Shaxi ancient town 01

The sleepy town of Shaxi near the Heihui River is a far cry from what it once was. However, go there any given Friday and you’ll be met with the bustling local market, the last remnant of a trading culture that has all but disappeared in modern-day China. Like Dali Ancient Town and Shuhe Town, Shaxi once prospered thanks to the ancient Tea-Horse Road but, unlike its local counterparts, it has not yet suffered from the commercialisation that tourist towns inevitably succumb to. Though Shaxi boasts a few Western-style restaurants and boutique hotels, its relative inaccessibility compared to many of the other ancient towns in Yunnan means it does not receive the hordes of tourists that can make these spots a little less magical.

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Shaxi became one of the focal trade hubs along the Tea-Horse Road and by the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties it had flourished into one of the most affluent towns in Yunnan. Shaxi’s success largely arose from the salt wells that were dug near the town. It soon became the salt trade capital and, with salt being one of the most valuable commodities at the time, it prospered far beyond expectation. Revenge may be sweet, but success is evidently salty! This allowed the town to expand and many of the elaborate buildings found throughout Shaxi were erected during this time.

The town is largely inhabited by the Bai ethnic minority and many of its old buildings follow the Bai-style of “three rooms and one wall screening”. The house will usually consist of one main room, two side rooms and a “shining wall” that faces west so as to reflect light back into the house at sunset. The houses normally have three storeys in total and nine rooms, as nine is an auspicious number in Bai culture. The ground floor usually consists of one large sitting room flanked by two bedrooms, while the upper floors are used for storage with a special room set aside for the ancestral shrine.

Life in Shaxi mainly revolves around Square Street, the town’s central square. This ancient plaza is covered in red sand bricks and has two Chinese scholar trees standing at its centre that are each centuries old. It is still fully functioning on market day and is surrounded by a number of small temples, shops, teahouses and restaurants. It is flanked on its east side by an ancient stage and on its west by the 600-year-old Xingjiao Temple. The many ancient alleyways that branch out from Square Street are the backbone of Shaxi and provide access to its outer reaches. They lead to the village gates and pass by ancient caravansaries, eventually heading out towards Dali, Tibet and the salt wells.

The ancient stage is widely considered to be the heart and soul of Shaxi. The craftsmanship with which it was made is palpable in its many intricate carvings. It was built during the Qing Dynasty and is part of the three-storey Kuixing Pavilion. If you pay 10 yuan (about £1), you can ascend the ancient stage and head up to an exhibition of locally excavated cultural relics on the pavilion’s second storey. Just don’t linger too long on the stage, or the locals might expect a performance from you!

If you fancy getting in touch with the town’s history, you should certainly take a trip to Ouyang House. It was one of the original caravansaries and has been home to generations of muleteers over a period of one hundred years. In the early 1900s, the Ouyang family opened their house to passing caravans and offered food, lodgings and entertainment. They swiftly became the leading innkeepers in Shaxi and their substantial income enabled them to renovate and extend their inn. Nowadays, you can pay just 5 yuan (about 50p) to take a tour of the house and marvel at its ancient stables, guest quarters, kitchen, and ancestral shrine.

In spite of all these visual wonders, the must-see attraction in Shaxi is the town market, which has supposedly been held weekly since 1415. Although it started as a small affair, it has now become an all-consuming venture that billows out from the town square and floods the streets of Shaxi every week. From 10am till 5pm every Friday, goods ranging from washing machines to embroidered shoes and exotic fruits can be purchased at this eclectic market. It is a living remnant of Shaxi’s history as a trading post and is a spectacle of vibrancy, colour and animation that should not be missed.

Not far from the town you’ll find Mount Shibao, which is a mountain that has been delicately engraved with Buddhist carvings that date back to the 7th century. These 1,300-year-old carvings, punctuated by small temples along the mountainside, are truly stunning and make for a wonderful day out. If you decide to cycle out of the town, there are many small Bai and Yi villages in the Shaxi Valley that are only a short distance away and each boast their own unique attractions, from the renovated Pear Orchard Temple in Diantou Village to the Kuixing Pavilion of Changle Village.

