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The History of Yunnan

Yunnan is the most world-famous cradle of life on the planet. Archaeologists have discovered on this land a large number of fossils and zeolites.

Related articles: Yunnan Guide

Early history: Cambrian Period

The Maotianshan Zeolites from the early Cambrian Period were discovered in Chengjiang County in 1984. It dates back to around 530 million years ago and is regarded in the international paleobiological circle as one of the most amazing discoveries of the 20th century. These zeolites are known as one of “the three greatest wonders of the early organic evolution on the earth” due to their varied, intact, and well-preserved individual traces of animal forms, indicating the beginning of an eruption of the early living things on the earth. Of these three wonders, the other two are the Ediacaran Zeolites discovered in 1946 in Australia and the Burgess Zeolites discovered in 1909 in Canada, the former dating back to 600 million years ago and the latter to 515 million years ago.


Yunnan is a significant birthplace of human beings, which has been proved since 1956 by the discoveries of Lama anthropoid fossils in Kaiyuan County (which dates back to 15 million years ago), in Lufeng County (which dates back to 8 million years ago), and in Yuanmou County (which dates back to about 3 to 4  million years ago). Yuanmou County in 1965 (dating back to 1.7 million years ago) is said to be the earliest human fossils so far in both China and Asia, and this actually marks the beginning of Chinese history.

Cultural relics from the Paleolithic Age and Neolithic Age are found in Yunnan Province in such areas as the riversides or lake districts of Jinsha River, Dianchi Lake, and Erhai Lake, and all these relics are signs of the social development of Yunnan. Some studies and researches on Yi people’s ten-month Solar Calendar also attempt to prove that Yunnan is the origin of Chinese civilization.

Early dynasties

During the Primitive Society and the Slave Society, Yunnan witnessed a series of great events. Yu, the reputed king of the Xia Dynasty (2070 B.C.—1600 B.C.), divided China into nine parts, and Yunnan was located in Liangzhou. During the Yin and the Shang periods (1600 B.C—1046 B.C.), Yunnan was inhibited by minority groups such as Dian, Laojin, Mimo, Xi, Zuodu, Kunming, and Sui. These minority groups were called “southwestern tribal groups” due to the fact that Yunnan was located in remote southwestern China.

Kingdom of Dian

In 279 B.C. during the Warring States Period, a general named Zhuang Qiao, who was from the State of Chu, commanded his troops into the Dian area and established the first kingdom in Yunnan — the Kingdom of Dian, which lasted from the Warring States Period to the Western Han Dynasty.

The bronze articles discovered in the Lijia Mountain in Chengjiang County show that the ancient Kingdom of Dian had a high technology of making bronze articles including weapons, productive tools, and so on. Among them, the Copper Statue of Cow and Tiger is the most typical and is regarded as the symbol of Yunnan bronze culture. It is rated as a national treasure and has been exhibited in many countries. In October 1994, the Lijia Mountain Bronze Museum, the first bronze museum in China, was set up in Jiangchuan County, which is located in Yuxi City, Yunnan Province.

During the Warring States Period ( 770 B.C.—221B.C.), the king of the State of Qin united the six states and declared himself First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221B.C.—207B.C.), which marked China’s entry into the feudal society. Emperor Qin ordered the construction of the Five-chi-wide Road (1 chi equals 1/3 meter), which started from Yibin in Sichuan province and ended in Qujing in Yunnan. He also appointed officials to administer those areas along the road, which indicated the beginning of the Chinese Central Government’s rule over Yunnan. During the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.— 8A.D.), Zhang Qian was appointed an envoy to go to Xiyu (the western regions). He heard that in the southwest of the country, an ethnic area, there was a road called “Shu-Indian Road” from Chengdu to India.

Therefore, in 122 B.C., the first year of the Yuanshou Period, Emperor Wu sent his officials and troops to find out this road, well known as the Southern Silk Road later. Yet the attempt failed because of the blocks laid by the Kunming minority ethnic group in the Erhai area. Emperor Wu got so angry that he ordered to dig in his capital city a large lake where soldiers were trained to fight against the local people in the Erhai area. Thirteen years later in 109 B.C. was the second year of the Yuanfeng Period, the Han Government commanded troops to the Erhai area for a punitive expedition. The attempt succeeded and Yizhou Prefecture was set up there, under which there were 24 counties, Yunnan County being one of them, located in the present Xiangyun County in Dali Prefecture. The term “Yunnan” appeared in a report to Emperor Wu, which said that colorful clouds were seen in the southwestern area. Upon reading this report, Emperor Wu ordered his officials to find out that place. This is the initial occurrence of the name of Yunnan (meaning “clouds in the south”) in China’s official documents.

