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Documentation of the Southern Tujia Language of China

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Language Southern Tujia
Depositor Shixuan Xu
Affiliation Institute of Ethnology & Anthropology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Location China
Collection ID 0260
Grant ID MDP0095
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

Southern Tujia (土家. ISO-639: tjs) is a tonal Tibeto-Burman language spoken in a small number of villages in the mountainous Wuling Range of the western Hunan and Hubei provinces of central south China.There are around 6 million Tujia people, however only a small number of these speak the Southern Tujia variant. The Northern variant (ISO-639: tji) is more widely spoken.

This collection contains data on language structure, phonological, lexical, and grammatical features. There are also audio recordings of natural speech and folk literature. The aim is for this collection to contain the maximum amount of information about the language and about traditional culture expressed through the language, and to document other aspects of the language for which inadequate information exists. As part of the collection there will also be a reference grammar, a Tujia-Chinese-English dictionary, and corpora of traditional oral literature, which will be useful for both linguists and the speaker community, will be produced. Chinese will be used as the explanatory language in the grammars, and as the translation language for texts.


Group represented

Tujia (Bizika) people, China.

The Tujia ethnic minority were officially recognised in the People’s Republic of China in 1957. The Tujia people consist of the Northern Tujia, whose auto-ethnonym is bizika and the Southern Tujia, who have a different auto-ethnonym of “mo ji he”.The total Tujia population numbers 8,028,133 (2000 National Census statistics), of whom only around 14,000 are Southern Tujia. The Southern Tujia live in Luxi County in Hunan Province, unlike the Northern Tujia, who are distributed in several other counties in Hunan Province, as well as in Hubei Province, Guizhou Province, and Chongqing Municipality. The areas where the Northern and Southern Tujia live are not contiguous, with the nearest county where Northern Tujia is spoken being situated over 60km to the northwest of Luxi County. There are no specific historical documents which record the origins of the Southern Tujia.

Current literature related to descriptions and research of language communities are all based on the Tujia minority as a single, unitary group. The general consensus among Chinese scholars is that the Tujia people are an amalgamation, over a long period of time, of ancient tribal groups with five different historical origins.

These five different groups of people include the following: indigenous inhabitants who have lived in the area since the late Palaeolithic period; the ancient Ba people, who moved into the area at around 300 BC from present-day western Hubei, just before and after their kingdom was destroyed by the founder of the Qin Dynasty; the Cong tribal group, who came here from present-day Sichuan and Hubei around 0 AD; the Wu barbarians, ancestors of the Yi people, who moved here from the southwest (present-day Guizhou) at around 900 AD; and large numbers of soldiers and craftsmen from the east (present-day Ji’an in Jiangxi) at around 1000 AD.

The Tujia people have also been strongly influenced, both culturally and economically, by the Han Chinese people. As early as the early 1700s, there were influxes of Han Chinese into the region. These were mainly due to what were known as the gaituguiliu reforms, when the Qing imperial court deposed local minority chieftains and replaced them with government officials. Tujia areas were thus exposed to Chinese cultural customs as well as to the Chinese language. Since the late 19th century, the majority of those living in Tujia areas have gradually shifted completely to using Chinese. At present, Tujia is only spoken in a very limited area, with Tujia speakers comprising less than 1% of the total Tujia population.


Language information

Southern Tujia (土家) is a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in the mountainous areas of central south China, and has no literary tradition or adequate documentation. It currently is in the final phase of an apparently inexorable decline: the number of native speakers is less than 1000, and almost every remaining speaker is bilingual in Tujia and Chinese.


Special characteristics

Tanxi Township in Luxi County is a major node of transportation. It is traversed both by the Donghe River and by the No. 319 National Highway. It lies at a distance of around 50km from Jishou City, where the government offices of Xiangxi Prefecture are located. Therefore, it is a necessary route for travellers from Jishou City to the Luxi County government. The vast majority of Tujia living in Tanxi Township have already shifted to using the Luxi dialect of Chinese.

