Where the story took place

The story of the Nishan Shaman is generally considered to be a legend, undoubtedly because there is no empirical evidence that shamans can travel to the underworld and raise the dead.  But many legends are based on real events.  And of course there is a lot of fiction that is set in real places.  Based on matching geographical information from the story to real geographical information, I believe I have determined the physical setting of the beginning of the story.

Since, in our translation, Pawel and I didn’t want to be influenced by the one other English translation that has been done — that by Stephen Durrant in 1977 — we avoided checking it until a substantial amount of our translation was complete.  That wasn’t so difficult because it is out of print and not so easy to get.  As we passed the halfway mark, we thought it safe to start comparing a little, and Zev Handel has been kind enough to supply us with a copy.

Upon skimming through the book, I came upon a footnote (number 9) on p50, where the first mention of the Nisihai River is:

There are two small tributaries of the Sungari River just south of Kirin that go by this name (Chinese ni-shih-ha-ho 泥石哈河 and ni-shih-ha ho 泥使哈河 respectively).  Cf. Fuchs 1943:122.

(In modern pinyin, those two would be níshíhā hé and níshǐhā hé.)

The Sungari River is now called the Songhua River (松花江), and Kirin is now called Jilin City (吉林市).  The reference at the end of the footnote is given in full in the Bibliography:

Fuchs, Walter. 1943. “Der Jesuiten-Atlas der Kanghsi-Zeit.” Monumenta Serica, vol. 4.  Peking: Fu-jen Universität.

This is an even more difficult item to find a copy of (if anyone has access to it and can scan or photograph the appropriate map and send it to me, I would appreciate it very much, and if the person sending it wouldn’t mind, I’d post the picture or PDF here).

For those who haven’t been following our posts, the Nisihai River is the river that the Nishan Shaman lives on in the story.  The specific post that mentions the river is here.

For months I’d been poring over maps of northeast China (Dongbei) with a big magnifying glass, looking for anything that resembled a name like Nisihai, but without any luck.  Upon seeing the reference in Durrant’s book, which narrowed the area considerably, I looked much more carefully.  Pre-Qing Manchuria was more or less made up of what are now the three provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning in Northeast China (map below from WP):

From Wikipedia

Here’s a closer look at the three provinces (map below from the Shenyang Japanese Consulate):


The green part in the middle is Jilin province, which is divided into nine prefectures (map below from WP):


Number four on the above map is Jilin prefecture (map below from WP, edited by me to show the Songhua River (flowing north), and Jilin City (the red dot)).


Number 7 on the above map is Huadian (桦甸, huàdiàn) county.  Here is a bigger map of Huadian with all but the very minor place names marked (map below from Baidu (in Chinese).  I added the red rectangle.):


Looking at the names of tributaries to the Songhua River, we strike gold!  Indeed there is one such tributary (I couldn’t find a second) about 100km south of Jilin City.  But what threw me off originally was how the name is changed.  The first syllable is 密 (mì); I had of course been looking for ni.  Blowing up the map (the area of the above-marked red rectangle), we can see the 密什哈河 (mìshīhā hé; Nisihai River) in the lower half, labeled in blue, flowing south by southeast.


But we can’t just be satisfied with that; it has to work with the other geographical information in the story.  In the same part of the story (post 07) Baldu Bayan rides his horse to the Nisihai River from his house in Lolo, and “the galloping didn’t last long” and he arrives at the east bank, which means he was east of the river when he started.  According to this page, a well-conditioned horse can gallop three miles (4.83km) before getting exhausted.  Here’s approximately the same area in a satellite image from Google Earth, with the Nisihai in blue and an approximately three mile wide area to the east of the river outlined in red:


Lolo was the village that Baldu Bayan lived in, so that village would most likely have to have been within the red outline.  There are presently about 17 villages along the red outline, and more that are on the river.  He couldn’t have lived on the Nisihai, and we will see later that some of the 17 villages on the red outline can be eliminated.  There is no village with a name similar to Lolo, but many of the names of the area’s villages are obviously post-WWII (i.e. (民主屯; mínzhǔ tún, Democracyville), (密胜屯; mìshèng tún, Secret Victory-ville)), so it is very likely Lolo’s name was changed.

When Baldu Bayan gets to the river, he crosses it, and then crosses back, so it wouldn’t make sense for the Nisihai to be a large river.  I made a couple road trips to see the area, and took some pictures of the river.  Here is one that shows one of its widest parts (looking north):

The Nisihai River

A dam has been constructed at the northernmost part of the river, so in the shaman’s time the water would have been a little bit higher, but still definitely shallow enough for a man on horseback to cross.

In the story, there is a village on the west bank.  Presently there is only one village close enough to the west bank to be seen from the river, and that is called (密什哈, mìshīhà, Nisihai).  [The 3M is printed on my car windshield — I took the shot from inside my car.]

Mishiha (Nisihai)

When the shaman is in her trance, she says that Sergudai had gone to hunt on Heng Lang Shan Mountain, to the south.  “Shan” (山) means mountain in Chinese, and in the story the Manchu word for mountain, alin, is added after that, suggesting that the Manchus took the name of the mountain from Chinese.  Also, any syllable in Manchu ending in –ng is a Chinese loanword (except for a few Manchu onomatopoeic words).

