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History all around: The monuments of Dali

By in Travel on

When Yunnan opened its doors to international tourism some three decades ago, the ancient city of Dali (大理) quickly became one of the most popular destinations. Lying in the middle of a long, north-south plain at around 2,000 meters altitude, flanked on the west by the peaks of the Cangshan mountain range — with some peaks over 4,000 meters high — on the east by sprawling Erhai Lake, the city enjoys a superb physical location. Moreover, it was small, more like a town, full of old buildings, with little traffic and very easy to explore on foot.

It was a long haul to get there until the mid-90s and the construction of a multi-lane highway linking Kunming with Xiaguan (下关) at the southern end of the plain, with tunnels cutting through the last mountains. An airport and railway soon followed. Only a two-lane road connected the cities in the beginning, and it was clogged with big, heavy logging trucks and other ponderous vehicles, making the journey at least twelve hours.

After finally arriving at this undeniably atmospheric old city, with the added attraction of the colorfully dressed Bai minority prevalent in the area, it all seemed worth the ordeal. Bai houses and pavilions, though similar to classic Chinese styles, featured specifically Bai characteristics — the decorations beneath the roofs, the dominant use of stone and elaborately carved compound gates. Such flourished embellished the travelers' impression that they were in a very different part of China.

Actually, Dali was not even part of China until the thirteenth century. At their greatest extents, the Qin, Han, Tang and Song dynasties did not incorporate the area into the Chinese empire. In fact, from the mid-eighth century to its conquest by Kubilai Khan in 1253, the area was the heartland of two successive states — the Nanzhao until the beginning of the tenth century and the Kingdom of Dali afterwards.

The buildings, gates and walls of Dali Old Town today date from the Ming and Qing dynasties, but monuments prior to the Mongol conquest still stand. The most famous are the Three Pagodas just north of the city, the Lone Pagoda near the South Gate and the Skeleton Python Pagoda just north of Xiaguan. All of these date from the Nanzhao era, but these are not the only Nanzhao relics.

The long campaign to unite the area's principalities began in the 1,300 years ago, led by Xinuluo (细奴逻), the ruler of what is now Weishan (巍山), 50 kilometers south of Xiaguan. His descendant, Piluoge (皮罗格) finally quashed all his rivals and founded Nanzhao in 737. Seeing the strategic defensive capabilities of the Dali plain, he moved his capital there, at first to Taihe (太和), between modern day Xiaguan and Dali. It remained the capital until 779, when Dali assumed the role.

The high mountain just east of Xiaguan prevented attacks from the east, as sentries posted at the top could easily spot an approaching force. Another post on the mountain slopes north at Shangguan (上关) kept watch on the northern end of the plain. The lake protected the valley from the east and the Cangshan peaks from the west.

Taihe still exists, though only remnants of the original city wall are left. Today it's just an ordinary village of stone houses, but at the top is the historic Dehua Stele. King Piluoge erected this near the end of his reign to list the state's achievements and to give his side of the story of how and why Nanzhao vanquished two Chinese invading armies.

The Tang Court considered Nanzhao its vassal and an ally against Tibet, which was a strong military state back then and a perennial threat to Sichuan. Nanzhao saw itself as fully independent and its astute kings played one state off against the other to further its own interests and security. As it grew in size and strength, Nanzhao aroused Chinese suspicion and the Tang Court launched punitive expeditions in the mid-eighth century, all of which failed miserably.

Nanzhao's army repulsed the first attack before it could even approach the Dali plain. The second expedition crossed the Cangshan Mountains, but Nanzhao forces simply retreated to Taihe and stayed comfortably ensconced within its walls while their enemies succumbed to malaria and starvation. The third and biggest attempt, said to consist of 200,000 troops led by General Li Mi, suffered a horrific defeat at Dengchuan (邓川), just north of Erhai, trapped between the warriors of Nanzhao on one side and Tibetans on the other.

These became known as the Tianbao Wars, after the name of the Tang reigning era. A mound preserved in one of the back streets of Xiaguan is supposed to contain the remains of the 200,000 Chinese killed in the last invasion. The mound is too small for that, or even for just the heads, so perhaps it just contains the ashes.

The other vestige of the Tianbao Wars is the General's Temple, dedicated to Li Mi, on the side of a hill in Xiaguan's southwest suburbs. Following an unusual custom, pious Bai worshippers make daily offerings to him here. It's as if they were apologizing for wiping out the general's entire army, propitiating his spirit to avoid any spiritual revenge on his part.

The victories confirmed Nanzhao's independence, even though Tang China still considered it a vassal state. The kingdom continued to grow until the late ninth century before, overextended, it began a rapid decline. Meanwhile, it also developed culturally, and the eighth and ninth centuries witnessed the construction of several temples and pagodas that are today among the area's top attractions.

These include two temples — Gantong (感通寺) and Shenyuan (圣元寺) — high up on the slopes of the western mountains. More accessible is the Chongsheng Temple (崇圣寺), just north of the old city, in front of which stand the iconic Three Pagodas (三塔). The tallest of these, with 16 closely spaced tiers, stands in the center, nearly 70 meters high. Smaller, ten-story pagodas, built in a different style, rise 43 meters into the sky on either side. The complex dates its construction to the early ninth century, but the complex there today is a late twentieth century reconstruction, as the original was completely destroyed during the Muslim Rebellion in the mid-1800s.

