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Their self-designation is nanai -- 'local, people of this place' (also Nani), which has been used in academic literature ever since the late 1920s. Russians have called the Nanais Golds, which is a name with local origins also used by the Ulchis, the Orochis and the Negidals. Many separately located territorial Nanai groups have called themselves by different names (the Kile, the Akani, the Heden, according to habitation, e.g. the Solonai, the Bolaken etc). The Nanais dwelling in China call themselves Akani. The name Gold was widespread in literature in the mid-19th century.

Habitat. The Nanais live in the Far East on the River Amur, downstream from the city of Khabarovsk, on both sides of the city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, as well as on the banks of the Ussur and the Girin rivers (the Samagirs). They also inhabit a part of northeast China on the River Sungar. In the Soviet Union, at least ten separate groups were known dispersed to the north of the River Amur. In China, similarly, Nanai settlements are scattered widely.

Population. The data of the Russian and USSR population censuses reads as follows:

native speakers
18975,439 (425 Samagirs, at that time regarded as a separate people)
19265,860 (551 Samagirs)
19598,02686.3 %
197010,00561.1 %
197910,51655.8 %

In 1983, 91.7 % of the Nanais lived in the USSR. Current information concerning the Chinese group is not available but in 1928 they numbered about 1,500 people.

Anthropologically the Nanais represent a pure Mongoloid type, belonging, together with the Oroks, the Evens, the Evenks, the Yukaghirs and part of the Tuvas, to the Baikal (Paleo-Siberian) group, which is historically related to the ancient Yukaghir population of Eastern Siberia.

The Nanai language belongs to the southern group of the Manchu-Tungus languages. The closest related languages are Ulchi and Orochi. Two dialects exist, Upper-Amur and Lower-Amur, and they are distinctly unlike each other. A written language was created in the early 1930s on the basis of the Naihin dialect.

Origin and history. Of all the settled minorities of the Lower Amur, the Nanais are supposed to represent the obviously Tungus-influenced neolithic native population. Their direct descendants, among others, are the Nivkhs.

Their dispersed habitation has had its impact on the forming of a Nanai people. At the turn of the century, Nanai settlements were scattered for more than 600 km along the River Amur and for about 100 km along its tributaries. The groups had no cultural or linguistic unity. They led a fairly isolated life and their contacts with each other were undeveloped. The Nanais on the River Girin were even considered to be a separate people. The Nanais lacked a self-designation as well as a common identity. This situation is quite characteristic of the minorities on the River Amur, (cf the Udeghes, the Ulchis).

In terms of ethnic development the influence of the Evenk language was a decisive factor in the tungusification of the Nanais. There are far more Evenk lexical and grammatical elements in the languages of the Lower Amur than there are of Manchu. The Nanais in this region have been far more influenced by the Manchu and Chinese in terms of culture (clothes, winter dwelling place of the type of fanza, jewelry, ornamentation etc.) There were also contacts with the Mongols. The most ancient Chinese historical documents mentioned a people called the Sushen in the Amur, Sungar and Ussur regions as early as the 2nd and 1st millennium BC. Later, the area belonged to the Manchus and Chinese until the 12th--13th centuries, when Chinese sources refer to the Lower Amur region as the land of Tzi-lya-mi (Gi-lya-mi) or the Nivkhs. A stone tablet at the estuary of the River Amur, dating back to 1413, declares that this land is inhabited by Tzi-lya-mi and "other savages". The first troops of Russian Cossacks appeared on the River Amur in the 1640s. In 1649 Y. Khabarov made his first journey to this area. After the treaty concluded at Nerchinsk in 1689, the Russians left the Amur region and China made another attempt to impose its jurisdiction and levy taxes on the local population. The Chinese had a degree of success but only in areas where numbers of Chinese farmers settled alongside the Nanai.

From 1858 the whole left bank of the Amur, and the Ussur region, were claimed as Russian territories and large-scale Russian colonization began. This had a direct impact on the Nanais since the Russians sought to drive the Nanais out of their traditional fishing grounds. The proximity of the Russians accelerated the disintegration of the Nanais' barter system, and by the early 20th century their economy had become almost commercial. Rich native merchant/entrepreneurs emerged, though on the whole the economy of the Nanais was slower to develop than those of neighbouring Lower Amur peoples, in part because no Russian fish-processing industry was established in this area. The traditional Nanai economy was based on two principal branches: fishing, in the Amur valley, and hunting along its tributaries. The Nanai way of life depended on the movement of different varieties of fish in the river. The same applied to hunting. In winter, animals were hunted for fur, whereas in spring and summer, it was time to hunt for food. Dogs were used for hauling goods though the Nanais of the Akani group bred horses.

