Chiefdom of Lijiang's Palace Chamber
Chinese name
Hanyu PinyinTǔsī
Tibetan name
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabetThổ ty
Chữ Hán土司
Manchu name
Manchu scriptᠠᡳᠮᠠᠨ ᡳ
Möllendorffaiman i hafan

Tusi, often translated as "headmen" or "chieftains", were hereditary tribal leaders recognized as imperial officials by the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties of China, and the Later Lê and Nguyễn dynasties of Vietnam. They ruled certain ethnic minorities in central China, western China, southwestern China, and the Indochinese peninsula nominally on behalf of the central government. As succession to the Tusi position was hereditary, these regimes effectively formed numerous autonomous petty dynasties under the suzerainty of the central court. This arrangement is known as the Tusi System or the Native Chieftain System (Chinese: 土司制度; pinyin: Tǔsī Zhìdù). It should not be confused with the Chinese tributary system or the Jimi system.

Tusi regimes were located primarily in Yunnan, Guizhou, Tibet, Sichuan, Chongqing, the Xiangxi Prefecture of Hunan, and the Enshi Prefecture of Hubei. Tusi entities were also established in the historical dependencies and frontier regions of China in what is today northern Myanmar,[1] Laos,[2] and northern Thailand.[3] The Vietnamese Later Lê and Nguyễn dynasties also implemented the Tusi system.[4]

In 2015, UNESCO designated three Tusi castles (Laosicheng, Tangya, and Hailongtun) as part of the "Tusi Sites" World Heritage Site in China, owing to the unique system of governance.[5] It has been described on at least one occasion as sharing similarities with the "U.S. federal government's recognition of some Native American tribes as in some ways sovereign entities."[6]


Yuan dynasty

The tusi system was inspired by the Jimi system (Chinese: 羈縻制度) implemented in regions of ethnic minorities groups during the Tang dynasty.[7] It was established as a specific political term during the Yuan dynasty[8] and was used as a political institution to administer newly acquired territories following their conquest of the Dali Kingdom in 1253.[9]

Members of the former Duan imperial clan of the Dali Kingdom were appointed as governors-general with nominal authority using the title "Dali chief steward" (Chinese: 大理總管, p Dàlǐ Zǒngguǎn), and local leaders were co-opted under a variety of titles as administrators of the region.[10] Some credit the Turkoman governor Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar with introducing the system into China.[10] Duan Xingzhi, the last emperor of Dali, was appointed as the first local ruler, and he accepted the stationing of a pacification commissioner there.[11] Duan Xingzhi offered the Yuan maps of Yunnan and led a considerable army to serve as guides for the Yuan army. By the end of 1256, Yunnan was considered to have been pacified.

Under the Yuan dynasty, the native officials, or tusi, were the clients of a patron-client relationship. The patron, the Yuan emperors, exercised jurisdictional control over the client, but not his/her territory itself.[12]

The tusi chieftains and local tribe leaders and kingdoms in Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan submitted to Yuan rule and were allowed to keep their titles. The Han Chinese Yang family ruling the Chiefdom of Bozhou which was recognized by the Song and Tang dynasties also received recognition by the subsequent Yuan and Ming dynasties. The Luo clan in Shuixi led by Ahua were recognized by the Yuan emperors, as they were by the Song emperors when led by Pugui and Tang emperors when led by Apei. They descended from the Shu Han era king Huoji who helped Zhuge Liang against Meng Huo. They were also recognized by the Ming dynasty.[13][14]

Ming dynasty

In 1364, Zhu Yuanzhang conquered Huguang. Rather than building a bureaucratic system of his own in Huguang, Zhu chose to keep the native chieftaincy system implemented by the Yuan dynasty. He reappointed many tusi to the same posts as they had during the Yuan dynasty. After reunifying China under the Ming dynasty and becoming the Hongwu Emperor, he brought this practice to the entire southern border zone of the empire.[15]

In 1381, Hongwu sent a force against the last remnant of the forces of the Yuan dynasty, led by the Prince of Liang Basalawarmi, who committed suicide. This left Duan Gong, a successor of Duan Xingzhi, as the last representative of the remaining Yuan forces. He refused to surrender and attempted to have the former realm of the Dali Kingdom recognized as a tributary state. When he was defeated in battle, the surviving Duan brothers were taken captive and escorted to the capital. There they were given an insignificant office in the interior. From then on, "permanent chieftains were replaced by transferable officials," formally appointed by the Ming court.[16]

