Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Costume of the Peoples of the lower Amur

Hello All,

I received a request to research the costume and embroidery of the Nanai, a people who live on the lower Amur River in the Russian Far East.
After taking a look at the materials available to me, i decided to include in this posting the peoples of the lower Amur, in the Russian Far East and Manchuria; the Nanai, the Udege, the Oroch, the Ulcha, the Orok, and the Nivkh. Here is a map showing the distribution of these peoples on the Russian side of the border. They are found on the left edge of the map.

Most of these peoples speak languages which belong to the Southeastern Tungusic Language Family, and are closely related to each other, except for Nivkh, which is an isolate, not related to any other known language. This group of peoples share a large part of their material culture, including costume and costume ornament. The Nanai, the Oroch, and the Orok all refer to themselves as 'Nani'. They are most closely related to the Manchu people, who historically were referred to as the 'Jurchen'. In  the writings of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, these peoples were referred to as the 'Gold', and the Nivkh were referred to as the 'Gilyak'. You can read these articles for more material on these peoples.  You can click on the name of each of these peoples to read more about them.

These peoples together were sometimes referred to as the 'Fishskin Tatars'. They are not Tatars, The term was often used by Europeans to refer to any indigenous non-Russian people of the Russian Empire. However, one unique feature of the textile tradition of these people is that they made wide use of a very unusual material, fish leather. This material is light, durable and waterproof. It was made from large fish such as Salmon and Carp, and sewn together to make clothing, footwear and tents. The fish skin was dried, treated and then worked to make it supple, and sewn together. A modern company has recently sent researchers to these people to find out how they did it, and are now producing fish leather under the name of Nanai, named after these indigenous people.
The Nanai, at something like 12,000 members, are the largest of these groups. Some of them live on the Manchurian side of the border, where they are known as the Hezhe. Here is an old photograph of a Nanai family group.

Here is an example of an elaborate set of fish leather clothing for a Nanai woman. The robe is shown in back view.

Here is a front view of the cut of the robe. Similar robes were worn by all of these peoples, by both men and women. The men's robes are somewhat shorter, extending perhaps to the knee. The robes are completed by leggings or pants, boots, and mittens and hats when necessary. The fishskin is very light and waterproof, and the boots are still worn by the men because they are very practical. One often sees the survival of items of clothing by women because they are decorative and distinctive, and by men on the other hand if they are particularly practical, such as the Inuit parka.

Here is a back view of what i believe is the same robe.

You can click on this image to examine it more closely. As in any garment made of leather or fur, this one has been pieced together from the available pieces of skin.
Some of my sources describe the cut of the robe as being 'Chinese'. This is not the case. The traditional garment of the Chinese people [and by 'Chinese' i mean Han] is the pao robe. The pao robe is wide, and is cut of rectangular pieces, and gave rise to the wide sleeved robes of the Korean Hanbok and the Japanese Kimono. This garment is of a completely different tradition. This garment is very close to the robes of the Manchu people. The Manchu, of course, are related to the Nanai and the other Amur peoples. Similar robes are worn by the Mongols. The confusion arises from the fact that the Manchu controlled the Chinese empire for the last few hundred years before the upheavals of the 20th century. The famous 'dragon robes' and court robes of the Chinese empire during this time were not of the Han Chinese tradition, but rather were derived from the Manchu Tradition. the Manchu had slits in the robes which facilitated wearing them on horseback, which the Amur peoples dispensed with. Here is a robe of a Nivkh woman, front and back view. You will notice how similar it is to the robes pictured above.

The panels on the hems, up the sides, on the cuffs, around the neckline and front opening, are seperate pieces of leather which have been painted different colors. The designs on the sides, around the neck and on the shoulder stripes are reverse applique, the fish leather having had designs traced onto them, the design cut out, and then appliqued onto the garment. This was accomplished by means of stencils to get the symmetry needed for the designs to be effective. Here is and example of one such stencil. These were also used to transfer designs to birchbark.