The Three Pagodas survived unscathed, as they had during wars past. They have also withstood several serious earthquakes. The Lone Pagoda (一塔), outside the southwest corner of the walled city, replicates the style of the central pagoda at Chongsheng Temple, as does the Snake Bone Pagoda (蛇骨塔), four kilometers north of central Xiaguan and today all but hidden behind new roadside apartment blocks.

At just over 30 meters high, the Snake Bone Pagoda is the smallest of the Nanzhao-era towers, but has the most interesting origin myth. In the past, it is said, a demon snake from the lake was causing floods all over the plain and the king promised a big reward to anyone who could kill it. A local hero answered the call, wrapped his body with knives and jumped into Erhai Lake.

The demon snake swallowed him whole and then the hero rolled around inside the snake's body, mortally wounding it with the knives until both were dead. The king ordered the snake's body opened, the hero's removed and his body given a magnificent funeral. Then he ordered the Snake Bone Pagoda to be built in his honor. Like the other ancient pagodas, it has also survived wars and earthquakes.

Other Nanzhao relics lie further afield, like the late ninth century Iron Pillar in Midu County and the shrines and sculptures of Shibaoshan (石宝山) in Jianchuan County. Dali still reveres its Nanzhao legacy and in the mid-90s created the Nanzhao Culture City in the southern suburbs. The main building is a recreation of the ancient palace and the compound includes exhibition rooms of costumed wax figures in scenes of court rituals, the Tianbao Wars and receiving envoys.

The Nanzhao Kingdom fell when a usurper massacred the entire royal family to seize power. Internecine warfare followed, kings rose and fell and finally in 937, Duan Siping (段思平) — a Bai lord from the foothills of Wutai Mountain (五台山), where a statue of him stands in Sanling Temple (三灵) — assembled allies, took control, founded a new dynasty and gave the state a new name. He called it the Kingdom of Dali. Shortly afterwards, in 960, China also had a new ruling dynasty —the Song.

But this regime did not make any trouble for its southwestern neighbor. The Song Dynasty's main security concern was its northern frontiers and the menace of mounted nomads. China needed horses for its own forces to deal with this enemy and the Kingdom of Dali was a prime source. For the Song court it was better to keep the peace with Dali so as not to upset the trade in horses.

Thus the Kingdom of Dali enjoyed over three centuries of peace. It did not, like Nanzhao, seek to enlarge itself and was never as big of a state. Areas to the east and south were relatively autonomous and Dali's direct administration only applied to what is today Dali Prefecture. Part of the consequence was an emphasis on religion. The state patronized temples, renovating old ones and building new ones. Nine of its 22 kings retired to become monks.

The kingdom's peace came to an end in 1244, when a Mongol army advanced against its northern frontier. Dali's king dispatched a strong force that defeated the invaders at Jiuhe (九河), a little north of Jianchuan County. Eight years later a much bigger Mongol army, personally commanded by Kubilai Khan, swept down from recently conquered Lijiang and besieged Dali. King Duan Xingzhi's troops put up a good fight, temporarily halted the Mongol advance, but only held out until the beginning of 1253. Dali's king fled to Kunming, but pursuing troops captured him.

Contrary to ordinary Mongol practice upon taking a city, Kubilai Khan forbade plunder and massacre. He brought Duan Xingzhi back to Dali and installed him as the Mongols' administrator of the area. He also left a stone inscription of his achievement on a stele mounted on a slope just west of the old city, which is still in place. Together with the Dali troops, he went on to subdue the rest of Yunnan and annexed it into the Mongol Empire. In 1279, when Kubilai Khan inaugurated the Yuan Dynasty, Yunnan then became part of China. The following century the Ming Dynasty overthrew the Yuan, but Mongol forces remained in Yunnan until finally driven out in 1382.

To fully incorporate Yunnan into China, the Ming Court sponsored large-scale immigration into the province and stationed garrisons of soldier-farmers, many of them Muslims, all over the western part. Dali was rebuilt, with surrounding walls and massive gates at the four cardinal directions. The remnants of this layout became prime attractions when Dali became a tourist destination. The East and West Gates were only reconstructed in recent decades, while some remains of the old wall were extended. The north and south gates are still the original buildings, though the stone lions in front of the south gate disappeared during renovations in the mid-90s.

Inside the walls, shop-houses and other buildings went up in the Ming style, dominated by the Tower of Five Glories (五华楼) on the main north-south street. The original looked like a rectangular block, taller than it was wide, with an arched passageway at its base, and a wide, tiled roof with upturned corners, similar to those on the four city gates.

During the Second World War, city authorities demolished the Tower because they feared the Japanese air force could use it as a landmark to bomb other targets in the vicinity. When it was rebuilt, it was in a totally different style, taller, with three tiers — a standard Qing Dynasty building. In recent decades, smaller pavilions have been added to the area and today it is one of the most popular spots in the city.

The shop-houses on the southern half of Fuxing Lu, the street between the north and south gates, now sell marble ware, jewelry, Bai handicrafts and other souvenirs, but those on the northern side still cater to the local population. A Protestant church on this street, as well as a Catholic church on a lane around the corner from the center of town, attest to the efforts of Christian missionaries in the early twentieth century. They didn't win many converts, but the churches, in the style of local architecture, are still intact and among the sites tourists visit.

The natural beauty of its setting alone would suffice to draw travelers to spend time in Dali, even if it had no relics of its past. But it does, and these are unique assets. Dali's monumental legacy stretches back 14 centuries, covering each successive stage of its history. No other city in Yunnan can make the same claim.

Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally published 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.

Images: Jim Goodman

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