Background on Yunnan


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Yunnan, a unique biosphere

With a total surface area of 152,000 square miles (which is larger than Germany but smaller than Sweden and only 4% of China), Yunnan is situated in the southwest of China (between 97 ° 31 ’39 “- 106 ° 11 ’47” east longitude and 21 ° 8′ 32″ – 29 ° 15 ‘8″ north latitude.) It crosses the Tropic of Cancer in the southern area and is surrounded by the Autonomous Region of Tibet, Burma, Laos, Vietnam and the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi.

Yunnan is essentially a mountainous region, with an average altitude of 1980m, which corresponds with the altitude of its capital, Kunming.

Kawagebo/MeilixueshanThe highest point is the peak of Mount Kawagebo/Meilixueshan in the northwest of the province which rises to 6740 m.
The lowest point is in the Hekou region, close to the Vietnamese border, just 76 m above sea level.
Half of the province consists of a limestone plateau crossed by rivers and a host of beautiful karst landscapes.
High Mountains occupy the Himalayan foothills to the west of the province.

The region has many rivers, including three of the largest rivers in Asia:
– The Yangtze (Changjiang / 长江) formerly known as the Blue River. Its source is in the Qinghai Province and in Yunnan it is known as the Golden Sands River (Jinsha Jiang) where it sculpts the spectacular Tiger Leaping Gorge. It then crosses the whole of China reaching the East China Sea just above Shanghai. This is the longest river in Asia and the third largest river in the world (3965 miles).
– The Mekong (Lancang Jiang / 澜沧江). Originating in Tibet this river flows to the South China Sea in Vietnam.
– The Salween (Nujiang / 怒江) which flows to the Gulf of Martaban in the Andaman Sea.
– The Red River (Honghe / 红河) has its source in Yunnan and flows to Vietnam where it empties into the Gulf of Tonkin.

Yunnan’s geographical location and its topography provide the region with a variety of climatic conditions. Temperate in the North and Subtropical in the south, it is also rich in fauna and flora. Here you find over half the recorded plant species of the country including a number of plants with medicinal properties.

mekongSince 2003, the area of North-West Yunnan delimited by the headwaters of the Salween, Mekong and Yangtze rivers is a protected nature reserve listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is the world’s richest temperate region in terms of plant and animal species. It also has great geological wealth as an area that witnessed the formation of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau when the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates collided some 70 million years ago.

Yunnan’s exceptional topography provides its landscapes with a unique beauty with gorges plunging to depths of 3,000 metres and snowy peaks rising to heights of over 6,000m.


The predominantly mountainous terrain restricts the areas of available ​​arable land in Yunnan. Agriculture is therefore limited to the areas of high plains, the valleys and the mountain slopes that are carved with terraces. Rice is the main crop, but corn, wheat, sweet potatoes, soybeans, sugarcane and cotton are also cultivated. Yunnan’s tea production from some of China’s oldest tea plantations is famous worldwide.
It is also an area renowned throughout China for its tobacco production.

The processing of medicinal plants has led to the emergence of a now booming pharmaceutical industry.

A large share of Yunnan’s revenue also comes from its mineral resources which are mainly non-ferrous metals (tin, copper, zinc…).
Tourism has also increased in recent years and has become an important factor in the increase of the province’s fortunes.

A Turbulent History

Human origins

On 1st May 1965 two human teeth approximately 500,000 to 600,000 years old were discovered in Yuanmou County, to the northeast of Kunming (the original estimations stating they were 1.7 million years old were rejected.) This is the oldest evidence of human life in Yunnan, which makes the Yuanmou man a contemporary of the Peking Man, Lantian Man and Homo Erectus.

The Dian Kingdom

The earliest records date back to the historic fourth century BC. From the 4th to 2nd century BC, most of Yunnan was governed by the Dian Kingdom that had its heart in the south of Kunming near to Lake Dian. The bronze objects discovered in 1954 at the royal burial site of Shizhaishan demonstrate this culture’s wealth. Many specimens are exhibited at the Yunnan Provincial Museum in Kunming.

Chinese archaeologists are currently conducting explorations at Lake Fuxian where traces of dwellings and a structure resembling a pyramid were discovered. These are likely to be remains of the kingdom’s capital that was engulfed in the wake of the 110BC earthquake.

The disappearance of this town was then followed by the political downfall of the kingdom at the hands of Han Empire, which was anxious to secure the access to India and Burma which had guaranteed the prosperity of the vanquished kingdom.

