Map of Asia and Europe circa 1200 C.E.

Nanzhao, alternate spellings Nanchao and Nan Chao (Traditional Chinese: 南詔; Simplified Chinese: 南诏; pinyin: Nánzhāo; Tibetan: Jang[1]) was a polity that flourished in what is now southern China and Southeast Asia during the 8th and 9th centuries. It was centered around present-day Yunnan in China.

Founding and ethnography

Asia 800ad

Asia in 800AD, showing Nanzhao and its neighbors.

Originally, there were several tribes that settled on the fertile land around Erhai lake. These tribes were called Mengshe (蒙舍), Mengsui (蒙嶲), Langqiong (浪穹), Dengtan (邆賧), Shilang (施浪), and Yuexi (越析). Each tribe had its own kingdom, known as a zhao. In 649 AD the chieftain of the Mengshe tribe, Xinuluo (細奴邏), founded a kingdom (Damengguo 大蒙國) in the area of Lake Erhai. In the year AD 737, with the support of the Tang Dynasty of China, Piluoge united the six zhaos in succession, establishing a new kingdom called Nanzhao, (i.e., 'Southern Zhao').

Nanzhao was made up of many ethnic and linguistic groups. Some historians believe that the majority of the population was Bai, but that the elite spoke a variant of Yi, a Tibeto-Burman language closely related to Burmese. In any case, the capital was established in 738 at Taihe (modern day Taihe village, a few miles south of Dali). Located in the heart of the Erhai valley, the site was ideal: it could be easily defended against attack, and it was in the midst of rich farmland.

From 680 CE it came under Tibetan control. The Tibetans recognised their suzerainty after 703 and then took it under their control again from 750-794, when Nanzhao turned on their Tibetan overlords and helped China defeat their armies.[2]


Nanzhao had a strong connection with Theravada Buddhism, as evidenced by surviving stone carvings, as well as temples from the period. Some scholars are said to have claimed that Nanzhao's Acarya Buddhism was related to the Tantric Ari Buddhism of Bagan, Myanmar.


In 750, Nanzhao rebelled against the Tang Dynasty. In retaliation, the Tang sent an army against Nanzhao in 751, but this army was soundly defeated at Xiaguan. (It was in the same year that the Tang suffered another serious defeat at the hands of the Arabs at the Battle of Talas in Central Asia; these defeats weakened the dynasty both internally and externally.) Today the General's Cave (two km west of Xiaguan), and the Tomb of Ten Thousand Soldiers (in Tianbao Park) bear witness to this great massacre. In 754 another army was sent, this time from the north, but it too was defeated. Bolstered by these successes, Nanzhao expanded rapidly, first into Burma, then into the rest of Yunnan, down into northern Laos and Thailand, and finally, north into Sichuan. In 829, Chengdu was taken; it was a great prize, as it enabled Nanzhao to lay claim to the whole of Sichuan province, with its rich paddy fields. This was too much for the Tang Dynasty, who lost no time in counterattacking.


By 873, Nanzhao had been expelled from Sichuan, and retreated back to Yunnan. Taking Chengdu marked the high point of the Nanzhao kingdom, and it was a watershed: from then on, the Nanzhao Kingdom slowly declined.


In 902, the Nanzhao dynasty was overthrown, and it was followed by three other dynasties in quick succession, until Duan Siping seized power in 937 to establish the Kingdom of Dali.


  1. Stein, R. A. (1972) Tibetan Civilization, p. 63. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-0806-1 (cloth); ISBN 0-8047-0901-7 (pbk)
  2. Stein, R. A. (1972) Tibetan Civilization, pp. 60, 65. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-0806-1 (cloth); ISBN 0-8047-0901-7 (pbk)


ru:Наньчжао th:อาณาจักรน่านเจ้า vi:Nam Chiếu zh:南诏