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ETHNONYMS: Huzhu, Guanting, Mongols, Monguor, White Mongols

In 1990, some 191,624 Tu lived in the Qilian Mountains and on the banks of the Huang and Datong rivers, mainly in the Huzhu Tu Autonomous County, Qinghai Province. The Tu language is a member of the Mongolian Branch of the Altaic Family. Tu is very closely related to Mongolian, Dongxian, and Bonan, and also has a large number of Han and a smaller number of Tibetan loanwords. There are two dialects. Han characters are used in written communication. Louis Schram and other Catholic missionaries who worked in the area call them both "Monguor" and "Tu" in their writings. The Catholics were very active in this area; in the 1920s and 1930s they set up modern schools as well as churches. The Tu also call themselves "White Mongols."

The Tu national minority designation is of relatively recent origin. Their ethnogenesis over the centuries is a result of the Mongolian invasion of the area in 1227. At that time, the local population was comprised of Tibetans, Uigur, and Shato peoples. The Mongolian military men intermarried with the local population, and it is their offspring who formed the ancestors of the modern Tu. The Tu, in fact, call themselves "Mongolians." Their dress clearly distinguishes them from other groups in the area such as Mongols, Tibetans, and Hui. Both genders wear white felt hats in winter; women's dress includes heavy brocaded shoes and brightly colored sleeves that give a "rainbow" effect. Their embroidery work is complex and distinctive.

The Tu have traditionally been goat and sheep herders. As early as the Ming dynasty, though, some Tu adopted agriculture. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, tusi (enfeoffed native officials) were appointed by the Chinese government. These officials were responsible to the Chinese state for collecting taxes and keeping order. However, since Lamaist (Yellow Hat) Buddhism was encouraged by the Qing court, or possibly because Tibetans still make up 50 percent of Qinghai's minorities populations, some lands were, by special assent, held by the monastaries and controlled by them as well.

In addition to arranged marriages in which the bride went to live with her husband's family, there are two types of "marriage" in which a woman lives with her natal family and takes lovers. The children of such a woman take her name and are members of her patrilineal family. She herself is regarded as married to Heaven, in a ceremony that takes place when she is 15.

The Tu have been Lamaists since at least 650. There are four large monastaries in the area, associated with the Yellow Sect. Families with more than one son were expected to send one to become a monk. The monastaries became wealthy by lending money, by taxing the people, by renting land, and by leasing grain mills. At the same time, much of the income went to support the large number of monks. Presumably, the flow of men into monkhood accounts for the variant marriage forms mentioned above.

There were also white shamans who cured, and black shamans who were employed to exact revenge. Shamans, who were male, inherited their vocation from their fathers; in cases in which a shaman had no sons, he would train a brother's son. In contrast to the lama, a shaman had to work as a farmer to support himself. A third type of religious figure was the kurtain (any person who had become possessed of a Daoist spirit and who passed a rigorous examination). Generally, one became a kurtain as a youth and lost the spiritual possession upon becoming aged.

The dead are now cremated, following Han practice, but in the past bodies were interred. Until the 1950s, children were given "sky burials" (their remains were placed on a platform in a tree).


Ma Yin, ed. (1989). China's Minority Nationalities, 113-118. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

National Minorities Questions Editorial Panel (1985). Questions and Answers about China's Minority Nationalities. Beijing: New World Press.

Schwarz, Henry G. (1984). The Minorities of Northern China: A Survey, 107-118. Bellingham: Western Washington University Press.

Xie Jun (1990). "Visit to a Tu Nationality Village." China Today 39(8): 34-39.

Xie Shengcai (1981). "The Tu People of the Qinghai Plateau." China Reconstructs, 30(1): 29-31.