This Han invasion forced many Thais to continue their migration south where they settled in the Indochinese peninsula.

During the Three Kingdoms period (220-589AD) the Shu Empire, established in Sichuan by one of the descendants of the Han, dominated the northern Yunnan border.

The Nanzhao and the Dali Kingdoms

In 737AD, Piluoge united the various Bai tribes who lived around Lake Erhai in the Dali region and founded the Bai, Yi and Nanzhao Kingdom. This Kingdom which was initially subjected to the Tang dynasty built itself up militaristically and began to display expansionist claims which started to jeopardise the Emperor’s interests. The Emperor then launched a series of military campaigns; however his opponents came out victorious. The Nanzhao Kingdom thus continued to expand into Yunnan, Burma and the North of Thailand and Laos. It reached the height of its glory by capturing Chengdu, in Sichuan in 829AD.

Meanwhile, Tibet was extending its power during the reign of Trisong Detsen, the propagator of Buddhism. After securing the Tibetan border and unifying the various indigenous tribes, he began a campaign of conquest that led him to Chang’an (modern Xi’an), then capital of an empire that he plundered and held for two weeks.

The Kingdom of Nanzhao alternately changed allegiance with multiple shifting alliances between the Chinese and then the Tibetans.

The Kingdom vanished early in the tenth century, too weak to curb the ethnic strife that had been troubling it.

The Kingdom of Dali came soon afterwards, with 22 successive Kings who reigned until 1253; the date in which Yunnan was conquered by the troops of Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan Dynasty.

Jizu Shan YunnanThe period of the Kingdoms of Nanzhao and Dali was a time of considerable development of trade relations with Tibet. It was a time when the Tea and Horses trade route (one of the branches of the “Silk Road of the South”) was flourishing.

Besides being of economic interest, this route was also a great highway of cultural exchange.

It was one of Yunnan’s routes for the influx of the Buddhist doctrine, adopted as the official religion by the kings of Nanzhao.

The beautiful rock sculptures representing Buddhist deities and Kings of Shibaoshan date from this period.

Yunnan in the Chinese Empire

From 1274, the Empire maintained a permanent presence in the new province of Yunnan, yet not without experiencing difficulties.

In this mountainous and inaccessible frontier of the Empire, the province experienced frequent dissent and the Qing (last ruling dynasty, from 1642 to 1912) had great difficulty imposing their authority. One of their agents, who was sent to eradicate the last of the Ming who had sought refuge in Yunnan, eventually turned against the new dynasty and founded the Zhou Dynasty. 30 years after conquering Beijing the Qing ended up taking Kunming.

Ethnic conflicts and colonial ambitions

As a traditional refuge for non-Chinese populations repressed by the Chinese settlers, Yunnan has long experienced ethnic tensions.

In 1856, the Panthay Rebellion took place, an uprising in which the Muslim population (the Hui ethnic group) living in Yunnan since the Mongol conquests of the thirteenth century created the Sultanate of Dali. Then after a terrible retaliation that wiped out half the Hui population of Yunnan, the Sultanate disappeared in 1873.

Today one can still see the Sultan’s residence in Dali which now houses the city’s museum.

In the late nineteenth century China was highly coveted by foreign colonial powers.

France, which controlled the Tonkin area, sought to expand its sphere of influence in China’s southwest, coveting its opium production and its mineral wealth and the access to trade in Sichuan and the upper Yangtze. In 1903 the French started the construction of a railway line between Hanoi and Kunming and obtained the right to trade in Yunnan.

The end of the Empire and the Reign of Warlords

After several unsuccessful attempts to overthrow the Empire, including one in April 1908 instigated by Huang Mingtan at Hekou on the border of Yunnan and Vietnam, the Wuchang Uprising, initiated by several forces organised by military Republicans, brought the several thousand year history of monarchy to an end. On 30th October 1911 Li Genyuan from Tong Meng Hui in Yunnan launched an armed rebellion in Yunnan. The next day, Kunming was taken, and Cai E (蔡 锷) was appointed Governor of the newly created Yunnan Province. Among Cai E’s men was Zhu De (朱德), one of his former students, who went on to become the father of the Red Army after having been a warlord and having overcome his addiction to opium.