Emperor Wu also appointed king of the Dian Kingdom and granted him an official gold seal. This seal was discovered later which proved the existence of the Kingdom of Dian. After conquering the Southwest, the West Han Dynasty (206 B.C.~8A.D.) successively established seven prefectures in this area, four of which were parts of the present Yunnan. In this way, the Han Dynasty strengthened its rule over Yunnan. In 69 A.D., in the twelfth year of the Yongping Period, Emperor Ming of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 A.D.~220A.D.) strengthened his rule and established Yongchang Prefecture in Yunnan. Among the 105 prefectures in the entire country, Yongchang Prefecture owned the second largest population. All this symbolized the confirmation of the borderline in West Yunnan.

Period of Three Kingdoms

At the end of the Han Dynasty, China was divided into three separate states, known to people as the “Period of Three Kingdoms” (220 A.D.~280 A.D.). These kingdoms referred to the Wei Kingdom in the north, the Shu Kingdom in the southwest, and the Wu Kingdom in the southeast. Then Yunnan was under the control of the Shu State. During the period of Three Kingdoms, Yunnan Province, the west of Guizhou Province, and the southwest of Sichuan Province were called the Southwestern Area and were all under the control of the Shu Kingdom. Zhu Geliang, Prime Minister of the Shu Kingdom, commanded troops to suppress the revolts of Meng Huo, the commander-in-chief of the Yi tribe, and other leaders of the local tribes in May 225 A.D.

The Southwestern Area was conquered and brought under the control of the Shu Kingdom. In 271 A.D. the Western Jin government united the four neighboring prefectures into Ningzhou, which became one of the 19 administrative divisions of the central government of China. Later the Cuan clansmen rose up and became the dominant force in Yunnan. And Wei County, the capital seat of Ningzhou (the present Qujing City), was then the political center of Yunnan.

Sui and Tang dynasties: the Kingdom of Nanzhao

During Sui and Tang dynasties (581 A.D.~907 A.D.), there were six tribes around Erhai Lake and they gradually became powerful. Among the six tribes, the Nanzhao tribe grew rapidly in strength. Besides these political powers, Tibet in the northwest of China turned out to be a strong force that made threats against the territory of the Tang Government. Wars took place successively between the two. In 707 A.D., the Tang Government fought against the Tibetan tribe and won the battle in the Hehai area. To celebrate this victory, an iron post was erected in that place. Later, in order to ally itself with the political power of Nanzhao for defense, The Tang government helped Nanzhao to unite the other five tribes. In 738 A.D., the 26th year of the Kaiyuan Period, Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty made the leader of the Nanzhao Tribe Pi Luoge the King of Yunnan.

This symbolized the foundation of the Kingdom of Nanzhao, which lasted for 247 years with 13 kings successively on the throne. During the Tianbao Period (742 A.D.- 755A.D.), however, the Tang government adopted poor policies towards the Nanzhao Kingdom, which resulted in two wars. Then the two aliens broke up and their relationship took a turn for the worse.

Dali Kingdom

In 937 A.D., Duan Siping established the Dali Kingdom in the Erhai area. It replaced the Nanzhao Kingdom and lasted for 315 years with 22 successive kings. In 960 A.D., during the Song Dynasty (960 A.D.~1279 A.D.), the relationship between the Dali Kingdom and the Song Government was even worse, so Emperor Huizong of the Song Government drew a line over the Dadu River and said that the areas beyond the line did not belong to the Song Empire any longer.

Kingdom of Dali

On the contrary, although the Dali Kingdom was beyond the line, it wanted to build a friendly relationship with the Song Government. However, the Song Government was not as strong as the Tang Government. Furthermore, the emperor of the Song Empire misunderstood the relationship between the Nanzhao Kingdom and the Tang Government, so the Song Government did not respond to the Dali Kingdom’s request for being a vassal state of it.

The Nanzhao Kingdom and the Dali Kingdom were two important periods in the history of Yunnan and China, starting and ending at almost the same time as the Tang and Song dynasties. During these two periods, Dali was the political and economic center of Yunnan.
In 1253 Kublai Khan commanded the Mongolian troops to cross the Jinsha River. They managed by taking their sheep’s or oxen’s viscera, pumping them up, and using them as leather rafts to cross the river. As a result, the Dali Kingdom was conquered. In 1271, the Yuan Dynasty began to play its part in Chinese history until its end in 1368.

Yunnan Province

The Yuan Government set up Yunnan Province as one of its eleven provinces. Yunnan for the first time was officially titled as a provincial administration, whose provincial capital was moved from Dali to Kunming. Since then Yunnan has been functioning as a provincial administration. Under the rule of Sayyidadjall (Omer Shams Aldin) and others, the agriculture of Yunnan Province developed rapidly. Also in this period, the Yuan Government established in Yunnan the chieftain system called “Local Officials Appointed System”, chiefs of the local ethnic groups appointed to govern the local people.

Ming Dynasty

In 1381 A.D., in the 14th year of the Hongwu Period (1368 A.D.~1398 A.D.) of the Ming Dynasty (1368 A.D.~1644A.D.), the Ming government commanded its troops to enter and control Yunnan. After that, a large number of people, including soldiers, immigrated to this area to cultivate the wasteland. From then on the Han people became the majority group in Yunnan, while other ethnic groups became the minority ones. The Ming government also abolished in some places of Yunnan the  “Local Officials Appointing System” and gave official posts to the Hans. That is the so-called “Power-shift System”. In the Ming Dynasty foundry industry developed rapidly, particularly mining and metallurgy industries. The output of silver and copper ranked first in the whole country.