Local leaders were obliged to provide troops, suppress local rebellions, and pay tribute to Beijing annually, biennially, or triennially according to their distance. The post was hereditary as opposed to the examination system in China proper, but succession, promotion, and demotion were all controlled by the Ming administration which required each tusi to use a seal and an official charter.[17] To establish legitimate successions, tusi were ordered to list their sons and nephews in AD 1436, to redo the list in quadruplicate in 1441, and to renew the list triennially in 1441 and again in 1485. The Ming dynasty also took over regencies of children younger than 15 in 1489.[10]

Tusi chiefs could sometimes be female according to local customs and had full authority over their own tribesmen, but were kept under supervision by the Ming Ministry of Personnel or the Ministry of War. Areas of tusi administration tended to explode into violence or turmoil intermittently and would invariably provoke Ming military intervention. However, these incidents are generally attributed to provocations by Chinese settlers or corrupt officials and not the fault of the tribes themselves.[9]

The native chieftain system was a mutual-beneficial cooperation between the central government and native chieftains. For a quite long time after the foundation of Ming, the rulers knew that the central government could only use limited amount of resources. Having a large number of armies stationed in southern borderland, an area with harsh natural environment and large number of Non-Han people, was too costly for Ming rulers. Thus, they decided to transfer part of ruling power to those local political rulers in exchange for their defense of the border zone.[18]

Civil and military tusis

The Ming tusi were categorized into civil and military ranks.[19] The civilian tusi were given the titles of Tu Zhifu ("native prefecture"), Tu Zhizhou ("native department") and Tu Zhixian ("native county") according to the size and population of their domains. Nominally, they had the same rank as their counterparts in the regular administration system[19] The central government gave more autonomy to those military tusi who controlled areas with fewer Han Chinese people and had underdeveloped infrastructure. They pledged loyalty to the Ming emperor but had almost unfettered power within their domains.  

All the native chieftains were nominally subordinate to Pacification Commissioners (Xuanfushi, Xuanweishi, Anfushi). The Pacification Commissioners were also native chieftains who received their title from the Ming court. As a way of checking their power, Pacification Commissioners were put under the supervision of the Ministry of War.[20]

Throughout its 276 year history, the Ming dynasty bestowed a total of 1608 tusi titles, 960 of which were military-rank and 648 were civilian-rank,[21] the majority of which were in Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan. In Tibet, Qinghai and Sichuan, the Ming court sometimes gave both tusi titles and religious titles to leaders. As a result, those tusi had double identities. They played both the role of political leaders and religious leaders within their domains. For example, during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, the leader of the Jinchuan monastery assisted the Ming army in a battle against the Mongols. The leader was later given the title Yanhua Chanshi (演化禅师), or "Evolved Chan Master", and the power to rule 15 villages as his domain as a reward.[22]

Power and privileges of Tusi

After a chieftain was recognized by the central government as a tusi, he would receive a patent of appointment, a bronze official seal, a belt decorated with gold, and a formal attire as uniform.[23] The title of tusi was hereditary and passed down to an heir.

The entire clan of a tusi enjoyed privileges within the domain. In Ming China, the clan of a tusi was called Guanzu ("official clan").[24] Members of the official clan had higher social ranks than commoners and slaves. Only members of official clan, Han Chinese, and descendants of former officials were allowed to receive education and take examinations.[25]

Each tusi could build and live in a yamen. A yamen was the headquarter of local officials that contained infrastructures, such as the courtroom, sacrificial altar, ancestral hall, granary, offices, and the living quarters of official’s family.[26]

The structure of government and way of adjudication varied in each domain because of the diversity of tusi's cultural backgrounds. Normally, there were no statute law in the domain. The will of the tusi was the law.[27] A tusi had court and jail in his yamen and could imprison or punish his subjects as long as he thought it was necessary. For instance, Li Depu, the native official of Anping subprefecture in Guangxi province, brutally punished a serf for wearing white stockings because according to his dress rule only official clans were allowed to do so.[28] Commoners ruled by tusi often called them Tu Huangdi ("local emperor").[29] This analogy between tusi and emperors in some way reflected the almost unfettered judicial power of a tusi in his domain.

