehala (赫哲哈喇).[7]

Traditional lifestyle and culture[edit]

Hezhe people (赫哲), Huang Qing Zhigong Tu, 1769
Qilang people (奇楞), Huang Qing Zhigong Tu, 1769
Goldi tribesmen acting out folk drama, "The repulse of the kidnapper" 1895
A 1734 French map shows the Yupi people (魚皮; 'fish skin') on both sides of the Ussuri and the Amur south of the mouth of the Dondon (Tondon), and the Ketching people further down the Amur (where Nanai, Ulch, and Nivkh people live now)

Some of the earliest first-hand accounts of the Nanai people in the European languages belong to the French Jesuit geographers travelling on the Ussuri and the Amur in 1709. According to them, the native people living on the Ussuri and on the Amur above the mouth of the Dondon River (which falls into the Amur between today's Khabarovsk and Komsomolsk-on-Amur) were known as Yupi Tartars, while the name of the people living on the Dondon and on the Amur below Dondon was transcribed by the Jesuits into French as Ketching.[8] The latter name may be the French transcription of the reported self-name of the Nanai of the lower Amur, [xədʑən], which was also applied to the closely related Ulch people.[9]

According to the Jesuits, the language of the Yupi people seemed to occupy an intermediate position between the Manchu language and that of the "Ketching" people (Chinese: 盖青; pinyin: Gàiqīng); some level of communication between the Yupi and the Ketching was possible.[10]

Some Han Chinese are said to have founded clan subdivisions among the Nanai, and the Nanai have absorbed Manchu and Jurchens. Nanai culture is influenced by Han Chinese and Manchu culture, and the Nanai share a myth in common with southern Chinese.[11]

The Nanais at first fought against the Nurhaci and the Manchus, led by their own Nanai Hurka chief Sosoku before surrendering to Hongtaiji in 1631. Mandatory shaving of the front of all male heads was imposed on Amur peoples conquered by the Qing including the Nanai people. The Amur peoples already wore the queue on the back of their heads but did not shave the front until the Qing subjected them and ordered them to shave.[12] The term "shaved-head people" was used to describe the Nanai by Ulch people.[13]


Goldes hunter on skis on ice floe, with spear and rifle, 1895

As described by early visitors (e.g., Jesuit cartographers on the Ussuri River in 1709), the economy of the people living there (who would be classified as Nanai, or possible Udege people, today) was based on fishing.[3] The people would live in villages along the banks of the Ussuri, and would spend their entire summers fishing, eating fresh fish in the summer (particularly appreciating the sturgeon), and drying more fish for eating in winter. Fish would be used as fodder for those few domestic animals they had (which made the flesh of a locally raised pig almost inedible by visitors with European tastes).[14]

A 1682 published Italian map showing the "Kingdom of the Niuche" (i.e., Jurchen people) or the "Kin (Jin) Tartars", as well as the lands of the "Yupy Tartars" (Nanai and related tribes) further east.

The traditional clothing was made out of fish skins. These skins were left to dry. Once dry, they were struck repeatedly with a mallet to leave them completely smooth. Finally they were sewn together.[14] The fish chosen to be used were those weighing more than 50 kilograms.[15] In the past centuries, this distinct practice earned the Nanai the name "Fish-skin Tartars" (Chinese: 鱼皮鞑子; pinyin: Yúpí Dázi). This name has also been applied, more generically, to other aboriginal groups of the lower Sungari and lower Amur basins.[16]

Agriculture entered the Nanai lands only slowly. Practically the only crop grown by the Yupi villagers on the Ussuri River shores in 1709 was some tobacco.[14]


Goldi shaman priest and assistant, 1895
"Idol poles" (totem poles) of the Nanai ("Goldi"); drawing by Richard Maack, c. 1854–1860

The Nanai are mainly Shamanist, with a great reverence for the bear (Doonta) and the tiger (Amba). They consider that the shamans have the power to expel bad spirits by means of prayers to the gods. During the centuries they have been worshippers of the spirits of the sun, the moon, the mountains, the water and the trees. According to their beliefs, the land was once flat until great serpents gouged out the river valleys. They consider that all the things of the universe possess their own spirit and that these spirits wander independently throughout the world. In the Nanai religion, inanimate objects were often personified. Fire, for example, was personified as an elderly woman whom the Nanai referred to as Fadzya Mama. Young children were not allowed to run up to the fire, since they might startle Fadzya Mama, and men always were courteous in the presence of a fire.

