Their self-designation was nani -- 'local', but in the form of Nanai it was given to their nearest neighbours. To avoid confusion, in the 1930s the people were given the artificial name Ulchis - a name used in 19th century literature by mistake. Actually, Ulcha is the name the Oroks call themselves by. The present Ulchis are also called Mangun in written records. Mangu is the local name for the River Amur. The Russians also called them Gilyaks (as they did the Nivkhs). For a long time the name Ulchis caused bewilderment among the people; now, however, it is taken for granted.
The Ulchis live in the Khabarovsky region, on the Lower Amur. 90% of the Ulchis live within the district of Ulchi.
Anthropologically the Ulchis are Mongoloid, but generally there is no pure type to be found. Part of them belong to the so-called Sakhalin-Amur group, like the Nivkhs.
The Ulchi language belongs to the southern group of the Manchu-Tungus languages and is so close to the Nanai language that it has been regarded as a Nanai dialect. The Ulchis have no written language of their own.
The Ulchis, who are related to the ancient population of the Lower Amur, are a people of mixed composition, among whom tribes of Nanai, Evenk, Manchu, Udeghe, Orochi, Orok and Nivkh origin have been found. A number of historical layers have been discerned within the material culture of the Ulchis which are associated with local ancient Paleo-Asian, as well as with old Manchu and "common Tungus", culture. The Ulchi's manner of fishing, traditionally their main occupation, is similar to that of the Nivkhs.
Up until the 17th century, the Ulchis led an existence free from interference, but then China tried to make the Ulchis, Nanais and Nivkhs pay taxes. The attempt was unsuccessful and contact with China switched to a more commercial nature (selling furs). Russian colonization began in the region in 1850, with the founding of Nikolayevsk stronghold. A few years later, the first Russian peasant settlers appeared, and a number of large Russian villages formed in the vicinity of the Ulchi settlements.
The main occupation of the Ulchis was fishing, for which the River Amur and lakes offered ample source. The all-year-round fishing necessitated a rather settled lifestyle. Fish was the main food for the people, and it was also fed to the dogs, kept in large numbers for draught work. Hunting for furs was an additional occupation which sometimes yielded a good income -- sables especially. For sables, some Ulchi co-operatives went hunting even to the island of Sakhalin, where some of them eventually settled. The Ulchis were also known to hunt marine animals in the Straits of Tatar. To get there, the Ulchis had to undertake a long journey via Lake Kiz and along various small rivers.
In the late 19th century, the Ulchis' life became considerably more complicated with the arrival of Russian colonists. The Russians began fishing on a massive scale and set up a fish-processing industry. The Ulchis were forced to fish commercially. Foreign traders, as well as local Russian peasants, appeared to buy up fish. Taking advantage of their privileges and power, the Russians began to restrict the Ulchi and Nanai fishing grounds. This led to conflicts. Because of the greatly increased scale of fishing, hunting became less important -- there were also by this time far fewer fur animals on the Lower Amur. To earn a living, the Ulchis had to gradually learn jobs formerly unknown to them, such as land cultivation, mail transportation and felling timber for steamboats. Horse-breeding and haymaking were also introduced. They imitated Russians and often worked with them.
In the sphere of material culture influences were mutual. Since the Ulchis were socially active and enterprising, their resistance to outside pressure was comparatively strong. For instance, a number of rich native merchant entrepreneurs emerged, who successfully traded with neighbouring peoples and even in Manchuria. The proximity of the Russians gave rise to the activities of the Greek Orthodox missionaries among the Ulchis. They could not eradicate shamanism but they tried to spread education, for which purpose three one-year clerical schools were opened in the 1860s. A couple of schools were also opened between 1913 and 1917. However, the influence of these Russian missionary schools on the Ulchis turned out to be marginal.
The Ulchis' way of life remained more or less unchanged until the early 1920s. As the fishing industry was in deep crisis by this time, many Ulchis worked as hired labour in the timber industry founded on Lake Kiz, and elsewhere. Again, there were some enterprising Ulchis who actually ran businesses, employing Ulchis as well as Russians. Active participation in economic enterprises gave them useful experience, and the co-operative Mung Kusu (Our Power), founded in 1928 in the settlement of Bulava, was successfully managed by the Ulchis themselves.