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Weishan, Yunnan: Birthplace of an ancient kingdom

By in Travel on

Gongchen Tower
Gongchen Tower

Lying in a broad and fertile plain fifty kilometers south of Dali Prefecture's Xiaguan (下关) in western Yunnan, boasting many Ming and Qing Dynasty structures and a preserved old quarter of traditional shop houses, Weishan (巍山) is a charming, old-fashioned town that gets surprisingly little tourist traffic. The few visitors are mainly Chinese families or couples from other parts of Yunnan. Dali (大理), just eighteen kilometers north of Xiaguan, is the main attraction for travelers in the area.

Tourists from all over China and beyond jam the old town streets lined with overpriced souvenir, tea and jewelry shops, complain about the crowds, the prices and the commercialization of local culture but never venture to Weishan an hour and a half away. Yet in Weishan's old town, the shops on the streets sell items for the local population and merchants are laid back and friendly. It's never crowded and always leisurely. It's traditional urban Chinese atmosphere is far more authentic than anywhere in Dali.

Street in Weishan's old town
Street in Weishan's old town

Dali is more famous because it was long the capital of the Nanzhao Kingdom, Tang Dynasty China's rival in the southwest, and its successor the Kingdom of Dali, which remained independent until overwhelmed by Kublai Khan's Mongols in 1253. It is also near scenic Erhai Lake (洱海) and mountains of 4,000 meters, which made it a prime destination from the very dawn of modern tourism. Weishan is less well endowed physically and topographically, and thus did not undergo the same commercial transformation as Dali, where now virtually every building caters to the tourist industry. Weishan is still a slice of Old China unique in western Yunnan.

Moreover, it has substantial historical importance as well, for the Nanzhao Kingdom (南诏) had its start right here, in the seventh century, when the town was known as Mengshe (蒙舍). It was the capital of one of the six native chiefdoms, or zhao, roughly in the area that is now Dali Prefecture. Being in the most southern location of the six, the area around Mengshe was the southern zhao — or Nanzhao in Chinese. In 649, its ruler Xinuluo (细奴逻) conquered a neighboring tribe in Midu (弥渡), and shortly after, when Tang court officials were looking for an ally to secure their southwest frontier, they chose Xinuluo's state.

Nanzhao king, from a Weibaoshan mural
Nanzhao king, from a Weibaoshan mural

Four generations later, Mengshe's ruler Piluoge (皮罗格) conquered the other five zhao. In 738, the Tang conferred a royal title on him, and recognized Nanzhao as a vassal state. Piluoge's own opinion, and that of his successors, was that Nanzhao was independent and on a par with Tang China. Until it fell in the early tenth century — shortly after the Tang regime's own demise — Nanzhao fought both Tibet and China for control of the region, periodically launching invasions into Sichuan and defeating any invasion into its own realm. But now that Piluoge's success had made Nanzhao a bigger state, the capital shifted closer to Erhai Lake — first to Taihe, then Dali.

Mengshe lost its political importance and had no impact on the history of the next several centuries. Nanzhao expanded, contracted and imploded. Its successor, Dali, lived in peace with Song Dynasty China until the Mongol conquest. With the rise of the Ming Dynasty in the fourteenth century, the Mongols evacuated, and the Ming Court began sending immigrants from eastern China into Yunnan to give it a more Chinese identity. In the Dali area, from 1382, the Ming Court dispatched soldiers to both establish military garrisons and clear land to settle down on farms.

At that time, the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of Yunnan were not Han Chinese, but a mixture of many ethnic minorities. In Dali Prefecture, the dominant groups are the Bai and Yi. Nanzhao's ruling class was Yi or proto-Yi, while Dali's kings were Bai. Today, the Bai constitute the largest ethnic minority in the prefecture and dominate the plains areas, while the hills are mostly inhabited by Yi.

Because they are the largest community, Dali is an Autonomous Bai Prefecture, where the top officials are Bai. But the Yi and Hui outnumber the Bai in Weishan, so the latter is an Autonomous Yi and Hui County. Some of the Hui are descendants of Kublai Khan's Central Asian Muslim allies, who stayed on to administer and garrison the province in the Yuan Dynasty. Others came in after the Ming Dynasty evicted the Mongols and sponsored immigration.

Nanzhao-style Buddha
Nanzhao-style Buddha

In the late fourteenth century, the city underwent a major transformation, beginning with a name change from Mengshe to Weishan. The new name was apparently a contraction of Weibaoshan (巍宝山), a sacred mountain 18 kilometers south of the city that would become home to many temples — mostly Taoist — over the next four centuries. The mountain is swathed in thick forests of pine and cypress, the shrines and temples sited at intervals along roads and paths that ascend to the summit.

