Tusi (Chinese: 土司; pinyin: tǔsī)[n 1] often translated "headmen" or "chieftains", were hereditary tribal leaders recognized as imperial officials by the Yuan, Ming, and Qing-era Chinese governments. They ruled certain ethnic minorities in southwest China and Indochinese peninsula, nominally on behalf of the central government. This arrangement is generally known as the "Tusi System" or "Native Chieftain System".[n 2] 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." Tusi were located primarily in the province of Yunnan and in the regions of Guizhou, Tibet, Sichuan and Chongqing, Xiangxi Prefecture of Hunan, and Enshi Prefecture of Hubei. Tusi also existed in the historic dependencies of China in what is today northern Myanmar, Laos, and northern Thailand. Vietnam also implemented a tusi system under the Nguyễn dynasty (1802–1945).
The Tusi was inspired by the Jimi system (Chinese: 羁縻制度) implemented in regions of ethnic minorities groups during the Tang dynasty. It was established as a specific political term during the Yuan dynasty and was used as a political institution to administer newly acquired territories following their conquest of the Kingdom of Dali in 1253.
The former ruling Duan dynasty were appointed as governors generals with nominal authority[n 3] and local leaders were co-opted under a variety of titles as administrators of the region. Some credit the Turkoman governor Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar with introducing the system into China. Duan Xingzhi, the last king of Dali, was appointed as the first local ruler, and he accepted the stationing of a pacification commissioner there. 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, the native official, or tusi, was the client of a patron-client relationship. The patron, the Yuan ruler, exercised jurisdictional control over the client, but not his/her territory itself.
In 1381, the Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang 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 remnant Yuan forces. He refused to surrender and attempted to have the former 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.
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. 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 also took over regencies of children younger than 15 in 1489.
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 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.
During the Ming dynasty there were 179 tusi and 255 tuguan (native civilian commanders) in Yunnan and titles were generally retained with the exception of punishment for severe crimes. The tusi were greatly reduced during the Ming-Qing era. By the time of the Yongzheng Emperor, there were only 22 left: Cheli, Gengma, Longchuan, Ganya (modern Yingjiang), Nandian, Menglian, Zhefang, Zhanda, Lujiang, Mangshi (Luxi), Mengmao (Ruili), Nalou, Kuirong, Shierguan, Menghua, Jingdong, Mengding, Yongning, Fuzhou, Wandian, Zhenkang, and Beishengzhou.
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, or "turning native rule into regular administration." The most notable example of this was the consolidation of southwestern tusi chiefdoms into the province of Guizhou in 1413.
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.— 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.
In 1397 the Ming intervened in a Mong Mao succession dispute, known as the Ming–Mong Mao Intervention.
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.
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