Tusi were given the power of collecting tax in their domain. For seasonal religious rituals or sacrifices, tusi had rights to collect rice and copper coins from each local household. As the head of clan, each tusi had right to disposal the property of his clan.[30]

Apart from bodyguards, tusi were allowed to maintain a private military, the size of which depended on their domain's resources, to better defend the borderland and suppress rebellion.

Responsibilities of native chieftains during the Ming Dynasty

The tusi were considered vassals of the Ming emperor. They enjoyed autonomy or semi-autonomy in their domains, but were expected to maintain order and defend the border zones for the Ming dynasty. When the Ming court wanted to start any campaign near their domains, the chieftains were required to lead their private armies and assist the Ming army in the battle. Those soldiers supplied by tusi were called Tu Bing ("native soldier"). In the campaign against Annam, the Ming court recruited a large number of native soldiers from the southern provinces.[31]

Also, tusi were required to pay tributes to the Ming court. The periodic tribute goods sent by native chieftains contained various goods:

  1. animals, such as horses and elephants
  2. products made from rare wild animals, such as elephant tusks and rhinoceros’ horns
  3. medicinal herbs
  4. incense
  5. silver utensils
  6. minerals, such as tin[23]

Income of tusi

Tusi received no regular salary or stipend from the government but they were allowed to collect tax from their subjects. These taxes could be paid with crops, textiles and money. Some tusi required their subjects to pay them copper coin and chickens as gifts at some specific events of their clan. For example, in Anping of Guangxi province, each household was required to donate 400 copper coins during weddings and funerals of members of the tusi's family.[32]

Tusi could get paid by the government for their assistance in the battles, but this did not happen regularly.[23]


In 1388 the Ming–Mong Mao War was fought between the general Mu Ying and the semi-independent tusi of Mong Mao, Si Lunfa, located in what is now Tengchong in southwestern Yunnan.[33]

In 1397 the Ming intervened in a Mong Mao succession dispute, known as the Ming–Mong Mao Intervention.

In the late 1300s, Đại Việt attacked the tusis on the Guangxi border. This in conjunction with the overthrow of the Trần dynasty by the Hồ dynasty led to the Fourth Chinese domination of Vietnam.[34]

In 1438 the Mong Mao rebelled again and their leader Si Renfa attacked local tusi along the Yunnan border. Si Renfa was defeated in 1442 and captured by the Ava king, who turned him over to Ming custody, where he died in 1446.[35]

In 1621 the Yi people instigated the She-An Rebellion in Sichuan and Guizhou, which lasted until 1629 and took an astronomical toll on Ming resources before it was quelled.

Gaitu Guiliu

Gaitu guiliu (改土歸流) was a policy of abolishing the rule of local tusi (土司) and replace (gai 改) them by a "mainstream" (liu 流) direct administration. Gaitu guiliu was heavily enforced during the Ming and Qing periods.

During the Ming dynasty, there were 179 tusi and 255 tuguan (Chinese: 土官, "native civilian commanders") in Yunnan and titles were generally retained with the exception of punishment for severe crimes.[10] The tusi were greatly reduced during the Ming-Qing era. By the time of the Yongzheng Emperor, there were only around 41 left in Yunnan, including Cheli, Gengma, Longchuan, Ganya (modern Yingjiang), Nandian, Menglian, Zhefang, Zhanda, Lujiang, Mangshi, Mengmao (Ruili), Nalou, Kuirong, Shierguan, Menghua, Jingdong, Mengding, Yongning, Fuzhou, Wandian, Zhenkang, and Beishengzhou.[10]

Under Ming administration, the jurisdictional authority of tusi began to be replaced with state territorial authority. The tusi acted as stop gaps until enough Chinese settlers arrived for a "tipping point" to be reached, and they were then converted into official prefectures and counties to be fully annexed into the central bureaucratic system of the Ming dynasty. This process was known as gaitu guiliu (simplified Chinese: 改土归流; traditional Chinese: 改土歸流), or "turning native rule into regular administration".[9] The most notable example of this was the consolidation of southwestern tusi chiefdoms into the province of Guizhou in 1413.[9]

