Native chieftains (tusi 土司 or tuguan 土官) were leaders of aboriginal communities in southwest China that were by the Chinese central government given an official title and seal and thus instrumentalized for indirect rule over aboriginal territories.
The institution was founded in the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) and remained in use until the end of the Qing period 清 (1644-1911), even if most of the tusi offices were abolished in the course of the 18th century, some of them by brute force. Native chieftains were bestowed the titles of pacification commissioners (xuanweishi 宣慰使, xuanfushi 宣撫使, anfushi 安撫使, zhaotaoshi 招討使, zhangguansi 長官司), and the civilian ones of native prefects (tu zhifu 土知府, tu zhizhou 土知州) or native district magistrates (tu zhixian 土知縣). Accordingly, the native chieftains were invested and administered by the Ministery of Personnel (libu 吏部), but as their posts were hereditary, there was no selection of candidates. In analogy to the local administration of China proper, the native chieftains were responsible for delivering taxes (gongfu 貢賦 "tributes") to the provincial government, had their own official seals and insignia, were eligible for promotion and special honours, and were regularly evaluated, even if in just a formal way, and had to participate in a court audience in Beijing every few years.
In case of war, they provided to the provincial government native auxiliary troops (tubing 土兵). Within their own territory, the chieftains allowed to retain local customs and habits, like judicial matters. Internal strifes for the post of chieftain regularly led to disorder. The Chinese central government therefore had to interfere into these interal quarrels and supported or replaced the chieftain in office.
In order to forestall such local disturbances, the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) decided to gradually replace the chieftain system by a regular administration by prefects and magistrates, a process known as gaitu guiliu 改土歸流 "transforming chieftainships into district administration". In Yunnan and Guizhou the replacement began in the late 16th century and was intensified in the early 18th century, when Governor-General (zongdu 總督) Ortai (E'ertai 鄂爾泰, 1677-1745) suggested abolishing the tusi system. In the western parts of Sichuan and remote mountain regions, it remained intact until the end of the Chinese Republic in 1949.