Imaging Minority Culture: Photography, Digital Sharing, and Cultural Survival in Northeast China

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Social Anthropology


This is a project to research a previously unseen and recently digitised photographic archive of two ethnic minorities in northeast China: the Ethel John Lindgren Collection of Evenki and Orochen communities at the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Cambridge. This unique archive of 8000 photographs was collected by Cambridge anthropologist, Ethel John Lindgren, and her Norwegian husband and photographer, Oscar Mamen, who undertook field research between 1919-1921 in what was then northeast Manchuria. They amassed an invaluable visual record of the people, places, and inter-ethnic relations of the region during a formative period in pre-communist China history - before they were sedentarised and classified as 'ethnic minorities' by the Chinese state. More importantly, however, the photographs are also a highly personal community-record for Evenki and Orochen people living in China today, who are the direct descendants of those depicted in the photographs, and in many cases the images represent the only visual documentation of their grandparents and kin relations. Research will first be carried out on the photographs at the MAA to document their historical information, identifying locations, landscapes, social characteristics, and material culture. As the photographs depict communities when they were still fully nomadic, when subsistence hunting was permitted, clan identities were prominent, and both everyday and ritual activities were still widely practiced, documenting this will be key to better understanding the ethno-history of the region through the lens of nomadic communities, and how they embodied their cultural lifeworlds before the founding of the PRC. Next, the project will first use the photographs as tools during ethnographic fieldwork amongst contemporary Evenki and Orochen communities, identifying locations, landscapes, practices, and material objects to better understand everyday social life during this formative period in pre-communist China. We will also use the photographs as hermeneutic tools in order to prompt responses and discussions, elucidating people's experiences of more recent changes and state policies, such as sedentarisation, modernisation and economic development, environmental degradation, the impact of the logging industry and shift towards conservation, a hunting-ban, and the recent shift towards ethnic tourism and its significance for the politics of representation. The project also has an important community-based component, and by partnering with a Hong Kong-based NGO it will incorporate the collection into existing and new cultural revitalisation and community-outreach initiatives in minority villages and centres across northeast China. For example, we will use the photographs in educational programmes at local schools, language training, teaching skills such as hunting and craft production, music and dance, forest activities, as well as working with elders in documenting aspects of traditional culture to be re-developed for the new ethno-tourism industry and to help generate alternate livelihood opportunities. The project will also work alongside elders and community leaders to reconstruct un-recorded family and clan histories, develop individual biographies of minority officials, prominent shamans, and the wider communities, and assist people in identifying individuals and family members often not seen in photographic form before. Given the recent history of the photographs and their direct connection to communities today, the project has a unique opportunity to help disentangle people's actual lived-identities from state classifications, which often cut across ethnic categories through kinship, intermarriage, and shifting historical alliances. More broadly, we document the process of digital repatriation and sharing and describe their uses by community and state actors in the context of surging interest and investment in 'protecting' minority heritage and culture.