The ornaments on the back are made rather differently. They are cut out of blue dyed fish leather, then each motif is appliqued seperately onto a slightly larger piece of leather, and the whole piece is appliqued onto the robe. Common motifs include stylized masks [human? animal?], serpents and birds. The motifs are very distinctive, and yet are reminiscent of the animal masks on old Chinese Bronzes, Ainu ornament, and even that of the Tlingit and other Northwest Coast Native Americans. Here is a closeup of the back of a Nanai robe, followed by a closeup of the Nivkh robe shown above. You can cleaarly see the impressions of scales on the fish leather.

Alternatively, the motifs are sometimes drawn directly on the fishskin with inked lines which are then painted in various colors. The motifs remain recognisably of the same family of ornament. Here is a detail of the back of a Nanai woman's robe. You can see the appliqued piece of painted leather on the right side which corresponds to the side seam of a cloth robe.

Here is a festive robe of an Oroch woman. You will notice the same type of painted ornament. You will also notice that the arrangement of the painted ornament is substantially the same as the robes we looked at above. There follows a closeup of the rich painted ornament on the back of the robe. Note the strips of fur used as trim.

Here is another example of a Nanai woman's robe which is painted in a somewhat different manner. The front resembles this Oroch robe, but the back has ornamental painted scales.
Note the row of metal medallions hanging above the hem of the robe, this is common in this area, especially among the Nivkh. These of course last much longer than the robes themselves and are passed down from generation to generation.

Here are two photos taken of Nivkh families. In this first one, most of the women are wearing cloth robes, but the woman sitting in the center seems to be wearing a fish leather robe such as the ones described above. It is possible that the Nivkh bought them from the people further inland. Her robe clearly has the row of small metal medallions. All three of the women in the second photo have the medallions clearly visible on their robes. You can see that the men wear substantially the same robe, only shorter and less ornamented.

The fish leather clothing has mostly been replaced by cloth imported from the Chinese or the Russians. The cut remains the same, however. The body and upper sleeves are cut from once piece of cloth, the underlap also. The lower sleeves and cuff are usually made of a contrasting material. Here is one version of the cut of the robe. This one is unusual in that the bottom edges of the front and back are added. Most of the time, the cloth is wide enough to cut them in one piece. Then the same material extends farther down the sleeve. The lower sleeve in this case has been pieced out of four contrasting bands This varies.

Note that is this example the width of the bottom edge matches the light colored portion of the upper sleeve.

These robes were worn with leggings underneath, presumeably accompanied by some type of short pants which covered the pelvis, as is known among the Eskimo and other northern people. The leggings were tied to a waistband, and were tucked into boots, often a soft pair inside a more durable pair when necessary. These garments were originally made of fish leather, like this pair of leggings.

The leggings and the inner boots, or stockings, were later made of cloth, as in this example.
The painted or appliqued ornament became transformed into embroidery.

Using embroidery enabled the ornament to develop more color. Here is an example of a wedding outfit of an Ulcha woman. Note the piecework fur collar. If you look at the first photo of the Nanai family above, you will see one of the women wearing a similar collar. The cut of the robe remains the same.

The sash with embroidered ends is also known among the Nivkh.

Here is a photo of a family of the Udege people, [Not to be confused with the Udyghe, who live in the northwest Caucases and are part of the Circassian peoples]. The clothing is of cloth, the man is wearing pants instead of leggings, and his robe has become shorter, resembling a shirt, but retains the same cut.

 Here is a Udege man in full winter attire; embroidered coat, a hood with seperate earmuffs and covered by a cap. You will notice two of the men in the Nanai family photo at the beginning of the posting wearing similar hoods.
Here is a Russian man posing in Udege attire.

Another Udege man.

Two Udege men in full outfits, with hood and cap.

