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Smaller peoples and their traditional and ritual combat sports

Oroqen people: Neck wrestling

Contest inspiring Japanese artists

Neck wrestling
Two Beauties Playing Neck Tug-of-war
Woodblock print. Original: ink and color on paper by Kitagawa Utamaro, circa 1793–94
Illustration from the site Educators online

Русская версия

The Oroqen people (Chinese: Elunchun; Mongolian: Orčun; also spelt Orochen or Orochon) are a small ethnic group in northern China. The word “Oroqen” mentioned in the old chronicle, means “man on the summit” or “taming a reindeer”. The sparse Oroqen population mainly lives in the forest depths of the Heilong Jiang River (Amur) valley in Northeast China, specifically on two mountain ranges of the Great and Small Xing'an Mountains. About a half of the Oroqen live in Inner Mongolia and half - in the province of Heilongjiang. The Oroqen are mainly hunters, and it is customary of them to use animal fur and skins for clothing. The Oroqen forms one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by the People's Republic of China. The Oroqen ethnic minority, with a population of about 8,000, is the third smallest of the 55 ethnic minorities in China.

Before the communist era, the main religion of the nomadic Oroqen was shamanism – in two versions – male and female. At that time, the tribal leaders were also powerful shamans. The last living shaman of the Oroqen, Chuonnasuan (Meng Jin Fu), died at the age of 73 in 2000. Sacrifices to ancestral spirits are still routinely made, and there is a folk psychological belief in animism. Oroqen had the special community ritual of "sending away the spirits" and begging them not to return. Traditionally, the Oroqen have a special veneration for animals, especially the bear and the tiger, which they consider their blood brothers.

During Mao rein, the Oroqen were compelled to denounce their traditional hunter-gathering activities in favor of communal living with other minorities and the Han majority. Diseases brought north by the massive migration of Han people reduced the already small Oroqen population. Their hunting grounds were turned over to a swelling forestry industry and to collective farming. They quickly became persecuted and socially marginalized.

The Oroqen people has their own ancient entertainment and sport traditions. They held athletic competitions and games during their traditional holidays and festivals. The festivals start with a bonfire party, which adds heat and energy to the festival. Then they sing songs, dance around bonfires and participate in traditional ethnic sports: archery, wrestling, casting games (including a kind of stick bowling), tug-of-war, arm wrestling, neck wrestling, stick-pulling.

The most important festive tradition for the Oroqen people is the Gulunmuta (Gunlomta) Festival. Gulunmuta means “to worship the God of fire” in Oroqen. The festival evolved from the ancient ritual of sacrificing to the God of fire. For centuries, the Oroqen have lived hunting in the forests and the God of fire was for them the first God. The Gulunmuta was listed as one of the first China's intangible cultural heritages.

The Oroqen athletic traditions are notable for their peculiar female competitions. Four sports involving physical strength test are the most popular among females – from young girls to elder women: tug-of-war, stick-pulling, arm-wrestling and neck-wrestling.

While arm wrestling and various forms of stick-pulling are practiced all over the world (by the Yakut or by Tatar during their Sabantuy), neck-wrestling (neck tug-of-war) is a quite unique sport. Especially, it is unique by the fact that it is a sport just for women. The peculiarities of this female sport reflect some features which women usually like – soft pads, colored sashes tied in a nice bows, bright colorful costumes.

Stick-pulling. Two players tug a stick sitting on a soft pad against each other and resting their feet against each other’s feet. Each player grasps the stick with two hands; contenders attempt to snatch the stick out of the opponent’s hands (or to pull the opponent to his own side) using variety of techniques – jerks, spurts, twists.

Neck wrestling
Two Oroqen women compete in a neck-wrestling contest
during the Gulunmuta Festival when the Oroqens worship their God of Fire.
The Aihui district of Heihe city, Northeast China's Heilongjiang province.
August 6, 2010. Photo from the site China Daily

Neck-wrestling. This exotic contest is a peculiar combination of stick-pulling and rope-pulling (tug-of-war). A band in the form of a long strip of cloth (usually colorful narrow sash or scarf) plays a role of the «rope”. The contestant initial position is similar to the position in stick-pulling: they seat with their feet pushing against the other's keeping the upper body vertical and with the band looped over their necks. Two sides of the looped band are tied in a big puffy bow which is placed exactly between the contenders. At the referee signal, they lean back in attempt to overpower the opponent by pulling the band by the neck. The victory can be achieved by substantial move of the bow to one contestant’s side; by submission (if the opponent gives up or played out) or by pulling the band off the opponent’s head. Being a contest of strength, much like a tug-of-war, neck wrestling is more a contest of endurance and stamina.

