Highlights of the History of the Bai


The history of the Bai nationality is inextricably linked to Dali City and surrounding regions. Though it will be an uncertain task to try to link the Bai Nationality of the present with the people who inhabited the same area thousand of years ago, it will be considered inappropriate not to mention the scattered facts that at the present are known about a so distant past.

The first traces of human habitation in the Erhai Basin date back to 4.000 years ago. The age attributed to some pottery with special characteristic unearthed in the area. In one of these big jumps that are common in archaeology the next traces of human cultures in this area are of the called Dali Bronze Culture, of whom some interesting pieces of bronze have been discovered. Experts did not agree if Dali Bronze Culture must be related, and to which degree with the Dian culture that flourished in the heart of Yunnan.

Dali seems to have been not affected by the deep changes carried out in central Yunnan after the expedition of the Chu Kingdom general Zhuang Qiao, and his impossibility to come back Chu as his way was blocked by the Qin Kingdom conquests. The next attempt of control of Yunnan was in time of the first emperor Qinshihuang who, with the aim to dominate all the corners of the present China, constructed a road leading to the south. After the fall of the short lived Qin Dynasty, when the power of the Han who succeeded them become well established, emperor Wudi tried again to conquest Yunnan, succeeding in the effective control of some of the northeast districts of the province.

In the sixth and seventh century, the political environment of the area around Dali developed very quickly. The tribes inhabiting the Erhai Basin began to confederate in bigger political entities that become to be known as the Six Zhaos (Kingdoms or Statelets). Among them, the Mengshe zhao (called Nanzhao for being the southerner of these statelets), established by Xinuolou in 649 in the present city of Weishan, became the most powerful, annexing in 737 the other five zhaos under the rule of Piluoge, who is considered the founder of the Nanzhao Kingdom.

The Bai entered in the history during the Tang dynasty, when together with the Yi established the Kingdom of Nanzhao whose first king Puluoge, was called King of Yunnan. The Kingdom of Nanzhao was the most powerful political structure in the south of China from 8th to 10th century, who thanks to their game of alliances with the Chinese and the Tibetan, kept the domain of the south of China and the north of the neighboring countries. The Kingdom of Nanzhao became an important trade centre, in the middle of the commercial routes that linked China with Burma; as well as a religious centre where the Buddhist art flourished.

Chinese historians consider that Nanzhao Kingdom was formed by an aristocratic ruling elite, mainly of Yi stratum, and a mass of people of Bai stock. During this time the Cangshan channel was built allowing the irrigation of thousands of hectares of fields. The agriculture prospered the arts and the culture flourished. The kings of Nanzhao Kingdom expanded their original territories to control most of the present day Yunnan Province, even spreading beyond its borders to Vietnam, Laos, Burma and the southern part of Sichuan Province. Flourishing in a time marked in east Asia by the continuous rivalry between the Chinese Tang Empire and the first Tibetan kingdom, the rulers of Nanzhao Kingdom engaged in a calculated play of alliances that permitted them avoid the danger of been swallowed for any of these powers and even outlive its two powerful opponents.

The end of Nanzhao Kingdom, in a bloody palatial coup in 902 gave way to some revolt years until Duan Siping established the Dali Kingdom in 937. The New kingdom quickly occupied the space left vacant by its predecessor, sharing as well so many cultural and political characteristics, among them the protection of the Buddhist faith and the development of the trade with near and distant regions that could be considered only as a dynastic change. With the Tibetan kingdom disappeared and Chinese Song Dynasty already too busy with its northern enemies to fight a war with a good commercial partner, the history of Dali Kingdom was much more peaceful than the previous centuries.

There is also some national controversy about the ethnic composition of Dali Kingdom. While Chinese historians have no doubt that is a mainly Bai kingdom, Thailand's historians suggest that the ancestors of the Dai were the ruler of this kingdom. The six centuries of Dali hegemony in Southwest China ended abruptly with the arrival of an enemy whose home was situated thousand of miles far away. The Mongols heirs of Gengish Khan planned to route the stubborn resistance of the Chinese attacking the Song dynasty from the southwest. To carry on their designs, they conquered Sichuan and immediately afterwards the Dali Kingdom.

The resistance opposed by the Bai to the Mongol army was not punished, as in other kingdoms, with the sack of the city and the extermination of its inhabitants. Dali was saved and the establishment of the Yuan dynasty was lived as a peaceful dynastic change, with the Duan royal family ruling their former territories under the Mongol government, (some of them even to the 20th century, when the system of government by the native rulers was completely abolished).

Only after the Ming emperors consolidated their power in the Central Plains, they started the effective control of Yunnan. From then on Chinese and Bai cohabit peaceful in this region. Many of the Bai nobility kept their political power until the end of the Chinese dynasties. Dali was the main political, economic and trading center in Yunnan.

During the dynastic times have been some occasional uprisings. The most important of them was the Muslims lead Panthay Rebellion that in the 19th century created a country seeking recognition by the European powers. After more than a decade of rule over Yunnan, the Panthay regimen was overturned in one of the bloodiest wars in the province. The bloodshed that followed the end of Panthay Rebellion left its marks well into the 20th century, when the Republican and Communist administration narrowed their control of Bai lands.

Nowadays more of the Bai, living as lowland farmers around Erhai Lake, have a quiet life working in their rice fields, only disturbed by the occasional arrival of a bus loaded with tourists.

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