Dali History&Culture

According to archaeological discoveries around Erhai Lake, Dali was inhabited long ago. A brilliant Neolithic and Bronze culture was subsequently created, signifying the region as the earliest cultural cradle of Yunnan.
Old city gate of Dali
Well preserved old city gate of Dali

Before the Qin Dynasty (221-206BC) predominated in this region, there are many tribes scattered there, leading an agricultural and nomadic life. During the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), the area encountered Central China and India as it was an important transfer station of the South Silk Road from Sichuan to India.

There were six tribes rising in early Tang Dynasty (618-907), historically called Six Zhaos. Among these tribes was the Nanzhao (Mengshe Zhao) which grew most rapidly in power. In 738, it unified the other five Zhaos and was granted the title of Yunnan King by the Tang emperor. A great many sites of the Nanzhao State period are still in existence, including the Tai He City (the early capital of Nanzhao State), Nanzhao Dehua Stele, grottoes in Shizhong Mountain and Qianxun Pagoda of the Three Pagodas in Chongsheng Temple. Later, the senior governor of Tonghai, Duan Siping, breached Xia Guan with tribes in eastern Yunnan in the late 9th century and was titled Yunnan Senior Governor and Dali King by the Song (960-1279) Court. 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 the Southeast Asia.

Bai Ethnic Group
Bai Ethnic Nationality
However, since the Yuan Troop conquered the region in 1253, the political center of Yunnan moved to Kunming. The whole Yunnan was under the control of the central regime ever since. This region was established as an autonomous prefecture in 1956 with Dali City as the center.

Ethnic Minorities

There are some twenty ethnic minorities now living in the region with the Bai as the largest group, accounting for sixty-five percent of the city's total population. More than 3,500 years ago, ancestors of the Bai created their own culture set at Erhai Lake. Folk oral literature and local ethnic traditions are outstanding features of the so-called 'Erhai Culture'. There are countless legends and myths about the Dragon King, old poems of ethnic favor, music, paintings, residential houses, religions, costumes and festivals. Although influenced by Indian and Chinese culture during Nanzhao and Dali periods, the ethnicity remained strongly unique, surviving today. 
religious rite
Buddhism in Dali

Dali is regarded as an elysian Buddha land, an area in the southwest where Buddhism was introduced first a long time ago. Buddhism here was a hybrid of different Buddhist sects from India, Central China, and Tibet with local culture. After the middle period of the Nanzhao State, Buddhism became the state religion.

There are many Buddhist sights in the area that include pagodas, grottoes, temples and Buddhist mountains. Buddhism reached its highest popularity in the city during the reign of Nanzhao and Dali. Nine of the entire twenty-two emperors of Dali State became monks in Chongsheng Temple.


Among minorities in Yunnan, paintings and sculptures of the Bai are especially advanced which was initially associated with Buddhism. Decorative painting in temples gradually increased in popularity among the Bai, leaving us today to enjoy the frescoes and wood sculptures still found in gated buildings and screen walls. 
Buddha paintings
Buddha Painting in museum
Local Dongjing music is typical Taoist music originating from rituals and the Royal Court during the Nanzhao and Dali states periods. It flourished during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties and was finally perfected in Taoist rites. In the past, it was only played in Taoist temples and royal palaces. However, the pure refreshing music is now a popular folk art, appealing to both natives and 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.
- Last updated on Apr. 06, 2021 -
Questions & Answers on Dali History & Culture
Asked by Arturo Estebanez from SPAIN | Jul. 23, 2016 10:38Reply
Best time to go and restrictions in north western Yunnan
Dear Travel China Guide. I want to go to North Western Yunnan and visit the following prefectures: Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, Dali, Liliang, Baoshan and Lincang

1) Are these prefectures open for foreign tourists? Any restrictions?

2) Some of them are high altitude. I can go on two periods: mid-March to late April (before May 1 holidays) or October-November (after National Day Holidays). What period is the best in terms of weather, scenery (snow peaks in fall/winter or rapeseed fields in spring), etc
Answers (1)
Answered by Susan from USA | Jul. 25, 2016 02:06

As I know, these places are open for you. No special restrictions are required.

Mid-March to late April is a better choice. It is in spring then, and you can enjoy a lovely spring scene. May you have a nice trip! :)
Asked by William from USA | May. 31, 2013 05:23Reply
What is the altitude of Dali?
Answers (1)
Answered by Hinda from FINLAND | Jun. 01, 2013 03:23

It is 2,090m.
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