Dali and China’s Southwestern Silk Road

Proudly contributed by Reinhard Hohler

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The old city of Dali in Yunnan/China was an important stage of the old Southwestern Silk Road, also ancient Tea and Horses Caravan Road, which started in Xi’an and run via Sichuan und Yunnan to Myanmar and beyond to the Indian Ocean. It was in the year 784 that King Yimouxun (779-808) from Nanzhao relocated his capital in Taihe to Yangxiemie a little bit west of present-day Dali. The place was chosen well at the feet of the 4122 m high Cangshan mountain chain. For the king, the Cangshan Mountain was the axis of his world, surrounded by Yulongshan up in the north, Wulongshan far in the east, Mengleshan in the south and Gaoligongshan in the west. Four rivers were declared sacred, such as the Jinshajiang (Yangzi), Yangbijiang, which flows behind the azure blue Cangshan mountain chain, the mighty Lancangjiang (Mekong) and the wild Nujiang (Salween) farther west.

The “mandala” area of Dali is located within a fertile plain some 2000m high along the scenic Erhai Lake and from there it is some 150 km to the 5596 m high Yulongshan near the old market town of Lijiang, which is a gateway to Tibet, from where all the great rivers originate. Furthermore, southeast of Dali starts the Yuanjiang (Red River) that allowed Nanzhao to expand towards the countries of Indochina, especially Viet Nam.

The Kingdom of Nanzhao developed out of the unification of six tribal areas, namely Mensui Zhao, Dengtan Zhao, Shilang Zhao, Langqiong Zhao, Yuexi Zhao and Mengshe Zhao. It was up to the leader of Mengshe Zhao in the south of today’s Dali to conquer in the course of the 7th century the five other areas. He then founded under the name Xinuluo (653-674) the Nanzhao Kingdom.

In the annals of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, the people were known as the Wu Man and Bai Man, the ancestors of today’s Yi and Bai Nationalities. Under King Geluofeng (748-779) Nanzhao became more and more dependent from Tibet, so that the Chinese emperor had to send an army of 200,000 soldiers under the leadership of Li Mi, which was beaten by the Nanzhao. In 829/30 Chengdu in Sichuan was plundered, 832 the Pyu capital in today’s Myanmar was seized. After the end of the Nanzhao Kingdom in the year 902, Duan Siping (937-944) founded the Kingdom of Dali, which lasted until 1253, when the Mongols finally conquered Yunnan and integrated the whole area into the Chinese Empire.

Interesting to note is that the introduction of Buddhism in Yunnan started at the beginning of the 9th century in the form of the esoteric school called Mizong in Chinese, when the teacher Li Xian Maishun from Central India among others came to Dali and built the famous Chongsheng Temple there. Many royal members of the Dali Kingdom became monks, while politics as well as the culture were influenced by the secret teachings of the so-called Azhali Masters. A local cult around Guanyin or the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (“Luck of Yunnan”) was established.

The most important monuments around modern Dali are the Dehua Stele in Taihe, which was commissioned to erect in 766, the three pagodas of the Chongsheng Temple with its great Qianxun Pagoda in the middle of the three ones, which revealed a valuable treasure hoard in 1978, Futo Temple in Xiaguan and the Hongsheng Temple outside Dali.

The modern city of Dali with a kind of quadratic plan and its well preserved walls was built within 15 years during the Ming Dynasty. The best description of the town – including the inhabitants – was given by the Sinologue Patrick C. Fitzgerald in his book “The Tower of Five Glories” (London 1941). Naturally protected by the Cangshan Mountain in the west and theErhai Lake in the east, the Dali plain was furthermore protected by two bastion stations, namely Longkou or Shangguan some 50 km in the north and Longwei or Xiaguan in the south. Xiaguan is nowadays the pulsating trade centre of Dali along the Burma Road, leading to Yongchang (Baoshan) in the west, which is located between the Mekong River and theSalween River. Already the famous book “Man Shu” written by Fan Cho in 863 and translated by Gordon H. Luce and Ch’en Yee Sein (Ithaca, New York 1961) mentions the bridge across the Xier River, which comes from the Erhai Lake and flows into the Mekong River in the west. Actually, the name Dali comes from the now greater village Xizhou, which was a kind of summer residence of the Nanzhao kings some 40 km north of the modern city.

All in all, the Buddhist art and architecture of Nanzhao and the Dali Kingdoms is unique and worth to study more. Interesting art articles can be found in famous museums in China, Japan and the United States. Li Lin-ts’an from theNational Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan (1982) has done a study of the Vimalakirti Sutra Scroll (Metropolitan Museum,New York), a bronze image of Avalokitesvara (Fine Arts Gallery, San Diego), the Chang Sheng-wen Hand-scroll of Buddhist Images (Taipei) and the Nan-chao t’u-chuean (Kyoto). Also, there is an exhibition catalogue of the “Gold Treasure of the Three Pagodas” from the Museum Rietberg, Zuerich (1991).

Finally, the old Southwestern Silk Road will be revived, when China pushes its trade connections farther into Myanmar to reach the Ayeyarwaddy River at Myitkyina, Bhamo and Mandalay. From all these three cities it is not far to reach Assamin India and down the Brahmaputra River to the Indian Ocean. Dali will be in the center of all these ambitious activities.


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