Inuit head-pull A similar sport is popular among the Inuit, indigenous people in the North America. They call it “head-pull” – the lying contestants put a band around their heads rather than necks. In that game, whoever pulls the band off the other person's head, wins. Similar contests of neck pulling are also known to the Yakut (“Savelna talehseli”, “Sapali yer talty yunt antupkeln”, “Saplnat taleksete enteh”) and to Russians (rare traditions of “dog wrestling”).

In fact, this sport of neck wrestling has some common with Japanese Kubi-Hiki, or Kubi-Piki (neck-pulling, or neck wrestling), a widespread plot in Japanese performing and visual arts. It was depicted by artists in many artworks (including artwork by Japanese classics Utamaro and Hokusai), made mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries. Neck wrestling is depicted as a theatrical performance by Kabuki actors or as an eternal struggle between humans and demons. In fact, despite many Japanese artistic depictions of the neck-pulling, it remains a puzzle why there is no information about this activity in Japan other than the depictions themselves. Most likely, the idea of this symbolic contest came to Japan from China, once a lot of Japanese customs can be traced back to the Middle Kingdom.


Oroqen people. Wiki

Oroqen people celebrate Gulunmuta Festival in China's Heilongjiang

China Intangible Cultural Heritage

Joshua Project

Oroqen People. China Fact Tours

Oroqen Nationality. China Tour

Oroqen People (46 images). Slide show

The Growing Shadow Of The Oroqen Language And Culture

Japanese Prints

Oroqen people

Inhabitance area of the Oroqen people in China. Map from the Joshua Project

The Oroqen people celebrate Gulunmuta festival
in China's Heilongjiang

Oroqen festival Gulunmuta
Photo from the page China Intangible Cultural Heritage

Oroqen festival Gulunmuta
Photo from the resource China Daily

Oroqen festival Gulunmuta
Photo from the resource Xinhua Net

Oroqen festival Gulunmuta
Photo from the resource Xinhua Net

Oroqen festival Gulunmuta
Photo from the resource China Daily

Oroqen festival Gulunmuta
Photo from the resource Xinhua Net

Oroqen festival Gulunmuta
Photo from the resource Xinhua Net

Dog's wrestling
Russian fun "Dog's wrestling". Picture from the article Fighing by Head in Russian Culture (in Russian)

Japanese artworks on the subject of neck wrestling (Kubi-Hiki, Kubi-Piki, Kuni-Piki)

Neck Wrestling, Kabuki Characters by Toyohara Chikanobu
Toshidama Japanese Prints

Neck-pulling Contest (Kubihiki) by Katsukawa Shuntei (Shunsen) (1770–1824). Publisher Matsumura Tatsuemon, Japan
Museum of Fine Art. Boston

Neck-pulling Contest between the Earthquake Catfish Namazu and the Kashima Deity.
Japanese Edo period, circa 1855 by unknown Artist, Japan
Museum of Fine Art. Boston

Original 19th century Japanese Woodblock Print. Neck-pulling Contest by 19th century artist (unsigned)
Fuji Arts

Fragment of the artwork by the 19th century artist (unsigned)
Fuji Arts

Neck-pulling. Japanese, Edo period by Artist Katsushika Hokusai, Japan (1760–1849)
Museum of Fine Art. Boston

A Game of Neck Pull (Kubippiki) between the Ozeki Tanikaze and Kintaro by Utamaro Kitagawa.
(Kitagawa - legendary child, folk hero from Japanese folklore).
World Gallery

Neck-to-neck tug-of-war (Kubi-Hiki)
between Commodore Matthew Perry and the Earthquake Catfish Namazu

>> Ethnic forms of wrestling

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