At present, Southern Tujia is only spoken in four non-contiguous hamlets within an area with a circumference of around 10km. A survey conducted by the principal applicant and co-applicants after submitting the preliminary application for this project shows that the current distribution and usage situation of Southern Tujia are as follows:

Boluozhai Hamlet in Hushixi Village, which is located in the hills and not accessible by road. It lies at a distance of 6km from a road, and 9km from the Township government offices. In two neighbouring hamlets which are also under the administration of Hushixi Village, Miao and Chinese are spoken. There are 67 households and just under 300 people living in Boluozhai Hamlet. The majority of households consist of mixed marriages with Miao or Han Chinese. Everyone in this hamlet, young and old, male and female, can speak both Southern Tujia and Chinese. However, Southern Tujia is their first language. Everyone can also understand Miao and some can also speak Miao. Boluozhai Hamlet is the site where Southern Tujia has been best preserved.

Puzhu Hamlet in Dabiliu Village. This hamlet is located next to the No. 319 National Highway and lies at a distance of 3km from the Township government offices. The neighbouring hamlets are inhabited by Tujia who speak Chinese. There are just over 300 people in Puzhu Hamlet. They are all bilingual in Southern Tujia and Chinese, but Southern Tujia is their first language.

Qieji Village. This hamlet lies on the opposite side of the river from the highway and the Township government. It lies at a distance of 6km from the Township government offices. A proportion of villagers speak Southern Tujia. Most of these speakers are over 30-40 years of age and number around 200. Younger people seldom speak Tujia and children are no longer learning to speak it.

Xiadu Village. This hamlet lies next to the No.319 National Highway and is situated at a distance of 1km from the Township government offices. Only a few people over 30-40 years of age can speak Southern Tujia: speakers number around 100. Younger people and children have already shifted to using Chinese.

Summarising the above findings, there are therefore only two non-contiguous hamlets where Southern Tujia is widely spoken as the first language. The total number of such speakers is just over 600. In these two hamlets, young children learn Tujia first as their mother tongue. They only start learning to speak Chinese after entering kindergarten at age 6. Therefore, everybody in these hamlets is a bilingual speaker of Tujia and Chinese. They can speak Chinese fluently when communicating with people outside their own hamlets. The vast majority also understand Miao and some can also speak Miao.

In two other hamlets, both Tujia and Chinese are spoken. Proficiency in Tujia is directly related to age. Those above 30-40 years of age mainly speak Tujia: a total of around 300 people. Younger folk mainly speak Chinese, with very few speaking Tujia. Children are no longer learning Tujia and have shifted completely to speaking Chinese.

In conclusion, there are currently around 1,000 people who speak or have retained some knowledge of Southern Tujia. All of these speakers are either bilingual in Tujia and Chinese or are trilingual in Tujia, Chinese and Miao. In markets, when conducting business, or communicating with neighbouring language communities, they always use Chinese. Therefore, Southern Tujia is only used within certain villages or is confined to the home in a few villages. Apart from being used inside the home, it is spoken only during daily production activities and ordinary village gatherings. There are no any particular traditional ceremonies or religious rituals in which Southern Tujia is used; it is also not used in the modern social spheres of politics, economics, or local commerce, nor does it appear in the public media. It is only used occasionally as a supplementary tool for teaching in the lower years in village primary schools.

Southern Tujia does not have a written form. From primary school onwards, speakers of Southern Tujia receive their education directly through Chinese language and writing. Compared to members of other local ethnic groups, the general level of education of this language community appears to be somewhat higher than average.

Over the past decade or so, great changes have occurred in this language community due to national policies of economic reform. These have led to increasing numbers of young people leaving the villages to seek further education or employment. Societies which have previously been relatively closed have experienced enormous changes which have posed unprecedented threats to their mother tongue. Southern Tujia is now poised on the very verge of extinction and is likely to disappear completely within the next few decades.

