Dali Ancient City

Written by Vivian Updated Jun. 9, 2021

Dali Ancient City has been known over time as Dali Old City, Yeyu City, Forbidden City (unrelated to the Forbidden City in Beijing), and Zhonghezhen by the local Bai people. It lies about 13 kilometers north of the new municipality of the same name (but generally referred to as Xiaguan), situated between Cangshan Mountain to the west and Erhai Lake to the east.

Dali/Xiaguan is the capital of Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, the only prefecture of the Bai ethnic minority in China (there are of course Bai ethnic individuals and enclaves in various parts of China, but their concentration in these areas does not warrant the creation of a political entity expressly in their name). There are also several other minority groups in this area besides the Bai, but the Bai is the largest group, comprising over 60% of the ethnic community throughout the prefecture.

History of Dali Ancient Town

Dali is justifiably termed an ancient town, as it has a thousand-year history. The 6th king of the Nanzhao state, Yi Muxun, built Dali in 779 and made the city his new capital. It was initially very tiny, consisting of only 6 streets, but it quickly became a lively marketplace that attracted merchants from far and wide. The center section of this old town, where the marketplace was located, was called Yeyu City.

The city grew under subsequent Nanzhao kings. For example, Wuhua Tower was constructed west of the original old town from 823 to 859 during the reign of Quan Youfeng, the 10th king of the Nanzhao state.

Chong Sheng Monastery

In the years that followed, there began the construction of Chong Sheng Monastery to the northwest of the city; it consists of 3 pagodas, of which Qianxun Pagoda is the most well-known. In its heyday, Chongsheng Monastery was the largest of its kind in the region and comprised several monastic structures other than the Three Pagodas, which are all that remain today of this once thriving monastery.

Yeyu City-the Center of Dali Ancient City

Yeyu City continued to expand both physically, commercially, and in its political influence. When the Dali state was officially founded, replacing the Nanzhao state, Yeyu City—which, at the time had come to signify the entire city, not just the city's original core—was renamed Dali. It retained its status as the capital of the new state. Dali remains the capital city of the modern-day Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, though the official offices are now located in the new part of Dali city, Xiaguan.

For a period stretching some 600 years, spanning several imperial Chinese dynasties, Yeyu City/Dali was the political, economic, and cultural hub of Yunnan Province. Today, the old city's many cultural and historical sites bear witness to its glorious past: the 2 towers, one to the north and one to the south, that stand facing each other; the 9 streets and 18 lanes that crisscross each other in checkerboard fashion; and the famous former residence of Du Wenxiu, the commander of a peasant uprising during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), which came to be known as the "Forbidden City," all serve as evidence of the city's illustrious history.

But perhaps the most prominent feature of Dali Ancient City is its grandiose format: with a perimeter of some 6 kilometers and with its former fortress city walls standing 7.5 meters high and 6 meters thick on all four sides (some sections of these walls still stand), complete with gates and towers, this is truly an expansive capital city, befitting a king.

The layout of Dali Ancient City and its typical Bai architectural styles

The main street of the old city is laid out in a north-south direction. Lining both sides of the main street are buildings with roofs made of green tiles. Houses, stores, and workshops connect in a simple, organic fashion that is very appealing.

Lushly bordered meandering creeks carve up the city, imparting an air of freshness. Cozy gardens and quaint teahouses beckon visitors inside, offering a respite from the summer heat, while shops and booths, chock full of must-have handicrafts whose workmanship can only be described as exquisite, are ready to tempt the re-energized traveler.

There are 2 main Bai building styles for private dwellings: Sanfang Yizhaobi, which consists of a center courtyard with rooms on 3 sides and a light-reflecting "shining" wall on the fourth side, the side opposite the main room (corresponding to the living room/parlor in an Anglo-Saxon dwelling); and Sihe Wu Tianjin, or a set of 4 houses, one in each corner of a large center courtyard, and with 4 additional small courtyards, one adjacent to each of the corner houses. Sanfang Yizhaobi is the most common Bai housing style.

The purpose of the light-reflecting wall is as follows: Since the worst gale winds generally come from the west in this part of Yunnan Province, it is advantageous to position the house such that its back faces west, leaving the entrance facing east, where there is little wind. This is especially critical in the new city of Dali (Xiaguan), which is more exposed than usual (it is aptly called the City of Wind).

