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Special feature: Yunnan Time Machine


Bell tower, Dali


This is our third special feature taking us away from Yangon – this time all the way to Yunnan Province in China. The history of Myanmar is unsurprisingly very tied to Yunnan, its northern neighbour, and we’ll attempt to cover a brief history of that relationship here.

I was generously hosted by the ridiculously pleasant Linden Centre hotel in Xizhou while I worked on these photographs, as part of an artist residency. If you’re interested in the broader history of Yunnan and Dali without the Myanmar lens, I also produced a dedicated timeline and some other photographs here.

The centre is literally one of the most idyllic places I have ever been. I wholeheartedly recommend the place. Even if it’s a little outside your means, be sure to visit anyway if you’re staying nearby; the building is a beautifully restored Bai home, the best example I saw, and they host regular tours to point out the architectural details. It’s a unique place, full of character and characters. I also ate some of the best food of my life, beginning a passion for regional Chinese food that has filled my kitchen with new vinegars, spices and strange pickled vegetables.

The wonderful Linden Centre

As we’re covering quite broad swathes of history here, I’ll sometimes use the term Myanmar to refer to the territory that is now part of the country, even before the state came to be. During British control I generally refer to it as Burma, and Myanmar again after independence.

Back in the early 8th century, Western Yunnan was made up of six small kingdoms. Around 738 one king invited the others to discuss unification. After providing them with plenty of food and drink, he left his guests to their revelry, locking the door behind him. The lower floor of the building was filled with flammable straw, which was set aflame – and all five of his competitors died in the blaze. Now there was only one king, and one kingdom – Nanzhao.

That at least, is the story. The historical record from this time is murky, and it’s perhaps more likely that the first Nanzhao king had successfully courted Chinese support to his ascension, and then won some messy but slightly less dramatic power struggles.

The Nanzhao Kingdom lasted 165 very busy years, constantly fighting wars on its shifting frontiers. Sometimes they allied with China against Tibet, sometimes with Tibet against China. Over time the dynasty that controlled China became overwhelmingly focused on troubles on their northern borders, and Nanzhao was essentially accepted as an independent kingdom. Those mysterious troubles on China’s northern border must have seemed very remote to this small southern kingdom, but would one day end its independence forever.


The Three Pagodas, Dali


Buddhism had grown popular in China, but in 845 the ruling dynasty began a suppression campaign. Monasteries and temples were destroyed, and Buddhism would never reach the same heights of popularity again in China. In Yunnan however, the Nanzhao kingdom remained firmly Buddhist. While the dynasty’s troops were destroying all the temples they could find, the Nanchao raised the three pagodas of the Chongsheng temple complex, just outside Dali.

Though the Nanzhao certainly weren’t afraid to go up against the then-great powers of China and Tibet, it was to the south that they managed to expand their territory most – down into what is now northern Myanmar. Their base was the then minor settlement of Pagan (now Bagan), where 200 years later Anawrahta would found the Pagan Empire.

These Nanzhao immigrants were called ‘Mranma’, which translates as swift (or strong) horsemen. This term seems to be the root of both Myanmar and Bamar, the names of the ethnic group that now dominates the country (and gives it both its modern names, Myanmar and Burma).

At this time Myanmar’s territory was primarily controlled by the Pyu in the north, and Mon in the South. Today the Pyu are nowhere to be found, and their language is extinct. That doesn’t mean however that they were put to the sword by hordes of invading Nanzhao, and that modern Bamar are simply the descendants of these swift northern horsemen. Though there may have been some direct conflict with the Pyu, it’s more likely that Nanzhao identity spread through adoption of their language and culture, based mainly on their economic influence.

As their influence grew, it eroded that of the Pyu, who were eventually absorbed into the stronger Nanzhao identity – but this would have been a slow, incremental process. Two hundred years after the arrival of the Nanzhao, King Anawratha was careful to keep the Pyu happy, supposedly claiming mythical Pyu figures as his ancestors.

The Pyu left these lovely round pagoda, the antithesis of the modern style of delicate slender spires (via the WMF)

Even as the Nanzhao became dominant in northern Myanmar, their original kingdom in Yunnan was failing. It collapsed in 902 when a rogue official murdered the royal family and took control himself. After a series of short, ill-fated regimes, the Dali Kingdom was established in 937.

Like the Nanzhao Kingdom before, the Dali Kingdom was independent of China – a state of affairs that China itself seemed content with. This meant that Myanmar retained a buffer from the powerful Chinese empire. The Dali Kingdom was also much less aggressive than that of the Nanzhao, which meant that the nascent Bamar were able to focus their efforts on conquering the rest of modern day Myanmar, establishing boundaries – and a new cultural identify – that still hold today.


Dali Old Town


Those mysterious troubles to the north arrived in the Dali Kingdom in 1253 in the form of an army of Mongols. With the kingdom gone, so to was Myanmar’s buffer, and the Pagan Empire was the Mongol’s next target. As we discussed previously, the Mongols demanded tribute, and invaded after they were rebuffed. Exactly how the invasion played out is unclear, but Myanmar’s formative empire collapsed less than 30 years after.

The Mongol empire at its peak – most maps like this omit the section of Myanmar included here, which reaches just south of Pagan

The Mongols weren’t especially interested in Irrawaddy statecraft, and Myanmar split into various smaller, competing kingdoms. After a brief second invasion to support one of their preferred kingdoms, the Mongols essentially left the country around 1300.

