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Dali Culture

Dali History, Culture and Art

Dali History

Dali lies on the western edge of Erhai Lake at an altitude of 1900 meters, with a backdrop of the imposing 4000m-tall Cangshan. As early as about 4,000 years ago, the region of Dali was settled by the ancestors of the Bai minority. This region has a large number of unearthed relics from Neolithic Age to Bronze Age. With its long history and golden culture, Dali is undoubtedly the earliest cultural cradle of Yunnan.

Old Building In San Ying Town
Old Building In San Ying Town

Before taking control by the Qin Dynasty (221-206BC), this Erhai region was dotted by many tribes who led an agricultural and nomadic life. During the reign of the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), Dali had communication with Central China and India and served a transfer station of the South Silk Road from Sichuan to India. Emperor Wudi (156BC-87BC) established Yeyu County in this region.

In the early Tang Dynasty (618-907), six tribes historically called Six Zhaos rose in this region. In 738, with the support of the Tang emperor, the Nanzhao conquered the other five Zhaos and unified this region. Then the Nanzhao Kingdom was established, making Tai He City (now Tai He Village) as the capital. The Kingdom lasted for 165 years and had been handed down for 13 emperors. Nowadays, we still can find much cultural heritage of the Nanzhao Kingdom, including the Tai He Village, Nanzhao Dehua Stele, grottoes in Shizhong Mountain, and Qianxun Pagoda of the Three Pagodas in Chongsheng Temple. From 902AD to 937AD, Great Chang He Kingdom, Great Tian Xing Kingdom, Great Yi Ning Kingdom, and the Dali Kingdom were successively established. Dali city was the political, economic, and cultural center of Yunnan from the 8th to 13th century, as well as a vital window of cultural exchanges and commercial trade between China and Southeast Asia.

In 1253, the Yuan Troop occupied Dali Kingdom and moved the political center to Yachi County (Now Kunming). The whole Yunnan was under the control of the central regime ever since. Situated in a once significantly Muslim part of South China, Dali was also the center of the Panthay Rebellion against the reigning imperial Qing Dynasty from 1856–1863. In 1956, the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture was established with Dali City as the center.

Dali Culture

Ethnic Minorities

Grottoes For Emperior Of Bai People
Grottoes For Emperior Of Bai People

The region of Dali is inhabited by 25 minority nationalities. The main inhabitants are the Bai, who number about 1.5 million (accounting for sixty-five percent of the city's total population). They are thought to have settled the area around Erhai Lake some 3000 years ago and created so-called "Erhai Culture" featuring folk oral literature and local ethnic traditions. We can find its unique culture in old poems, painting, music, residential houses, religions, costumes, and festivals. In the process of communication with Indian and Central China, more kinds of culture were taken into this region. It absorbs other cultures but still keeps its ethnic unique.


Buddhism had developed in Dai for a very long time, and became the Kingdom religion during the reign of the Nanzhao Kingdom. It reached its highest popularity in the city during the period of the Dali Kingdom. Nine of the entire twenty-two emperors of the Dali Kingdom became monks in Chongsheng Temple.

Dali is regarded as an elysian Buddha-land, an area in the southwest where Buddhism has introduced first a long time ago. Buddhism in this region was a combination of different Buddhist sects from India, Central China, and Tibet with the local culture. Many Buddhist sights can be found in the area including pagodas, grottoes, temples, and Buddhist mountains.

Dali Art

Tie Dye Cloth
Tie Dye Cloth

In Yunnan, the Bai people's paintings and sculptures enjoy high popularity. They were influenced by Buddhism and created with advanced skills. In temples or other Buddhism buildings, we can find decorative paintings, frescoes, and wood sculptures.

In Dali, one of the most famous music art is local Dongjing music. It is a typical Taoist music. Originating from rituals and the Royal Court during the Nanzhao and Dali Kingdoms periods, it gained wide popularity during the reign of Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. At that period, it was only played in Taoist temples and royal palaces. Presently, it has become a unique folk art, enriching native's life, and attracting visitors.

Bai Opera, formerly Chui Chui Qiang, prevailed in Bai villages. Old stages for Bai opera can still be found in some larger villages. In addition, Daben Ballad of Bai is also a popular folk musical art.

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