Building upon the Yuan precedent, the Ming began its colonization of the southwest in the 1370s, and though its military strength waxed and waned, it was able to eliminate the largest autonomous kingdoms in the southwest by the early decades of the seventeenth century. By the time of the Ming-Qing transition, what remained in the southwest were only a few small autonomous polities, and the Rebellion of the Three Feudatories (sanfan zhi luan; 1673-81) did much to erase these from the landscape. In short, the Yongzheng Emperor's appointment of his trusted Manchu official Ortai (1680-1745) and the aggressive campaign against tusi offices they initiated in the 1720s in the southwest should be seen as the end point, not the beginning, of China's colonization of the southwest.[36]

— John E. Herman

In sum, gaitu guiliu was the process of replacing tusi with state-appointed officials, the transition from jurisdictional sovereignty to territorial sovereignty, and the start of formal empire rather than informal.[37]


In Guangxi, the Qing Yongzheng Emperor took on a campaign to reform native Zhuang following which 87 out of 128 tusis were replaced by officials. [38] At the start of the 20th century, there were eight tusis remained, all within present-day Daxin County. In 1928, Xincheng, the last tusi in Guangxi was converted to a county, ending the gaitu guiliu reforms.[38]

On 23 January 1953, the P.R. China (PRC) established the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Region and ended the last Tusi system in Sipsongpanna.

Native Chieftain titles

The native chieftain system also fit in the Nine Ranks system (Jiu Pin; "九品").The Nine Ranks system is a system of gradations used by regimes from post-Han to Qing.[39] Under this system, all the officials in the bureaucracy were put into nine major categories: upper-upper, upper-middle, upper-lower, middle-upper, middle-middle, middle-lower, lower-upper, lower-middle, and lower-lower.[39] Each category was given a rank numbered from 1 to 9. The rank 1 is the highest rank and the rank 9 is the lowest. Each rank was divided into two grades: upper () and lower ().[39]

The central government gave different titles to native chieftains and these titles had different ranks in the Nine Ranks system:

Official Name Rank
1 Junmin Xuanweishi(軍民宣慰使)
2 Xuanweishi (宣慰使) 3b[40]
3 Xuanfushi (宣撫使) 4b[40]
4 Anfushi (安撫使) 5b[41]
5 Zhaotaoshi (招討使) 5b[42]
6 Xunjianshi (巡檢使) 9b[43]
7 Tu Zhifu (土知府) 4a[44]
8 Tu Zhizhou (土知州) 5b[45]
9 Tu Zhixian (土知縣) 6b or 7b[44]
10 Zhangguan(長官) 6a[46]
11 Manyi Zhangguan(蠻夷長官)

