China is a unified country made up of some 56 officially recognised ethnic groups giving its identity a unique flavour. Each ethnic group has its own history, culture, language and distinctiveness, despite the Han Chinese majority’s influence on the smaller minorities.
The Tujia are found mostly in the Wuling Ranges of western Hunan and Hubei provinces, the majority of them live in the Xiangxi Tujia-Miao Autonomous Prefecture, Exi Tujia-Miao Autonomous Prefecture and some counties in southeastern Hunan and western Hubei. In 1990, the national census recorded a population of 5.71 million.
The Tujia people call themselves the Bizika which means ‘native dwellers’. Like with the other ethnic groups in China, they have their own language which belongs to the Tibeto-Burman group of the Chinese-Tibetan language family but no written language. For writing they uses standardize Chinese characters.
Despite official literature on ethnic minorities to the contrary, the Tujia have been very sinicized with the Han for some time. “In the early twentieth century, they already shared language (Southwest Mandarin), marriage practices, and foot-binding with Han elsewhere in China. They also shared aspects of ancestor worship, funerary rites, and patrilineal inheritance, although there remained striking differences in these latter practices between locals in the Enshi area and most Han elsewhere in China”.
One famous Tujia author, Shen Congwen, claimed that the Tujia people were descended from the State of Chou, a designation that conferred ethnic majority (Han or Hua) status. However, scholars agree that the Tujia people were actually descendants of soldiers, farmers, laborers, and exiled convicts (tu) forced to migrate there over two millennia ago. These people were, in fact, considered to be Han Chinese.
It was not until the Ba people, the earliest immigrants from eastern Sichuan, flocked to this area that the Tujia ethnicity came into being. Indeed, one scholar studying the Tujia people was told by one Tujia individual that “The Tujia are old Han immigrants; the Han are recent Han immigrants”.
Another scholar says that “the Tujia had originated as Turen in the chiefdoms and had a history of providing military assistance to the Qing. With the abolition of the tusi system [chiefdoms that were abolished in the 1730’s], the Turen emerged as allies of Han settlers and may have absorbed both long-established Han settlers and acculturating Miao as their influence grew in the Miao region”.
Experts have stated that it was probably due to the absence of Confucian practices and beliefs relating to filial piety that designated them as non-Han. However, the origins of the Tujia are still in doubt according to scholars.
In the 1950’s the government tried to list the Tujia as Miao since there were Miao living in the area, which they strongly protested about. They were only separated into two ethnic groups when it was shown that there was no common language between the Tujia and the Miao. However, it was not until 1957 that they were recognised as a separate ethnic group and in the 1980’s a lineage was classed as Tujia (in the Enshi region) if a remote ancestor immigrated into the prefecture before 1735.
Brown, Melissa (2002) Local Government Agency: Manipulating Tujia Identity, Modern China, Sage Publications.
Sutton, Donald s. (2000) Myth Making on an Ethnic Frontier: The Cult of the Heavenly Kings of West Hunan 1715-1996, Modern China, Sage Publications.