The Dali Kingdom 大理国 2: The New Kingdom

The Dali landscape was one of cloud filled mountains and verdant rice terraces.

There was a kingdoms that proudly nestled above the clouds. Lush green mountains behind seas of smoky clouds and  mirror like rice terraces. Of fierce warriors encased in red lacquered leather scrutinizing the narrow paths below. A kingdom of piety, of many temples and giant stone pagodas. Composed not of a homogeneous people but many people and many tribes. It was the nearly impregnable and nearly forgotten kingdom that played a vital role in south east Asia for three full centuries. It was the Kingdom of Dali, whose name meant "The Great Truth" or "The Great Administration."

The historical Dali Kingdom (937 – 1254 AD) which lasted 316 years was located in the peripheral area of what is now known as Yunnan Province of China. Its territory spanned outwards from Erhai Lake, roughly covering the current province of Yunnan, southwestern Sichuan and northern Myanmar. It was a kingdom of impregnable mountain passes and many plunging waterfalls, Dali laid at a crucial junction between many kingdoms in the region.


The name of Dali meant "The Great Truth" or "The Great Administration." It would rapidly take over nearly all of the lands that formerly encompassed Nanzhao. For the most part, the ethnic and cultural elements of Nanzhao was continued by Dali, the court was still modeled upon a Chinese royal bureaucracy and many disparate people swore loyalty to a great king that ruled them all. The king was called piaoxin 骠信, and he was assisted by four ministers (qingpingguan 清平官) whose offices were called tanchuo 坦绰, buxie 布燮, jiuzan 久赞, and yanzan 彦赞.

The Bai ethnic group was dominant during this period and held great sway: “Bai” means white, a color which the Bai associate with dignity and high social status and one which describes the sheepskin clothing they wore centuries ago. Other important groups in the kingdom included the Yi, Miao, and by now native Chinese and Tibetan subgroups who had settled here for centuries. Like Nanzhao, Dali's power was also consolidated around the heartland of Lake Erhai, like Nanzhao as well it possessed a respectable military.

Restorer: the general Duan Siping emerged as the victor in Yunnan after 35 years of anarchy and war had wracked the Nanzhao kingdom. Although ethnically he was probably a Bai, he claimed Han Chinese descent. He and his successors would cultivate friendly relationships with both Song China and the various Tibetan warlords- uniting all three people for centuries through trade and mutual reliance. Where as Nanzhao warred and destroyed, Dali facilitated trade and looked inward.

The most striking difference between Nanzhao and Dali was in Dali's behavior. Where as Nanzhao had devoted most of its entire existence in war and raids, the Dali Kingdom was much more inward looking and preferred peaceful trading and religious contemplation rather than endless wars. For by the dawning of the 11th century, many changes had occurred both inside and outside of Yunnan. What's most surprising- was perhaps how it would also became one of the key friends of both the Chinese as well as the Tibetans, and in its entire existence cultivate a strong mutual friendship between all three powers in the region through vital trade and support.


Statue of Ganruda Inlaid with Crystal Beads, found at the Qianxun Pagoda of Chonegsheng Temple- (the temple of 3 white pagodas.) exhibited at Yunnan Provincial Museum.

By the late 900s, major internal shifts had taken place in China, Tibet, as well as Yunnan. For one thing, the polities of all three of these old powers collapsed and were replaced with new ones. Nanzhao was replaced with the new kingdom of Dali, Tang China had disintegrated into a patchwork of warlord- governors, only to be unified under the new, weaker Song dynasty, and the Tibetan Empire had fallen into its own patchwork of newly competing warlords which would last for centuries.

It was upon such radical transformation for all three powers that their ancient enmity (of their ancestors) was broken, and instead of continue still as bitter rivals, the new relationship of Dali, Song, and Tibet, became one of mutual support. Old foes now became three closely tied partners with their backs braced to each other and turned their fighting attention completely away from each other.


Dali's relationship with the Song was cordial throughout its entire existence. Dali congratulated the Song dynasty on the conquest of one of its last rivals, the Later Shu in 965 and voluntarily established tribute relations in 982. Despite this gesture of goodwill it remained a fully independent state. For the entire existence of the Song dynasty its attention was riveted on the northern steppe invaders, at first against the Khitan Liao dynasty, then the Jurchen of the Jin dynasty, and then the coming Mongols, all while without turning much of their military attention at the south. In sum, the southern and maritime frontiers were never the main focus of attention at the Song court.

The founder of the Song Dynasty, Zhao Kuangyi, or Emperor Taizu as he was later known after his ascension- was a simple country man, but one who was sensible to his flaws. Like of many Chinese who lived in the chaotic Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms era, he was born when the realm was already in anarchy following the collapse of the Tang empire and despite uniting much of northern China never lived to see the tailend of the 72 years chaos. Dali congratulated the Song on the conquest of Later Shu in 965 and voluntarily established tribute relations in 982. 

