Fortress Village - The Ethnic Minorities of Southwest China  
Archaeological Documents and the Archaeology of Documents

The central part of Jianchuan Grottos—Mingwang Hall.
There are not many documents that directly tell us about Bai history. Most of the historical facts related to Nanzhao Dali Kingdom, which existed before the thirteenth century, have been obtained from excavated artifacts and texts, and legends. Bai history from after the thirteenth century, paralleling the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, is based mostly on metal or stone inscriptions found locally, as well as official histories and local chronicles. In the Bai territory there have been many significant findings of grottos, illustrated scrolls, Buddhist scriptures and tomb writings; these historical sites and items are all closely linked to the Bai people’s history of kings and of Buddhism. They include: 1) Shizhongshan Grottos in Jianchuan county, Dali. 2) two illustrated scrolls—“Nanzhao Tujuan” and “Zhang Shengwen Huajuan,” and 3) “Buddhistic Scripture of Dali Kingdom (Dali guo fo jiao xie jing)” which was excavated from the Dong family altar in Beitangtian village, Fengyi town. Each of these materials depicts a different side to the history of the Bai monarchy. The Jianchuan Shizhongshan Grottos consist of sixteen caves that house a total of one hundred and thirty-nine statues. The caves were created from 850 to 1179 A.D., and the contents inside include statues of kings, illustrations depicting politics of the monarchy, and statues of Guanyin, Pusa, and Mingwang. The most representative items are “Xi Nuluo Ji Hou Fei (illustration of Xi Nuluo with his queen and concubines),” “Yi Mouxun Yi Zhen Tu (illustration of Yi Mouxun discussing political affairs),” “Mingwangtang Badahufa Tu (illustration of the eight diamond-kings, or bodhisattvas, in their representations as fierce guardians of Vairocana),” and “Huayan San Sheng (illustrations of Vairocana, Manjusri, and Samantabhadra).” These carvings not only reflect the influence of Buddhist principles, but also show that the Nanzhao Dali rulers possessed a considerably high religious status.

The fact that the Nanzhao Dali Kingdom was a Buddhist regime was also proven in two later documents—“Nanzhao Tujuan” (9th to 10th century, height 31.5 cm, length 580 cm, currently at Yurinkan Museum of Art, Kyoto) and “Zhang Shengwen Huajuan” (1180 A.D., height 30 cm, length 16 m, currently at the National Palace Museum, Taipei). Both are illustrated scrolls crucial to interpreting Bai history. The former describes the story of Xinuluo, the founder of Nanzhao. In it he worships an iron post with eight other tribal leaders, and was assured by Guanyin that his wife would attain Buddhahood. Later, Guanyin appears seven times to enlighten Nanzhao Kingdom, making it the guiding regime of the entire southwest region of China. On the other hand, “Zhang Shengwen Huajuan” depicts the King of Nanzhao Dali Kingdom as worshiping the Buddha, and the Buddhist Diagram of the Dharmadhātu. This piece expresses an even more complicated and blended view of Buddhist cosmology and offers an extra account of the development of Dali Kingdom’s Buddhist monarchy.

Nanzhao Tujuan.
Zhang Shengwen Huajuan.
Nan Guanyin Tanggu Temple in Dali City.

The contents of the above two scrolls are partially confirmed in local legends; “Baigu Tongji” and “Jigu Dianshuo Yuanji” are texts of local legends that link the history of the Nanzhao Dali Kingdom with Guanyin’s cultivation of Dali, which is considered a part of Indian emperor Ashoka’s territory as well. Until the Qing Dynasty(1644-1911 A.D.), this ancient capital located in the Erhai region was still called “Ancient Kingdom of Miaoxiang” (Gandahar).
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