The Dali Kingdom 大理国 4: The History of Dali

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."


Wrathful Buddha: Mahakala, 'the Great Black One', is a protector deity who is also viewed as a warrior god, wealth protector, and guardian of the underworld. His origin is generally believed to derive from an incarnation of the Hindu god Shiva that was incorporated into the Buddhist pantheon as a protector deity. He can be seen depicted in his two-armed, four-armed, or six-armed form throughout monasteries in Tibet. By contrast to the peaceful bodhisattvas prevalent in Chinese Buddhism, the Mahakala doctrine is not within the mainstream canon. It is more popular in Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and Yunnan. 

The Dali kingdom was notable for its influence in preserving and spreading Buddhism. The royal Duan clan, like that of their Nanzhao predecessors before them were devout Buddhists, and they constructed large Buddhist temples around Dali and on the Shibaoshan Mountain. These soon became centers for Buddhist teaching. Here the Kings attempted to model themselves on the models of the Buddhist- divine kings of the nearby South East Asian kingdoms.

While the rulers during the later portion of the Tang Dynasty (618–907) and the emperors of the Song Empire turned away from Buddhism and instead focused on Confucianism, in Nanzhao and Dali Kingdoms Buddhist influence became the state religion and the royal house took on a direct hand in proselytizing it. In all of 316 years of Dali history there were 22 successive kings, 9 of them abdicated the throne and eventually became monks in the Chongsheng temple, although their reasons for this was more political than exclusively for piety, nonetheless this still illustrated the religion’s profound influence on the kingdom. 

Buddhist celestial guardians depicted in the Dali Kingdom Scroll, the same scroll which featured the depiction of the Dali royal court and royal guards. Heavy Indian influence could be seen in the depiction although the rendering technique is Chinese.


We have talked earlier about both the inward looking nature of the Dali Kingdom and also of its pious kings who freely abandoned their trappings of power and was tonsured and retired into monasteries as devotees to the Buddhist faith. However here is where we should regard it all with a bit more of a critical eye. For them, like for many of the other Asian polities, there is a very valid reale-politique reason for the kingdom's outward pacifist posture.

Namely, that its rulers knew that they are MUCH MORE likely to be displaced and supplanted by one of their own powerful ministers or generals from within than by some foreign invasion. It is for this reason that although outwardly the royal Duan clan was peaceful to its neighbors, inwardly they tried their best to keep their vassal tribesmen inline, fighting them if the the situations called for it.

After all, didn't Nanzhao, the Tang, and the Tibetan Empire all crumbled because a general or a fanatic killed the King and later to have the realm splinter into a battle royale where the masses of the realm's generals trying to become the new ruler? Wouldn't a King presiding over many armed and powerful local chieftains have a greater chance of that happen within his realm?


In this respect, the Duan clan was right in feeling wary of the many powerful tribes and lords within the Dali realm. The Duan family almost perished in 1080 when Yang Yizhen, the chief minister of the 12th King- Duan Lianyi, killed his master and usurped the throne. The realm was immediately plunged into chaos. The whole Duan clan would have suffered a similar fate just as the royal clan of Nanzhao in the ensuing chaos if they themselves were not saved by another clan that was in many respects similar to their realm- restoring ancestor.

Gao Zhilian 高智廉, the Marquis of Shanchan, and his ambitious son Gao Shengtai 高升泰 rallied the loyalist tribes and defeated the usurper. After their triumph they reinstalled the Duan clan back in power. Making Duan Shouhui, the 13th Duan King of Dali. However, this is only on a surface level gesture, for the Gao family from now on truly controlled the government of Dali as senior ministers. And like the Shoguns of Japan, or Rana- the specifically created hereditary Prime Minister clan of Nepal, the Gao would rule as hereditary Regents of the entire kingdom called "Duke of the Middle Kingdom" or "Duke of the Central State." (zhongguo gong 中国公) The eight administrative regions of Dali were often called "states" or "kingdoms" (guo 国).

The Gaos would quickly tire of their installed king in the coming decade and in 1094, flagrantly deposed Duan Shouui and replaced him with his brother Duan Zhengming as the 14th King of Dali. At first, Gao Shengtai was contend with simply replacing the King and ruling through him, but soon he grew tired of even this replacement and forced Duan Zhengming to retire and become a monk. The restorers had became usurpers and soon would openly usurp the realm afterwards.