Planned Impact

Impact of this project will be threefold: conceptual, by adding to and reframing academic debates on ethnic minorities in China; instrumental, by sharing the Lindgren Collection with Evenki and Orochen communities; and capacity building, by developing the researchers' skills across multiple scales with local communities, government, academia and an NGO in China. The project will build upon the Leverhulme-funded 'Etnos and Minzu: Histories & Politics of Identity Governance in Eurasia' (2009-16) between University of Aberdeen, Inner Mongolia Normal University, MAA and MIASU. The project will benefit those involved in the earlier research, who shall be included in joint publications and participation in our conference. We will also collaborate with a new initiative between MAA, MIASU, University of Oslo and the Museum of Ethnography in Osaka, which is funding a wider digitisation initiative on the history and ethnic diversity of northeast Asia. Along with academic beneficiaries, the research will benefit policy stakeholders within the UK, governmental and nongovernmental organisations in China and Russia, and interested parties from the media and the wider public. We shall build on the existing ties established during the Leverhulme project and expand the range of potential beneficiaries. This will be done by proactive contact with our network, encouraging them to contribute ideas for topics and identify further interested parties. Building awareness of the project will be through a number of events bringing academic and non-academic beneficiaries together; this will help achieve impact by informing public debate and disseminating information through various institutions known to the participants. Non-academic forums will also be used for dissemination. From the beginning we shall cultivate our existing links with media such as newspapers, radio, journals and online resources and continue to find suitable outlets for publications and interviews about our findings. Given the topicality of the research, the results shall also be presented to websites for the popularisation of science, one of whose representative has contacted the PI. We will take advantage of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, the University's highly popular annual outreach event, to engage with members of the public. Presentations and lectures will be accompanied by a photographic exhibition illustrating the field research and of sharing the digital collection, which we plan to also display at venues in the UK and elsewhere linked to our network. MIASU will host our conference in Cambridge and we will invite a number of stakeholders from Europe and Inner Asia. It will have impact by engaging Chinese, Mongolian, and Russian scholars with expertise on ethnic minorities issues in the region. Our partnership with the National Museum of Ethnology (Beijing) and the Evenki Banner Government also helps position the project in the centre of debates surrounding Chinese academic engagement with ethnic minorities. MIASU will be an ideal location to bring together parties to debate the issues facing the region. The project will also directly impact Evenki and Orochen communities in China. We will digitally share the photographs with local communities; publish a local-language volume on the history of the Collection and incorporate people's experiences; and build an interactive website and mobile phone app presenting Evenki and Orochen engagement with the photographs, prioritising minority youth. Working with the Orochen Foundation, we will also integrate the photographs into cultural revitalisation projects and help develop new initiatives, such as incorporating the photos into educational programmes at minority schools, as visual aids in language training, teaching hunting and forest skills and craft production, and with elders in re-developing aspects of traditional culture for use in the ethno-tourism industry to create alternate livelihood opportunities for local people.


