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Brief Introduction - Yunnan

Published: 19 Dec 2008 02:01:57 PST

Yunnan (help·info) (IPA: \ˈyü-ˈnän\; simplified Chinese: 云南; traditional Chinese: 雲南; pinyin: Yúnnán; literally "south of the clouds") is a province of the People's Republic of China, located in the far south of the country spanning approximately 394,000 square kilometers (152,000 square miles). The capital of the province is Kunming. The province borders Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam.

The province is known to be one of the most ethnically diverse in China. 36 of China's 56 officially recognized ethnic groups - many of them indigenous to the area and speaking non-Sinitic languages, reside in Yunnan - making it a cultural mosaic.


The Yuanmou Man, a Homo erectus fossil unearthed by railway engineers in the 1960s, has been determined to be the oldest known hominid fossil in China. By the Neolithic period, there were human settlements in the area of Lake Dian. These people used stone tools and constructed simple wooden structures.

Around the third century BC, the central area of Yunnan around present day Kunming was known as Dian. The Chu general Zhuang Qiao (庄跤) entered the region from the upper Yangtze River and set himself up as "King of Dian". He and his followers brought into Yunnan an influx of Chinese influence, the start of a long history of migration and cultural expansion.

Bronze sculpture of the Dian Kingdom, 3rd century BCE.

In 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang unified China and extended his authority south. Commanderies and counties were established in Yunnan. An existing road in Sichuan – the "Five Foot Way" – was extended south to around present day Qujing (曲靖), in eastern Yunnan. In 109 BC, Emperor Wu sent General Guo Chang (郭昌) south to Yunnan, establishing Yizhou commandery and 24 subordinate counties. The commandery seat was at Dianchi county (present day Jinning 晋宁). Another county was called "Yunnan", probably the first use of the name. To expand the burgeoning trade with Burma and India, Emperor Wu also sent Tang Meng (唐蒙) to maintain and expand the Five Foot Way, renaming it "Southwest Barbarian Way" (西南夷道). By this time, agricultural technology in Yunnan had improved markedly. The local people used bronze tools, plows and kept a variety of livestock, including cattle, horses, sheep, goats, pigs and dogs. Anthropologists have determined that these people were related to the people now known as the Tai. They lived in tribal congregations, sometimes led by exile Chinese.

In the Records of the Grand Historian, Zhang Qian (d. 113 BC) and Sima Qian (145-90 BC) make references to "Shendu", which may have been referring to the Indus Valley (the Sindh province in modern Pakistan), originally known as "Sindhu" in Sanskrit. When Yunnan was annexed by the Han Dynasty, Chinese authorities reported an Indian "Shendu" community living there.

During the Three Kingdoms, the territory of present day Yunnan, western Guizhou and southern Sichuan was collectively called Nanzhong. The disollution of Chinese central authority led to increased autonomy for Yunnan and more power for the local tribal structures. In AD 225, the famed statesman Zhuge Liang led three columns into Yunnan to pacify the tribes. His seven captures of Meng Huo, a local magnate, is much celebrated in Chinese folklore.

In the fourth century, northern China was largely overrun by nomadic tribes from the north. In the 320s, the Cuan (爨) clan migrated into Yunnan. Cuan Chen (爨琛) named himself king and held authority from Lake Dian (then called Kunchuan [昆川]). Henceforth the Cuan clan ruled Yunnan for over four hundred years. In 738, the kingdom of Nanzhao was established in Yunnan by Piluoge (皮罗阁), who was confirmed by the imperial court of the Tang Dynasty as king of Yunnan. Ruling from Dali, the thirteen kings of Nanzhao ruled over more than two centuries and played a part in the dynamic relationship between China and Tibet. In 937, Duan Siping (段思平) overthrew the Nanzhao and established the Kingdom of Dali. The kingdom was conquered by the Mongol and Chinese armies of Kublai Khan.

In 1894, George Ernest Morrison, an Australian correspondent for The Times, travelled from Beijing to British-occupied Burma via Yunnan. His book, An Australian in China, details his experiences.

From 1916 to 1917, Roy Chapman Andrews and Yvette Borup Andrews led the Asiatic Zoological Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History through much of western and southern Yunnan, as well as other provinces of China. The book, Camps and Trails in China, records their experiences.

Other notable explorers include Joseph Francis Charles Rock who from 1922–1949 spent most of his time studying the flora, peoples and languages of southwest China, mainly in Yunnan, and, Peter Goulart, a White Russian who studied Naxi culture and lived in Lijiang from 1940 to 1949.


Snowy mountains in Diqing, north-west Yunnan.

Erhai lake (洱海湖), Dali, Yunnan.
Lugu Lake, northern Yunnan.Yunnan is the most southwestern province in China, with the Tropic of Cancer running through its southern part. The province has an area of 394,000 square km, 4.1% of the nation's total. The northern part of the province forms part of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. The province borders Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Guizhou Province in the east, Sichuan Province in the north, and Tibet Autonomous Region in the northwest. It shares a border of 4,060 km with Burma in the west, Laos in the south, and Vietnam in the southeast.


Yunnan has a mild climate with pleasant and fair weather, but although the growing period is long, there is little arable land. See Agriculture.

The terrain is largely mountainous, especially in the north and west. The average altitude is c.6,500 ft (1,980 m). The highest point in the north is the Kawagebo Peak in Deqin County on the Diqing Plateau, which is about 6,740 meters high; and the lowest is in the Honghe River Valley in Hekou County, with an elevation of 76.4 meters.

The eastern half of the province is a limestone plateau with karst scenery and unnavigable rivers flowing through deep mountain gorges; the western half is characterized by mountain ranges and rivers running north and south. These include the Thanlwin and the Mekong. The rugged, vertical terrain produces a wide range of flora and fauna, and the province has been called a natural zoological and botanical garden.

Bordering provinces are Tibet, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi. Bordering countries are Vietnam (the main border crossing by road and rail is at Hekou-Lao Cai, the only land border crossing open to non-Chinese/non-Vietnamese), Laos (at Boten) and Burma (with the main border crossing at Ruili, the only land border open to non-Chinese/non-Burmese).

There are several major lakes in Yunnan. The province has nine lakes with areas of over 30 square kilometers. They include:

Dianchi Lake, near Kunming
Fuxian Lake, in Yuxi, the second deepest lake in China
Erhai Lake, near Dali
Lugu Lake, in Ninglang near the border with Sichuan
Qilu Lake
Yangzonghai Lake, in Yiliang County, Kunming Prefecture
Yilong Lake
Xingyun Lake

Yunnan is the source of two rivers - the Xi River (there known as the Nanpan and Hongshui) and the Yuan River.

The Hongshui is a principal source stream of the Xi River. Rising as the Nanpan in eastern Yunnan province, it flows south and east to form part of the boundary between Guizhou province and Guangxi autonomous region. Flowing for 345 km, it unites with the Yu River at Guiping to form what eventually becomes the Xi River.

The province is drained by six major river systems:

Yangtze, here known as the Jinsha Jiang (River of Golden Sands), drains the province's north.
Pearl River, with its source near Qujing, collects the waters from the east.
the Mekong (Lancang), which flows from Tibet into the South China Sea forming the boundaries between Laos and Burma, between Laos and Thailand, through Cambodia and Vietnam
the Red River (Yuan) has its source in the mountains south of Dali and enters the South China Sea through Hanoi, Vietnam
Salween, which flows into the Gulf of Martaban and the Andaman Sea through Burma
the Irrawaddy has a few small tributaries in Yunnan's far west, such as the Dulongjiang, and rivers in the prefecture of Dehong.


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