Tujia Girl's Town

Tujia women are regarded as masters of weaving and embroidery.Tujia brocade called "Xilankapu" (Xi Lan Ka Pu) is one of the three most famous in China. Girls have traditionally learn to stitch around one hundred figures and designs on blankets and pieces of cloth, which they offered to their boyfriend as a gift and to show off their skill. They usually wove several pieces then sewed together so that the figures and designs of the pieces matched each other in a very artistic way. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009; Chinatravel.com]

Traditional Tujia handcrafts include carving, drawing, paper-cutting, woven bamboo and rattan baskets, wax printing and making elaborate jewelry worn by women. Wooden Nuo opera masks made by Tujia in Guizhou depict good gods, evil gods, and secular figures which are enshrined and worshiped before the altar in Nuo opera and feature wonderful circular engraving. At opera performances, they are respectfully addressed as East Mountain God and South Mountain Goddess. There are many legends about them and one of which believed they were the incarnation of the legendary heroes Fu Xi and Nu Wa. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

Movies, television and smart phones are popular forms of entertainment. However, group music with gongs and drums, and group dances are still enjoyed, especially during the off-season of agricultural cycle among farmers and their families "Hit the flying stick" is the traditional sport of the Tujia. Usually, it is a game between two individuals, but it may also be played by two teams. Each player holds a bat and uses it to hit a stick thrown from the opposite side. The stick hit back should be caught. The game is somewhat similar to baseball. Points are scored when someone doesn’t catch the stick.

Tujia Clothes

These days Tujia daily dress is largely indistinguishable from that of Han Chinese. During festival time and for occasions such as wedding they often wear traditional clothes. Few Tujia wear traditional clothes anymore. Only a few women in the high mountainous areas still wear the traditional jackets and turbans made of blue and green silk handkerchiefs. Traditionally-dressed Tujia men wear short jackets with many buttons in front. Both sexes wrap their heads with a blue kerchief. [Source: China.org |; Chinatravel.com \=/; C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Traditionally-dressed Tujia women women wear a short top with loose sleeves and buttons down the left. Two or three layers of lace are edged to the garment. The skirt is made of eight pieces of cloth or silk. The jackets are trimmed with lace and have short, broad sleeves. The low-collar blouses have an opening in the right side. The collar is usually embroidered and the cuffs and the place just right at the lower edge of the collar have small embroidered flowers. Tujia women used to wear long skirts with many straight ruffles but later changed to big round trousers with colorful laces at the bottom. Young women sometimes dress in white coats on the inside and black short gowns outside, like a magpie in a style called Ya Que Yi.

At festivals women adorn themselves with necklaces, rings earrings, bracelets and ankle bracelets. They also like to wear jewelry made of gold, silver or jade. Silver-made small bells, plates, chains, toothpicks, and earpicks are pinned on the front of their upper garment. Tujia women comb their hair into a bun. Some Tujia still wrap their coiled hair in a nearly three meters long green silk handkerchief decorated with silver pieces like combs, Gua Zi Zhen (a silver hairpin), Mo Li Zhen (a silver hairpin), and Ba Jiao Shan.

Tujia Xilankapu Embroidery

Tujia brocade

Early in the Qin-Han Period, Tujia ancestors produced exquisite cloth known as "Zong cloth". In “Country History of Huayang,” this kind of cloth was called "thin and blue cloth", "just like the damask silk." In the Tang Dynasty it was called "Xitong cloth". “Light Stories of Small Stream” reported: “The cloth is made from threads of five colors, and looks bright and beautiful. It can be used for quilts, dresses or towels.” After the Song Dynasty, the textile technology of Tujia was developed further. In addition to common nankeen, woven with cotton and silk, the Tujia developed "Xilankapu", a kind of brocade with luxuriant designs and exquisite craftsmenship, which became sought after through China and gain some prestige worldwide. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, ]

On handlooms with a narrow lathe, "Xilankapu" is woven by hand, with blue, black, red, and white threads going up and down (the warp) from silk, cotton, and wool of many kinds of colors going side to side (the weft). The pattern of Xilankapu used depends on the techniques of symbolizing and abstraction: straight-line modeling or symmetrical succession. The 200 or 300 traditional patterns are roughly divided into three categories: 1) the pattern of natural images; 2) geometric patterns; and Chinese characters or other language symbols. Most traditional are taken from the life and environment of Tujia, such as the stripes of tiger, leopard and deer; colorful feathers of golden pheasants; clouds; water waves and arched bridge. Among the most common images are butterflies chasing peony, double phoenixes flying towards the sun, a magpie singing on a plum tree, and a party escorting the bride to the bridegroom's home. In recent years, popular images have included the Swing Arm Dance ("Waving Dance"), love between mother and son, sisters' dance, pandas, and bright moons.