Gao Shengtai then crowned himself king and consecrated a new dynasty of his own called "Da Zhong Guo" 大中国 (lit. Great Middle Kingdom/ Great Central State.) However, after two years of reign, Gao Shengtai became sick and died in 1096. However before his death Gao Shengtai asked his son Gao Taiming to again return the throne to the Duan family- placing the throne and the kingdom back in the hands of a new member of the Duan family- Duan Zhengchun would be made the 15th king of Dali.


Again, despite all of the gesture of restoring the Duan to power, this was all done for appearances sake. For despite the grand ceremonies, the Gaos and their factions of tribal allies still controlled everything from hehind the scenes and had access to all the important levers and inner staffs of power. The Gaos would retain their great hereditary powers well until the Kingdom's end, ruling effectively as the real leaders of Dali.

From a practical perspective, Gao's change of heart was due to the tribes’ opposition, and placing the Duans back to continue as beacons of old legitimacy allowed them to continue to rule through these ceremonial figureheads- which served to unite the many tribes together. A grand illusion not so dissimilar to that of the real Wizard of Oz. From this point on- after the Gao clan's insertion the dynastic period of Dali would be marked into two eras: those which preceded the Gao clan that would be called Former Dali and the Later Dali after installation of the 15th king in 1096.

It is in this context that we truly see the pious and retired monk Kings of Dali. For from now on, the Dali Kings would only exist as figureheads, used until they became useless to the Gao Regents, and when that time came, they would be forced into retirement and end their life in obscurity. 9 out of 22 of Dali's kings would be used and discarded in such manner- a prisoner within their own court and kingdom. Perhaps it was with this context, we could try to understand what they did next.

Music: ← Hurricane Wasteland

The end of the Dali Kingdom came suddenly. The formidable people that would ultimately abolish Dali would eventually also conquer the Song dynasty and absorb the disparate Tibetan peoples under one Pan- Asian hegemonic banner: the Mongols. In 1253, the Mongol Empire under Möngke Khan- the 4th Great Khan of the Mongol Empire and grandson of Genghis Khan would end the Kingdom of Dali. But unlike elsewhere during the Mongol conquests- the subjugation of Dali was for the most part light and was demonstrative of what happens when a foe had surrendered rather than resisted against the Mongols.

The initial Mongol thrust into the territories of Southern Song had been mixed, though the Mongols were able to make some successes in their early attempt to breach through the Yangtze and circumvent Song defenses by attempting to enter into the densely mountainous province of Sichuan- The Song had build extensive fortifications in the area and made Sichuan nearly impregnable to invasion for the next few decades.

The Mongol attacks on Southern Song China intensified with the election of Möngke as Great Khan in 1251. Passing through the Chengdu Plain in Sichuan, the Mongols then saw the key passes of Dali as a vital path to circumvent Sichuan's chain of fortresses and outflank from the west until they can then jab directly from that direction into the southern Song heartlands. Dali was also a prosperous kingdom was at the crossroads of Southeast Asia and a linchpin between Song lands and Tibet- a prize he couldn't pass off if he needed a safe staging point for further expansion into Southeast Asia.


The Gao family, still dominant at court, resisted and slew the Mongol envoys. In 1252 Möngke placed his brother Kublai and general Uriyangqadai- the son of Subutai in charge of invading Dali. In 1253 Kublai's led an army of a hundred thousand strong, for the invasion. The Mongols divided their forces into three. One wing rode eastward into the Sichuan basin. The second column under Uriyangqadai took a difficult way into the mountains of western Sichuan. Kublai himself headed south over the grasslands, rapidly crossed the Jinsha River on a small fleet of leather canoes into Yunnan and met up with the first column. Although the kingdom of Dali still  possessed an impregnable series of defensive mountain passes, the speed of the invasion caught the defender off guard.


While Uriyangqadai galloped in along the lakeside of Dali from the north, Kublai received a surprise near the capital of Dali city. Instead of a massive army, Kublai received the surrender of the Duan Xingzhi (段兴智), the 22nd and soon to be last king of Dali. Kublai then took the capital city of Dali and spared the residents despite the slaying of his ambassadors. Duan Xingzhi then used his own troops to aid in conquering the rest of Yunnan for the Mongols and led the Mongols army to bypass many mountain passes of the kingdom. The Mongols appointed King Duan Xingzhi as a vassal then stationed a pacification commissioner there. After Kublai's departure, unrest broke out among the Black Jang (one of the main ethnic groups of the Dali kingdom). But with the help of the Duans, the Mongols were able to outflank and destroy the few remaining defenders who resisted the Mongols, by 1256 the whole of Dali kingdom was completely subdued by Uriyangqadai. The Dali kingdom officially ended there and Yunnan as a whole became a Mongol province, but that is not the end of this story, far from it.

