The Mysterious Tujia

 

The Tujia are one of the largest minority groups in China. According to the 2000 census, there are over eight million Tujia inhabiting an area that stretches out over a vast mountainous region of central China in an area including the provinces of Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou and Sichuan.

Statistically the Tujia population has grown very quickly, due in part to the fact that before 1990, many people felt ashamed to belong to a minority. This is amply demonstrated by the census figures cited below:

2000 census: population of 8,028,000.
1990 census: population of 5,704,223.
1982 census: population of 2,836,814.

The Tujia people have nearly a dozen different autonomous administrative units of their own in the four provinces in which they live.

The Tujia refer to themselves as Bizika, but after being surrounded by Han Chinese for many centuries, only a small number of people can still communicate in their traditional language. Barely 200,000 people, who live on the banks of Youshui River, an area difficult of access, continue to use the Tujia language.

The Tujia language belongs to the Tibeto-Burmese language family and is closely linked to the Yi language, spoken hundreds of kilometers away.

Due to the lengthy presence of the Tujia in the region in which they live, it is very difficult for historians to trace their origin. Many hypotheses have been put forward, but none of them have so far been proven as certain. Some authors think that the Tujia are descendants of the Ba from Sichuan, a highly cultured people who lived in that province more than 2,000 years ago. Others believe that their ancestors were the Wuman, who were perhaps the ancestors of the Yi as well, basing their theory on linguistic similarities, but as the origin of the Yi themselves is by no means certain, the problem remains very much up in the air. Still other scholars suggest that the Tujia are descendants of the native peoples of Hunan who have been influenced by neighboring peoples.

Some of the cultural features of the Tujia are similar to those recognized as present in ancient Han China. They still worship ancestors and spirits. Every village has a Temple of the Earth King, where they worship their ancestors, whose souls, according to their tradition, do not die with the body. More recent Han Chinese influences have included the presence in every village of a Temple of Culture, in honor of Confucius, and a Temple of the City.

Others features are more similar to the Yi, such as the presence among them of priests called Timo (the Yi call them Bimo) who serve as intermediaries between the world of mankind and that of the gods. They are the repositories of the legends, history, and ancient rites of the Tujia. They are capable of expelling spirits and curing illnesses, and they conduct the Bashou Dance.

The Bashou Dance is perhaps single traditional activity that best exemplifies both the character and culture of the ancient Tujia. It has been passed down from parents to their children from generation to generation. It is a dance with 72 well-defined steps that represent different aspects of daily activities. It is believed that the Bashou Dance derives from ancient ways by which the Tujia used to worship their ancestors. Some of these dances currently attract up to 10,000 people who dance under the guidance of a Timo.

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