This photo essay features pictures of sacred monuments called oboo and their worship in Hulun Buir, an area situated in the northeastern part of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in the People’s Republic of China. I took these photographs between 2011 and 2017 while carrying out ethnographic fieldwork among the Mongol and Tungus peoples, who worship oboo annually. There are several hundred oboo spread over the grasslands of Hulun Buir. Each of them is worshipped by a clan or “ethnic” group in order to benefit from the “invisible forces” of the oboo.
My interest in oboo first arose in the 2010s while I was conducting my doctoral research on nomadism among the Evenki. The close link between pastoral and ritual practices for nomads is well known. Indeed, according to local people, the idea that the sacred landscape is inhabited by various deities whose effectiveness is reinforced by human actions is common. Worshipping the oboo is one of these actions. Feeding the oboo deities symbolically ensures the well-being of the group and the fertility of its herds. My informants took me to see oboo worship for the first time in the summer of 2011. The various stages of this day-long ritual highlighted for me the complex nature of oboo worship. Having devoted my PhD dissertation to contemporary nomadism, I naturally extended my interests to oboo worship, or, more precisely, to the way local societies have adjusted their practices to a changing political and social environment from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present.
The various oboo are worshipped by distinct clans and ethnic groups, labeled as “ethnic minorities” in China. In order to provide a comprehensive overview of oboo in Hulun Buir, the photographs included in this essay were taken on different oboo sites “belonging” to distinct groups. The first set of photographs displays several oboo of various shapes from distinct geographical locations. The second set of photographs is dedicated to different stages of oboo worship, ranging from the annual renovation of the oboo to offerings, the role of the ritual specialist in conducting the ritual, and the “three manly games” worshippers engage in after the ritual.
Aurore Dumont is an anthropologist working on the Tungus and Mongol societies of northeastern China. Her research interests include the evolution of nomadism and the revival of religious practices. After receiving her PhD in anthropology at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, France, in 2014, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (2015–2017). She is now a postdoctoral fellow affiliated with the GSRL (Groupe Sociétés, Religions, Laïcités) in Paris. Her fieldwork conducted in 2016 and 2017 received financial support from “The Historical Anthropology of Chinese Society” project at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.