After forcing minority communities to embrace official communist culture during the 1950s and 60s, the Chinese government now takes a more enlightened – if somewhat patronizing – approach to the nations of the north. The Manchu people, spread across Inner Mongolia and Dongbei, are the most numerous and assimilated. Having lived so long among the Han, they are now almost identical, though Manchus tend to be slightly taller, and Manchu men have more facial hair. Manchus are noted for an elaborate system of etiquette and will never eat dog, unlike their Korean neighbours, who love it. The “three strange things” that the southern Chinese say are found in the northeast are all Manchu idiosyncrasies: paper windows pasted outside their wooden frame, babies carried by their mothers in handbags and women smoking in public (the latter, of course, can be a habit of Han and every other ethnicity in large cities).

In the inhospitable northern margins of Dongbei live communities such as the Hezhen, one of the smallest minority nations in China with an estimated 1400 members. Inhabiting the region where the Songhua, Heilong and Wusuli (Ussuri) rivers converge, they’re known to the Han Chinese as the “Fish Tribe”, and their culture and livelihood centre around fishing. Indeed, they’re the only people in the world to make clothes out of fish skin: the fish is gutted, descaled, then dried and tanned and the skins sewn together to make light, waterproof coats, shoes and gloves. More numerous are the Daur, 120,000 of whom live along the Nenjiang River. They are fairly seamlessly assimilated these days, but still retain distinctive marriage and funerary traditions, and have a reputation for being superb at hockey, a form of which they have played since the sixth century.

However, perhaps the most distinctive minority are the Oroqen, a tribe of nomadic hunters living in patrilineal clan communes called wulileng in the northern sub-Siberian wilderness. Although they have recently adopted a more settled existence, their main livelihood still comes from deer-hunting, while household items, tools and canoes are made from birch bark by Oroqen women. Clothes are fashioned from deer hide, and include a striking hat made of a roe deer head, complete with antlers and leather patches for eyes, which is used as a disguise in hunting.

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