Although speakers of Southern Tujia are distributed over a relatively small geographical area, the four hamlets where it is still used lie some distance apart from one another. Therefore, preliminary investigations have led to the discovery of local differences in their phonological systems, although definite rules of correspondence do exist between the pronunciations in different areas. Contact with other languages has led to continual changes in the linguistic structure of Southern Tujia, so that even in Boluozhai, a hamlet where Southern Tujia has been best preserved, the phonological system is in a very unstable state.

The instability of the phonological system is manifested in many different ways. Some distinctive phonemes are in the process of amalgamation or are disappearing. For example, phonemes for a number of consonantal syllable onsets are merging or are being conflated. Nasalisation of vowel rhymes is being lost. In terms of the tone system, the contrastive features of the low rising tone have essentially disappeared, leading to its being conflated with the low level tone. Therefore, a tonal system which consisted originally of 5 tones has become a 4-tone system that is similar to that of Chinese.

Changes have also occurred in the lexicon and grammar of the language. There is a serious loss of native words. Out of 2,000 common lexical items, around 40-50% are clearly modern Chinese loans. Some native words can only be dredged out of the memories of speakers who are over 60-70 years of age. There are also changes in word formation due to influence from the Chinese language. Even the relatively stable grammatical system is being eroded, so that certain native ways of expression and structures, such as aspectual markers, are being replaced by Chinese expressions and sentence structures. All these structural changes have not only led to enormous changes in the Southern Tujia language as a whole, but further research into its historical origins and genetic affiliation is thereby rendered much more difficult.

Linguistic background
According to a survey conducted by the principal applicant and co-applicants in August 2003 in Luxi County, there are now only 1,000 or so speakers of Southern Tujia remaining. Although the speakers in this language community are considered to be part of the Tujia minority, together with speakers of Northern Tujia, the county in which they live is not contiguous with the area where Northern Tujia is spoken. The differences between these two languages are so great that they are mutually unintelligible.

Both Northern and Southern Tujia belong to the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. However, both languages have distinctive features which differ from other languages in the Tibeto-Burman branch. With regard to geographical distribution, the areas where they are spoken are not contiguous with, and are therefore isolated from, regions where other TB languages are spoken. With respect to the languages themselves, their lexical systems and grammatical structures have features which are not found in other TB languages. It has been difficult to postulate any definite genetic affiliation to languages which have already been assigned to different sub-branches of Tibeto-Burman. Therefore, the specific affiliations of both Northern and Southern Tujia have yet to be defined.

Taking different factors into account, an increasing number of scholars consider the Tujia languages as belonging to a separate sub-branch of Tibeto-Burman, a sub-branch which is yet to be identified. Research of both Tujia languages therefore have great academic significance. The analysis of these languages, research into changes that have occurred in the languages over the years, and the determination of their genetic affiliations will contribute significantly to academic research of Tibeto-Burman languages and ultimately to research into the Sino-Tibetan language family.

The language environment of Luxi County in Hunan Province, where Southern Tujia is still spoken, is very complex. This is due to two major geographical factors. Firstly, the Donghe River, which gives access to the region, wends its way through the whole county. Secondly, the whole area consists of mountainous terrain, leading to remote and isolated closed communities. Migration of different groups into the area throughout history has led to the development of heterogeneous linguistic communities. Today, 6 mutually unintelligible languages are spoken within Luxi County. These include the two Chinese dialects of southwestern Mandarin and the Xiang dialect; the two Miao dialects of Xiaozhang and Bashiping; Southern Tujia; and the Waxiang language, whose genetic affiliation is also undefined.

