Tracking fur trade— and my own roots—in Manchuria

Written by
Cindy Ruoheng Li 李若衡 '25
April 11, 2024

Being a child of a half-Manchu and half-Mongolian family living in a Han-dominant China and then becoming an international student studying in the United States has in every aspect challenged how I construct my own identity. I grew up with my grandmother, a daughter of a Manchu family and a former history teacher who told me old tales about the past civilization. Having grown up in Manchuria during political turmoil, my Grandma experienced imperial invasion, as well as cultural exploitation.  Her passion for history and justice never ceased.

My Grandma allowed me to become who I am today and I see my junior paper, an analysis of the impact of peripheral politics on imperial garments, fashion history, and minority ethnic art, as my way of memorializing her essential knowledge and passing along her teaching of Manchurian history.

Glass vitrine showing a piece of fur and leather blouse with hat on a mannequin

Specifically, I am examining imperial garments distinguished by an animal fur lining and embroidered cover, originating from the high Qing period (including Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong era from the mid-sixteenth to late-eighteenth century). By directly analyzing the materiality of clothing, I aim to interpret the Emperor's policy directives through the choices of materials and how they accentuate his approach to state governance.

The disruption of the wild fur production chain in Manchuria, from the fur crisis in the mid-20th century to gun bans in the early 21st century, has rendered the once-fashionable imperial fur garments a thing of the past. Nevertheless, these materials offer a glimpse into the culture of northern ethnic minorities.

In summer 2023, I visited two provinces in China, Inner Mongolia, and Heilongjiang (which belongs to the land of Manchuria), to research the ethnic minorities and their fur craftsmanship in the northeastern region.

Textile showing 5 figures riding on horseback in traditional Mongolian costumes

Liu Kuan-Tao, Kublai Khan Hunting,1279-1368 C.E.

Blue and purple jacket with black and white fur lining

Chinchilla leather Jacket (Magua), ca.1880 C.E., Forbidden Palace Museum


The image at left shows a Chinchilla leather jacket with a fur lining that was low weight, durable, and capable of keeping body heat, remarkably well-suited for winter expeditions.

Because most of the wild animals used in the production of royal leather garments have relatively small sizes, such as gray mice, silver foxes, sables, and otters, finely crafted leather garments require the assembly of multiple complete animal fur pieces.

Dark blue and gold jacket with mouse fur lining

Gray Mouse Fur-lined Robe, ca.1750s C.E., Forbidden Palace Museum

From my perspective, fur is such a unique material that invites a special sense of touch, and embroidery is famous for its delicacy and the intricacy mechanism behind its weaving process.

These luxurious materials are so special that they feature in numerous scroll paintings, capturing scenes like outings, horse riding, or hunting, demonstrating the royal's unique fashion taste, and how the manifestation of clothing reveals how the Emperor constructs a coherent image of himself.

My research trip to Manchuria sparked my interest in indigenous art in Northern China, and how the trading network from Manchuria to Beijing functioned. Existing scholarly discourse on Qing fashion has predominantly revolved around themes such as gender roles, the interplay of Eastern and Western cultures, and the dynamics of trade and commerce. Notably absent is an examination of how the choice of clothing materials invites considerations of the Qing emperor's vision of territorial control. The fur utilized in crafting Qing Mandarin jackets is primarily sourced from hunters in Manchuria. I’m interested in how the incorporation of materials from diverse regions manifests the blueprint of Qing’s territorial administration.

Blue map of China

Complete map of All Under Heaven Unified by the Great Qing, China, c.1800 C.E.

Inner Mongolia and Manchuria Today

I first visited the Shilu tribe in Aoluguya Township.

A group of people spread out in a line practice a dance with two-story buildings in background

When Li visited the tribe, the villagers were rehearsing a welcoming dance to celebrate the 70th anniversary of settlement at the foot of the mountain

This tribe is a branch of the Ewenki ethnic group and currently has 200 residents. I discovered that the Shilu tribe does not have a hereditary system or a patriarchal system; instead, leaders are chosen through a competition based on abilities. Additionally, the Ewenki language lacks a written form, predominantly relying on oral tradition. Their houses are covered with birch bark in the summer and adorned with reindeer hides in the winter, providing insulation for both seasons.

The first time I heard about the Shilu tribe was when I came across Gu Tao's documentary Ewenki Trilogy, sparking a profound interest in the hunting culture.

I learned about the love for the forest and the pain of the disappearing hunting culture experienced by the Ewenki painter and poet Wei Jia, leading to his struggles with alcoholism. In the museum, I encountered several of Weijia’s watercolor and oil paintings, all brimming with spirituality and vitality.

Painting showing a sleeping person covered by a fur with a bonfire in the foreground and elk in the background

Oil painting by Wei Jia

I also observed Liu Ba, We Jia’s sister’s fur paintings, and through the glass window, the intricate lines and patterns in the artwork were vividly visible.

Through a tour guide, I gained another perspective on Weijia and Liu ba. She told me that both are capable and self-aware Ewenki individuals, and their lifestyle does not align with the intoxicated image portrayed in the film. [Sometimes ethnographic films tend to deepen stereotypes of minority ethnic groups. I hope that in the future, there will be more works that can showcase the diverse lives and ways of thinking of these ethnic groups.]

A rectangular image made of fur pieces showing a tree and animals

Fur "painting" by Liu Ba showing how she uses fur to delineate animals and natural environments (Photo/Cindy Li)

When horseback-riding across the land of the indigenous tribe, another young man rode with me who was from Inner Mongolia, three years older than me, and currently a senior at the local university. He plans to become a Mongolian language teacher at an elementary school after graduating, and horseback riding is one of his side interests.

He taught me my first Mongolian phrase, Сайн байна уу (Sain baina uu), which means "How are you?"

Young woman carrying a lamb and small boy walk in a meadow

Cindy Li and her brother shepherd a lamb in Inner Mongolia (Photo courtesy of Cindy Li)

According to him, from their childhood until now, bilingual schools in Inner Mongolia no longer prioritize Mongolian language education as they did before. For their ethnic group, the extinction of the language is equivalent to the loss of culture.

The words spoken by the young man from Inner Mongolia have left me contemplating for a long time. I have realized that too many cultures are on the brink of extinction, which is why researching the art history of ethnic minorities is so crucial today. During my visit to Inner Mongolia and Manchuria, I felt the warmth of the people in the tribe and witnessed firsthand the processes of leather hunting, gathering, and garment making. This experience is sure to bring immense inspiration to my Junior Paper. I hope my JP and thesis are not only purely academic research but also have the potential to have a social impact, raising awareness about the art of ethnic minorities in northern China to a broader audience.