Closeup of a hood, cap, a knife sheath and waist bag. Notice the embroidery is again recogniseably of the same family of ornament.

A pair of earmuffs from the Ulcha

I have seen a couple of photos from China of Hezhe girls wearing the cap, earmuffs, and hood. I am very skeptical that women ever wore these. Here is one of the photos. She is obviously posing with a stage costume, and i would give little credence to it.

Here are a couple of photos of contemporary Nanai wearing the national costume.

A closeup of the embroidery on a modern Nanai cloth robe.

And Mittens. The stylized masks are becoming floral designs.

I will finish with two photos showing how the traditional costume of this region is being used and interpreted today. Here is a youth group wearing a stage costume based on the traditional clothing of the Amur. You can see that while this is not authentic, especially in the girls robes having no overlap or leggings, some attempt has been made to make them recognizeable as being from the region.

Here is an illustration from a book of folk tales of Siberia, illustrating one story from the Amur, 'Vixen and the Seals'. This is a story of the Oroch people.

Thank you for reading. I hope that you have found this overview to be of interest, and perhaps the unique ornament of this region will inspire some project of your own.

Feel free to contact me with requests for research. I hope to eventually cover all of Europe and the Former Russian Empire/Soviet Union. I also gratefully accept tips on source materials which i may not have. I also accept commissions to research/design, sew, and/or embroider costumes or other items for groups or individuals

Roman K.

Source Material:
Vladimir Medvedev, 'The Land of Siberia', Moscow, 1993
L. N. Molotova, Folk Art of the Russian Federation, Leningrad 1981
Tatyana Razina et al., 'Folk Art in the Soviet Union', Leningrad, 1990
N. Kalashnikova et al., 'National Costumes of the Soviet Peoples', Moscow, 1990
Max Tilke, 'Costume Patterns and Designs', New York, 1990 [reprint]
William Fitzhugh & Aron Crowell, 'Crossroads of Continents', Baltimore, 1988
Wim Crouwel et al., 'The Forbidden City', Rotterdam, 1990
Y. Rachov, 'Kutkha the Raven, Animal Stories of the North', Malysh, 1981
Alexei Okladnikov, 'Art of the Amur', Leningrad, 1981
Zang Yingchun, 'Chinese Minority Costumes', NSR, 2004
James VanStone, 'An Ethnographic Collection from Sakhalin Island' Fieldiana, Anthropology, Publication 1361, Field Museum of Natural History, August 30th, 1985


  1. Beautiful and interesting. Thanks for including the construction diagram.

  2. I also do sewing and embroidery and am very interested in these designs. Thanks esp. for the pattern. Thank you very much for compiling this info. I have also been studying Native American moccasin designs.

  3. You have produced a brilliant essay with wonderful images...Congratulations and Salutations!
    It would be a great service, were you able to credit which museums the salmon skin robes that you illustrate are in, when possible. I thank you for this very high quality essay and wish you all the best! -tm


  5. Here my (so much talented) friend and I are doing a project trying to depict ethnic costumes of the 56 gov recognized ethnic groups in China. Roughly we do one per week as I gather pics and information, we discuss a bit, and then she draws.
    That being said, this week we are doing Hezhe people, aka nanai people. It is really hard to find credible sources and this post helps so much!!! I have stalked this blog for years just for fun and imagine when I was googling pics and then I saw a familiar blogspot name!!! Thank you so much for your work! Thank you!

    1. Good luck to you on this project. I have actually written on most of the 56 groups. Research my blog using the search function. Many of the 56 peoples recognized by the government are actually large families of related peoples, who wear many different costumes, esp the Miao, Yao, Yi, and Gaoshan. There are a few that I have not yet written about, the Zhuang, for whom I am having trouble finding good information, the other Tai related peoples, and some of the northeastern peoples. However I would be willing to send you what I do have.

  6. This is a really good blog wish more people would read this , you offer some really good suggestions on Clothing Embroidery. Thanks for sharing.