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Title Exhibition 
Description Two exhibitions have been organised and confirmed in northeast China, to be held in August 2018. They feature 40 photographs at each pop the two locations, printed and framed in China, curated by an Orochen museum curator and organised in liaison with the Evenki and Orochen minority governments.. They are being hosted in the two major fieldsites of Aoluguya Township and Alihe town. They are already being widely advertised amongst local communities and state actors and have received widespread government and local academic support. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact The exhibitions serve as a useful way to present the research to local communities, to involve local people such as community members, local academics, artistic and museum curators, and to share the results of the ongoing research with local government actors. The local minority government in both locations have fully supported the hosting of the two exhibitions and advertised widely through local media. 
Title Exhibitions 
Description Two new photographic exhibitions were held in 2018 and 2019. This is to confirm the completion of two photographic exhibitions at the Orochen minority museum, Alihe, Orochen Autonomous Banner, and Ewenke minority museum, Aoluguya, Ewenke Autonomous Banner, China, between 29th and 31st October, 2018. The exhibitions were prepared by the Chinese National Museum of Ethnology in Beijing, as part of the project, "Imaging Minority Culture: Photography, Digital Sharing, and Cultural Survival in Northeast China". Two opening ceremonies were hosted by the Orochen Autonomous Banner government in Alihe and the Ewenke Autonomous Banner government in Aoluguya. The ceremonies were attended by Richard Fraser (University of Cambridge), Bai Ying, (Chinese National Museum of Ethnology), and Pu Linsheng (Aoluguya township leader). 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact Involving local minority actors in selecting the photographs, and employing local Orochen in setting up the exhibition. 
Description The fieldwork component of this project has already been completed. Fieldwork was carried out with key actors and groups as stated in the research proposal. Some key findings thus far include: 1. the discovery of new kinship lineages using the digital photographic collection. Two Orochen families/clans were able to use the photographs to trace their own clan histories, by identifying individuals in the photographs. 2. This has served to better understand the movement of individual Orochen clans over time and to assist local communities in writing their own ethno-histories. 3. the photographs were used in fieldwork and longitudinal interviews to capture people's experiences of social change. This data has already been collated and will be expressed in academic writing/output at the end of the project.
Exploitation Route As the photographs have helped local communities to identify family members and build local ethno-histories, they will serve to better capture the wider social configurations of Orochen minority communities in northeast China, which will be of use to researchers, state actors, as well as local communities. This is particularly important given the lack of understanding of Orochen history, the movement of individual clans over time, and location of clans before sedentarisation. The fieldwork and interview data will be of use to future researchers wishing to conduct fieldwork in the region, to better understand people's movements across time and space, and to more fully understand people's experiences of social change in the lead up to the founding of the PRC and more recently in relation to sedentarisation and modernisation policies.
Sectors Education,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The initial findings of the research have already started to be taken up by local communities and state actors. Firstly, local communities in two field-sites have used the photographs to reconstruct kinship lineages and develop their own ethno-histories of respective Orochen clans. This will be described in the academic output of the project. Second, the photographs have been used by local government to develop a website for presenting the history and culture of Orochen communities, as well as in language training at local schools. The PI has developed a proposal to host a cultural and music festival in the Orochen Autonomous Banner, which has recently been accepted by the Orochen minority government. In the summer of 2020, we will host a cultural and electronic music festival in the Orochen Autonomous Banner in northeast China. The festival is inspired by the history and culture of the Orochen ethnic minority, a community of 8000 former hunter-gatherers living in the beautiful and pristine Da Xinganliang mountains of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The aim of the festival is to support the preservation and revitalisation of Orochen culture, by combining indigenous music, craftwork, and lifestyles with contemporary electronic music. Our vision is to bridge the gap between the modern and the traditional by supporting the community in finding new avenues for cultural revitalisation and expression. The festival has the full backing of both the Orochen government and local community, as part of their efforts at maintaining and promoting cultural heritage within the ethnic tourism industry. The Orochen are one of China's fifty-five officially-recognised ethnic minorities. They were traditionally hunters who entered what would later become Chinese territory during the mid-17th century. Prior to receiving recognition as a distinct ethnicity, they had no conception of themselves as a unified entity but consisted of loosely affiliated clans. These clans were gradually incorporated into the Qing, Republican, and Communist states and eventually became designated a single ethnic group through the 'Ethnic Classification Project'. With the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, they were sedentarised in the areas of their original hunting grounds where the majority remain to this day. In 1951, they were granted an Autonomous Banner intended to protect their hunting lifestyle and establish a representative government. However, with the expansion of the logging industry and successive modernisation campaigns, they experienced dramatic changes including mass immigration of Han-Chinese settlers resulting in cultural assimilation and language-loss, environmental degradation and a reduction in wild animal populations which problematised subsistence hunting, and policies encouraging them to transition from hunters to agriculturalists. With the advent of economic reforms in the mid-1980s they saw genuine attempts at improving their livelihoods through government