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Old Kunming: Eastern and Western Pagodas

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Kunming's Eastern and Western Pagodas in 1901
Kunming's Eastern and Western Pagodas in 1901

Editor's note: Every week for the remainder of 2008 GoKunming will publish photos from the collection of Auguste François (1857-1935), who served as French consul in south China between 1896 and 1904, during which he spent several years in Kunming. The photos have been provided by Kunming resident and private collector Yin Xiaojun (殷晓俊). GoKunming thanks Yin Xiaojun for providing us a glimpse of Kunming at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Year: 1901
Subject: Eastern and Western Pagodas (东寺塔与西寺塔)
Location: Straddling Dongsi Jie (东寺街), 100 meters south of Jinbi Lu (金碧路), facing eastward


In 1901, Kunming - then known as Yunnan-fu (云南府) - was the established center of power for Yunnan which was part of the sphere of influence of the waning Qing Dynasty.

But Kunming had not always been a part of the Chinese empire though, as is evidenced by the presence of these two Bai-style pagodas built when the city was called Tuodong (拓东) and was not administered by Han Chinese, but by the Bai and Yi kingdom known as Nanzhao (南诏国). The pagodas are some of the oldest standing structures in Kunming.

While China was flourishing under the Tang Dynasty (618-907) the Nanzhao Kingdom emerged as a major regional force for a relatively short time, during which it controlled all of Yunnan. From defeating the Tang army at Xiaguan in 751 until its conquest of Chengdu in 829, the Nanzhao Kingdom experienced nearly 80 years of rapid expansion, resulting in a kingdom that ruled all of Yunnan, most of Sichuan and much of northern Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.

During this time, the Nanzhao Kingdom built the Eastern and Western Pagodas in an area south of Kunming's city wall. The pagodas were positioned in a way that mirrored the Dade Temple Twin Pagodas (大德寺双塔), which were within the city wall and are still standing today. The Twin Pagodas are hidden in a small alley one kilometer to the north between Huashan Dong Lu and Qingnian Lu.

The Eastern and Western Pagodas were both constructed more than 11 centuries ago. The above photo taken by Auguste François in 1901 is taken facing east, with the Western Pagoda in the foreground and the Eastern Pagoda in the background. A great earthquake during the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368) toppled the Eastern Pagoda, which was rebuilt shortly afterward. Thus, the Western Pagoda is in actuality several centuries older than its counterpart.

The image below is a photograph taken in May, 2008 by GoKunming – 107 years after François decided to record the pagodas. We attempted to take it from roughly the same spot as François, but there is currently an apartment building standing there.

The pagodas in 2008
The pagodas in 2008

Today the Eastern and Western Pagodas have been enclosed by small parks – the Eastern Pagoda is surrounded by a greener park and costs four yuan to enter. The Western Pagoda has less greenery around it and more in the way of historical commentary (in Chinese) and interesting bas-relief depicting images from the past – there is no admission fee.

Related article: Auguste François, Yin Xiaojun and Kunming at the end of the Qing Dynasty

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Bravo for publishing such interesting articles.

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