As it happens, there are a few mountains just south of there, the largest of which is called [横顶山, héngdǐngshān] (looking south):

Hengding Shan

We don’t know the Chinese character that Lang comes from, but there is another character with a meaning similar to [顶; dǐng, top], and with a similar sound to lang: [梁; liáng, roofbeam].  This minor name change would certainly be logical, akin to the ni->mi change, above.  And the mountain has a ridge running from west to east that is similar to a roofbeam.

These days, you can clearly see the mountain from the river, but in Ming/Qing times, it would have been more heavily wooded.  Now, every bit of farmable land is being used, and there is forest only on mountain slopes that are too steep to farm.

The mountain is about 4km long from west-southwest to east-northeast, and about 2km at its widest part from north-northwest to south-southeast.  Here is an overhead shot from Google Earth:

Hengding Mountain

Here are progressive closeups of the rocky peak which forms the second highest point:

HDS PeakHDS Peak closer

HDS Peak closest

Another important point to call to attention is the fact that the Sungari bends around Hengding Mountain to the south, creating a huge obstacle (though there there are some smaller mountains between it and the river).  Here is Hengding Mountain with the Sungari (Songhua River) curving around it to the south.:

Hengding and Sungari

There are more mountains on the other side (further south) of the river, but crossing many servants, including horses and “abundant chariots” over the river would be a huge ordeal requiring large ferries, but the fact that such a significant ordeal is not mentioned in the story supports the idea that Hengding Mountain is the Henglang Shan mentioned in the story.

Establishing Hengding Mountain as Hengding Shan further limits the candidates for Lolo; all of the villages south of the northeast foot of Hengding Mountain, as well as those too close to the mountain, would be eliminated.  [Note: there are two villages with Manchu-ish names between Hengding Mountain and the river: 西靰鞡草沟 (xī wūlā cǎo gōu) and 东靰鞡草沟 (dōng wūlā cǎo gōu).  Ula means river in Manchu, so these would be West River Grass Gully and East River Grass Gully.  I tried to reach them, but they are inaccessible by ordinary car.  One could only reach them on foot, with a motorcycle, or with a vehicle with a high enough clearance (about 0.5m).]

Here are the remaining reasonable candidates for Lolo.  Also 西靰鞡草沟 and 东靰鞡草沟 are marked in red.  Hengding Mountain is marked with a tree.

Lolo candidates

1. 同兴屯 (tóngxìng tún)
2. 上同兴 (shàngtóngxìng)
3. 中兴屯 (zhōngxìng tún)
4. 岭下屯 (lǐngxià tún)
5. 铅矿屯 (qiānkuàng tún)
6. 向阳屯 (xiàngyáng tún)
7. 桦树林子乡 (huàshù línzi xiāng)
8. 永安屯 (yǒng’ān tún)
9. 富太河 (fùtài hé)

If Nisihai is the village on the west bank of the river that Baldu Bayan visited, then the most likely candidate for Lolo is 桦树林子乡 (huàshù línzi xiāng, Birchwood Village).  Here is the square in the center of the village at present:

Misheng Square

One more picture for aesthetic reasons.  Here is a mud house (Manchu houses are traditionally made out of mud) very close to where the shaman’s house might have been.  It is near 密胜屯 (mìshèngtún) which is near the east bank of the Nisihai River, but the shaman’s house would have been right on the bank.

Mud House

9 thoughts on “Where the story took place”

  1. Must’ve made for some great road trips. We appear to have a copy of Der Jesuiten-Atlas der Kanghsi-Zeit at the Leiden University East-Asian Library. If you can send me an e-mail explaining which map you would like me to scan, I’d be happy to help you out.

  2. You didn’t listen at the door to the mud hut for howling incantations?

    Superb sleuthing! Tell me when you’re taking investment money for the Nishan Shaman Seance Inn.

  3. Great post. I love this sort of sleuthing. I wonder if the 密 in Secret Victory-ville may actually have been a short form of Nisihai, referring to the river.

    I’d love to see what comes from Daan’s scanning. Please do post the results if anything looks promising.

  4. Let me know if it becomes too difficult/complicated to get the map from the actual Jesuiten-Atlas – I could (within a couple days) send in a scan from the Monumenta Serica article, which might be easier.

  5. Very informative post. Huadian is a county-level city now. Have you looked in 《桦甸县地名志》 for older village names?

    靰鞡草 (wùla cǎo, Manchu name: foyo) is any kind of soft grass used to pad winter boots (靰鞡). It seems more likely to me that 靰鞡 comes more from Manchu guulha (boot) rather than ula (large river).

  6. Nice to read your work, and since we keep, in Paris, the works of our predecessors of the Company, I might get a copy of a map you’re looking for, or get it in the MS. Your satellite views are real impressive as well as the snapshots you made from the cab. Trapping with Dursu like.
    By the way, I’m looking for the score of 白山阿里郎, a Jilin folk song, would you be kind enough to send me a copy of it in return?

  7. 《吉林通志》 vol. 22 recorded the following on 松花江:
    According to these records, the modern 密什哈河 (Mìshíhā River) was known as 密什哈溝 (Mìshíhā Brook) at the end of the 19th century and there was a tributary of Songhua further to the south called 尼石哈河 (Níshíhā River). Also, vol. 18 explains that Longtan Mountain in today’s Longtan district of Jilin was named 尼什哈山 (Níshíhā Mountain) because of the small fish (Manchu: nisiha) in a small river near the mountain. I wonder if that river (龙潭川?) was yet another Níshíhā River.

  8. Dear Herbin:

    Perhaps this is my ignorance, but I assume that 白山阿里郎 is some version of the Korean Arirang songs.

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