The seasonal character of fishing and hunting necessitated the emergence of special winter and summer settlements, with appropriate types of dwelling. The Amur Nanais had a peculiar semi-circular summer house made of birch bark. Various dugouts were used for winter dwellings. Also used were houses built of twigs and clay, resembling the Chinese fanzas, where the smoke from two or four clay stoves passed under sleeping bunks (kan) and escaped through a tall wooden chimney beside the house. The Russians taught the Nanais to build log cabins. Typically, clothing and footwear was made of fish skin. There were noticeable Chinese and Manchu influences, for example, in the women's hairdresses and the men's custom of shaving their foreheads, pulling back the rest of the hair into a pigtail. Unsurprisingly, the diet was dominated by various fish dishes. The Nanais of the Upper Amur used more cereals, vegetables and pork than the others. They had learned how to cultivate grain from the Chinese. From the Chinese and the Manchus they had also learnt the skill of metalworking. Among the Ulchis, Nivkhs and even the Manchus, Nanais were famous for their metalwork. Nanai decorative art was extremely well developed, especially ornamentation. Their coloured drawings, often of religious significance, in Chinese ink, that adorned shamanistic utensils, textiles and paper, were highly original.

An extensive socialist shaping of the Nanai began in 1924, when a Native Peoples' department was established within the Far East Revolutionary Committee. Between 1926 and 1928, when the forming of national territories began, a Nanai District came into being (actually, the Nanais live in various districts). The first kolkhozes were founded in 1930 and collectivization began with the population being concentrated into compact settlements. In fact, all this served to form and integrate the Nanai as a nation, since all of the organization, like specifying boundaries and the development of education, promoted the development of ethnic distinct he identity, especially in regions with a mixed Nanai-Ulchi and Nanai-Udegey population.

There are many new cities and industrial settlements in the immediate vicinity of the Nanai settlements, and railways now run through the region. The city of Khabarovsk, for example, was founded in 1858 and Komsomolsk-on-Amur is a recent settlement. At present a little over 5 % of the Nanais live in towns and cities. The kolkhozes have been adapted to profitable land cultivation and livestock breeding. This is a necessary direction for the Nanais to move in given that the abundance of fish in the Amur is no more. Unchecked pollution of the river has drastically reduced their numbers, and indeed the river itself is actually on the brink of disaster. In 1989, the water of the Amur near Komsomolsk contained 13 times the amount of phenols permissible, five times the amount of oil products and 40 times more copper than is considered safe.

The establishing of a Nanai identity was undoubtedly promoted by the creation, in the early 1930s, of a common Nanai written language, based on the Naihin dialect. The native mother tongue was taught in nursery classes and in the 1st and 2nd forms of primary school. A transition to Russian was made in the 3rd form. During World War II, schooling in the native language was stopped. Only in 1981 was a new project for teaching the mother tongue in forms 2--3 adopted. Nanai-language education, however, was reestablished in the late 1970s. The Institute of Northern Peoples in Leningrad greatly assisted the creation and study of the Nanai literary language. In the 1930s works of Marxism-Leninism were even published in the Nanai language, as well as fiction translated from Russian. After World War II, some juvenile literature was translated, also some original Nanai literature appeared (K. Geiker, A. Samar, A Passar) and a collection of Nanai songs. A trilogy The Wide Amur by the Nanai author, G. Hodjer, won the National Award of the Russian Federation. A few Nanai artists and composers have emerged. S. Onenko, working at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, has made some successful studies of the Nanai language as a mother tongue. He has put together a project for improving Nanai spelling (1983), developed methods of teaching the native tongue to primary classes using the Manchu-Tungus languages as a basis, and published two dictionaries (1980, 1982). The Nanai language is being taught in the Teachers' Training School in Komsomolsk and in the Teachers' Training College in St Petersburg.

The Nanais' best means of expressing ethnic identity has so far been folklore performances on the stages of village clubs. Its advancement and significance for Nanai culture, however, has been questionable. In a national amateur art movement which arose in the 1930s (typified by a wave of theatre companies and a number of song groups), some of the artists performed authentic folklore. However, later as performances came to be influenced by standard Russian club activities, the performers acquired a more "academic" manner of singing which was not in the least authentic. The variety-concert-style of performing also clashed with the peculiarities of the traditional Nanai culture. The result was a negative influence on the truly authentic folk music. In the opinion of researchers, there are extremely few performers of genuine Nanai folklore. Amateur songs, mostly based on the lyrics of the native poet, A. Samar, have become popular. As a source of new songs, Russian popular music was used until the 1950s (the same applies to other minorities on the River Amur). This introduced entirely new melodics to Nanai music. The influence of folklorism, and the new songs emerging in its wake, has been so strong and the estrangement from the authentic material so serious, that the formation of novel Nanai folklore has stopped. This situation is characteristic of all the minorities on the Amur and on Sakhalin. At the present time, the most widely known Nanai artistic company is the song and dance group "Mengo".