Qing Dynasty

In 1644 A.D., the Ming government was overthrown. Later some members who were against the Ming Government and some adherents of the Ming Dynasty who remained in the south selected an imperial clan as their Emperor and established the Southern Ming Government.

After some years Emperor Yongli entered Yunnan and made Kunming the capital of the Southern Ming Dynasty. Later a general named Wu Sangui helped the Qing Government to kill Emperor Yongli and made himself the king of Yunnan. In 1681 A.D., in the 20th year of Emperor Kangxi’s throne, the Qing Government suppressed the rebellion of leaders of the three vassal states, including Wu Sangui. This rebellion is known as “the Rebellion of Three Vassal States”.The government under Emperor Yongzheng managed to carry out the “Power-shift System” policy in Yunnan on a larger scale and set up three administrative divisions in Yunnan. These three divisions are called “Three Yis”, namely, Yidong, Yixi, and Yinan (meaning Eastern Division, Western Division, and Southern Division). For this reason, Yunnan got another name of “Three Yis”, three divisions. From the early period of the Qing Dynasty to its middle period, the output of copper in Yunnan consistently ranked the first in the whole country, but in the late period, it dropped while the output of tin leaped to the first.

After the Opium War, Yunnan entered Modern times but unfortunately, France and Britain invaded Yunnan and tried to bring Yunnan under control. They opened up trading ports in Mengzi, Hekou, and Kunming, and attempted to control the right to build the railway from Kunming to Vietnam so as to open mines in seven administrative prefectures in Yunnan. Yunnan people carried out a series of fights against the invasion of foreign countries and the suppression by the Qing Government. Through Margary Incident, Banhong Incident, and Pianma Incident, they resisted the invasion of Great Britain. They also fought for the right of mining and railway building and also resisted foreign religions.

The resistance movements led by Du Wenxiu, Li Wenxue, and Tong Menghui (a Chinese revolutionary league) in Hekou and Yongchang broke out successively. During the 1911 Revolution led by Sun Yat-sen, the Tengyue Uprising in Tengyue, the Chongjiu or September 9th Uprising in Kunming and the Lin’an Uprising in Lin’an put an end to the rule of the Qing Government over Yunnan which led to the establishment of the Yunnan Military Government of the Republic of China. In 1915 when Yuan Shikai, the official of the Republic of China, restored the monarchy, Yunnan people initiated the “Huguo Movement” or “State-guarding Movement” to fight against him.

french missionaries in Yunnan
French missions in Yunnan. Between 1933 and 1952, the monks of the Great St. Bernard, the famous monastery of Mont Joux, sent four missions in Yunnan Province.

Anti-Japanese War

During the Anti-Japanese War, Yunnan functioned as the rear area of the whole country. Many factories, schools, and universities from both inland and coastland were moved to Yunnan, and thus the four industrial areas of Haikou, Majie, Ciba, and Anning came into being. They produced the first telescope, the first wire as well as many other firsts in China. Kunming played the role of the important industrial area and the center of education during the war period. The Southwest Associated University, a temporary assembly of Nankai University, Qinhua University, and Peking University moved to Yunnan, was well known for its academic achievements, and was called “Home of Democracy”. Hundreds of thousands of Yunnan soldiers fought bravely in the battles and achieved great triumphs. They won great fame in Tai’erzhuang Village Battle and Zhongtiaoshan Battle.

The Kunming-Vietnam Railway, the Kunming-Burma Road, the Sino-India Road (also called Stilwell Road), and the Hump Route were the only access for China to the outside world. Yunnan, therefore, was called “the lifeline of the Anti-Japanese War”. In May 1942, Japanese troops invaded the west of Yunnan, which turned Yunnan into the front of the war. Two years later the invaders were driven out and Yunnan regained its lost land. It was the first province to drive out the Japanese invaders. Yunnan accepted Japanese surrender in Vietnam, which was the only one of China to accept surrender in a foreign country.

Flying tigers
During World War Yunnan was the base of the Chinese resistance against the Japanese invasion, supporting the Flying Tigers, a corps of American volunteer aviators.

Civil War

After the Anti-Japanese War, Chiang Kai-shek launched the Civil War. Students in Kunming rose up first and launched a chain of movements in order toChiang Kai-shek: Biography & Facts condemn the Kuomintang’s launching the Civil War. One of the well-known movements was the “December 1st Movement”, which set up the third milestone in the history of the Chinese Youth Movement. On December 9th, 1949, Lu Han led his troops and staged an uprising in Kunming. After that, PLA forces chased out the remaining forces of the enemy and liberated the whole of Yunnan. In March 1950 the People’s Government of Yunnan was founded, ushering in a brand new page of Yunnan in history.

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