The Dian Kingdom and its bronze culture

By Ma Tongchun, a local resident and senior English-speaking tour guide with over 30 years of professional experience. Mr Ma shares his experience and knowledge about Kunming which is called "a city of museums". As a historic site in Kunming, Shizhaishan Hill of Jinning County is located on the southern bank of the Dianchi Lake. 

Last October, we drove 50km out of Kunming downtown to Shizhaishanin Hill in Jinning County for a historical discovery tour. We got there only 40 minutes by driving along the Dianchi Lake Expressway. We parked our jeep at the village plaza and took 5 minutes walk to the entrance. The entrance gate structure is very special: a copy of the roof of Ganlanshi Type of Dian architecture. The entire hill was fenced with iron wire fixed on the concrete poles and we could only enter through the entrance. We said friendly hello to the gate guardians and told them what we would do then the hospitable peasant guardians opened the gate and we walked into where we saw the historical site with our own eyes. 


This is only a small hill with some archeological excavation pits full of grass and some sparse bushes here and there but there are a lot of stories to tell.


To see the real bronze wares, we drove back to Kunming City Museum to have a close-up look at the bronze display there.


The golden seal of Dian King
The golden seal of the Dian King was unearthed in the tomb of the Dian King Changqiang at Shizhaishan Hill on December 28, 1956. 


It was a sensational archeological discovery in Yunnan Province for it strongly proved that the Dian Kingdom in the legend really existed in the Dianchi Lake area 2000 year ago and politically related with the Han Dynasty because the golden seal was presented to the Dian King by Emperor Hanwudi in the West Han Dynasty (109BC).

The archeological discovery of the Dian Bronze wares are of many kinds: cowry containers (bronze drums), musical instruments, ritual vessels, weapons, farming tools, textile tools, articles for daily use, decorative appliances and so on, which were of Dian cultural ecstasy or essence and strong Yunnan ethnic styles. Showing the masterful casting technique of modeling, filling model casting, dewaxing model casting and artistry and the skilled use of the bronze alloy as well as the successful experience, Dian Bronze gained high position in the four bronze cultures of the world including the Greek bronze culture, Central China bronze culture, Dian bronze culture and North China prairie culture.

The archaeological circles traditionally refer to the bronze culture which appeared in the Dianchi Lake area from the Warring States period to the Eastern Han Dynasty as "Dian Culture" and named it "the Culture of Shizhaishan Type" because it was discovered first at the Shizhaishan Hill in Jinning County. The bronze exhibits in Kunming City Museum are just the the bronze culture in the Dianchi Lake area, an excellent art among the splendid Chinese bronze cultures of the profound historical and cultural background.

With Dianchi Lake area as the centre, the Dian bronze cultures are widely distributed in central Yunnan including Qujing to the east, Yuanjiang to the south, Jinshajiang River to the north, and Lufeng to the west, and Kunming, Jinning, Chenggong, Jiangchuan, Anning, Lufeng, Shilin, Luliang and Qujing etc are all involved. There are in all 14 counties and over 60 spots included, and the most important spots are the Shizhaishan Hill of Jinning County, Lijiashan Hill of Jiangchuan County, Batatai Terrace of Qujing, Tianzimiao of Chenggong, Shibeicun Village of Chenggong and Taijishan Hill of Anning. 


The bronze wares excavated
Cowry containers, cowry are the ringed sea shells from the tropical coast of the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean, which means that the Dian ethnics in the inland Yunnan had already exchanged with the peoples along the coasts and they took the sea shells as media currency and especially the ruling class made the bronze container to store the cowries as the plus values. We can say the bronze cowry containers are the forefather of China's banks and also the forefather of the world's banks!


The containers
The containers are of different shapes, some are drum-shaped, some are tubular, and some are irregular. 

Three containers, excavated from Tomb 41# at Tianzimiao Temple, had no ornamentations on the bodies, and the shape is tubular, the lids had octagonal radiation patterns intaglio carved in the middle and 600 pieces of cowries inside when excavated.

