Chuan-kang SHIH

The Tujia are accomplished in textile arts including embroidery, knitting and weaving. PHOTO BY PAUL AND BERNICE NOLL.

The Tujia are a large minority ethnic group in central China, numbering 8 million in the 2000 census. The Tujia language, with no written form, belongs to the Tibeto-Burman subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan family. With a long history of involvement in China’s national politics, the Tujia have striven to maintain their traditional culture along with their efforts to develop modern education.

The Tujia are the eighth-largest ethnic group in China. Numbering 8,028,133 in the fifth national census (2000), they are more numerous than the better known Mongols and Tibetans. Settlements of the Tujia are distributed over western Hunan, western Hubei, and northeastern Guizhou provinces, as well as in several autonomous counties under the jurisdiction of the Chongqing municipality.

Tujia Language

Some linguists consider the Tujia language to be part of the Yi language branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. According to others, however, although the Tujia language shares some characteristics with the Yi languages, those characteristics are not enough to make the Tujia a member of that branch. Nonetheless, it is beyond question that the language, like those in the Yi branch and some others, belongs to the Tibeto-Burman subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan family. The language has no written form.

Chinese is the dominant language used by the Tujia. Many Tujia speak nothing but Chinese. Some are bilingual, speaking both Chinese and Tujia. A number also speak the language of the Miao (known outside of China as the Hmong), one of their immediate neighbors. Fewer than 200,000 Tujia still rely on the Tujia language as their major means of communication.

Tujia Names

In their own language, the Tujia call themselves Bi-dzih-ka. Throughout history they have been called various names by their neighbors, based on perceived ethnic markers or distinguishing signs, such as their totem (the white tiger, at one time the totem of their chief), or names of rivers or places where they lived. The name Tujia came into being in the late seventeenth century when a large number of Han Chinese (the Chinese ethnic majority people) migrated into the Tujia area. The term, which means “aboriginal families” in Chinese, was coined to distinguish the natives from the immigrants. This name did not become official until October 1956, when the Tujia were granted the status of unitary ethnic group (danyi minzu) by the Chinese government.

Tujia History

The early history of the Tujia is a matter of dispute. Based on clues in Chinese historical literature, some scholars believe that the Tujia are descendents of the Ba, a tribe extinguished by the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE). Based on linguistic characteristics and some customs that are close to the Yi’s in Yunnan, other scholars think that the ancestors of the Tujia are the wuman, or black barbarians, who lived in southwestern China. The fact that in the 1970s two significant Neolithic sites were found in Tujia area suggests that those regions were inhabited as early as the prehistoric period.

The picture since the Later Han dynasty (25–220 CE) is clearer. Located close to the great historical powers, the Tujia have a longer history of involvement in China’s national politics than do many other Chinese minorities. As early as the tenth century, so-called bridled-and-tethered prefectures (jimi fuzhou), or native tributary administrations, were established in the area. The establishments were converted into a system of native chieftains (tusi zhidu) in the thirteenth century. Under this system minority areas in the Chinese empire were ruled by families of native chieftains instead of officials appointed by the central government. This system lasted in the Tujia area until 1723.

Conflict was the keynote of the recorded early history of interactions between the ancestors of the Tujia and Chinese society. With the establishment of the tributary system and the subsequent system of native chieftains, the Tujia became increasingly assimilated into the greater Chinese culture. During the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties, a considerable number of Tujia soldiers, called different names at different times, were sent to coastal areas to fight against the Japanese and British invaders.

In the meantime, many upper-class Tujia received a Confucian education and entered the gentry-scholar rank. Some accomplished poets and scholars of the Tujia gained national reputations. When the native-chieftain system was abolished in the eighteenth century, some Tujia customs and conventions were condemned as corrupted or ugly and were reformed by force. As a result the Tujia were further assimilated, and many of their ethnic characteristics were lost.

Tujia Culture

Love-based marriage was a tradition among the Tujia. In recent centuries until the early 1950s, however, parental approval had become a norm, and wealth and social status became decisive factors. Cross-cousin marriage (a preferential rule requiring marriage between cross-cousins: mother’s father’s brother or father’s sister’s daughter if such a person is available) and levirate (the custom whereby a man marries the widow of his deceased brother) are commonly practiced among the Tujia. In some areas maternal-parallel-cousin marriage (a convention in which one marries an opposite-sex child of one’s mother’s sister) is also practiced.

Seniority of age is highly venerated by the Tujia. Elderly men and women are respected and treated well while alive, and elaborate funerals are held at their death. Mortuary rituals are also held for people who die at a younger age, but with less care and expense. No ceremony is held for the death of a child.

There is no organized religion among the Tujia. Their faith—a mixture of animism, ancestor worship, and worship of deified deceased chiefs and heroes—has apparently been influenced by the folk religion of the neighboring Han Chinese.

The Tujia have a long tradition of sophisticated folk arts. More than seventy prescribed movements are available for dancers of the popular bai shou wu (hand-waving dance) to depict such things as hunting, agricultural activities, battling, and feasting. Legends tell about the genesis and migration of their ancestors as well as their aspirations for and fantasies about the ideal life. Almost every Tujia is an accomplished singer of improvised or traditional ballads, which cover all aspects of daily life and feeling.

The traditional Tujia economy is diversified. Agriculture in narrow strips of terraced fields is complemented by logging, hunting, fishing, and growing or working on cash crops. The Tujia are also known for their traditional weaving, knitting, and embroidery. A variety of light and heavy industries has been developed in the Tujia area, and Jishou University was established there in 1958. In the past two decades, more than 95 percent of Tujia children have received at least a primary education.

Further Reading

Brassett, C. & Brassett, P. (2005). Imperial tiger hunters: An introduction to the Tujia people of China. Chippenham, U.K.: Antony Rowe.

Brassett, C., Brassett, P. & Meiyan Lu. (200
6). The Tujia language. Münich, Germany: Lincom Europe.

Duan Chao. (2000). A Cultural History of the Tujia. Beijing: Minzu Chubanshe.

Shih, Chih-yu. (2002). Negotiating ethnicity in China: Citizenship as a response to the state. London: Routledge.

Source: Shih, Chuan-kang. (2009). Tujia. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2330–2332. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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