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Rainbow sleeves, long festival
By Zhang Qian

BEAUTIFUL rainbows do not appear only during rain, but also dwell on the sleeves of girls of the Tu ethnic group in China.

Sleeves made in seven colors — red, yellow, green, blue, violet, black and white serve as a unique feature of the traditional dress for Tu women. Various folk songs suggest that it looks like rainbows arriving when the girls wave their sleeves while dancing.


With a population of about 289,565, the Tu ethnic group mainly dwells in Huzhu Tu Autonomous County in Qinghai Province. The rest are scattered in other regions in Qinghai and Gansu provinces.

Some Tu people claim to be “Mongguer” (Mongolian) or “Chahan Mongguer” (White Mongolian), implying a close relationship between the Tu and the Mongolian ethnic groups.

Legends suggest the ancestors of Tu living in Huzhu County were actually soldiers of Gerilite — a general of Genghis Khan’s army. They married into the indigenous “Huo-er” people there and formed a new nation.

“Hou-er” people was a Tibetan name for the nomadic herdsmen living in northern Tibet and the regions north of Tibet. Records of Mongolian troops making their appearance in Xining, capital of Qinghai Province, seem to corroborate the legends.

The appellation “Turen” first appeared in Chinese historical materials in the 13th century. The group name was officially shortened to “Tu” after 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was founded.

The language of the Tu people belongs to the Mongolian branch of the Altaic language family, with its basic vocabulary of Tu language similar to that of the Dongxiang and Bonan ethnic groups. There are also quite a number of religious terms borrowed from the Tibetan language. The Tu people use the written language of China’s majority Hans, since they don’t have one of their own.

Shamanism used to be the dominant religion of the Tu, while Tibetan Buddhism gradually has taken over since the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

Both men and women of the Tu ethnic group wear shirts with delicately embroidered collars and shoes.

The rainbow sleeve is a unique feature of the traditional dress for Tu females. Legend suggests that an injured divine bird of seven colors was taken in by a kind Tu girl when it fell to earth. The girl saved its life and healed its wound.


To reciprocate the girl’s kindness, the bird took off some of its feathers and taught the girl to make rainbow sleeves. The tradition has been passed down through generations.

The traditional attire for men usually comprises a small-collared shirt, a green waistband and square embroidered cloth on the chest.

Head wear is important to complete a traditional Tu costume. The Tu men usually wear a fat brim hat, while women tend to decorate themselves with different kinds of niuda in the shape of saddle, dustpan or phoenix.

Tuhun niuda used to be the most valuable head decoration exclusive to noble women, as precious jewels were used. Much of the niuda tradition have been lost in history, and a simple hairstyle topped by a brocaded felt hat has become fashionable among Tu women nowadays.

Living in high-altitude regions, Tu people eat qingke (highland barley), wheat and white potatoes as staple food. They are also fond of drinking milk-tea, meat eaten with their hands and noodles fried in butter.

Steamed bread, cake and noodles are among the most common foods. On the Mid-Autumn Festival, Tu people will make a thousand-layer moon cake to worship the moon.

Ingredients of different colors will be put on each layer of the cake to make it flower-like.

“Tahuri” made of qingke wheat is a special cuisine that Tu people use to treat distinguished guests. A well-baked “tahuri” tastes crispy and delicious. It is also a tradition of the Tu people to tie a pinch of wool to the wine bottle when toasting guests.

Two young men talented at singing and dancing are essential for a traditional wedding in Tu culture. The men are called na shi jin responsible for sending gifts to the bride before the wedding day.

When the na shi jin come, the girlfriends of the bride will close the door and ask the men to answer their questions by singing.

They won’t be let in until the girls are satisfied with their songs and answers. Even when they are allowed in, the girls will tease them by pouring water on them.

The na shi jin cannot get mad about the teasing, as the water is taken as a good wish for the new couple.

Nadun Festival is one of the grandest holidays for Tu people. The festival starts every summer after harvest and lasts about two months. It is usually celebrated from the 13th day of the seventh month in the traditional Chinese calendar to the 15th day of the ninth month.

The Tu people entertain themselves with colorful programs including singing, dancing, horse racing, wrestling and martial art competitions. Nadun Festival is credited as the longest-lasting carnival in the world.

The Tu people also celebrate some mainstream Han Chinese festivals, such as Spring Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival and Dragon Boat Festival.

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