Tanxi Township in Luxi County, where all the remaining Southern Tujia speakers live, has a population of 17,000, 80% of whom are of Tujia ethnicity, with the rest being Miao (Hmong) and Han (who speak the local Chinese dialect). This ethnically and linguistically heterogeneous environment has meant that the vast majority of Tujia have shifted to speaking the Luxi dialect of Chinese. In view of this, the number of Southern Tujia speakers is in decline, with increasingly narrow usage domains leading to declining function, with significant changes also occurring in the structure of the language. This process of decline can provide important insights for research into contact between languages as well as for research into endangered languages as a whole.


Collection contents

While this collection is being curated please download these files to find your way around the collection (you will need to be an ELAR User):

  1. Overview
  2. Orthography
  3. Table of texts


Collection history

The Southern Tujia language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family, but its precise genetic affiliation has not been determined. It is thought to belong to an independent sub-branch which is yet to be defined within the Tibeto-Burman branch. Therefore, the analysis of its linguistic structure, research into historical changes, and the determination of its affiliation are of great importance in Tibeto-Burman and Sino-Tibetan studies.

At present, Southern Tujia is only spoken in four non-contiguous hamlets in an area with a circumference of less than 10 km. A survey in August 2003 showed only some 1,000 speakers remaining. All of these are either bilingual in Tujia and Chinese, or are trilingual in Tujia, Chinese and Miao. Over the past decade, the opening up of China and of this region in particular has presented great challenges to the use of Southern Tujia, posing serious threats to its continuation. Southern Tujia faces the prospect of becoming extinct over the next few decades.

Despite its academic significance, investigation into Southern Tujia has been sadly lacking. There has been little or no recording, research, and documentation of language data. Therefore, not only is the documentation of Southern Tujia important, but it has become an increasingly urgent task. If documentation is not undertaken as soon as possible, the language will lose many of its distinctive features and will also completely disappear in the near future.

This project will be based on field investigations, with the establishment of a field research station in a location where Southern Tujia is best preserved. The project will aim at comprehensive recording of lexical items and natural texts, as well as collecting traditional folk stories. Data to be documented will include both elicited material and natural texts. Data will be collected using audio recording combined with video footage in natural surroundings. The project will also include a sociolinguistic survey, in order to determine the degree of endangerment of Southern Tujia and provide objective criteria from which the future prospects of the language can be realistically predicted.


Other information

Despite the considerable academic significance of Southern Tujia, there has been very little field research, data collection, documentation and research of the language so far. Up till now, no dictionaries or traditional folk literature collections (including texts translated into other languages) have been published. There are at present only two publications related to the Southern Tujia language:

(a) The Tujia Language of Luxi, by Li Jingzhong, Central University for Nationalities Press, Beijing, 2000.

This 309-page volume is based on data collected from Xiadu village in the Southern Tujia area in the 1950s and is an attempt to describe its phonology, lexicon, and grammar. The appendices include a lexicon, a collection of short phrases, and some longer texts. However, the material in the appendices consists of raw data which have not been transcribed phonemically (according to the author’s own preface). There are also many inconsistencies and contradictions in the author’s analyses and examples, as well as numerous printing errors. In view of these shortcomings, it is difficult to consider this to be a reliable work on Southern Tujia.

(b) A Sketch of the Tujia Language, by Tian Desheng, He Tianzhen, Chen Kang, Li Jingzhong, Xie Zhimin and Peng Xiumo, Ethnic Publishing House, Beijing, 1986.

This 209-page volume is based on data collected on Northern Tujia in the 1950s. There are only 15 pages on Southern Tujia, with 1,004 words listed in both Northern and Southern Tujia.

In addition, there have been no projects aimed at recording, documentation, or research of the Southern Tujia language. I have not sought funding from any other sources for this documentation project on Southern Tujia.

The current situation with regard to Southern Tujia research highlights both the importance and urgency of data collection and documentation. If research and archiving are not done as soon as possible, this language is likely to change beyond all recognition and will also become extinct in the near future.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Xu, Shixuan. 2010. Documentation of the Southern Tujia Language of China. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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