The first Republic of China was proclaimed on 12th February 1912. Yuan Shikai was elected president but when he tried to restore the Empire in his favour in 1915, Cai E Launched a Campaign for the Protection of the Republic. Cai E managed to vanquish the Szechuan troops loyal to Yuan Shikai with an army of only 20,000 men. He then went on to win over several provinces who had reasons to combat the same adversary.

The fall of Yuan Shikai inaugurated the period of the warlords. Cai E declared Yunnan an independent state. After his death in 1916 Tang Jiyao succeeded him as Yunnan’s new leader (he created the University of Yunnan in 1922) but was overthrown ten years later by Long Yun.

These warlords were predominantly maintained by private armies, supported by an additional tax inflicted on peasants and by the opium trade for which they were in control of the smuggling. Yunnan’s opium, representing one third of the national production was transported to Chongqing by the river of golden sands, to Canton, and to Indochina via the French railway.

The control of this trade was the main issue at stake in the wars that took place between the warlords. Every defeat led to the demobilization of entire armies that subsequently turned into bands of robbers. This created a heavy atmosphere of insecurity which in turn provoked the creation of militias and vigilante groups. A general militarization of Chinese society then followed between 1916 and World War II.

La guerre sino-japonaise 1937-1945

En 1937 éclate la guerre sino-japonaise qui va durer 8 ans. Le Yunnan devient alors la plaque tournante du ravitaillement de la Chine libre réfugiée à Chongqing.

Jusqu’en 1940, le chemin de fer français du Tonkin et la route de Birmanie reliant Lashio à Kunming, via Dali, construite par 150000 coolies en 1937, sont les voies de ravitaillement principales. Toutes deux fermées sous la pression japonaise, elles sont relayées par la route Stillwell et le pont aérien mis en place par  Claire Chenault et ses flying tigers.

Quotidiennement, pilotes américains et chinois survolent l’Himalaya, surnommé the Hump, entre l’Inde et le Yunnan.

Cette période est particulièrement difficile pour les populations urbaines, premières victimes de la très forte inflation. De nombreuses levées de soldats et de taxes pèsent lourdement sur la population.

Après la reddition du Japon en 1945, la guerre se poursuit en Chine entre Nationalistes et Communistes. Long Yun, chassé par Chiang Kai-shek en octobre 1945, entre en relation avec les Communistes dont il soutient la conquête du sud-ouest chinois.

The Sino-Japanese War 1937-1945

1937 saw the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war that was to last for 8 years. Yunnan became a hub for supplying the Free China that had found a refuge in Chongqing.

Until 1940 the main supply routes were the French railway of Tonkin and the Burma Road between Lashio to Kunming via Dali, built in 1937 by 150,000 coolies. Both were closed due to Japanese pressure, yet were assisted by the Stillwell Road and the airlift set up by Claire Chennault and his Flying Tigers. Every day, American and Chinese pilots flew over the Himalayas, otherwise known as “the Hump” between India and Yunnan.

This period was particularly difficult for the urban populations, who were the initial victims of the very high inflation. The huge soldier recruitments and high taxes weighed heavily on the population.

After Japan’s surrender in 1945, the war continued in China between Nationalists and Communists. Long Yun, driven out by Chiang Kai-shek in October 1945 joined forces with the Communists and assisted in the conquest of southwest China.

Communist China

By 1951, the Agrarian reform had been launched across the entire country. In Yunnan the officials responsible for its administration were mostly from the North and knew nothing about the local situation.

During the war in Indochina, Yunnan was the home base for Vietnamese communist troops and played a determining role in the outcome of the battle of Dien Bien Phu.

In Yunnan and all over the nation, “The Great Leap Forward” led to a disastrous situation. The Cultural Revolution was a particularly bloody period with an estimated 80,000 deaths between 1966 and 1969. This particularly heavy toll was due to fears that the region would be adversely affected the Vietnam War with America and the revival of old conflicts between clans.

Yunnan Today

In recent years, the Chinese government has placed a special emphasis on opening up the western provinces, with Yunnan and Tibet as a priority. This has resulted in a significant increase in transportation within China as well as with neighboring countries so as to facilitate and increase trade. In 1992, the six countries of the Mekong river basin launched a programme of economic cooperation in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) to promote the economic and social development of the six participants.

At a time when China is developing at a very rapid rate these rivers situated in the western provinces represent a potential energy source of the first order. Several dams are either under construction or are being planned on Yunnan’s major rivers. The issue has provoked controversy over the policy’s merits and the environmental dangers facing the region.