Nanai shamans, like other Tungusic peoples of the region, had characteristic clothing, consisting of a skirt and jacket; a leather belt with conical metal pendants; mittens with figures of serpents, lizards or frogs; and hats with branching horns or bear, wolf, or fox fur attached to it. Bits of Chinese mirrors were also sometimes incorporated into the costume.

When a person dies their soul lives on, as the body is merely an outer shell for the soul. This concept of a continuing soul was not introduced to the Nanai by Christianity, but is original to them.[17]

The Nanai believe that each person has both a soul and a spirit. On death the soul and spirit will go different ways. A person’s spirit becomes malevolent and begins to harm their living relatives. With time, these amban may be tamed and can later be worshipped, otherwise a special ritual must be performed to chase the evil spirit away.[18]

After death a person's soul is put into a temporary shelter made of cloth, called a lachako. The souls of the deceased will remain in the lachako for seven days before being moved to a wooden sort of doll called a panyo, where it will remain until the final funerary ritual.[19]

The panyo is taken care of as if it is a living person; for example, it is given a bed to sleep in each night, with a pillow and blanket to match its miniature size. The closest family member is in charge of taking care of the deceased’s panyo. Each night this family member puts the panyo to bed and then wakes it in the morning. The panyo has a small hole carved where the mouth of a person would be, so that a pipe may occasionally be placed there and allow the deceased to smoke. If the family member travels they will bring the panyo with them.[19]

The dead’s final funerary ritual is called kasa tavori and lasts three days, during which there is much feasting and the souls of the deceased are prepared for their journey to the underworld. The most important part of the kasa tavori is held on the third day. On this day the dead’s souls are moved from the panyo into large human looking wooden figures made to be about the size of the deceased, called mugdeh. These mugdeh are moved into a dog sled that will be used to transport them to the underworld, Buni. Before leaving for Buni the shaman communicates any last wills of the deceased to the gathered family. For example in the anthropologist Gaer’s account of this ritual, one soul asked his family to repay a debt to a neighbor that the deceased was never able to repay.[19]

After this ceremony the shaman leads the dog sleds on the dangerous journey to Buni, from where she must leave before sunset or else she will die.

After kasa tavori it has previously been practiced that the living relatives could no longer visit the graves of the deceased, or even talk about them.[19]

The souls of Nanai infants do not behave in the same manner as an adult’s. For the Nanai, children under a year old are not yet people, but are birds. When an infant dies, its soul will turn into a bird and fly off. When an infant dies they are not buried. Instead they are wrapped in a paper made of birch bark and placed in a large tree somewhere in the forest. The soul of the child, or the bird, is then free to enter back into a woman. It is common practice in preparing a funeral rite of an infant to mark it with coal, such as drawing a bracelet around the wrist. If a child is later born to a woman that has similar markings to those drawn on a deceased child then it is believed to be the same soul reborn.[17]

The deceased were normally buried in the ground with the exception of children who died prior to the first birthday; these are buried in tree branches as a "wind burial". Many Nanai are also Tibetan Buddhist.

Modern population[edit]


Settlement of Nanais in the Far Eastern Federal District by urban and rural settlements in %, 2010 census

In Russia the Nanai live on the Sea of Okhotsk, on the Amur River, downstream from Khabarovsk, on both sides of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, as well as on the banks of the Ussuri and the Girin rivers (the Samagirs). The Russians formerly called them Goldi, after a Nanai clan name. According to the 2002 census, there were 12,160 Nanai in Russia.

