According to official descriptions, the Tujia (Tǔjiā zú, 土家族) are yet another colorfully dressed little minority famous for singing, dancing, brocade and quaint animism. After writing several of these minority profiles, this narrative is getting quite old. Can it be true? Are all the many peoples forced south out of the Chinese heartland by Qin and/or Han expansion nothing more than vapid, colorful performers with cool clothing and exotic women? Every time I read an official account of a minority, I am reminded of what happened to the Mayans. Not only were they subjugated by the Spanish, but the Catholic Church and its representatives in the New World spent the first half of the Conquest eradicating Mayan literature and history. Thousands and thousands of documents and records were burned as heresy before the priests came to their senses and attempted to protect the natives from Old Europe. The priests were too little too late, so we only have a vague idea of what exactly will happen in 2012.... When the Qin, Han, Ming and Qing Dynasties expanded central control over the map of China we know today, similar tragedies may have occurred. Consider for example Melissa Brown's opening in her research paper, Ethnic Classification and Culture: The Case of the Tujia in Hubei, China:
"... [E]thnic categories are changeable in their content and membership, identities must be negotiated within a given ethnic group as well as with ethnic ‘others’ who often include state authorities. However, national identity and ethnic identity are commonly portrayed as fixed with clear-cut borders, the ‘simple’ product of a person’s culture and/or ancestry, in which there is no choice about belonging or departing.
In order to ‘mobilise people behind their political agendas’, governments and ethnic leaders ‘actively hide the fluidity and changeability of identity and group membership’. They discuss identity in terms of purported common descent and/or purported common culture (including language), even though ultimately it is the common sociopolitical experience of group members that binds group identity."
In effect the state tells the minority what they are and after a while, the minority gets used to it. Only in remote areas with no resources can the traditional elements of native ancient peoples survive. But remote in modern times usually means poverty-stricken and old. Thus for the traveler interested in seeing the real original peoples of this amazing chunk of Asia we call China, the deeper into the mountains you go, the better it gets.
History of the Tujia: There's Ba in Them Thar Hills
The Tujia are the last descendants of the Ba warrior-chieftains who ruled the Wuling Mountains around the Three Gorges on the upper Yangtze River. The Ba chieftains held sway from the gorges all the way up to where the Yangtze meets the Jialing River at Chongqing: that little corner where Chongqing, Hunan, Hubei and Guizhou meet in a rush of hilly lushness, red clay and lazy, brown water. Monkeys once ran from tigers who prowled the jungles of Ba's hilly kingdom; now those monkeys throw poo at dogs and fruit at farmers. (Check out our Google Map of the area at the bottom of the post).
The Ba Kingdom was little more than a confederation of tribes that got swallowed up by the larger Shu, Qin and Chu states during the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period. Ba warriors were prized as mercenaries by the ancient kingdoms and the mighty Qin Empire used these warriors to conquer Shu (present day Sichuan), whereupon they promptly betrayed their allies and crushed the Ba confederation. But these hills that prevented a real state from ever forming also prevented the Qin (or subsequent empires) from truly exerting control over the region. So the Ba culture lived on in the memories of the people—both locals and later migrants.
Chongqing still refers to itself as the center of the ancient Ba Kingdom, with hot pot, fiery tempers and beautiful, indepedent women as evidence of Ba characteristics living on in the modern world. Chongqing Municipality's status as an independant city (like Shenzhen, Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin) might somehow reflect this area's independent streak. After getting stomped by the Qin, most of the original Ba people intermarried with Han and Miao minority settlers, migrated over to Chongqing and helped build a city there, or drifted off toward Hubei to make love and fight with the ancestors of those who now rock out in industrial Wuhan.
Those Ba tribes that were never completely bred out and never had the capacity (or the desire) to migrate are today's Tujia minority. Most of the 6 million strong Tujia people speak a form of "southwestern Mandarin," but around 100,000 of the most isolated Tujia people speak dialects of the ancient Ba Kingdom languages that are related to Tibetan. There are even remnants of the written language, indecipherable now, that once helped nominally tie the Tujia tribes of ancient Ba together.
Where the Tujia Live
The remote areas of China are usually the most beautiful and often the most rewarding for travelers. But the beautiful, rewarding things in life don't ever come easy and such is also the case with travel through Tujia lands. The largest cities in the area are Chongqing, Changsha and Wuhan. From these cities you will have to move to the smaller towns, like Yichang on the Yangtze River, the tourist town of Zhangjiajie and the former Ba Kingdom capital and Tujia cultural hub, Enshi. Once you reach these larger towns, your trip is just beginning.
You can book a trip to Zhangjiajie. Or you could wander around Zhangjiajie and nearby Fenghuang, and then head north to Yichang for the Three Gorges Cruise. Or you could check out Tongren, the southern part of Ba, and hike/hitch/ride north through Zhangjiajie to Yichang and then loop through Enshi back to Chongqing. Any combination works, as long as you take the time and effort to meet and learn about the last descendants of Ba, China's Tujia Minority.
View The Tujia and the old Ba Kingdom in a larger map