The Hezhe, people of the fish

 

The Hezhe is the ethnic group of China who has a more intimate relation with fish. Living near the banks of the big rivers of northeast China: Amur, Sungari, all in their lives is related to fish. In the past, they eat fish, wear fish skin and use fish products for satisfy their basic needs. Fish is present in their myths and legends; it is part of their games and sports (1).

With a long history living in not well known lands, the Hezhe are also known as Achas, Fishkin Tatars, Golds, Goldis, Heshes, Nabeis, Nanais, Naniaos, Nanaitsis, Hoshes, Hochits, Khechkis, Natkis, Sushens, Wild Nuchens and Yupibos (2).

They call themselves in different ways according to the region they inhabit. Geographically we can distinguish between the Nanai, Nabei and Naniao. These three names mean "people of this place" in their respective dialects. The term Hezhe is the way people living down the Heilongjiang River called them. In Siberian Russia they are known as the Nanai.

The Hezhe, who faced extinction in the times of Japanese invasion of Manchuria, see their population slowly increasing during the last decades. In 1980 there were 2,475 Hezhe. They were 4,245 in 1990 and 4,640 in 2000. They are one of the officially recognized national minorities with smaller population.

They live in the middle course of the Heilongjiang River, concentrated in the two villages of Bacha and Jiejinkou in Tongjiang County. There are also some in Raohe county, Xilinzi village and in Huachuan and Fujin counties.

Their language belongs to the Man-Tungus branch of the Altaic linguistic family.
They have two main dialects: Qileng and Hezhe, with important differences in their vocabulary and phonology. These two dialects are different of the dialect spoken by the Russian Nanais.

"Unesco's Red Book on endangered languages lists Hezhe as a nearly extinct language. The signs are not good: the total number of speakers has fallen below 50, there are no children who speak the language, only people over the age of 50 understand the language, etc. The widespread use of Mandarin Chinese has taken over within the community." (3)

(1) The Hezhe People. China Source. In www.chsource.org/Hezhe.htm (20070113)
(2) Olson, James S.- An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of China. Greenwood Press. 1998
(3) Languages: Will Hezhe survive?.- Jean Veronis. In http://aixtal.blogspot.com/2005/06/languages-will-hezhe-survive.html (20070113)

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