According to legend, a Tujia girl named Xilan created Xilankapu. Xilan was a clever girl skilled at color knitting. While trying to knit gingko flowers blooming at midnight on brocade, she persisted in observing gingkos at midnight for a very long time. Her jealous sister-in-law complained to Xilan’s father and lied, saying Xilan went out and fornicated with her lover at midnight, which embarrassed and shamed their family. The old man was infuriated and struck his daughter with his walking stick, accidently killing her. Tujia women honor Xilan and her embroidering and knitting skills, with Tujia name "Xilankapu" brocade.

It has traditionally been thought of as indispensable for every Tujian girl to weave Xilankapu. From the age of eleven or twelve, they begin their study. When they grow up, the quantity and quality of Xilankapu they knit has traditionally been an important measure of their character and ability. In the past, Xilankapu was frequently used for quilt covers and dresses. Today, present, it has been widely applied to many things. Apart from being popular with Tujia people, brocade hangings, silk belt, satchel and figured sheets and bought throughout China.

Tujia Music and Folklore

There is great variety of Tujia folk music. Vocal music includes working songs, love songs, crying songs sung at weddings, hand waving songs, Pan songs and supernatural songs. Tujia folk songs are usually about love and work, battles and grief. Many follow locally variable formulas that may include impromptu exchanges and even tricks. It is said virtually all Tujias can compose and sing songs. There are special songs for marriage, and popular songs performed at various occasions such as the Spring Festival and Waving Festival. Instrumental music includes percussion music and wind music played by Tujia musical instruments such as the so-na, mu ye, dong-dong-kui, da-jia-huo. Various songs about with many subjects are played with the Da Liuzi (See Below).

There is a rich repertoire of dance, songs, and longer song-cycles and stories, all of which are passed on orally. C. Le Blanc wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life, “Among the ancient songs one finds legends about the origin of human beings, which the Tujia share with other national minorities living in southwest China. In brief, human beings were all drowned in a catastrophic flood, except for a brother and sister. They married and gave birth to a fleshy lump, which was divided into pieces and thrown in all directions. Every piece of the fleshy lump became the ancestor of a particular nationality. Another legend narrates the story of a girl (Shexiangxiang) and an eagle. Since the eagle had saved her life, Shexiangxiang was very grateful. She cultivated the land arduously. Without the help of the eagle, her life would have been even harsher. One night, she dreamed of two small eagles landing in her arms and she became pregnant. She bore a son and a daughter. Years later, Shexiangxiang fell ill and died. Her last words were: "The eagle is your savior, so, never kill the eagle." In fact, the eagle died shortly after her and was buried beside her grave. Time passed swiftly and the children grew up. Unfortunately, there was no one else with whom to marry. According to Heaven's will, they got married. Later, eight sons were born and were given Tan as their surname. They are the ancestors of Tan, an important clan of the Tujia, living in a mountainous area of west Jiangxi Province. Tradition has it that they have never killed an eagle. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

“A story about creation states that the Heavenly King ordered two gods, Zhang and Li, to produce a sky and an earth respectively. Zhang produced a sky that was orderly, bright, neat, and smooth. Careless in handling things, Li made an earth full of bumps and hollows, mountains and caverns, meandering brooks and zigzagging rivers, an environment that corresponds closely to the geographical features of the land of the Tujia. *\


Dong Dongkui and Da Liuzi

The"Dong dongkui" is a single reed and wing-case-form instrument. It is usually 15 centimeter long, with a diameter one to two centimeter or so. It has 3 or 4 holes, with one end cut open and a single-sound hole. This simple instrument produces merry and clear tune, and is greatly enjoyed especially among Tujia women and children. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities~]

According to a Tujian legend that describes the origin of the "Dong dong kui": In the Qin Dynasty, the emperor recruited men to build the Great Wall. The armies caught a Tujia young man called "Dong Dong". After he was taken away, his pregnant wife named Ba Lie was maltreated by her mother-in-law. Lonely and helpless, she went up to a mountain to look to the north, where her husband was caught and taken away, hoping to see him back. While she sat there, she played a bamboo flute she made herself from a small piece of bamboo to express her eagerness of seeing her husband. She played it day after night, waiting and missing her husband, until one day she was found dead on the mountain. Moved by her story, people showed great sympathy to her and began to make flutes like hers, calling Dong Dong back for her. Later on, this kind of bamboo flute was called "Dong dong Gui" (In Chinese, "gui" means "to be back.")