The emergence of Nanai intelligentsia is typical of the whole region. Before the establishment of the Soviet system, a national intelligentsia did not exist. The literacy rate was extremely low. In 1926, for example, 7.2 % of the Nanais, 6.2 % of the Nivkhs and 7.8 % of the Evenks and Evens could read Russian. The corresponding index for Siberian Russians was 45.1 %. Therefore, in the early phase of the socialist state there was a real need for education. A social group of national intellectuals and industrial leaders had to be created. For this purpose, in 1926, a "Department of Native Peoples" was founded at Khabarovsk Teachers' Training School (changed into Teachers' Training School for Northern Peoples in the following year). All native schoolchildren and students were supported by the state. At that time there was a great demand for teachers, cultural and medical workers, as well as managerial personnel. Only in a few isolated cases were the representatives of small nations trained in other professions. So, for example, by the 1960s extremely few production managers had been prepared, since the main object was to train specialists in humanitarian professions. Within the Amur nations, the number of people training for pedagogical professions exceeded the average all-union index by almost 4 times and the number training for medical professions by 2.5 times. In other fields (except culture) the index was ten times lower than the all-union average. As early as the 1960s, this system of preparing specialists was running contrary to the essential requirements of the Amur region, as well as contrary to the desires and values of the young. Sociological research in the 1970s indicates that young males within the small nations were mainly interested in engineering professions. This was particularly true of the young men of the Nanai (among other Northern peoples, also the Khants and to a lesser extent, the Nenets). As more females were training for humanitarian professions, there being very few occupations for males, a rather unfortunate disproportion was formed among the male and female population of higher and vocational secondary education. In 1979 the percentage of educated female specialists among the rural Nanai population was 72.5 %; the percentage of educated rural male Nanais was 9.5 %. The index of ten years before was 4.9 % and 10 % respectively. Comparing the standard of education of the Nanais with that of their neighbouring Russians, among rural women the level is almost the same, whereas the Nanai men are considerably less educated than Russian men. On the whole, the level of education of rural Nanais is lower than that of the Russians, and this is one of the reasons why the number of specialists and management executives among the Nanais is smaller than among the Russians (13.1 % and 20.5 % respectively). The difference is especially marked in the field of industrial specialists (almost four times as many Russians as Nanais). The problem is compounded by the desire of Nanai industrial specialists in rural areas to change their jobs (a preference expressed by one in three). It has been proved that productivity is better in native groups where the leader is a member of the native population. The number of native leaders amongst the Nanais has decreased and there are now almost half as many leaders as among the Russians. Executive jobs are attached no great status among the Nanais. It is common for Nanais who begin their careers as executives to give up their jobs in favour of some form of manual labour. It is not difficult to see that such a situation makes the emergence of a strata of native leaders extremely doubtful. However, without such a body the continued existence of such a minor nation is imperiled.

One positive development is the election of a Nanai woman, Yevdokia Gaer, to the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation. Gaer has since delivered a number of trenchant speeches. She was also a member of the committee which organised the congress of the Northern Minorities in Moscow in 1990. The Nanais elected 13 representatives to this congress.

The linguistic situation does not augur well for the future of Nanai culture. Nowadays, all the Nanais are bilingual. In 1979, 93.2 % spoke Russian fluently, and 43.9 % even gave Russian as their mother tongue. Only 63 % spoke fluent Nanai and it was regarded as the mother tongue by 55.8 %. From 1959 to 1979, the number of Nanais who regarded Russian as their mother tongue increased from 13.3 % to 43.9 %. Research projects in recent years have shown that it is mostly the older generation (as their first language) and the middle-aged (as their second language) who speak fluent Nanai. The younger generation has only a passive command of the language, or they do not speak it at all. At the same time, the rate of inbred marriages is decreasing. In the 1950s the figure was 87 % (mixed marriages with Russians -- 5.6 %), while 20 years later it was 74 % (mixed marriages with Russians -- 18 %).


  1. В. А. Аврорин, Нанайский язык. -- Языки народов СССР. Т. V, Ленинград 1968
  2. Нанайцы. -- Народы Сибири, Москва -- Ленинград 1956
  3. А. В. Смоляк, Народы Нижнего Амура и Сахалина. -- Этническая история народов Севера, Москва 1982
  4. А. В. Смоляк, Этнические процессы у народов Нижнего Амура и Сахалина, Москва 1975
  5. И. В. Удалова, Изменение численности и состава интеллигенции народностей Севера (на примере нанайцев). -- Народы Сибири на современном этапе, Новосибирск 1989


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