The entrance to the area is about halfway up the mountain. The first compound inside is dedicated to the Nanzhao kings. Paintings or statues of them line the hallway on the upper level, with basic information about each posted on a signboard in Chinese, Yi and English. The information is a bit biased, though, in the sense that an uninformed visitor would never get the idea that Nanzhao was actually an independent state, not just a vassal existing with imperial permission, but one that completely annihilated two large invading Tang armies.

The walls flanking the lower courtyard feature low-relief sculptures of life in Nanzhao times. Vignettes depict soldiers marching to war, kings at the palace and scenes of daily life, as well as a Nanzhao-style standing Buddha with a seated Buddha on his head.

From here to the summit, up two separate roads, are fourteen temples in the classic Chinese style, built with brick and tile, surrounded by trees, and embellished with courtyard gardens and ponds. The most interesting of these is Wenyong Temple, in particular for its Dragon Pond in the upper courtyard. An elegant pavilion stands in the middle of the pond, connected by a stone bridge to the courtyard walkway. On its base, just above the water, is a famous mural of a circle of Yi dancing around a bonfire celebrating Torch Festival. Painted in the eighth century, reproduced in hotels and restaurants in Weishan, the top half is still sharp and vibrant, though the rest is faint and has lost most of its color.

Dragon Pond mural, Weibaoshan
Dragon Pond mural, Weibaoshan

On the ride back down the mountain to the city are several spots with a broad view of the plain, its farms, villages and distant hills. The modestly sized city of Weishan does not resemble a fast-growing modern metropolis, for very few tall buildings mark its skyline. The city was not on the Tea Horse Road, and its prosperity basically derived from its fertile and fruitful land. Even today, while connected by a good road to Xiaguan, it is not on the major provincial highways from Kunming to southwest Yunnan.

As a result, development and expansion proceed much more slowly in Weishan than in those cities on the main commercial routes. The atmosphere is never hectic, traffic jams unknown, the people are relaxed and friendly. At the edge of the city, on the way to the bus station, a large park serves as an outdoor tea center, where patrons sit on small stools at tables of woven split bamboo. A short walk from this is another quiet park with several nice Qing Dynasty buildings. A couple of blocks further up is the old town, where cars are banned.

Xinggong Tower
Xinggong Tower

Dominating the preserved old quarter, erected by the first Ming administrators in 1397, was the very wide and imposing, 23.5 meter-high Gongchen Tower (拱辰楼), which used to serve as the northern gate when Weishan was a walled city. Unfortunately, the wooden upper stories of the gate were completely destroyed by fire in January 2015.

Urban planners at that time laid out the city in a chessboard grid, resembling the nearly square shape of an official seal. Gongchen Tower was considered the handle. Standing beside a large plaza, its rose-pink stone walls were topped by a two-tiered, red hardwood building with tiled roofs and upturned corners. From its upper tiers observers could view the straight stone streets radiating in the four cardinal directions.

Originally, when it was a walled city, gates stood at the end of each street. Today only one such street ends with a gate, called Xinggong Tower (星拱楼). It was built around the same time as Gongchen Tower, rebuilt at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, but it is narrower, only as wide as the street, with two tiers rising above the neighboring houses. Both towers are illuminated at night, as are the main streets of the old town, or at least the sections closest to Gongchen Tower.

The street running from Gongchen Tower to Xinggong Tower is lined on both sides with red wooden shop houses with tiled roofs, and has the most traditional look and feel of any street in the city. They are all modest buildings, with the goods stored in the room facing the street, which may also serve as a workshop, and the living quarters in the rear and in the attics. There are a few shops selling antiques, plus one or two with ethnic clothing, though their customers are not tourists so much as local ethnic minority people who buy the items to wear.

Other shops cater to the needs of local residents. There are shops selling furniture and ornate bird cages, bolts of cloth, sandals made of cloth or straw, homemade noodles, tie-dyed clothing, sitting stools and sundry other items. Customers take their time examining the goods. The patient shopkeeper never pesters, never urges them to buy this or that item, in fact never says anything until the customer is ready to ask a question. The rule seems to be politeness before profit.