However, since the sun sets in the west, if there is no "shining" wall to reflect light towards the front of the house where the main room (living room/parlor) is situated, the occupants would be consigned to sit in the dark for much of the afternoon or use artificial lighting.

The "shining" wall thus neatly resolves this potential problem in an unintentional but environmentally friendly fashion. The "shining" wall shines, as it were, towards the close of the day when the sun's rays are low and can hit the wall with full force, reflecting bright sunlight into the courtyard and especially through the windows of the living room.

The Sihe Wutianjing building style

The Sihe Wutianjing building style is more exclusive, being reserved for the more well-to-do members of society. Much care is taken in designing the entrance gate to the Sihe Wutianjing compound, as its design and adornment are an occasion to flaunt one's social and economic status.

The elaborate ornamentation of the main gate also pays homage to one's ancestors.
Both the Sihe Wutianjing and Sanfang Yizhaobi styles feature the woodwork of doors and windows engraved with the figures of various birds and flowers (these special woodcarvings are made in the neighboring city of Jianchuan). As well, the walls of the rooms are decorated with so-called wash paintings.

Sometimes referred to as ink-and-wash painting, the style is more commonly associated with Japanese art but it is in fact a Chinese technique that was developed during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It involves a small amount of pigment or ink and a large amount of solvent to prepare the canvas or surface before using it in drawings, calligraphy, and others.

Also in both styles, the houses display painted roofs and pillars, upturned eaves, and the special "dugong" system, or a system of double brackets that support the roof atop the pillars. These visual elements are all unique Bai architectural characteristics.

Dali Marble

Another building material common to Dali is marble. Marble comes in 2 main types: pure-color marble and grain marble. Dali’s marble is of the latter type. In Chinese, marble is often referred to as "Dali Stone" because it is typically produced in Dali.

The marble is quarried from all 19 peaks on Cangshan Mountain, and it has an exquisite texture with unique, colorful veins. It glitters translucently, making it one of the most highly-prized qualities of Dali marble since it was first quarried in the Kingdom of Nanzhao during the Tang Dynasty. Dali marble is sold the world over where fine marble is demanded.

For as long as history stretches, Dali marble has been used to adorn imperial palaces and to fashion the tombs of famous personages. Many famous works are made from Dali white marble. They include the basso-relievo and hurdles of the foundation of the Monument for the People's Heroes in Beijing, the seated Statue of Chairman Mao in the Memorial Hall of Chairman Mao, and the Statue of Nie Er in the Nie Er tomb on the Western Mountain of Kunming.

Dali marble is also used to ornament the Jianchuan woodwork of windowsills and door jambs of Bai houses, where smaller pieces of finely worked marble are inlaid, some with intricate carvings.

In spite of the sheer density of the area's 2 basic building materials, Jianchuan wood and Dali marble, the end result as seen in the construction of a typical Bai house is one of delicacy, elegance, and balance. The technique that produces this effect—the upturned eaves, painted roof and pillars, and system of double brackets that support the roof atop the pillars—combined with artistic interior enhancements such as wash paintings where flowers are a favorite motif, are features that make the typical Bai house one of the most interesting examples of regional architecture in all of southwest China.


In both Jianchuan and Dali, cottage industries have sprung up where smaller works of art, carved either on the wood of Jianchuan or of the marble of Dali, are available to visitors who wish to remember their visit to the area with an exquisite example of the area's fine handicraft tradition. Other smaller artisanal items use carved marble as inlays. A multitude of these wood and marble craft items, including Chinese fans, small pots, and vases, are sold in the shops and booths that line the streets of Dali Ancient City.

A devotion to flowers

The Bai people are especially fond of flowers. Most Bai have large flower beds in their yards, and on the February 14 of the lunar calendar every year, the Flower Festival is celebrated. On this day, the people place a myriad of potted plants, all in bloom, in front of their houses to create a "flower hill." So fond are the Bai of flowers that "Golden Flower" is a typical Bai name for a girl, and Dali city itself is called the "Hometown of Golden Flowers."

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