The Dali Kingdom 大理国 3: Strength of the Land

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 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.


Nanzhao had introduced advanced science and culture to their large empire, and they developed an extensive trade network with the Tang Empire, Southeast Asia, India, Tibet and Persia.The Dali inherited the control of what was called the Chama Road or the Southern Silk Road. These were important land trade routes through their strategic central location east of the Himalayas. There are numerous surviving archaeological and monumental elements, including trails, bridges, way stations, market towns, palaces, staging posts, shrines and temples along the route. Besides the route's importance for commercial activity, more significantly it was crucial for cultural exchange between the Indian subcontinent, Tibet and Southwest China. Especially, it was vitally important for the interchange of Buddhism between China and South Asia.


Situated in the middle of what was called the Chama Road, or literally translated as the "Tea and Horse" Road, Dali directly facilitated important trade between its bigger neighbors and also possessed an abundance of both tea and horses. Unlike other mountainous regions of the world, Yunnan was not barren of natural exportable resources. The agricultural wealth of the region contributed to in increase of the size of the population during Nanzhao and Dali, which also necessitated an intensive agriculture that was supported by irrigation work.

The Bai tea ceremony, San Dao Cha 三道茶 (Three Course Tea), is most popular among the Bai in the Dali area and is a common sight at festivals and marriages. It is both a cultural ceremony and method of honouring a guest. The ceremony is often described in Mandarin as, 'Yiku, ertian, sanhuiwei' 一苦二甜三回味 (First is bitter, Second is sweet, Third brings reflection (aftertaste)).

The region was abundant with tea, including a unique excellent of quality tea called Pu'er tea (named after the region of Pu'er) that was and still is highly valued. Even today, tea from Yunnan some of the best in China and vital growing region in the country. Processed tea from southern China and Yunnan would be carried into the kingdom, and exported out to western regions in Tibet and parts of South East Asia. The tea made to export was dried and then made into densely backed "tea bricks" and was carried on the backs of labors and packbeasts for long journeys. Often, dozens, or hundreds of men with small "walls" of tea bricks slung on their back side would be seen on the snaking roads of Yunnan.

Tea bricks, or compressed tea, are blocks of whole or finely ground black tea, green tea, or post-fermented tea leaves that have been packed in molds and pressed into block form. Due to the high value of tea in many parts of Asia, tea bricks were used as a form of currency throughout China, Tibet, Mongolia, and Central Asia. Tea bricks were, in fact, the preferred form of currency over metallic coins for the nomads of Mongolia and Siberia. The tea could not only be used as money and eaten as food in times of hunger, but also brewed as allegedly beneficial medicine for treating coughs and colds.

Map of the Tea and Horse Trade: one of the most ancient trade routes in Asia, many inland roads from SE Asia converge into the Yunnan region, the route could be conceptualized in a Y shape, Yunnan was situated at the bottom of the road and cities like Pu'er served as the five point of trade influx. From Yunnan, the roads forks out into either Song China, headquartered at Chengdu in the nearby Sichuan province, and westward into Tibetan highlands. Aside from the tea Dali also traded weapons, bronze tools and lacquer-ware and exported felt and horses that were bred in the central region around the capital. Although Dali was a great exporter of specialized goods, it also imported many goods from China, especially books, silk and porcelain and other manufactured products.


Dali royal guards in the distinctive lacquered leather armor. Dali was famous for its iron weapons, helmets and cuirasses. The leather armors were not only light but was reputed to be almost as strong as iron bands. Song politician and poet Fan Chengda wrote in his book "Gui Hai Yu Heng Zhi" that Dali produced some of the best lacquered leather armors he has ever seen. They were made out of elephant leather and were almost as hard as iron. 

A rare lacquered leather armor of a Yi horseman from Yunnan. The fauld skirt, helmet brim, and neck guard are all made of multiple overlapping lacquered leather pieces. These flexible and weather resistant  pieces of painted leather lamellar are commonly worn by the warriors of Yunnan. Some of the local tribes would have worn them well into the early 20th century. On top of their helmets they would often wear sashes and cloaks of tiger fur. 

Song politician and poet Fan Chengda wrote in his book "Gui Hai Yu Heng Zhi" that Dali produced some of the best lacquered leather armors he has ever seen. They were made out of elephant leather and were almost as hard as iron. These leather armors has been sent to the Song court as gifts from Dali.

Ancient to modernity: Naxi Warrior native to Yunnan wearing traditional warrior's armor made of lames of rhinoceros blades lacquered red, and helmet made of iron segments encased by tiger skin photo by Joseph Rock, early 20th century. Aside from leather, the locals also wore armors of bone pieces and rattan. 


Aside from tea, the second most coveted export Dali produced was its well bred warhorses, where were intelligent, resilient and run well balanced in mountainous terrains. They were so valued by the Song that one of the ministers enthusiastically praised about them in his report.

"These horses possess a shape [that is] quite magnificent. They stand low with a muscular front, very similar to the shape of a chicken. The diaphragm is broad, shoulders thick, waist flat, and back round. They are trained to squat on their rear ends like a dog. They easily climb steep terrain on command and possess both speed and agility in chase. They have been raised on bitter buckwheat, so they require little to maintain. How could a horse like this not be considered a good horse?"

During the Song, the government paid exorbitant prices for horse from the west. Both Dali and the various Tibetans lords provided thousands of horses seasonally for the Song and was paid handsomely in wagons of silk brocades jewelry and tea bricks. In this respect, trade linked the three polities a symbiotic relation while they made use of the additional goods for their own affairs. 



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The GhostHero said…
Very interesting article. I've myself had the chance to see one of those lacquered armor in the Branly ethnographic museum in Paris. I had seen them in pictures but never before in person and recognized it immediately. I was ignorant about their past greatness, thanks for making me learn this, it was quite a interesting read. I look forward to the next post.
The GhostHero said…
I founded the armor I seen
Dragon's Armory said…
Thank you, I'm glad you like the info. Stay tuned

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