The lids with five cattle, one is relatively big and other four are standing around the edge with tails and heads linked. The bodies have feather men boating patterns and water birds and cattle carved. The cattle were the sign of the property, which displayed the chase and desire of the owners for wealth. There are cast 7 figurines on the body with high air bun, bare feet, with the gong touching the ground and spears on the shoulders--which means there was a well-armed and well-trained army in the Dian Kingdom. 

The lids of the cowry containers had different patterns cast, sculptured or carved such as the battle scenes, textile scenes, oath-taking scene, and human sacrifice etc. In addition, there were patterns of "storing" and "grazing", revivifying and reproducing the real society of the Dian Kingdom. The ancient Dians vividly and intuitively cast their own social and historical life on the bronze wares with no written records, which we can say is a great creation of the Dians and a unique way of the historic record. Therefore, the containers were not only the bronze containers storing the cowry currency but also the important state implements of the Dian Kingdom authority. These patterns cast on the lids also showed the prominent status, position or the glorious experience of the host in the tombs. The war scene pattern on the containers unearthed in Shizhaishan Hill exposed an astonishing war.


The drums
The drums usually used as the cooking pots first and then used as drums when battles drumming for fight.

Yunnan is the province where the bronze drums were widely discovered. The bronze drums were not only the musical instruments, but also the ritual vessels and valuable devices, only the royal families and the higher-ups could possess. The 1,400 bronze drums collected in China are classified into eight types of different drums such as "Wanjiaba Type", "Shizhaishan Hill Type", "Lengshuichong Type", and "Majiang Type" etc. The common characteristics of these bronze drums are bronze-made, flat tops and curve bodies, empty inside and no bottom, 4 hangers on the sides. 

The drums unearthed at Tianzimiao Temple of Chenggong were the relics of the Warring States period and one of the two, the surfaces had the sun patterns and the main halo were four flying herons around the sun pattern (this is the evidence that there were ever since lots of herons in the Dianchi Lake area), there were round point patterns and triangle tooth veins with round points on the outer halo and this drum was unearthed from the biggest tomb in the central part of the site, and this implied the preciousness of the bronze drum during the Warring State period, the prominent social status and the high nobility of the host. It is noticeable that the plain drums without patterns were the relics of the Spring-Autumn period. 


The buckle ornaments
The buckle ornaments were the characteristic artifacts among the Dian bronze wares and usually used as ornaments. They are, by their shapes, rectangular, circular and irregular; while by the casting technology, they are hollowed carvings,mosaic and relief and so on. But any shape or any technology, there must be a hook welded on the back to buckle it on the clothes or on other things. 

The bronze buckles are usually classified into two kinds: one is the animal patterns, such as frogs, snails, tigers, eagles, and monkeys etc. There were over 40 kinds of animals taken by the Dians to make their buckle patterns; the other one is the architecture or houses or sacrificial columns. Some buckles had the roof patterns and some had the sacrificial columns human or animal sacrifices.

The weapons
The weapons are the bronze wares mostly unearthed in the Dianchi Lake area, more than 70 pieces were unearthed in Tomb 71#, which are dagger-axes, spears, swords, battle-axes, axes, arrowheads, crossbows, maces and so on. 

The bronze wares unearthed in Dianchi Lake area shows a complete society of the Dian Kingdom:

The golden seal of Dian King shows the political status of Dian in the West Han Dynasty;
The cowry containers show the economy of Dian Kingdom;
The bronze reed pipe shows the musical history so long and ancient;
The bronze horn pillow with massage function shows the medical science of the time;
The cattle and tiger table shows the ritual ceremony of Dian society;
The bronze cattle heads show natural religion and worship of the time;
The model house shows the architecture of Dian Kingdom;
The bronze figurines show the clothes style and the head ornament of Dian people which we still can see among the local ethnic people.


Well, with a lot of information of Shaizhaishan Hill and Dian Kingdom, I hope a visit to the Shizhaishan Hill will be fruitful.