The Hezhe ethnic group, with the smallest population among China's ethnic groups, lives by the rivers of Songhua, Heilongjiang and Wusuli in the northeast.
An old Chinese saying declares that those living on a mountain live off the mountain, those living near the water live off the water. The Hezhe people certainly fulfill this condition because fishing is their main source of livelihood. They still keep the traditional way of life, because the Heilongjiang and Songhua rivers are rich with fish such as salmon, carp and huso dauricus.
Fish used to be their staple food. They cook fish in two ways. One is by roasting, and the other involves eating freshly sliced meat with ginger, stitle, green onion and other condiments. Whenever they get a large catch, they dry or roast the fish for storage and later use.
At present, they also engage in farming, using wheat flour and rice as staple foods instead of just fish. They also cook local delicacies with fish and the game they hunt.
Their clothing is almost the same as that of the Chinese Han, and the only difference is in the material they use. They are fond of wearing clothing made from hides in the winter, which is long and cold. When they go fishing, they wear trousers made from fish skin because it's water-proof. Actually only big fish weighing about 50 kilograms are good enough for making trousers. Women smartly process the fish skin as soft as fabric after they have scaled the fish and dried it.
In the past, the Hezhe people lived in crude birch-bark sheds, easily disassembled whenever they moved to a new area for fishing and hunting. Now, many like to construct a stone house with a tile roof. They also build a heated brick kang to keep warm in winter. By tradition, they regard the west as the honorable direction, thus putting pictures of their ancestors and gods on the wall of the western side in their room, or placing a wooden chest or wooden trunks against it.
According to historical records of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the area where the Hezhe live in a compact community was regarded as a good place for dog-rearing because the Hezhe people were fond of raising that particular domestic animal. Almost every family raised several dogs. Dogs are not only pets, but also used as means of transportation. It is very common to see dogs pulling sleds in winter.
Hardship and a bitter life in the past made the Hezhen people believe that everything in the universe has a bitter life in the past made the Hezhen people believe that everything in the universe has a spirit. Thus, their religious belief is shamanism. The religious head is shamanism. The religious head is more like a sorcerer and is believed by the Hezhe to be good at dispelling evil spirits and praying to the gods for protection.
Local people are no longer as devout as their ancestors, but still regard a shaman as the main way to keep contact with the gods.