In the Soviet Union, a written standard of the Nanai language (based on Cyrillic) was created by Valentin Avrorin and others. It is still taught today in 13 schools in Khabarovsk.


The Nanai are one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by the People's Republic of China where they are known as "Hezhe" (赫哲族; Hèzhé Zú). According to the last census of 2004, they numbered 4,640 in China (mostly in Heilongjiang province). Chinese Nanai speak the Hezhen dialect of Nanai. They also have a rich oral literature known as the Yimakan.[20] The dialect does not have a written system in China and Nanai usually write in Chinese. (Second language literacy is 84%.) However, as of 2005 teachers have recently finished compiling what is probably the first Hezhe language textbook.[21]


By province[edit]

The 2000 Chinese census recorded 4640 Nanai in China.

Provincial Distribution of the Nanai
Province Nanai Population % of Total
Heilongjiang 3910 84.27%
Jilin 190 4.09%
Beijing 84 1.81%
Liaoning 82 1.77%
Inner Mongolia 54 1.16%
Hebei 46 0.99%
Others 274 5.91%

By county[edit]

County-level distribution of the Nanai

(Only includes counties or county-equivalents containing >0.45% of China's Nanai population.)

Province Prefecture County Nanai Population % of China's Nanai Population
Heilongjiang Jiamusi Tongjiang City 1060 22.84%
Heilongjiang Jiamusi Jiao District 657 14.16%
Heilongjiang Shuangyashan Raohe County 529 11.40%
Heilongjiang Jiamusi Fuyuan County 468 10.09%
Heilongjiang Jiamusi Xiangyang District 131 02.82%
Heilongjiang Jiamusi Qianjin District 97 02.09%
Heilongjiang Harbin Nangang District 88 01.90%
Jilin Jilin Changyi District 71 01.53%
Heilongjiang Jiamusi Huachuan County 67 01.44%
Heilongjiang Jiamusi Fujin City 65 01.40%
Heilongjiang Hegang Suibin County 52 01.12%
Heilongjiang Jiamusi Dongfeng District 51 01.10%
Heilongjiang Harbin Yilan County 45 00.97%
Beijing Haidian District 43 00.93%
Heilongjiang Heihe Xunke County 43 00.93%
Heilongjiang Jiamusi Huanan County 42 00.91%
Heilongjiang Jiamusi Tangyuan County 30 00.65%
Jilin Jilin City Yongji County 29 00.63%
Jilin Changchun Chaoyang District 27 00.58%
Heilongjiang Qiqihar Jianhua District 26 00.56%
Heilongjiang Qiqihar Longjiang County 26 00.56%
Inner Mongolia Hulun Buir Evenk Autonomous Banner 22 00.47%
Heilongjiang Shuangyashan Baoqing County 21 00.45%
Other 950 20.47%

Notable Nanai[edit]

Dersu Uzala, a Goldi hunter, and guide to Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev on multiple topographic expeditions in the early 20th century
  • Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's 1975 film Dersu Uzala, based on a book by Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev, describes the friendship of a Russian explorer and his Nanai guide named Dersu Uzala (who self-identified, and was referred to in Arsenyev's biography, as "Goldi").
  • Nanai female shaman Tchotghtguerele Chalchin performed an incantation recorded in Siberia for the song "The Lighthouse" (an adaptation of the poem "Flannan Isle" by English poet Wilfred Wilson Gibson) on French producer Hector Zazou's 1994 album Chansons des mers froides (Songs from the Cold Seas). Lead vocals were performed by Siouxsie Sioux and background music included performances by the Sakharine Percussion Group and the Sissimut Dance Drummers.
  • Kola Beldy (Russian: Кола́ Бельды́) (1929–1993) was a popular singer in the Soviet Union and Russia, particularly known for his rendition of "Увезу тебя я в тундру" (I will take you to the tundra).
  • Han Geng, a Chinese pop singer, actor, former member of Korean boy band Super Junior and former leader of subgroup Super Junior-M.
  • Kiliii Yuyan, an American photographer whose award-winning work spotlights the Arctic, indigenous communities and conservation through photography, filmmaking and public speaking. Kiliii is a feature contributor to National Geographic Magazine and other major publications.
  • Maksim Passar, A sniper serving in the Red Army during World War II, credited with killing 237 enemy soldiers.

