DIGITIZING THE OROQEN

在网络时代拯救鄂伦春语

The World of Chinese - - Contents - BY BY­RON R. HAUCK

The di­verse lan­guages of China's north­east­ern mi­nor­ity groups have been nearly wiped out by as­sim­i­la­tion and mod­ern dis­trac­tions. Re­searcher Liu Jie dis­cusses the strug­gles of lan­guage preser­va­tion—and how the in­ter­net can help

在电子网络时代保护鄂伦春语

In 2000, the pass­ing of Chuon­na­suan, the last fullfledged shaman of China's north­east­ern Oroqen peo­ple, marked the ex­tinc­tion of the indige­nous Oroqen re­li­gion—but at the time of his death, Chuon­na­suan had not held a com­mu­nal heal­ing rit­ual in 48 years. Decades of “anti-su­per­sti­tion” poli­cies, a hunt­ing ban, in­ter­mar­riage, and ur­ban mi­gra­tion—both vol­un­tary and forced—led to a steep de­cline in the cul­tural tra­di­tions of the for­mer hunter­gath­erer mi­nor­ity.

The fight is now on to save at least one other as­pect of Oroqen cul­ture: its lan­guage. Re­searcher Liu Jie (刘杰) es­ti­mates that over 90 per­cent of Oroqen un­der 50 can­not speak the indige­nous lan­guage.

Liu is a re­tired civil ser­vant and lead­ing re­searcher on Oroqen cul­ture within China. He has been de­vel­op­ing an on­line learn­ing plat­form for teach­ing and pre­serv­ing the lan­guage. He spoke to TWOC about the chal­lenges of pre­serv­ing a cul­tural her­itage that many in the com­mu­nity feel are of lit­tle rel­e­vance to their mod­ern lives—and that, un­til re­cent decades, was of­fi­cially dis­cour­aged by the gov­ern­ment bod­ies now scram­bling to pre­serve it.

WHO ARE THE OROQEN, AND WHY IS THE LOSS OF THEIR INDIGE­NOUS LAN­GUAGE SO SE­VERE?

The Oroqen is one of the small­est eth­nic mi­nor­ity groups in China [it is China's fifth small­est eth­nic group as of 2010, with a pop­u­la­tion of 8,659]. They tra­di­tion­ally lived by hunt­ing, in the Greater Khin­gan (Hing­gan) Moun­tains of China—hei­longjiang prov­ince and In­ner Mon­go­lia. The lan­guage is at se­vere risk of ex­tinc­tion be­cause Oroqen has no writ­ten script; peo­ple above the age of 50 still use it in their daily lives, but young peo­ple and chil­dren lack an en­vi­ron­ment where they can prac­tice or have a need to use Oroqen. As a re­sult of the set­tle­ment poli­cies of 1953, the Oroqen were en­cour­aged to give up their hunt­ing liveli­hoods and set­tle in agri­cul­tural vil­lages, which had a pos­i­tive ef­fect on their pop­u­la­tion num­bers. [Shortly be­fore this, in the sum­mer of 1952, Chuon­na­suan per­formed his last pub­lic rit­ual, the melan­cholic three-day “send­ing away of the spir­its” cer­e­mony doc­u­mented by Amer­i­can psy­chol­o­gist Richard Noll in the 1990s]. Vir­tu­ally no Oroqen youth un­der age 20 can speak the na­tive lan­guage. In re­cent years, many na­tion­ally rec­og­nized per­form­ers of mo­sukun [tra­di­tional Oroqen sung nar­ra­tives] and folk artists have passed away or are elderly; few peo­ple can make birch carv­ings or tra­di­tional cos­tumes. Youths would rather learn songs from main­stream movies than tra­di­tional folk songs.

WHAT ARE SOME EF­FORTS MADE TO PRE­SERVE THE LAN­GUAGE?

In the 1980s, sev­eral school­teach­ers in Oroqen vil­lages be­gan to pho­neti­cize the lan­guage us­ing IPA or Chi­nese pinyin, and cre­ate their own text­books and Oroqen lan­guage classes. In 2003, the prov­ince of Hei­longjiang cre­ated stan­dard­ized text­books and lan­guage cour­ses for all the pri­mary schools for the Oroqen, which had a pos­i­tive ef­fect on the preser­va­tion of the lan­guage. I be­gan to do field­work in the re­mote Xin'e vil­lage in Hei­longjiang prov­ince in 1996. In 2013, with other re­searchers and Oroqen lead­ers (in­clud­ing Oroqen lin­guists, ed­u­ca­tors, and the Oroqen Eth­nic Cen­ter School in Tahe county, Hei­longjiang) we be­gan to de­velop an in­ter­net-based tool to not only pro­mote ba­sic com­pe­tence in the lan­guage, but to also serve as a plat­form for re­al­time con­ver­sa­tions, the shar­ing of cul­tural sto­ries and songs, as well as pro­mote tourism. By 2016, with sup­port from the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment, we were able to suc­cess­fully launch the In­her­i­tance and Preser­va­tion of North­ern Mi­nor­ity Lan­guages and Cul­tures web­site at bf­ss­mzyy.com.