If possible, we recommend you aim to catch the Temple Fair of Prince Shakyamuni, which takes place on the 8th day of the 2nd month according to the Chinese lunar calendar. During this festival, locals in colourful traditional clothes gather at Xingjiao Temple and parade through the streets carrying statues of Shakyamuni[1], while a team of people beat gongs and drums to liven up the procession. Performances will take place on the ancient stage throughout the festival and the celebrations carry on late into the night, electrifying the town square with bright lights, lively music and joyous dancing.

[1] Shakyamuni: One of the titles of Gautama Buddha, the central figure of the Buddhist faith. It is derived from the name Sakya, which is where he was born.

Dali Prefecture Museum

Dali bai museum01

With a history stretching back over 4,000 years, it’s no wonder Dali was the first city in Yunnan to get its own museum. The Dali Prefecture Museum, known to most by its ridiculous long official name of Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture Museum, was established in 1986 and is free to enter so long as you provide proof of ID. The museum was built in the Bai ethnic minority architectural style, meaning that the building is a cultural relic in of itself. China’s wonderful tradition of “living” museums, where interactive exhibits delight visitors, is what makes them unique and the Dali Prefecture Museum is no different. From its tranquil open-air gardens to its March Celebration activities, this museum is far too lively to start gathering dust anytime soon!

The exhibition halls are all based on the Bai concept of “three rooms and one wall screening, four joints and five courtyards”, which is how most Bai homes look. The first half, “three rooms and one wall screening”, refers to the structure of the main house, which will usually have one main room, two side rooms and a “shining wall” that faces west so it reflects light back into the house at sunset. The second half, “four joints and five courtyards”, refers to the four courtyards in the corners of the house that join the four walls together and the fifth courtyard that sits at the centre. Having adopted this layout, the museum is satisfyingly symmetrical and is permeated by lush cypresses and looming pine trees. The building has been described as a work of art in of itself, and is definitely worth seeing even if you don’t fancy going into the museum.

The Nanzhao Kingdom (738-902) and the Dali Kingdom (937-1253) once ruled over Yunnan and made Dali their capital. Under their reign, Dali prospered as a trade hub and became instrumental in the dissemination of Buddhism throughout the country. This makes Dali Prefecture Museum unique, as its one of the only places where you can find cultural relics from either of these ancient kingdoms. The museum is the central institution in Dali when it comes to conducting research and excavations, amassing collections, and holding exhibitions. This means that, although it is still relatively young, it has managed to accumulate over 7,000 articles for display. So, if you spent just 30 seconds looking at each object in the museum, you’d need two and a half days to get through them all!

Dali bai museum02The museum is made up of twelve exhibition halls, eight of which are open throughout the year. These include exhibitions of paintings, stone carvings and cultural artefacts from the Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms, articles of fine marble, chinaware, and bronze relics, items related to Bai folk customs, and historical relics from the Cultural Revolution. While many of the exhibits focus on the founding and history of the Nanzhao and Dali empires, the Bai folk customs exhibition features stunning traditional clothes and craftworks from the Bai ethnic minority and the Modern Revolutionary exhibit tells the story of the patriots who passed through Yunnan during the Long March[1].

Amongst the 7,000 artefacts owned by the museum, several of them are considered priceless. They are the only relics of their kind in the world, so be careful not to press on the glass cases or you’ll be paying for it your whole life! After all, how could you put a price on stunning bronze ornaments dating back to the Warring States Period (c. 476-221 B.C.) or earthenware horses from the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD)? From the many marble statues of Buddha through to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) golden cap inlaid with shimmering rubies and sapphires, the museum is a banquet of colourful delights that are sure to caress and satisfy the senses.

We recommend visiting the museum from March to June, as the resident camellias will be in bloom and the March Celebration activities will be taking place. Walking through the exhibits, each one more luxuriant than the last, you’ll undoubtedly start to feel like an Emperor strolling through his palace. Just be sure not to start barking orders at anyone, or you might get yourself thrown out!



[1] The Long March (1934-1935): The famous path that the Red Army of the Communist Party took to evade the pursuit of the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party). Mao Zedong led the retreat and his participation was instrumental in his subsequent rise to power.

Bai Ethnic Festivals

The Bai people celebrate a myriad of indigenous festivals, from the Folk Song Festival on Mount Shibao to the Rao San Ling Festival, but the three most important festivals are the Sanyue Festival, Torch Festival, and Benzhu Festivals.