For the Song, the northern barbarians were understood to be the single immediate fatal threat to the Song's very existence. In the words of one mid-eleventh-century Song statesman, in response to a policy question from the emperor regarding unrest in the south, “How are these trifles worth exhausting imperial power and intruding on the emperor's concerns? … The most significant border issues lie in the west and the north!” In short, Song distractions spelled great peace for the Dali, and it was a peace that Dali would honor while the Song had its back perpetually turned. It should also be pointed out, that there is a very practical goal for Dali to avoid external entanglements. Like its predecessor, the kingdom was more fearful of rebellion from its own tribesmen. Thus it was more interested in exerting greater control over them internally rather than having to fight much greater (disinterested) foreign neighbors.

A 12th century Hua Yi Tu map covers China during the Song Dynasty. The map depicts mountains, rivers, lakes, as well as more than 400 administrative place names of China. It includes Korea to the east, the north of the Great Wall, northeast of Heilongjiang region, to the south of Hainan Island. Compared to the dominant Tang dynasty that preceded it, the Song never managed to become the sole hegemon of East Asia, its entire existence was locked in a mortal struggle against the steppe invaders from the north, first the Khitan Liao dynasty, then the Jurchen Jin dynasty, and finally the Mongols that one day would displace the Song and establish the Yuan dynasty. An unexpected positive side effect of these endless steppe wars was that the powers to the south of China- that of Dali and newly independent Vietnam respected and placated the Song while it focused its military mostly to the north.

Dali's primary importance to the Song dynasty was its horses, which were highly prized and sought after as military assets, especially after the fall of the Northern Song in which deprived the desperate Chinese state of vital horse raising pastures in the north and central China. In this respect, the horses provided from Dali to Southern Song was vital to the survival of the Song state.


Like the Song, the Tibetans too turned their military attention elsewhere during the rise of the Dali Kingdom. With central authority having completely disintegrated, Tibetan warlords endlessly warred with each other, and for the majority for the ensuing centuries would be more interested in fighting each other than turning their combined might to coordinate a large invasion against their neighbors. This too meant that for the first time in centuries the boarders between Yunnan and Tibet was mostly strife free.

The fact that two of the major powers adjacent to them turned attention elsewhere created a much needed timeframe for the devastated Dali to recover in peace and at its own terms, in time, Dali recovered from the anarchy of the Nanzhao collapse and expanded their capital at Dali city into greater, prosperous heights. Soon, Dali became the middlemen of much trade between the Song and Tibet- then, on a greater level, to all of South East Asia, connecting the goods of the mighty Khmer Empire to the Chinese heartlands.


The Kingdom of Dali laid at the crossroads of many local powers. Because of the nearly impregnable terrain of the kingdom, it was able to deal with all of the adjacent powers on their own terms. It was with this basis of confidence and strength that Dali began to act as a peaceful commercial hub and trade nexus, acting as middlemen to the vital trade between South East Asia, Song China and Tibet. It was through Dali that the Y shaped route of the famous Horse and Tea Trade converged.

The Erhai Lake valley remained the heart of the Dali Kingdom, many temples
and shrines were constructed at this time in the mountains around the capital city.

Dali inherited the economic structure of the Kingdom of Nanzhao since the dynasty took over the territory only a little more than a generation after the fall of the Nanzhao Kingdom. During reign of the Duan Kings, the capital was greatly furnished and served as the religious and political center of the kingdom. Many temples and shrines were constructed around the mountainside of the capital city. The most notable of which was the great Chongsheng Temple, or the temple of three white pagodas. Like its predecessor, it's court was greatly inspired by the Chinese model, the court had many offices modeled after the Chinese dynasties and many of them wore nearly identical (but greatly exaggerated) court robes similar to the Tang and Song customs.


Officials of the Dali royal court, ministers and theocratic leaders. In many ways they were similarly dressed as Tang and Song officials, though there are also radical differences. Dali dignitaries are distinguished by their tall black mitred hats and profusion of tiger skin accessories. Their court artstyle too, was indistinguishable from traditional Chinese style. As such, the Dali fashion and aesthetic sensibilities looked like Tang court fashion that has been drastically permutated. For the most part, the court was still modeled upon a Chinese royal bureaucracy with the feudal aspect of many disparate people swore loyalty to a great king. The king was called piaoxin 骠信, and he was assisted by four ministers (qingpingguan 清平官) whose offices were called tanchuo 坦绰, buxie 布燮, jiuzan 久赞, and yanzan 彦赞. 

The King of Dali (below, right) is distinguished by a yellow robe with many elaborate symbols common to royalty of sinosphere countries and tall golden mitre crown with stylized, upward swept flaps.



Thank you to my Patrons who has contributed $10 and above: 
You helped make this happen!
➢ ☯ José Luis Fernández-Blanco
➢ ☯ Vincent Ho (FerrumFlos1st)
➢ ☯ BurenErdene Altankhuyag
➢ ☯ Stephen D Rynerson
➢ ☯ Michael Lam


Popular Posts