Kingdom of Nanzhao

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For other uses, see Nanzhao County.
Map of Asia and Europe circa 1200.

Nanzhao, alternate spellings Nanchao and Nan Chao (Traditional Chinese: 南詔; Simplified Chinese: 南诏; pinyin: Nánzhào; Standard Tibetan: Jang[1]) was a polity that flourished in what is now southern China and Southeast Asia during the 8th and 9th centuries. It was centered on present-day Yunnan in China.

Founding and ethnography[edit]

Nanzhao comprised many ethnic and linguistic groups. Some historians believe that the majority of the population were of the Bai people,[2] but that the elite spoke a variant of Nuosu (also called Yi), a Tibeto-Burman language closely related to Burmese.[3]

Originally, there were several tribes that settled on the fertile land around the alpine fault lake Erhai. These tribes were called Mengshe (蒙舍), Mengsui (蒙嶲), Langqiong (浪穹), Dengtan (邆賧), Shilang (施浪), and Yuexi (越析). Each tribe had its own kingdom, known as a zhao in an area under the control of the Tibetan Empire. In the year 737 AD, with the support of the Tang Dynasty of China, Piluoge (皮羅閣) united the six zhaos in succession, establishing a new kingdom called Nanzhao (Mandarin, "Southern Zhao"). The capital was established in 738 at Taihe, (the site of modern day Taihe village, a few miles south of Dali). Located in the heart of the Erhai valley, the site was ideal: it could be easily defended against attack and it was in the midst of rich farmland.

Expansion and Overthrow[edit]

Asia in 800 AD, showing Nanzhao and its neighbors.

In 750, Nanzhao rebelled against the Tang Dynasty. In retaliation, the Tang sent an army of 80,000 soldiers, led by General Xianyu Zhongtong (鲜于仲通) in 751, but this was soundly defeated by General Duan Jianwei (段俭魏) at Xiaguan. Today the General's Cave (two kilometres west of Xiaguan), and the Tomb of Ten Thousand Soldiers (in Tianbao Park), bear witness to this massacre. In 754, another Tang army of 100,000 soldiers, led by General Li Mi (李宓), approached the kingdom from the north, but it too was defeated. Bolstered by these successes, Nanzhao expanded rapidly, first into Burma, then into the rest of Yunnan, down into northern Laos and Thailand, and finally, north into Sichuan. In 829, Chengdu was taken and some 20,000 Chinese technicians were captured.

By 873, Nanzhao had been expelled from Sichuan, and retreated back to Yunnan, after which the kingdom slowly declined. In 902, the dynasty came to a bloody end when the chief minister murdered all of the key members of the royal family, including the heir apparent. Three other dynasties followed in quick succession: Da Changhe, Da Tianxing and Da Yining. Finally Duan Siping seized power in 937 to establish the Kingdom of Dali.


The area had a strong connection with Tantric Buddhism which has survived to this day at Jianchuan and neighboring areas. The worship of Guanyin and Mahākāla is very different from other forms of Chinese Buddhism. Nanzhao likely had strong religious connections with the Pagan Kingdom in what is today Myanmar, as well as Tibet and Bengal.[4]


  1. ^ Stein, R. A. (1972) Tibetan Civilization, p. 63. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-0806-1 (cloth); ISBN 0-8047-0901-7 (pbk)
  2. ^ Joe Cummings, Robert Storey (1991). China, Volume 10 (3, illustrated ed.). the University of California: Lonely Planet Publications. p. 705. ISBN 0-86442-123-0. Retrieved 15 May 2011. 
  3. ^ C. X. George Wei (2002). Exploring nationalisms of China: themes and conflicts. Indiana University: Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 195. ISBN 0-313-31512-4. Retrieved 15 May 2011. 
  4. ^ Thant Myint-U, Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, Part 3