List of tusi

Chongqing province tusi

Guangxi province tusi

Guizhou province tusi

Sichuan province tusi

Yunnan province tusi

Tibetan tusi

See also


  1. ^ 缅甸土司制度的兴衰(1287—1959年): cnki.com.cn
  2. ^ Ming Veritable Records - 《明实录》 or History of Ming 《明史·老挝传》
  3. ^ 傣族的土司制度与傣族文化: mzb.com.cn or cnki.com.cn
  4. ^ Journal of Guangxi Teachers Education University (Philosophy and Social Sciences Edition) Vol.37 No.1 (Jan. 2016) - 《越南阮朝土司制度探析》, see docin.com
  5. ^ "Tusi Sites". UNESCO World Heritage Centre. United Nations Educationa;, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. ((cite web)): Missing or empty |url= (help)
  6. ^ Dardess 2012, p. 3.
  7. ^ 中国土司制度 - 云南民族出版社 - 1992年出版 (作者: 龚荫) - ISBN 7-5367-0509-3: nulog.cn or sfyey.net
  8. ^ 土司制度基本概念辨析 - 《云南师范大学学报:哲学社会科学版》2014年1期(作者:李世愉): mzb.com.cn, cssn.cn or wenku (baidu)
  9. ^ a b c d Dardess 2012, p. 6.
  10. ^ a b c d e Bin Yang. Between Winds and Clouds: The Making of Yunnan, Ch. 4. Columbia University Press.
  11. ^ Atwood, C. P. Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongols. p. 613.
  12. ^ Herman 2007, p. 11.
  13. ^ Herman, John. E. (2005). Di Cosmo, Nicola; Wyatt, Don J (eds.). Political Frontiers, Ethnic Boundaries and Human Geographies in Chinese History (illustrated ed.). Routledge. p. 260. ISBN 1135790957.
  14. ^ Crossley, Pamela Kyle; Siu, Helen F.; Sutton, Donald S., eds. (2006). Empire at the Margins: Culture, Ethnicity, and Frontier in Early Modern China. Vol. 28 of Studies on China (illustrated ed.). University of California Press. p. 143. ISBN 0520230159.
  15. ^ Shin,Leo Kwok-yueh,The making of the Chinese state: ethnicity and expansion on the Ming borderlands. (New York: Cambridge University Press,2006), p. 58.
  16. ^ Du Yuting; Chen Lufan (1989). "Did Kublai Khan's Conquest of the Dali Kingdom Give Rise to the Mass Migration of the Thai People to the South?" (free). Journal of the Siam Society. JSS Vol. 77.1c (digital). Siam Heritage Trust. images 2–4. Retrieved March 17, 2013.
  17. ^ Wellens, Koen. Religious Revival in the Tibetan Borderlands: The Premi of Southwest China, pp. 29 ff. Studies on Ethnic Groups in China. University of Washington Press, 2010. ISBN 0-295-99069-4.
  18. ^ Shin, The making of the Chinese state, p. 57.   
  19. ^ a b Pamela Kyle Crossley, Helen F. Siu, Donald S.Sutton (2006). Empire at the Margins: Culture, Ethnicity, and Frontier in Early Modern China. (Berkeley: University of California Press,2006), pp. 136.
  20. ^ Shin, The making of the Chinese state, p. 61.   
  21. ^ Crossley, Empire at the Margins, p. 137.   
  22. ^ 邹, 立波 (2010). "从土司封号看嘉绒藏族土司与宗教的关系". 西南民族大学学报(人文社科版). 31 (02): 11–15, p. 11.
  23. ^ a b c Shin, The making of the Chinese state, p. 62.         
  24. ^ Jennifer Took, A Native Chieftaincy in Southwest China: Franchising a Tai Chieftaincy Under the Tusi System of Late Imperial China. (Danvers: BRILL,2005). p. 93.
  25. ^ Took, A Native Chieftaincy in Southwest China, p. 99.
  26. ^ Took, A Native Chieftaincy in Southwest China, p. 102.   
  27. ^ Took, A Native Chieftaincy in Southwest China, p. 115.   
  28. ^ Took, A Native Chieftaincy in Southwest China, p. 176.   
  29. ^ Took, Jennifer, A Native Chieftaincy in Southwest China: Franchising a Tai Chieftaincy Under the Tusi System of Late Imperial China. (Danvers: BRILL,2005). pp.90.
  30. ^ Took, A Native Chieftaincy in Southwest China, p. 98.   
  31. ^ Shin, The making of the Chinese state, p. 64.   
  32. ^ Took, A Native Chieftaincy in Southwest China, p. 97.   
  33. ^ Dardess 2012, p. 7.
  34. ^ Dardess 2012, p. 4.
  35. ^ Dardess 2012, p. 8.
  36. ^ Herman 2007, p. 12.
  37. ^ Herman 2007, p. 16.
  38. ^ a b Took, Jennifer (2005). A Native Chieftaincy in Southwest China: Franchising a Tai Chieftaincy Under the Tusi System of Late Imperial China. Brill. p. 233. ISBN 978-90-04-14797-3.
  39. ^ a b c Charles O,Hucker. A dictionary of official titles in Imperial China. (Stanford : Stanford University Press, 1985),p. 4-5.  
  40. ^ a b 杨,虎得;柏,桦(2016).“明代宣慰与宣抚司”. 西南大学学报(社会科学版).42:173-180.p.182.
  41. ^ Hucker, Charles O. A dictionary of official titles in Imperial China. (Stanford : Stanford University Press, 1985),pp.104
  42. ^ Hucker, A dictionary of official titles in Imperial China, p.117.   
  43. ^ Hucker, A dictionary of official titles in Imperial China, p. 254.   
  44. ^ a b Hucker, A dictionary of official titles in Imperial China, p.158.   
  45. ^ Hucker, A dictionary of official titles in Imperial China, p.157.   
  46. ^ Hucker, A dictionary of official titles in Imperial China, p. 110.