The Sanyue Festival

bai sanyue festivalThe Sanyue or “March” Festival is the grandest in the Bai calendar and is held annually at the foot of Mount Cangshan near Dali from the 15th to the 20th day of the 3rd lunar month. Although it is called the March Festival, it actually falls sometime in April. Originally it began as a religious festival to pay homage to Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. According to legend, Guanyin once rescued the residents of the Erhai region from certain death by defeating a band of man-eating Raksa demons. Thank goodness she got rid of all of them, or else Yunnan’s tourist trade would have definitely suffered!

From then on, the people held an annual Guanyin Market in her honour and this slowly became a fully-fledged festival. These occasions were particularly important in ancient China since they offered merchants from Tibet, Sichuan, Guangdong, and Hunan the chance to peddle their wares and buy goods that they rarely had access to. It is thought this type of market dates all the way back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907)! Over time the Sanyue Festival has evolved into a fair where sports competitions, dance performances, and the trading of goods have become the focal attraction. After all, we’re pretty sure the Goddess of Mercy wouldn’t mind people having a little fun!

The Torch Festival

bai torch festivalThe Torch Festival is celebrated by numerous ethnic minorities throughout southwest China, but is celebrated by the Bai people on the 25th day of the 6th lunar month, meaning it falls sometime in July. On the day of the festival, villagers light torches and carry them around the fields to drive away insects. They believe this will usher in a bumper harvest and bless the locals with good health and fortune. Doorways and village gates will be decorated with streamers bearing auspicious words that are also flanked by torches. The words must be particularly lucky, as miraculously these paper streamers never catch fire! In some villages, the locals will gather around large bonfires in nearby fields.

The origin of the Torch Festival is recounted in a Bai folk song known as “The Burning of the Torches in the Hall”. This song recounts how Piluoge, the founder and king of the Nanzhao Kingdom (738-902), invited the leaders of the other five warring tribes to a sumptuous banquet in Songming Tower. When they arrived, he betrayed them and burned them all to death. Talk about a warm welcome! Many other ethnic groups in southwest China celebrate this festival to commemorate their ancient kings, who were murdered by Piluoge. However, nowadays the festival is barely connected to the original legend and has become a standardised way of worshipping for ample crops and prosperity in the coming year.

The Benzhu Festivals

bai benzhu festivalIn the villages around Dali, the Benzhu Festival takes place twice every year but the largest and most magnificent one comes directly after Spring Festival. On the morning of the festival, all of the villagers will don their festive clothes and gather in the Benzhu Temple. The benzhu shrines are taken from the temple, placed on a colourfully decorated sedan chair, and paraded through the village. The shrines must pass through every street of the village with people burning incense and chanting scriptures in their wake. Finally they are deposited in a specified location, where they will remain for a number of days.

During the festival, the villagers must follow the gods and worship the shrines in their new location by burning incense and offering them food and money. In some villages, a temporary temple is built around the shrines just for the purposes of the festival! Throughout the festival, families will host feasts and invite their friends and relatives to join them. Some communities will even have a public feast, which takes place in a large open space in the village.







Traditional Dress of Bai Minority

bai dress02

The Bai people’s unique style of traditional dress was established during the Nanzhao Kingdom (738-902), which was a separate empire that ruled over Yunnan during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The colour white signifies dignity and high social status to the Bai people and so they have a marked preference for white clothes, making laundry day nothing short of a nightmare! Generally speaking the men wear white shirts with white trousers, a white turban, and colourfully embroidered gaiters and belts, although nowadays most young men prefer to wear modern clothes and only don their traditional dress on special occasions.

The women have much more of a penchant for colour and, while the younger women predominantly wear white clothes, the older women mainly dress in blue and black. Young women will normally wear a white or powder-blue dress under a sleeveless pink, purple, red, blue or black jacket. Their clothes are embroidered with rich, colourful patterns, making laundry all the more difficult when it comes to separating the whites and darks! Under the dress they will wear a pair of loose fitting white trousers and embroidered shoes made of white cloth.

