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For Stephanie Schaufler.

The small kingdom of Dian was a Bronze Age polity which was said to have been based around a lake of the same name near present-day Kunming in southern China. Flourishing in the Bronze Age, Dian was a fairly culturally and socially developed polity which sustained itself through agriculture, forestry, mining, metallurgy and most possibly the lucrative Sino-Burmese trade. Surrounded by many hostile tribes, especially nomadic ones, Dian nevertheless managed to survive the turbulent Warring States period, as well as the rise and fall of the Qin empire but was ultimately diplomatically annexed by Han China.

Once annexed and converted into the commandery of Yizhou, Dian itself lapsed into obscurity, until the 1950s CE when the Communist authorities began excavations outside Shizhai Village near Kunming in Yunnan province. The artefacts discovered at the royal tombs there — comprising some of the most awesome and intricate bronzeworks ever made by man — have since them increased our understanding of Dian, yet many questions regarding their history still remain unanswered.

A Bronze Age riddle

Long before actual archaeological investigations took place, the shores of Lake Dian were known for stray finds of various objects, most notably of bronze. In the wake of the discovery of the Bronze Age Dong Son culture in Vietnam, French intellectuals during the Interbellum speculated that there must also have been bronze casting cultures contemporaneous alongside the Dong Son culture in southern China. This was proven 3 decades later, with the discovery of royal tombs near Kunming, as well as more finds further west at Dabona, outside Dali, as well as further north at Sanxingdui in nearby Sichuan. All 3 of these sites have had artefacts indicating that they were active population centres as early as the 5th century BCE.

Yet how the Dian kingdom first emerged in Yunnan is still very much unknown. What little we know comes mostly from Han sources written regarding contemporaneous political geography, as well as the experiences of Chinese explorers such as the famous Zhang Qian (as recorded by Sima Qian's magnum opus the Records of the Grand Historian, or Shiji for short) who may have visited Dian in looking for an alternate trade route to Bactria and her famed horses without Xiongnü harassment. The Shiji (written almost a century after China had annexed Dian) states that the kingdom was first founded by a Chu general named Zhuang Qiao, who had been sent by the Chu court. No sooner than he arrived at the shores of Lake Dian did general Zhuang receive word from home, that Qin had seized Chu and he had no way to return home, so he instead colonised the land, adopted the way of the locals and became the first king of Dian.

In spite of Chinese sources, and the discovery of royal grave goods, the actual history of Dian is still shrouded in mystery to this day. The kingdom itself produced little in the way of literature, and the very place that the Dian were said to have lived — the shores of Lake Dian — is isolated from the rest of the world by forbidding mountains and treacherous swamps and jungles. Although great numbers of treasure were excavated from the graves at Shizhai Hill, archaeologists speculate that this is but a fraction of all possible artefacts; there may be more located under the very waves of Lake Dian itself.

The Shizhaishan Culture

It was at Shizhai Hill where a vast trove of bronze artefacts, including ceremonial weapons, vessels and even coffins were discovered by PRC archaeologists throughout the 1950s CE, depicting all manner of activities. Yet no textual evidence — aside from a golden seal which must have been gifted by the Han court — was found which could shed light on the context of the burials and even the people buried there, as well as their feats.

Nevertheless, the vast number and quality of the burial goods uncovered there have provided tantalising clues about who the Dian were and what their society were capable of. We know that the people who produced these bronzes — now dubbed the Shizhaishan culture, after where they were unearthed — were highly proficient metalworkers, or were capable of commanding sufficient labour to either produce or purchase them. The Dian were most likely to be proficient metalworkers and the ones who produced these bronzes, since the hills of Yunnan are rich in copper - even as some later burials contain the remains of iron implements. Some of these bronzes (most likely ritual vessels containing offerings of food, just like those discovered further northeast in China proper) are depictions of agricultural activities and cattle rearing — the number of images of bulls and buffaloes found must indicate that cattle and livestock ranching must have contributed to the local economy. Yet too, as the Shiji suggests, the Dian too had a highly sophisticated and tightly organised society capable of belligerent behaviour, for there too are scenes of dancing, warfare and even human sacrifice.