After conquering the rest of China, the Mongol ruled as the Yuan Dynasty for 100 years before being conquered by their successors, the Ming Dynasty. Yunnan was the final province to be taken by Ming forces – the last foothold of Mongol rule in China. Since Yunnan had never been an integral part of the empire before the Mongol invasion, the Ming emperor may not have chosen to conquer it at all, if not for fears that it could form a base for a Mongol resurgence.

The Ming cavalry: horses in this region often tend to be short, stocky, and very hardy, though these are rather exaggerated (via Wikimedia)

The 1381 Ming invasion meant that for the first time, Yunnan was fully incorporated into the Chinese empire – a centrally controlled province like any other. This meant that Myanmar now directly bordered the mightiest empire in Asia.

After the fall of the Pagan Empire, various new kingdoms and empires rose and fell. At one point the Taungoo Dynasty managed to create the largest empire not just in Myanmar’s history, but in all of South-East Asian history. These conquests were overwhelmingly to the south and east of the country, in what is now Laos and Thailand. Though the Taungoo didn’t entirely agree with China on where their mutual borders were, there was no significant conflict.

The incredible but short-lived Taungoo Empire, reaching all the way down to southern Thailand

This remained the case until 1765. The legendary king Alaungpaya had founded the Konbaung Dynasty, retaken the land of his predecessors, and then enthusiastically expanded into what is now Thailand and Laos. Those uncertain borders now led to conflict with China, who attacked while the Konbaung were still distracted by conflict to the south.

Four disastrous invasions followed. Three ended with a Chinese general committing suicide in shame, and all four with a furious and frustrated emperor. Veterans of constant war to the south, the Myanmar forces were formidable enemies – and their greatest ally was disease, which spread through the Chinese forces in the tropical conditions and crippled much of their forces.

Leaping forward a couple hundred years, this is a striking Chinese anti-malaria campaign from the 20th century

The Konbaung did not gain much from their successful defence of their borders – the true victors were the Thai, who used the diversion to undo much of their losses. With the Yunnan border temporarily settled, and the Thai back in a position of strength, the Konbaung looked west for potential conquests, taking territory in north-east India. Unfortunately this brought them into conflict with the British.

Three Anglo-Burmese wars later, Britain was in control of Myanmar. After the final of these in 1885, the British inherited the fuzzy border with Yunnan, and disputes began anew. The Chinese could not afford to be as aggressive with the colonial power, and so the matter was resolved with (relative) diplomacy.

One temporary solution was the creation of a no man’s land between the two claims. This arrangement worked for some time, as the land was filled with people that neither government was especially enthusiastic about trying to impose control over: the Wa. Many of these Wa still practiced headhunting, and lived in intimidating hilltop villages with thick earth walls, deep trenches, and winding entrance tunnels. These areas are part of the still slightly intimidating Wa region today.

Enter at your own risk: the well protected inner entrance to a Wa village, taken by Scott in the late 1800s

The border dispute remained active until the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, at which point it became rather less important. Though far from the initial frontlines of the war, Yunnan became crucial as a route for supplies to enter China, as the Japanese had occupied the coastline. Though the famous Burma Road is usually associated with World War II, it was actually during this initial attack on China that it was built.

A map from an American newspaper, the Arizona Republic, showing the Burma Road in February 1939. The text ominously ends: ‘Eyeing these outlets that prolong resistance, Tokyo says “proper steps” will be taken’.

This key Burma-Yunnan supply route is the main reason for the Japanese attack on British Burma in 1942. Their initial success in Burma allowed them to close off the troublesome flow of materiel into China, by taking control of Lashio where the road began. In 1944 the allies began to push back into northern Myanmar, and built the Ledo Road (later renamed the Stillwell Road after the US general) which connected northern India to an upper section of the Burma road, resuming the flow of goods to China.

Yunnan also hosted various airforce troops that flew over Burma, including the famous Flying Tigers, a group of American pilots seconded to the Chinese military. They flew in defence of Rangoon and the Burma Road in the early stages of the invasion, and later defended Yunnan from Japanese attack through Burma. They’re notable for their quite incredible combat record, destroying 296 enemy planes while losing only 14 pilots, and for their signature shark face on the nose of their planes (which they popularised but didn’t invent). They also had a flying tiger logo designed by Walt Disney, but it’s not the most fearsome sight.

The shark-nosed planes and Walt Disney designed logo of the Flying Tigers

One of the airstrips used by the Flying Tigers was actually in the village of Xizhou, home of the Linden Centre where I worked on the photographs in this article. Where as Xizhou is a beautiful example of a more traditional village, the nearby city of Dali has become a rather over-touristed destination as a result the explosion of domestic tourism in China. It’s still a fun and interesting place to visit, but it’s definitely nicer to stay in one of the quieter villages nearby and enjoy the chaos on your own terms.


Dali South Gate


We’ll end our journey through overlapping history of Yunnan and Myanmar there. From the origin of the Bamar people, the rise and fall of empires, the invasion of the British and later the Japanese – all are linked in some way to Myanmar’s relationship with its northern neighbour. Unsurprisingly that complicated relationship continues to be one of the most important in Myanmar’s modern politics.

Sincere thanks to the Linden Centre and all the staff who helped and hung out with me there. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as relaxed as sat on the balcony watching the birds over the paddies. I hope to return at some point and just eat my way around the area – and maybe get the photographs from the city walls and tower that eluded me. If you do visit Dali, I also recommend a visit to the Photography Museum, where amongst other interesting exhibits they have high quality prints of the images used here.

Published inBefore/after sliderNot Yangon

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