History of Asia

Asian History: Yunnan

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Yunnan is the southernmost province of China. It is a large area, where China truly meets Southeast Asia. In its northern and western sections, which abut the Tibetan plateau, it is mountainous and cool; in the central section, on which sits the city of Dali, the erstwhile capital, a spacious plain extends around the famous ‘Human Ear’ lake (Lake Erhai). Further south, the province merges into the sub-tropical rainforest of the Xishuangbanna (or, in Thai, the Sip Song Pan Na – the twelve thousand rice fields). The first bend of the Lancang river – better known further south as the Mekong – arises from the Province and has become the source of much controversy in mainland Southeast Asia as Chinese authorities have begun to construct dams and to blast rapids to enable better navigation for Chinese freight boats, both of which acts threaten to reduce water security for people further south.

Approximately 30 different ethnic minorities are represented in Yunnan province, making it one of the most diverse parts of Asia and, indeed, the world. Previous states based on Yunnan generally were dominated by one or s small number of ethnic groups that were able to enforce their will on the others. However, generally there has been throughout history significant resistance to the southwards movements of the Han Chinese. Yunnan has represented a buffer area between China and Southeast Asia for centuries and has endeavoured to establish a form of independence. Even after the conquest of the Mongols in the 1250s that definitively brought Yunnan within the Chinese sphere of influence, resistance in the region has continued with numerous revolts and rebellions. It is said that when vanguard cadres of the victorious Communist forces traveled to the Burmese border in the 1940s bearing the glad tidings of victory, they were greeted not just with suspicion but were murdered and used to help fertilise the crops.

Early periods of Yunnan history featured independent states such as those that flourished at Kunming and Dali, the Nanchao state, as well as the Tai states to the south such as Luchuan and Tai Mao. As a result of the Mongol conquest, many Muslim peoples from the north west of China were brought to Kunming as rulers and administrators and these formed the basis of those Muslims apparently observed by Marco Polo. However, it is true that many people from a wide range of backgrounds and ethnicities had traveled to Yunnan throughout known history. These included merchants, ambassadors and mercenaries seeking employment in what has always been a militaristic area. They brought their own religious beliefs and customs to add to the cosmopolitan nature of the province, a cosmopolitanism that has continued to the present day.

Since the opening of Chinese economy to capitalist ideas, Yunnan has been identified as a potential engine of growth. Not only does its own industry and natural resources – of tobacco and minerals, among others – provide future wealth but its linkages with mainland Southeast Asia also suggest the possibilities of inward investment to provide additional employment and skills for Yunnanese people. Unfortunately, the increased degree of contact and development has brought its own problems, with a resurgence of drug use and attendant problems of HIV/AIDS, together with increased prostitution and the degradation of the environment.

It is a common mistake to look at a country and to assume that it is only by focusing on the actions of the elite in the national capital that we can understand what is going on there and what the people think and believe. Studying regional history is an important corrective to this simplistic impulse.
Tags: china, yunnan