WHO USES THE PLAT­FORM AND HOW DOES IT WORK?

Learn­ing re­sources on the site com­bine au­dio record­ings, pic­tures, videos, and an­i­ma­tion. Be­cause the Oroqen lan­guage has no script, the site's learn­ing re­sources in­clude record­ings in the two ma­jor Oroqen di­alects in Hei­longjiang and writ­ten text in Chi­nese and English for ref­er­ence. EnglishOro­qen lessons ex­tend the po­ten­tial fu­ture reach of Oroqen speak­ers out­side of China. There is Flash an­i­ma­tion to demon­strate Oroqen ex­pres­sions for ev­ery­day use, as well as sit­u­a­tions and ob­jects peo­ple might en­counter in or­di­nary life. These lessons are free and can be ac­cessed at any time, and the con­tent is ac­ces­si­ble to any ed­u­ca­tion level. We also plan to use the web­site to pro­mote the in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage of the mi­nor­ity groups— in­clud­ing cloth­ing, hand­i­crafts, birch carv­ings, embroidery, and folk songs—all across China. Even­tu­ally, the site will of­fer learn­ing re­sources for other na­tion­al­i­ties in Hei­longjiang, in­clud­ing Hezen, Daur, Evenki, Kir­giz, and Xibe.

HOW DO MEM­BERS OF OROQEN COM­MU­NI­TIES FEEL ABOUT THESE PRESER­VA­TION EF­FORTS?

An Oroqen el­der, who fears the lan­guage will die out with his gen­er­a­tion, [told me] the Oroqen are em­bar­rassed that the youths can't speak the na­tive lan­guage, but also said that even if ef­forts are made to pro­mote bilin­gual teach­ing, there's no ‘lan­guage en­vi­ron­ment,' as youths sim­ply don't feel like the lan­guage is use­ful to their lives. In the sum­mer of 2015, many im­por­tant cul­tural rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Oroqen na­tion­al­ity have made record­ings for the sys­tem: Guan Kouni, the “last shaman” [Guan was still an ap­pren­tice at the time of the “send­ing away of spir­its” in 1952, thus not con­sid­ered a full shaman by Noll], Oroqen folk singers Guan Jin­fang and Mo Guiru. The plat­form now has a user­ship across the com­mu­nity schools and vil­lages in Hei­longjiang and through­out the In­ner Mon­go­lia Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion, as well as nu­mer­ous uni­ver­si­ties in the re­gion.

WHAT ARE THE CON­SE­QUENCES OF LAN­GUAGE LOSS?

Ac­cord­ing to UNESCO, there are around 2,500 lan­guages around the world—around one-third of all the world's lan­guages—fac­ing ex­tinc­tion. Out of China's ap­prox­i­mately 120 mi­nor­ity lan­guages, around half of them have less than 10,000 speak­ers, and 20 have less than 1,000. It is not just due to small pop­u­la­tion: for ex­am­ple, the Manchu eth­nic­ity has a pop­u­la­tion of more than 10 mil­lion in China, but their indige­nous lan­guage is spo­ken by only a hand­ful of el­ders in Hei­longjiang. With the loss of lan­guage, many tra­di­tional cul­tural prac­tices, such as mo­sukun for the Oroqen, will also be lost. The death and dis­ap­pear­ance of a lan­guage rep­re­sents an ir­re­place­able loss of our un­der­stand­ing of hu­man thought for­ever. The pro­tec­tion of en­gaged lan­guages is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the world, and obliges us to en­gage their speak­ers.

TWO MONTHS LATER, ZHUO LEARNED THE PRICE OF FAME. HIS WEIBO, WITH OVER 7 MIL­LION FOL­LOW­ERS, WAS ABRUPTLY SHUT DOWN

Liu Jie is one of the founders of the In­her­i­tance and Preser­va­tion of North­ern Mi­nor­ity Lan­guages and Cul­tures web­site

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