We too know that the Dian too must have been astute traders — Han sources state that the Dian often traded with the more better known kingdom of Shu to the north as well as the Dong Son cultures further south, while grave goods of Chinese design were discovered in many of the tombs, implying a close relation to the Chinese world (but it is one whose links, again, still remain elusive). The Shizhaishan culture also dressed in the way Han sources mentioned — highborn men sported topknots in "mallet fashion", while women wore their hair down, "open-faced". Yet, the existence of equestrian figures, as well as figures dressed tantalisingly in Central Asian garb — capes and trousers — have led some scholars to believe that the Dian had contacts farther beyond Sichuan, perhaps all the way to present-day Xinjiang itself too. This contact with western China is somewhat contested - one Russo-American duo have controversially proposed that the Dian may have intermingled with the Scythians, or were even colonised by them prior to official contact with the Han. More controversial are nigrocentric pseudohistorical claims that the Dian kingdom was originally founded by Negroid peoples migrating from from Africa — a claim which is not entertained at all by contemporary scholarly consensus.

Foreign threats

Despite the vibrancy of Dian culture, and the fertility of the lands surrounding the Dian capital, the kingdom itself suffered from geopolitical isolation. Mountains to the south and west prevented the Dian from expanding there, while Han sources - primarily dominated by the Shiji - attest to the existence of powerful neighbours, such as the Nanman kingdom of Yelang, and the Sino-Yue state of Nanyue farther east, as well as threats from nomadic tribes to the north, most notably the Kunming tribes. Although Dian had links to other more prominent powers in the past such as the late kingdoms of Shu to the north and Chu to the northeast, it was not until the Han dynasty that the Chinese began to focus on expansion in the south, as well as the kingdom of Dian. There were many reasons for doing this.

The first one was purely military — the Han Empire dominated the Central Plains and Yellow River, yet had to face the depredations of the northern Xiongnü tribes, while the southeast bordered the kingdom of Nanyue, ruled by the Zhao dynasty, who were descended from one of Emperor Qinshi's generals. The second was for commercial reasons — by the time of Emperor Wu, the Han had become aware of the existence of sophisticated states to the west in India and Bactria, and also wanted access to Bactria's famed Ferghana horses to provide an edge for the Chinese army against the Xiongnü, whose cavalry were the terror of the Chinese — the deteriorating diplomatic situation with the Xiongnü during Emperor Wu's reign, and his desire for a more decisive solution in neutralising them, meant that it was no longer safe for Chinese caravans to pass through, and the Xiongnü in no way wanted the Chinese to grow ever stronger through trade. Thus it was for these two reasons, that the Han began to send envoys to Dian, seeking to block the Zhao dynasty from becoming too powerful, and to search for a new route to Central Asia that would bypass the now unsafe Hexi corridor.

Chinese Dominion

Following Zhang Qian's return to China in 125BCE, Emperor Wu decided that China needed to seek alternate trade routes to Bactria which weren't menaced by the Xiongnü. Four groups of envoys and explorers were sent, of which one arrived in Dian but couldn't go further due to the savage tribes that lived around Dian, although it managed to relay back to the Han court information of other cultures far beyond the south and west of Dian.

From that point onward, Chinese activity in the region ebbed and flowed, depending on the situation between Han China and her most powerful neighbours, the Xiongnü host to the north, and the Chinese kingdom of Nanyue to the south, culminating in the final defeat of Nanyue in 111BCE. With Nanyue successfully annexed to the empire, Dian was now the only independent kingdom left outside of China's pre-Han southern borders that had not been subjugated. Dian at first did not submit when first approached in 109BCE — at that moment, the kingdom had a small army, and an alliance with some local tribes, so the Chinese despatched a military expedition to exterminate them.

Only after her tribal allies were destroyed in this manner did Dian accept Han demands. The Dian royal family was allowed to continue ruling as a member of the Empire's tributary states, and the Han court issued them with a seal acknowledging their authority over their territory but this gesture would prove fruitless. Within 20 years, a rebellion broke out in Dian against the Chinese. This time, the Han response could not have been more different: the rebellion was ruthlessly crushed, cultural sinicisation intensified, and the kingdom, replaced with a Chinese viceroyalty upon abolition, would pass away from living memory until the 20th century, when its relics were unearthed at Shizhai Hill.

The Dai people, an ethnic group who live across Southeast Asia, are considered by some to be the heirs of Dian culture.