Autonomous areas[edit]

(or equivalent)
Prefecture level County level Township level
Heilongjiang Shuangyashan Raohe County Sipai Hezhe Autonomous Township
Jiamusi Tongjiang Jiejinkou Hezhe Autonomous Township
Bacha Hezhe Autonomous Township
Khabarovsk Krai Nanaysky District



  1. ^ Russia Population Census
  2. ^ Sixth National Population Census of the People's Republic of China [1] (2010)
  3. ^ a b c Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Golds" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 12 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 213.
  4. ^ Dersu Uzala, Vladimer Arsenyev, 1923
  5. ^ An, Jun (安俊) (1986). 赫哲语简志 [Introduction to the Hezhen language]. Beijing: Publishing House of Minority Nationalities. p. 1.
  6. ^ Сем Л. И. (L. I. Sem) "Нанайский язык" (Nanai language), in "Языки мира. Монгольские языки. Тунгусо-маньчжурские языки. Японский язык. Корейский язык" (Languages of the World: Mongolic languages; Tunguso-Manchurian languages; Japanese language; Korean language). Moscow, Indrik Publishers, 1997. ISBN 5-85759-047-7. Page 174. L.I. Sem gives the self name in Cyrillic, as хэǯэ най or хэǯэны
  7. ^ Hezhe, Talk about the history of the Chinese ethnics[permanent dead link]
  8. ^ Du Halde, Jean-Baptiste (1735). Description géographique, historique, chronologique, politique et physique de l'empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise. Vol. IV. Paris: P.G. Lemercier. p. 7. Numerous later editions are available as well, including one on Google Books
  9. ^ О.П. Суник (O.P. Sunik), "Ульчский язык" (Ulch language), in Languages of the World (1997), p. 248; the Cyrillic spelling used there is хэǯэны.
  10. ^ Du Halde (1735), p. 12
  11. ^ Bäcker, Jörg (2002). "Shamanic Epics and Mongolian Influences on the Lower Amur (I)". In Naeher, Carsten; Stary, Giovanni; Weiers, Michael (eds.). Proceedings of the First International Conference on Manchu-Tungus Studies, Bonn, August 28-September 1, 2000: Trends in Manchu and Tungus studies. Bonn: Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. pp. 11–12. ISBN 3447045884.
  12. ^ Forsyth, James (1994). A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia's North Asian Colony 1581-1990 (illustrated, reprint, revised ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 214. ISBN 0521477719.
  13. ^ Majewicz, Alfred F., ed. (2011). Materials for the Study of Tungusic Languages and Folklore (illustrated, reprint ed.). Walter de Gruyter. p. 21. ISBN 978-3110221053. Volume 15, Issue 4 of Trends in Linguistics. Documentation [TiLDOC]
  14. ^ a b c Du Halde (1735), pp. 10-12
  15. ^ Fish-Skin Clothes Archived 2009-07-03 at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ a b Kile, Antonina Sergeevna (2015). "The Traditions and Rituals of the Nanai People". Altai Hakpo. 25: 219, 228.
  18. ^ Tatiana, Bulgakova (2013-08-12). Nanai shamanic culture in indigenous discourse. Fürstenberg/Havel. p. 46. ISBN 9783942883146. OCLC 861552008.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  19. ^ a b c d Gaer, Evdokiya. “The Way of The Soul to The Otherworld and the Nanai Shaman.” Shamanism: Past and Present. Edited by Hoppál Mihály and Otto J. von Sadovszky, International Society for Trans-Oceanic Research, 1989, pp. 233–239.
  20. ^ "Yimakan songs of the Hezhe". Archived from the original on 2006-07-17. Retrieved 2006-08-17.
  21. ^ "Textbook preserves Hezhe language". Archived from the original on 7 July 2022.

External links[edit]