→ Music: ← Catamaran Mirage

The Mongols have always had a famous posture to all of their besieged foes: surrender and be spared, resist and perish with blood. It was a grim law that was carried to deadly effect throughout much of East Asia and the Middle East. But Dali stood as one of the rare examples of a nation and that had essentially submitted at first contact. And because of the cooperation of the Duans- Dali mostly was not only spared of the wrath of the Mongols but stood to gain much within the new regime. When Kublai replaced his brother Möngke as Greak Khan he would elevate the former magnates of Dali.

For his quick compliance, Duan Xingzhi was enfeoffed as Maharaja (摩诃罗嵯) by Kublai Khan, and the Duan royal family would continue to hold the title of Maharaja in Yunnan as hereditary vassals to the Mongols under the supervision of Mongolian imperial princes and Muslim governors. The Duan family was still permitted to rule in the city of Dali as a Tusi (native chieftain) while the Yuan appointed governors served in Kunming. Most of the officials of Dali- who surrendered with their king too were appointed as Tusi and inducted into the Tusi 土司System. For the most part in the next 4 centuries during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, local chieftains were allowed to retain their customs, their traditions, even a form of simultaneous rule where they ruled as local kings while answered the central government as governors or mayors.


From this moment on, the descendants of Dali- the natives of Yunnan would become not only vassals of the Mongol Yuan dynasty but on a deeper level, be irrevocably plugged into the culture of China Proper during the ensuing centuries. They would continue to contribute taxes and soldiers while receiving many influx of settlers.


Right after subjugating Dali, Kublai sent one column under Uriyangqadai to invade the Trần dynasty in Vietnam after having crushed and conquered Tibet. Yunnan would contribute many soldiers of Yi ethnicity and join in Kublai's forays. They also aided the Mongols in putting down a rebellion in 1271. The Song would bitterly struggle on for another 20+ years, during which Kublai would have levied thousands of soldiers for his conquests. After the Southern Song's final defeat in the massive naval Battle of Yamen in 1279- where the last Song emperor and many of the imperial court were drowned, Yunnan would contribute to Kublai's further conquests into Java, and Vietnam.

Worldly, sagacious, and ambitious, Kublai Khan was perhaps the single most influential political figure of the the 13th century world. Educated by the foremost Persian, Chinese and Eurasian polymaths he received a level of education that was the envy of nearly all of his contemporary monarchs. The empire that he created in his image reflected his ambition to consolidate the many distinctive people that existed in his domains into a new cosmopolitan identity. He was a great Khan who ruled a newly stylized Sinicize dynasty called "Yuan," whose court was staffed with the best Nepalese artists, Tibetan Lamas, Mongol generals, and Chinese Mandarins.

Despite the heavy toil of wealth and native sons, the Yunnanese would continue to be one of the more loyal regions to Kublai's Yuan dynasty. When the Yuan were toppled by the Ming rebels in the 14th century, one of the last Yuan princes escaped to Yunnan and rallied a loyalist army there.


Another trend that the Mongols would set is the long process of assimilation where by the Yuan dynasty, and the succeeding Ming and Qing dynasties would slowly plug Yunnan into the imperial system. And though for the many minorities they were allowed to retain their ways and for the most part rule themselves, one thing that was unavoidable in contributing to eventual integration is the coming of increasingly larger numbers of settlers. During the Yuan, hundreds of thousands of Mongols, Han, and Hui Muslims immigrated into the region- swelling the cities. In legal framework and economy, Yunnan also irrevocably became attached as part of a greater imperial system- even while the Duans presided over these integration.

Covering over 11,000,000 km2 (or 4,200,000 sq mi,) territorially, the Yuan dynasty was one of the largest Chinese dynasties, second only to the Qing

The fortunes of the Yuan dynasty and that of the Duan Maharajas would fall in conjunction. At the tail end of the Yuan dynasty, after a series of rebellions deposed the Yuan princes the Mongols would loose control over vast swaths of its holdings in Central and Southern China- some of its last holdouts would rally in Yunnan. The Mongol Prince of Liang, Basalawarmi escaped to Yunnan and raised his banner there. Because of these stubborn remnants, came the armies of the newly risen Ming on the Yuan heels.


