Editor's note: Unlike other Chinese cities such as Beijing ('Northern Capital'), Shanghai ('On the Sea'), Chengdu ('Complete Metropolis') and the utterly misleading Changchun ('Long Spring'), the origin and meaning of Kunming's name is much less clear. GoKunming reader and longtime Sinophile Peter Micic has cracked open the history books in search of leads for why we call Kunming by its current name.
Standing at a bus stop along Tuodong Lu and reading the long list of destinations on the billboard reminded me that the presence of the past is always felt in China.
Names that echo the glories of past dynasties, names that would perhaps conjure little in the minds of most commuters, unless of course you were a cultural historian—and then a mere name on a bus timetable or the long list of names displayed on large LED screens at railway stations would be evocative enough to catapult you back to a past waiting to be discovered or reclaimed.
The East and West Pagodas located in the south of the city are a legacy of Tuodong (拓东) founded in 765 CE during the Kingdom of Nanzhao (737-902 CE). The East Pagoda was destroyed by an earthquake in 1833 and rebuilt a stone's throw away from its original location in 1877.
Tuodong City became part of the Kingdom of Dali (937-1253 CE) until the Mongol rulers took control of the region in 1254 and founded Kunming County (昆明州). The county became the provincial capital of Yunnan. The Mongols renamed the city 'Kunming' in 1276.
The question of how the name Kunming was chosen by the Mongols is one of those chestnuts that invites endless speculation. Some Chinese scholars have suggested that the new rulers of the empire 'confused' or 'muddled' the County of Kun (昆州) during the Tang dynasty with a nomadic herding tribe called Kunming (昆明族).
Marco Polo apparently travelled through the major cities of Yunnan, including modern-day Kunming which he called Yachi, the capital of the Kara-jang Kingdom, on his way out of China via Burma. The Venetian traveler wrote that the Yachi—written in the Yuan Dynasty History as 鸭赤 and 押赤—was a bustling commercial and cultural center which 'traded in the finest horses, and spoke a peculiar language that was difficult to learn.'
The nomadic tribe Kunming, from which the city today is believed to have derived its name, was the largest group of nomadic people scattered across eastern and western Yunnan from the second century BCE to the eighth century.
The Jin dynasty scholar Chang Qu (常璩), writes in his Records of Land South of Mount Hua (华阳国志) that the Kunming tribes inhabited areas not only across eastern and western Yunnan, but regions of Ba and Shu in present-day Sichuan.
The name Kunming entered the official dynastic histories during the Han dynasty recorded by one of China's most celebrated ministers and historians, Sima Qian, in his Collection of Biographies of the Ethnic Groups in Southwest China.
Despite the wealth of textual sources dating back to at least the second century BCE, and the broken pots of antiquity unearthed in major archaeological digs in Kunming in the mid to late 1950s, the derivation of the city's name remains contested.
Ma Yao, Yunnan Jianshi (A Brief History of Yunnan), Yunnan: Yunnan Publishing Group Company, Yunnan People's Publishing House, 2009.
Xie Benshu, Kunming Shihua (Historical Narratives of Kunming), Yunnan: Yunnan People's Publishing House, 1991.
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