Kingdom of Nanzhao

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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 around present-day Yunnan in China.

Founding and ethnography[edit]

Asia in 800 AD, showing Nanzhao and its neighbors.

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 649 AD the chieftain of the Mengshe tribe, Xinuluo (細奴邏), founded a kingdom (Damengguo 大蒙國) in the area of Lake Erhai. 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").

Nanzhao was made up of 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] In any case, the capital was established in 738 at Taihe[disambiguation needed] (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.

Nanzhao came under Tibetan control from 680 AD. The Tibetans recognised its suzerainty after 703 and then took it under their control again from 750-794, when Nanzhao turned on their Tibetan overlords and helped China defeat their armies.[4]


Nanzhao had a strong connection with Tantric Buddhism, which has survived to this day at Jianchuan and neighboring areas. The worship of Bodhisattvas Guanyin and Mahākāla is very different from other forms of Chinese Buddhism.


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) against Nanzhao in 751, but this army was soundly defeated by Nanzhao Army, led by General Duan Jianwei (段俭魏) at Xiaguan. (It was in the same year that the Tang suffered another serious defeat at the hands of the Arabs at the Battle of Talas in Central Asia; these defeats weakened the dynasty both internally and externally.) Today the General's Cave (two kilometres west of Xiaguan), and the Tomb of Ten Thousand Soldiers (in Tianbao Park) bear witness to this great massacre. In 754, another Tang army with the size of 100,000 soldiers, led by General Li Mi (李宓) was sent, this time from the north, but it too was defeated (and Tang was unable to send another expedition due to the outbreak of Anshi Rebellion in the following year). 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; it was a great prize, as it allowed Nanzhao to have captured roughly 20,000 technicians from China, whose talents were fully employed in the building of the Kingdom.


By 873, Nanzhao had been expelled from Sichuan, and retreated back to Yunnan. Taking Chengdu marked the high point of the Nanzhao kingdom, and it was a watershed: from then on, the Nanzhao Kingdom slowly declined.


In 902, the Nanzhao dynasty was overthrown. The end was bloody, for in that year the chief minister murdered all of the key members of the royal family, including the heir apparent. This was followed by three other dynasties in quick succession: Da Changhe, Da Tianxing and Da Yining. Duan Siping seized power in 937 to establish the Kingdom of Dali.


  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. ^ Stein, R. A. (1972) Tibetan Civilization, pp. 60, 65. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-0806-1 (cloth); ISBN 0-8047-0901-7 (pbk)