They embellish their outfits with a myriad of jewellery, including silver earrings, hairpins, necklaces, and jade bracelets. Elderly women wear far more muted attire and tend to opt for blue dresses and trousers covered by sleeveless black jackets and aprons. In Dali, many of the women wear a white coat trimmed with a black or purple collar that is complemented by loose fitting blue trousers and embroidered shoes. A bouncy ponytail secured at the tip by a red string usually indicates the woman is unmarried, while hair or braids clasped in a bun means you should take your amorous intentions elsewhere!

Most Bai women will wrap a sash around their waist, although the appearance of these waistcloths differs depending on age. Those worn by young girls are normally intricately embroidered and only reach down to their knees, while those worn by middle-aged women are purely blue or black in colour and are much longer. Their embroidery features many patterns and images, the most common of which is the camellia flower.

To the Bai people, the camellia is a symbol of beauty and their characteristic headscarves are designed to look like camellias in bloom. These headscarves are red with a white outer layer and are shaped like a crescent moon. The lower half or “tail” is embroidered with flowers and is meant to be draped over the shoulder so it sways in the wind. The unusual appearance of these headscarves has earned them the name “the flower in the wind and the moon on a snowy night”, although they could just as easily be called “the big hat on the head and the poor girl struggling underneath”!

Three Course of Tea

Three Course of Tea

The Bai people are renowned throughout China for their generosity and the warm-hearted welcome they give to all guests. The San Dao Cha or Three Courses of Tea ceremony is perhaps the finest example of their inherent hospitality. In Mandarin Chinese, the ceremony is often described as “the first is bitter, the second is sweet, and the third brings reflection” (一苦二甜三回味). It’s unsurprising then that the first course of tea is bitter, the second is sweet, and the third is a mixture of flavours with a strong aftertaste.

The first course begins by baking bitter tea leaves in a clay pot over a small open flame, shaking the leaves often so they do not burn. When the leaves turn slightly brown and diffuse a distinct aroma, then boiled water is added to the pot. As the water is added, it creates such a loud sound that this course is commonly referred to as “Lei Xiang Cha” (雷响茶) or “Thunderous Tea”. The water bubbles violently on contact but, once it has stopped bubbling, the tea is ready to drink. This unique process produces a small amount of tea that is fragrant and incredibly concentrated. The thunderous tea is so bitter that it may just feel like a lightning strike to your tongue!

After all that bitterness, you’ll be thanking your lucky stars that the second course is a sweet tea! It is made by first adding a kind of cow’s milk cheese known as rushan to the tea cup, along with tea leaves, walnuts, brown sugar, and other ingredients depending on the region. Boiling water is then poured into the cup and the tea is offered to the guest. This tea resembles more of a soup but is tantalisingly sweet!

The third course is the most complex in terms of its ingredients, as it’s meant to be bitter, sweet and spicy all at the same time! This is achieved by mixing honey, Sichuan pepper, slices of ginger, and cassia (Chinese cinnamon) with a hot cop of Cangshan Xue green tea. The tea not only embodies all of the flavours of the previous courses, as well as being spicy, but also has a distinct aftertaste that has earned it the name “Hui Wei Cha” (回味茶) or “Reflection Tea”.

Three Course of TeaThe term “san dao” does not only mean “three courses” but also refers to the tea being poured three times. The first pouring is for the guest to smell the aromatic tea; the second is to sample the tea; and the third is for the guest to finally drink the tea.

The three types of tea used are designed to imitate the course of life; first you experience bitterness, then you feel happiness after overcoming hardship, and finally you rest and reflect on your past. A direct correlation is sometimes drawn between the stages of life, as a young person goes through much hardship, a middle-aged person feels the sweetness of achievement, and an elderly person recollects their experiences. Although we’ve only mentioned a few of the practices employed in this elegant ritual, there are actually a staggering 18 procedures in the ceremony that are all governed by strict etiquette!

Bai’s Agriculture and Craftwork

Xizhou Bai ethnic

Most Bai villages are situated along the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau and are crisscrossed by the Lancang, Nujiang, and Jinsha rivers. These river valleys, lush forests, and vast plains are not only beautiful but incredibly fertile, providing the Bai people with an abundance of crops and fruits. The mild climate and rich soil, particularly around the area near Lake Erhai, means they yield crops twice a year, making life for the Bai like an all-you-can-eat buffet! They mainly farm a mixture of staple foods and cash crops such as rice, wheat, beans, cotton, sugarcane, and tobacco.

