Their self-designation is nanai -- 'local, people of this place' (also Nani), which has been used in academic literature ever since the late 1920s. Russians have called the Nanais Golds, which is a name with local origins also used by the Ulchis, the Orochis and the Negidals. Many separately located territorial Nanai groups have called themselves by different names (the Kile, the Akani, the Heden, according to habitation, e.g. the Solonai, the Bolaken etc). The Nanais dwelling in China call themselves Akani. The name Gold was widespread in literature in the mid-19th century.
The Nanais live in the Far East on the River Amur, downstream from the city of Khabarovsk, on both sides of the city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, as well as on the banks of the Ussur and the Girin rivers (the Samagirs). They also inhabit a part of northeast China on the River Sungar. In the Soviet Union, at least ten separate groups were known dispersed to the north of the River Amur. In China, similarly, Nanai settlements are scattered widely.
Anthropologically the Nanais represent a pure Mongoloid type, belonging, together with the Oroks, the Evens, the Evenks, the Yukaghirs and part of the Tuvas, to the Baikal (Paleo-Siberian) group, which is historically related to the ancient Yukaghir population of Eastern Siberia.
The Nanai language belongs to the southern group of the Manchu-Tungus languages. The closest related languages are Ulchi and Orochi. Two dialects exist, Upper-Amur and Lower-Amur, and they are distinctly unlike each other. A written language was created in the early 1930s on the basis of the Naihin dialect.
Of all the settled minorities of the Lower Amur, the Nanais are supposed to represent the obviously Tungus-influenced neolithic native population. Their direct descendants, among others, are the Nivkhs.
The seasonal character of fishing and hunting necessitated the emergence of special winter and summer settlements, with appropriate types of dwelling. The Amur Nanais had a peculiar semi-circular summer house made of birch bark. Various dugouts were used for winter dwellings. Also used were houses built of twigs and clay, resembling the Chinese fanzas, where the smoke from two or four clay stoves passed under sleeping bunks (kan) and escaped through a tall wooden chimney beside the house. The Russians taught the Nanais to build log cabins. Typically, clothing and footwear was made of fish skin. There were noticeable Chinese and Manchu influences, for example, in the women's hairdresses and the men's custom of shaving their foreheads, pulling back the rest of the hair into a pigtail. Unsurprisingly, the diet was dominated by various fish dishes. The Nanais of the Upper Amur used more cereals, vegetables and pork than the others. They had learned how to cultivate grain from the Chinese. From the Chinese and the Manchus they had also learnt the skill of metalworking. Among the Ulchis, Nivkhs and even the Manchus, Nanais were famous for their metalwork. Nanai decorative art was extremely well developed, especially ornamentation. Their coloured drawings, often of religious significance, in Chinese ink, that adorned shamanistic utensils, textiles and paper, were highly original.
An extensive socialist shaping of the Nanai began in 1924, when a Native Peoples' department was established within the Far East Revolutionary Committee. Between 1926 and 1928, when the forming of national territories began, a Nanai District came into being (actually, the Nanais live in various districts). The first kolkhozes were founded in 1930 and collectivization began with the population being concentrated into compact settlements. In fact, all this served to form and integrate the Nanai as a nation, since all of the organization, like specifying boundaries and the development of education, promoted the development of ethnic distinct he identity, especially in regions with a mixed Nanai-Ulchi and Nanai-Udegey population.
There are many new cities and industrial settlements in the immediate vicinity of the Nanai settlements, and railways now run through the region. The city of Khabarovsk, for example, was founded in 1858 and Komsomolsk-on-Amur is a recent settlement. At present a little over 5% of the Nanais live in towns and cities. The kolkhozes have been adapted to profitable land cultivation and livestock breeding. This is a necessary direction for the Nanais to move in given that the abundance of fish in the Amur is no more. Unchecked pollution of the river has drastically reduced their numbers, and indeed the river itself is actually on the brink of disaster. In 1989, the water of the Amur near Komsomolsk contained 13 times the amount of phenols permissible, five times the amount of oil products and 40 times more copper than is considered safe.
The Nanais' best means of expressing ethnic identity has so far been folklore performances on the stages of village clubs. Its advancement and significance for Nanai culture, however, has been questionable. In a national amateur art movement which arose in the 1930s (typified by a wave of theatre companies and a number of song groups), some of the artists performed authentic folklore. However, later as performances came to be influenced by standard Russian club activities, the performers acquired a more "academic" manner of singing which was not in the least authentic. The variety-concert-style of performing also clashed with the peculiarities of the traditional Nanai culture. The result was a negative influence on the truly authentic folk music. In the opinion of researchers, there are extremely few performers of genuine Nanai folklore. Amateur songs, mostly based on the lyrics of the native poet, A. Samar, have become popular. As a source of new songs, Russian popular music was used until the 1950s (the same applies to other minorities on the River Amur). This introduced entirely new melodics to Nanai music. The influence of folklorism, and the new songs emerging in its wake, has been so strong and the estrangement from the authentic material so serious, that the formation of novel Nanai folklore has stopped. This situation is characteristic of all the minorities on the Amur and on Sakhalin. At the present time, the most widely known Nanai artistic company is the song and dance group "Mengo".