The "Da Liuzi"— also called "Da Jia Huo" and "Da Jia Ye"— is a kind of ancient folk percussion instrument enjoying great popularity in the northwestern part of Hunan Province where many Tujia minority live. This instrument is made up of the Ma gong, Tu gong, big cymbal and second cymbal. It is usually played by an ensemble of three or four people. A five-player Liuzi includes a Suona (a kind of Chinese musical instrument) and combines forms of piping and drumming. When playing a Da Liuzi, the Ma gong takes the lead, embellished by the big and second cymbals, with the Tu gong kicking in when the time comes. The instrument has a repertoire of over 100 different songs. Da Liuzi music is bright and clear in melody, and is changeable in tune. The Da Liuzi is honored as the "symphony of Tujia".

Swing Arm Dance (Waving Dance) and Tujia Dances

Traditional dances include the Swing Arm Dance (Waving Dance or Hand Waving Dance), Ba Bao bronze bell dance, jumping with drums dance, copper bell dance, horse-vaulting dance, eight-plait skirt of thin silk dance, the beautiful mountain and festive lantern dance., and Mao Gu Si in which people dance and sing. Sometimes all night dances are performed at funerals. Every three years a large scale Swing Arm dance is held. This dance is said to be 3,000 years old and was a prelude to battle. Music for the dances is provided by a variety instruments including small flutes, water-buffalo-horn horns and flutes made from very long thin, pieces of wood.

The "Swing Arm Dance" features 72 ritual gestures to indicate war, hunting, farming, and other aspects of life. It is popular at the New Year's Festival. Sometimes thousands of people join in. "Swinging Arms" (or "Waving") is called "Sheba" in Tujia language, The dance was originally a collective dancing with religious connotations in which men and women sang and danced together so ward off misfortune. It used to be held after dinner from the sixth day of the first lunar month to the 15th day. At that time, people gathered before the "waving hall" and offered sacrifices. Then they beat drums and gongs, and set off fireworks. Every dancer—both men and women—danced in an expanding and shrinking circle, and changed their gestures according to the drum beat, advancing and retreating. The styles and content varied greatly. Every dance changed in style once a week or every two weeks, reflecting different contents such as fighting, hunting, farming and daily life.

In the Swing Arm Dance the hands usually move in the same direction as the feet. Two dancers form a pair, kicking and waving rhythmically, advance and retreat lightly, and swinging at the waist. The dance is led by someone who knows the sequence of the movements well. In teh past this was a shaman. People follow him or her in a circle and continue to move around. The dance movement is mainly the movements of arms which mimicking those of hunting, cultivation, fighting, etc. The 70 dance movements are performed successively and each movement is replaced by another during a new circular procession. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

The Swing Arm Dance looks strong and vigorous. It exemplifies both the character and culture of the ancient Tujia and has been passed down from parents to their children from generation to generation. After the founding of Communist China in 1949, the Swing Arm Dance has been adapted and exploited for propaganda purposes.

Maogusi and Tujia Cogongrass Goose Drama

"Maogusi" is a traditional Tujia drama, usually performed during the first lunar month (between January 21 and March 18 on the Western calendar). It features an actor with a lot of straw bound to his body, indicating the hairy body of the ancestors. It is a play in five acts showing slash-and-burn cultivation, hunting and fishing, spinning and weaving, as well as the marriage ritual. *\

Tujia dramas includie "Cogongrass Goose," South drama and Qiu drama. Tujia epics tell of the origins of mankind and of the migrations and aspirations of the Tujias in drama and poetic ways. "Cogongrass Goose" is an original form of Tujia drama created to commemorate the achievements of their ancestors' exploiting the wilderness, fishing and hunting. It is still practiced in Tujia areas such as Yongshun, Longshan, Guzhang in western Hunan Province. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]

In "Cogongrass Goose" drama, stories about the ancestors' life and work expressed through dancing and spoken parts. Usually 15 people are needed. The performers wear cone-shaped cogongrass cap, with the head decorated with a grass pigtail, and the whole body wrapped up with the straw, to symbolize the hairy ancient people. The props and sets are very basic. One performer appears and dances, followed by the others. They dance joyfully, shaking their whole body of straws, rocking their grass pigtail at back and forth and singing in a twisted voice. ~

Subjects of the dancing content includes slash-and-burn cultivation, round-up hunting, fishing, welcoming the bride, a teacher teaching, and swinging a torch. Performers speak local, colloquial expression and sing the folk songs, but spoken dialogue is the main focus, with audience answering calls and inserting lines. Performers sing, dance, jump, turn somersaults, make jokes and perform tricks. They also take quick and short steps to advance and retreat, bend their knees and tremble, jump and wave in all directions, shake their heads and shrug. All the performances imitate the ancients' rough but lovely appearance and manners and are intended to be interesting, funny and humorous.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: 1) "Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China", edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company; 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China *\; 4) Chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Wikipedia, BBCand various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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