Mount Cangshan, which rises up mistily near the expanse of Lake Erhai, also contains rich deposits of the famous Dali marble, which is treasured both as a building and crafting material. Its pure white exterior, with beautiful red, pale blue, green, and milky yellow veins running through it, is what makes it so unique and peerless compared to other types of marble. The Bai, being astute businesspeople, have long since made the most of these valuable resources!

bai agricultureBeing an agriculture society, the Bai’s culture still revolves around local markets known as jie. Many Bai villages are self-sufficient, since they grow most of their own food, so these bazaars are designed to provide them with products that they don’t regularly purchase, such as farming equipment or items used for weddings, funerals, and other special occasions. In the Erhai region there is a bazaar every day in a different location so, if you want to see the hustle and bustle of a traditional market, just take a long walk along the lake’s shore!

Bai cuisine is characterised by the use of sharp, cold, and spicy flavours, occasionally using a sour tang to complement a dish. From ham and sausage to smoked pig liver and intestines, pork is central to their diet and their love of it is palpable in every Bai dish. Those who live near a lake or river will also have a lot of fish in their diet and they are renowned for their skill at cooking fish in a variety of ways. Bai women are known for their skill at making delicious sauces, such as bean sauce, lobster sauce, and flour sauce. You could almost say their women are a little saucy!

Like many people in China, the Bai are great tea lovers and will drink tea twice a day, every day. Morning tea, also known as “awakening tea”, is drunk as soon as they wake up. In the afternoon they will enjoy what is known as “relaxing tea” or “thirst quenching tea”, which some people will add milk or popcorn to depending on preference. They have become famous for a custom known as the Three Courses of Tea ceremony, where three types of tea are served in succession to symbolise the course of life.

Bai women in Yunnan are incredibly skilled at batik but, unlike many ethnic minorities, they have continued to use the bandhnu method. This method involves tying, twisting, knotting, pinching, or even stitching the material into the desired patterns, which are usually floral. The material is then dipped into a vat full of indigo dye and left for a certain amount of time. The binding process hinders the dye from reaching parts of the fabric and, if the binding is tight enough, may prevent it entirely.

Bai batik01Once the material has been allowed to dry, it is released and, while the unbound parts of the material have been dyed a deep blue, the bound parts reveal a pattern as they have remained their original white. This tying and dying process can be repeated several times to create more complex designs. The patterns achieved are more natural than the other styles of batik but less exact, and the natural dye is gentler on the skin and less likely to fade. They are also accomplished at lacquer work and have been renowned for their lacquer wares since the Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties.

Bai Ethnic Marriage Customs

bai Marriage Customs

In the past, arranged marriages were commonplace among the Bai people but fortunately nowadays Bai youths have the freedom to choose who they want to marry. That being said, the customs and procedures of their wedding ceremony are still largely adhered to, so they haven’t entirely escaped tradition. Once a young man and woman have announced their engagement, the groom will hire workers to begin building a stage in his home, because apparently weddings aren’t expensive enough without turning your house into a theatre!

In a display worthy of a British stag-do, the groom arranges for local singers and actors to perform on this stage on the eve of the wedding and invites his relatives and friends to celebrate his last night as a single man. Providing the wedding stage doesn’t get completely trashed, on the wedding day itself the groom will get up early and prepare a banquet for the guests. This sumptuous feast is punctuated by live music, which is a shame because the bride isn’t there to see it! At this point, in some areas the groom will travel to the bride’s home accompanied by his best man and a bridesmaid, while in other areas he is forbidden to see the bride before the wedding so sends his entourage in his place.

On arrival at the bride’s house, the welcoming party is received with the playing of lively music. This is where one of the strangest customs comes in, as the party are greeted by the bride’s elder relatives with series of odd questions, such as “where are you from?” and “what did you see on the way here?” Their responses must be quick and humorous, or else they will be playfully mocked by the bride’s family. As if getting married wasn’t stressful enough! The bride’s family then hosts the famous Bai tea ceremony known as San Dao Cha or Three Courses of Tea. Four to six men from the bride’s family will make toasts to the groom and his entourage, followed by the groom making toasts to the bride’s family.