subsidies and free housing, as well as exemption from the one-child policy and improved access to health care and education. In recent years, their lives have intersected with the rise of cultural heritage (wenhua yichan) and the ethnic tourism industry, which are used to encourage economic development and for the so-called "protection" of ethnic minority culture. While tourism was practically non-existent amongst the Orochen as recently as 2006, over the past decade billions of Yuan has been invested and the area has been transformed. Today, a number of Orochen villages, museums, and cultural parks are being constructed or refurbished, architecture is being re-designed to reflect ethnic stylisation, while a broader rural development campaign is underway to upgrade housing, build roads, improve connectivity, and establish protected areas for environmental conservation. In 2018, a major tourism site was developed just on the outskirts of the regional capital, Alihe. It is set in a beautiful location amidst the taiga forest, featuring traditional Orochen dwellings, a lake, and a number of cultural museums and workshop centres. We are immensely fortunate to have permission to use this site as the location for the festival, and we have attached some photographs for your reference. The conceptual vision for the festival is cultural convergence - between traditional Orochen life and contemporary electronic music, with psytrance as its centre. Fundamentally, we see psytrance as a lifestyle and worldview, which takes inspiration from the natural environment and the shared experience of humanity across the world, as well as a strong respect for indigenous cultures and traditions. The festival will use psytrance as a way of celebrating Orochen culture and the unique and beautiful landscape of the Da Xinganliang mountains, to promote cultural revitalisation in new and novel ways, and to attract visitors to an otherwise little-known part of China. This is a cultural and electronic music festival with Orochen culture at its hearts - emphasising the natural beauty of the landscape and the unique traditions of the community. Orochen culture is highly spiritual and artistic, and there are numerous artists, craftspeople, singers, dancers, and a small number of shamans. We will combine these within the festival itself by collaborating with local people in the design, to share their knowledge and experiences, and to present traditional practices such as craft production, shamanic rituals, music, art, and dance, as well as many others. Importantly, this is not about "using" Orochen culture or presenting it in a romantic way (as is so often the case in Chinese tourism depictions). In reality, Orochen people today do not wear traditional clothing (except for special events), hunting has officially been banned (though people still hunt illegally), there are only 2 living shamans, people live in towns and villages (though traditional tents are still used for feasting and drinking during the summer), and communities face a number of challenges from poverty to cultural and linguistic loss. The idea rather is to celebrate Orochen history and traditons, to combine electronic music with Orochen elements, and to collaborate with the local community to develop alternate ways of presenting Orochen culture for the next generation. The festival will include 3 independent stages taking inspiration from the Orochen cultural imaginary. The main stage, named "Toa" (after the Orochen word for "Fire"), will be devoted to psytrance; the second stage, named "Woxida" ("Stars"), will feature eclectic electronic music; and the third stage, named "Xiya" ("Forest"), will emphasise world and chill-out music. Performers will include both Chinese and international artists. We will work closely with local craft producers and artists in the design of the site, and the decoration will be heavily inspired by Orochen themes, visual representations, and motifs. The festival will also include a market featuring both local and international participants, and from where Orochen craft producers will sell traditional handicrafts. We will also host workshops throughout the duration of the festival devoted to Orochen culture. These include birch-bark and deer-skin craftsmanship, traditional arts, singing, and dancing, tepee-tent construction, story-telling from community elders, horse riding and horse-related skills, shamanic ceremonies, fire performances, and a traditional wood carving ritual to give thanks to the spirit-master of the forest. All of these are officially classified as intangible cultural heritage by the Chinese state and UNESCO, and will be led by Orochen heritage transmitters. Attendees will not only observe but participate directly in the workshops themselves, learning the skills that have sustained Orochen life for thousands of years, appreciating their animistic relationship to the forest and the spirits within, and to better understand the deep-seated cultural meanings of their unique practices. In this way, the festival will serve as a vehicle for promoting Orochen heritage now and in the future.
Sector Creative Economy,Education,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

Title Website 
Description This is a website developed in cooperation with China's Heilongjiang government. It features an Orochen language learning interface, alongside a cultural knowledge learning programme, and is hosted on China's open-access web network. It has been developed in conjunction with the PI and uses the digital photographs of the project. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2017 
Open Source License? Yes  
Impact The website is currently being used in two Orochen primary schools to educate local children in Orochen language and culture. 
Description School-based cultural and language revitalisation activities 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact This is to confirm the completion of cultural-education and language-revitalisation activities at the Evenki (Ewenke) primary school, Aoluguya, Ewenke Autonomous Banner, China, between the 10-21st October 2018.

The activities were led by Dr. Richard Fraser and Bai Ying (Chinese National Museum of Ethnology in Beijing), as part of the project, "Imaging Minority Culture: Photography, Digital Sharing, and Cultural Survival in Northeast China".

The activities involved 35 Evenki school children and 15 elders, and included:
1. Generational interaction using the Lindgren photo collection (elders and school children)
2. Forest-based activities for cultural education using the Lindgren collection (animal and plant identification, tracking forest paths, environmental mapping of Lindgren photographs to the landscape)
3. Language-learning and education between elders and school children
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018