Old town street
Old town street

Shops on the street continuing on the other side of Gongchen Tower are less oriented towards traditional items and more towards things like modern clothing, medicines, shoes, children's toys and stationary — while the buildings remain in the same classic traditional style. Lanterns hang from the roofs of these and from the compound gates of houses on the side streets. On some of the narrow lanes branching off one street or another farmers set up stalls to sell mushrooms, edible fungi, walnuts and fruits and, during festival times, decorations and items used in the events.

Many more will join them during Weishan's regular market days, held the tenth, twentieth and thirtieth of every month. At those times, the city fills with minorities from the vicinity — the Yi, Bai and Hui — dressed in their traditional clothing. The Yi women, from the Tuli branch of the minority, are particularly colorful, in bright shades of red and green, often topped with fancy headgear.

Weishan noodle factory
Weishan noodle factory

While Weishan's market day draws a good proportion of Yi women, they come in even greater numbers to Dacang (大仓), a small, largely Hui town 35 kilometers north. Full of nondescript modern buildings, but with one small and attractive Buddhist temple, Dacang holds its market day the same dates as Weishan, as do a couple other villages in between Dacang and Weishan. At the northern end of the Weishan valley, Dacang draws more Yi to its markets because it is closer to the hills where they live.

While minibuses ply the route between the two markets and beyond, many people prefer the more leisurely journey by pony cart. Each can hold up to 12 people. Weishan County is one of the very few places in the province where pony carts are still widely used. As in Weishan, market day in Dacang is not confined to a single area or neighborhood, as country folk set up stalls in several separate venues.

Old-style handmade sandals for sale
Old-style handmade sandals for sale

Once in a while, folks might set up some entertainment spot at a market day, playing music or just singing songs. Weishan itself has little in the way of entertainment at night. Not many restaurants exist, although the number is steadily growing. In an old house next to Gongchen Tower is a single bar. But for socializing, locals take to one of the side alley grills for kebabs and cold beer with their friends.

The real entertainment in Weishan is not in the form of music and dance, not even ethnic music and dance other than on big holidays. It lies in appreciating the slower rhythms of traditional everyday life in a city with bilingual signboards that announce, "All of us are living images of Weishan. Every household is a window into the culture of Weishan."

Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally posted on his website Black Eagle Flights (requires proxy). There you can find accounts and photos of Goodman's 40 years in China and Southeast Asia. Collections of his works — many of them about Yunnan — can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. Goodman has also recently founded Delta Tours, where he guides cultural and historical journeys through Vietnam, and soon, through Yunnan as well.

Tuli Yi women, Dacan
Tuli Yi women, Dacan

Images: Jim Goodman

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Excellent article, as always, from Jim.

Weishan has got to be one of the most original places left in Yunnan. Not commercialized and people are kind and not out for money.

Jianchuan was also the same but now that the highway runs right through it has already changed. Same for Shaxi and Shuang Lang in Dali.

Visit Weishan while you can. Great place to go and just hang out and relax, Wei Bao Shan is 11 km away. I like it because you can see all the temples by walking in a circle without having to backtrack. Much better than Shi Bao Shan in JianChuan, Dali.

Well, it's somewhat commercialized, but yeah, it's a really interesting place. Has been a considerable amount of construction of temples etc. at Weibaoshan, and this, I think, mostly for tourism purposes.

"In the late fourteenth century, the city underwent a major transformation, beginning with a name change from Mengshe to Weishan."

Really? In most old maps (from a Western perspective) Weishan is called "Menghua" or "Menghua-ting" - take Auguste Pavie or Major Davies etc, well into 20th C. Same with Chinese maps.

The bet from over here is that Mengshe was changed to Weishan in 20th Century.

Heres what a Chinese source says:


In other words, Mengshe was changed to Menghua in 13th C. The name continued somewhat similar, until 1954, when Menghua was changed to Weishan.

No big deal anyway.

Great photos Jim! I just checked out the new Yunnan Provincial Museum yesterday and they had a fairly long section about Nanzhao history, though unfortunately nothing at all was translated. I took photos to dissect later.

nice pics

Gold standard article by Jim worth an update.

No longer is the travel time to Weishan "an hour and a half" but just 22 minutes via high speed rail from Dali Rail Station. 19 - 22 rmb. The train tunnels through mountains for seemingly one third the journey.

As per Destination China feature video.The famous one strand noodle (yi gu mian) restaurant, located at 后所街 back alley, only opens from 7am to 12pm. The other famous er si noodle shop in old town closes early at 15pm.

The names of the century-old restaurants are 苏老三一古面 and
老王过江饵丝, respectively.

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