According to custom rather than feeling, the bride then has to cry intentionally and sorrowfully in front of her family. As she cries, she should express her gratitude to her parents for having raised her. The bride will then leave her family home and go to the groom’s house, accompanied by more joyous music. That is, if all the mocking and fake crying hasn’t given them cold feet! Once the bride has arrived, she is taken to have her make-up done. While this takes place, children at the wedding are given fire torches and are free to play until the wedding ceremony begins. After all, what could be more fun than giving a bunch of children flaming torches?

When the bride is ready, the children accompany her into the bridal room, which will have been decorated with auspicious symbols. Horse saddles imply diligence, a mirror symbolises bravery, and three arrows indicate happiness. The bride then pays respect to the gods and the groom’s parents. The couple must then rush to compete for a space on a large pillow in the bridal room. It is said that whoever sits on this pillow first will be master of the house, although this is commonly regarded as a joke.

bai Marriage Customs 02The couple then eats a bowl of incredibly spicy noodles together, which leaves them tearful and is designed primarily to make the guests laugh! From mockery to forced crying to burnt tongues, Bai weddings seem to be pretty sadistic affairs! Finally the couple will cross their arms together and drink wine, which symbolises that they will respect and love each other forever.

In the evening, an intimate dinner will take place between the bride, the bridesmaid, and the elderly women from the groom’s family. After the meal, the bride pays respect to the groom’s elder relatives and gives each of them a pair of embroidered shoes that she has made. In turn, they reward her with monetary gifts. The bride’s younger relatives and neighbouring children will then gather and pay respect to her, and are rewarded with candies and fruit.

Benzhuism of Bai Ethnic Minority

bai ethnic benzu02

The Bai people believe in a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and an indigenous religion known as Benzhuism. In fact, their religious beliefs are so diverse that it is not unusual to find a Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, and Benzhu temple within a single Bai village. After all, when it comes to the afterlife, you’ve got to have your bases covered! They adopted Buddhism sometime during the 7th century and Guanyin, the Buddhist deity of mercy, features prominently in some of their oldest myths.

However, by far the most fascinating are the beliefs surrounding their native religion of Benzhuism. This religion revolves around the worship of what they call ngel zex and what the Chinese call benzhu (本主), which roughly translates to mean “local lord” or “local ancestor”. Though its popularity has waned throughout the years, it has recently made a comeback and, according to a census done in 1990, there were approximately 986 Benzhu shrines in Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture alone!

The Bai are polytheistic and their beliefs incorporate aspects of animism[1] and traditional Chinese religion. In fact, they worship pretty much anything, including natural objects, such as stones and trees; ancient deities, such as the God of the Mountain and the God of the Sun; historical heroes from various ethnic groups; legendary characters from folklore; and kings, princes, generals or ministers of the Nanzhao (738-902) and Dali (937-1253) Kingdoms. However, all of these deities act as subsidiaries to the local lord or benzhu.

Generally speaking each village will have its own benzhu, which is the main subject of worship for the villagers, although several villages will sometimes share the same benzhu. Other gods, such as the Dragon King who controls rainfall, the Mother God who distributes children to parents, and the God of Fortune who allocates wealth, all continue to function but are subordinate to the benzhu.

bai ethnic benzu01The villagers believe that the benzhu protects their village and passes on their wishes to the heavens, effectively acting as an intermediary between heaven and earth. These gods are always historical heroes, warriors, sages, leaders, or ancestors that have some sort of link to the village they protect and have been deified. For example, according to legend, the royal Duan family came from Qingdong village near Xizhou and thus their local benzhu is Duan Siping, the founder of the Dali Kingdom.

The mythology surrounding each benzhu is wonderfully rich, as every one of them will have a magnificent story to justify their position as a god. They have considerable power and are able to protect crops and livestock, dispel illness, and bring prosperity to the villagers. Whenever a member of the community is born, is sick, dies, or gets married, the villagers will perform certain ceremonies at the Benzhu Temple.

Some scholars believe that Benzhuism was the Bai people’s way of reinforcing their entitlement to certain territories. By worshipping a historical figure who first settled the area or who saved it during some kind of catastrophe, they emphasised their right as the historical figure’s descendants to inhabit that area.

