Some ethnographic information in Chi Zijian's novel "The Last Quarter of the Moon"


Last Quarter of the Moon contains ethnographic information related to the Ewenki people. Here we offer to readers a fragment in which the shaman initiation of one of the main characters is described.

Excerpted from The Last Quarter of the Moon, published by Harvill Secker. Translated by Bruce Humes from Chi Zijian’s original novel, 额尔古纳河右岸.

The grass grew green, flowers bloomed, swallows flew back from the south, and the waves shimmered again on the river. The ceremony marking Nihau’s designation as our clan’s Shaman was set to take place amidst the sights and sounds of springtime.

According to established practice, a new Shaman’s initiation should take place at the urireng of the former Shaman. But Nihau was pregnant again, and Luni was worried that it would be hard for her to travel to Nidu the Shaman’s old urireng, so Ivan invited a Shaman from another clan to come and preside over the Initiation Rite.

She was known as Jiele the Shaman. Past seventy, she still had a straight back, a set of neatly spaced teeth and a head of jet-black hair. Her voice carried far, and even after downing three bowls of baijiu without a pause her gaze didn’t waver.

We erected two Fire Pillars to the north of our shirangju, a birch tree on the left, a pine on the right, symbolising the co-existence of mankind and the Spirits. They had to be big trees. In front of them we also placed two saplings – once again, a birch on the left and a pine on the right. We stretched a leather strap between the two big trees, and attached sacrificial offerings – reindeer hearts, tongues, livers and lungs – to show reverence to the Shaman Spirit. Blood from a reindeer heart was smeared onto the saplings. Besides all this, Jiele the Shaman hung a wooden sun to the east of the shirangju, and a moon to the west. She also carved a wild goose and a cuckoo out of wood, and suspended them separately.

The Spirit Dance Ceremony commenced. Everyone in our urireng sat next to the blazing fire observing Jiele the Shaman as she taught Nihau the Spirit Dance. Nihau was wearing the Spirit Robe left behind by Nidu the Shaman, but Jiele the Shaman had adapted it because he had been fat and taller than Nihau, so the Spirit Robe was too loose for her. That day it seemed that Nihau was a bride again. Clothed in a Shaman’s costume, she was lovely and dignified.

Attached to the Spirit Robe were small wooden replicas of the human spine, seven metal strips symbolising human ribs, and lightning bolts and bronze mirrors of every size. The shawl draped on her shoulders was even more resplendent with teal, fish, swan and cuckoo bird adornments fastened to it. Twelve colourful ribbons symbolising the twelve Earthly Branches hung from the Spirit Skirt she wore, and it was also embellished with myriad strings of tiny bronze bells.

The Spirit Headdress she donned resembled a large birch- bark bowl covering the back of her head. Behind it draped a short, rectangular ‘skirt,’ and at the top rose a pair of small bronze reindeer antlers. Several red, yellow and blue ribbons were suspended from the branches, symbolising a rainbow. In front of the Spirit Headdress dangled strands of red silk that reached the bridge of her nose, endowing her gaze with a mysterious air, since her eyes were visible only via the gaps between the strands of silk.

As Jiele the Shaman had instructed her, before the Spirit Dance Nihau first addressed a few words to the entire urireng. She proclaimed that after she became a Shaman she would unquestionably use her own life and the abilities bestowed upon her by the Spirits to protect our clan, and ensure that our clansmen would multiply, our reindeer teem, and the fruits of our hunting abound year after year.
With her left hand holding the Spirit Drum and her right hand grasping the drumstick made from the leg of a roe-deer, she followed Jiele the Shaman and began her Spirit Dance.

Although Jiele the Shaman was very elderly, as she began to perform the Spirit Dance she was full of energy. When she beat the Spirit Drum, birds came flying from afar and alighted on the trees in our camp. The drumbeat and the chirping of the birds blended poignantly. That was the most glorious sound I’ve heard in my life.

Nihau danced with Jiele the Shaman without pause from high noon until the sky went dark. Luni lovingly brought Nihau a bowl of water to get her to take a sip, but she didn’t even glance at it. Meanwhile, the rhythm of Nihau’s drumbeats grew more compelling, and her dancing more skillful and eye- catching with every step.
Jiele the Shaman stayed in our camp for three days and danced the Spirit Dance each day, and she used her drumming and dancing to transform Nihau into a Shaman.

For an academic study of the ideologies behind the government’s official policy of resettling the Evenki—and an in-depth look at the psychological impact of divorcing them from their “reindeer lifeworld”—see Forced Relocation amongst the Reindeer Evenki of Inner Mongolia.

Visit Northern Hunting Culture for marvelous pictures of the Aoluguya Evenki, their lifestyle and handicrafts.

For a fascinating look at the etymology of names for rivers, mountains and forests in their homeland on either side of the Sino-Russian border, see Evenki Place Names behind the Hànzì.

Independent Spirits: Financial Times’ review of “Last Quarter of the Moon”

Back to Ewenki main page

© Copyright 2007


Buy books related to China Ethnic Groups and help to develop this web