Much of the Ming thrust into Yunnan were fought by the Hui Muslim troops on both sides.
Hui troops fought in both the Ming army and the Yuan Mongol army. 300,000 Han Chinese and Hui Muslim troops were dispatched by the Hongwu Emperor to crush the Yuan remnants in Yunnan in 1381. The Ming Chinese Muslim General Fu Youde led the attack on the Mongol and Yuan Muslim forces.

Also fighting on the Ming side were Muslim- born Generals such as Mu Ying, the adopted son of the Hongwu Emperor and Lan Yu, who led Ming loyalist Muslim troops against Yuan loyalist Muslims. The Yuan Prince of Liang, Basalawarmi, committed suicide on January 6, 1382, as the Ming dynasty Hui troops overwhelmed the Yuan Mongol and local Hui forces.

After Basalawarmi's defeat the Ming Muslim Generals Lan Yu and Fu Youde castrated 380 captured Mongol and Muslim captives. This led to many of them becoming eunuchs and absorbed into the imperial household to serve the Ming Emperor and his sons. One of the eunuchs was the future Admiral Zheng He- who served the Prince of Yan, Prince Zhu De, the future Yongle Emperor.


The Hongwu Emperor was a gruff lifelong soldier and was regarded as very severe even by medieval Chinese standards. Born from a peasant family and orphaned at an early age, he rose from a homeless beggar to a rebel and then the emperor of a new realm. He was ruthless in executing corrupt ministers by tens of thousands and in keeping the realm's power firmly within his family. The Hongwu Emperor was known to have turned on many of his best former generals and purged them with executions. However he did show a formal restraint in regard to captured dignitaries. 

For the still influential Duan clan. The Duan royals were scattered to various distant areas of China by the Hongwu Emperor. In their place, Mu Ying and his Muslim troops were given hereditary status as military garrisons of the Ming dynasty and remained in the province. Like the hereditary Yuan governors, they would be the keepers of Yunnan. Mu and his descendants would guard Yunnan for the next 270 years until the end of the Ming dynasty and still resist the Manchus in the 1650s. The Duans would return in the next few centuries with their families. Now there are thousands in modern Dali with Duan as last name who claimed they are descended from the Duan clan of Dali.

Under the same Tusi institution of "rule based on native customs" the locals still retained much of their autonomy with the exception of three obligations which were continued from the Yuan. One, they would provide surrendered troops to the Ming government. Two, local chieftains would provide tribute to the Ming court. Three, they would follow the rules of appointment, succession, promotion, degradation, reward, and punishment of native chieftains created by the Ming court. 

 Above: Crown of a native Yunnan chieftain dating from the Ming dynasty. Even when the region was ruled by Chinese regimes, historically Yunnan had always preserved its distinctive culture. Because of their services to the imperial court, many of the local chieftains and priestly class was able to preserve their culture. During the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, the Tusi 土司; often translated "headmen" or "chieftains", served the imperial dynasties as vassals while they simultaneously ruled as kings in their local domains. 



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Der said…
Duke of the Middle Kingdom? How strange! Didn't this Gao Shengtai know that Song China is the true 中國 ??

And did the people of Dali actually speak Chinese? What's with all the Han Chinese surnames?
Dragon's Armory said…
Guo~ or I guess "State" was a term of how they arranged feudal domains, since Dali inherited Nanzhao's system of many chaving chieftains serving under a high King by the time of Dali these denoted their domains. The Gao family essentially monopolized the Central "Kingdom" which contained the capital, which by extension allowed them to monopolize the royal court as well.

Part of Dali did speak Chinese and used Chinese language it served as one of the pervasive Lingua Francas in the region because many of the native tribes were relatively in cultural influence to each other, a lot of their documents was recorded in Chinese.
The GhostHero said…
Hi,regarding your statment about the region lacking any form of script, didn't the naxi people used one? Also your post got me into researching more about the region and i ended up uncovering a lot of good pictures of warrior in armor. I leave you this link
Dragon's Armory said…
The Naxi and many other group had their own scripts, many looked like pictograms. However Chinese was used as a court language and the records were preserved in Chinese.