The Nama branch of Bai people, who live near the Lancang River, have preserved the cult of the white stones, which they are believed to have inherited from the ancient Qiang people. However, the origins of these beliefs aren’t entirely clear. Some believe these stones are the sacred bones of their ancestors, while others think they are demons’ bones that are too dangerous to be moved, and still others feel they are symbolic of the Fire God, a deity worshipped throughout China.

bai NamaThey also believe in the cult of the celestial ox, which is a godlike animal that has the power to protect the village, prevent disasters, and benefit the growth of crops and livestock. They believe that this ox, like the benzhu, can act as an intermediary between gods and men. The Nama perform a ritual sacrifice during the 6th lunar month of each year whereby they transform a regular ox into a celestial one, “help” the ox reach the heavens by sacrificing it and beseech it to present their entreaties to the gods. That being said, I can’t imagine the ox is too keen to help them after they’ve just killed it!

Sometime during the 18th century, Benzhuism was introduced to the Nama and intermingled with their religious beliefs, which is evidenced by the images of the celestial ox that can still be found in their Benzhu Temples. The term “nama” means “tiger” in their language, as the Nama people believe that they are descended from tigers and so worship the Mother Tigress as their ancestral benzhu.


[1] Animism: The belief that all non-human entities, including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects, possess a spiritual essence or soul.


The name Dali sounds almost mythical, like the heavenly Shangri-La or the legendary island of Avalon. Nestled beneath the verdant Cangshan Mountains in the west and bordering the crystal clear Erhai Lake in the east, you’ll find the name is befitting of this earthly paradise.

The city was once the capital of the Nanzhao Kingdom, which ruled large areas of Yunnan and northern Burma and parts of Sichuan and Guizhou. It is commonly believed that the Nanzhao rulers were the precursors of either the Yi or Bai ethnic minority. The kingdom was established in 738 A.D. and managed to hold on to its substantial empire for an impressive 160 years, until its collapse in 902. The kingdom’s prosperity was predominantly due to its control of the major trade routes between Central China and Southeast Asia, and thus Dali flourished as a trade hub. When the Nanzhao rulers converted to Buddhism, the city became instrumental in the dissemination of the religion across China.

After several decades of chaos following the fall of the Nanzhao Kingdom, the Kingdom of Dali was established by Duan Siping in 937. The ruling Duan clan are commonly seen as the ancestors of the Bai people. Dali remained the kingdom’s capital and retained its status as an important transportation centre, thanks to the kingdom’s close ties with the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It acted as one of the major transit points on the Silk Road and by the year 1000 it had been transformed into one of the 13 largest cities in the world. These ancient empires helped foster Dali’s growth and transformed it into the thriving city that we see today, but tragically they would meet a bitter and bloody end.

In 1253, the Mongols conquered the city and usurped the Dali Empire. They laid waste to the old city and destroyed the Palace of the Dali Kingdom. In the chaos, almost all records of the Nanzhao and Dali Kingdoms were burned or destroyed, which is why so little is known about their histories. The Mongolians’ brutality forced many of the locals out of Yunnan, pushing the Bai ethnic minority as far as Hunan province. Dali subsequently became an important military outpost under the famous Mongolian leader Kublai Khan.

Thankfully, the Mongolians were defeated when the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was established. The Hongwu Emperor took it upon himself to rebuild the ancient city in the 1400s and nowadays most of what you see in Dali Ancient Town was part of this rebuild. These old Ming-style buildings have been preserved for hundreds of years and have since been adapted into hotels, antique stores, and teahouses. It is strange to think that this tranquil place was founded on such harrowing violence.

The climate is temperate throughout the year, meaning it benefits from moderate summers and mild winters. The only drawback is the autumns and winters can be a little windy, so switch out that emergency umbrella for a raincoat or you may end up looking like Mary Poppins! The city is separated into two districts; the “new city” in the south, known as Xiaguan, and the “old city” in the north, known as Gucheng or Dali Ancient Town. In an effort to preserve the old city, the government has banned the construction of new buildings there and barred anyone from driving motor vehicles through its streets. It is a purely pedestrianized district, so be prepared for long walks.

Both the modern and ancient districts of Dali now boast many wonderful tourist attractions that are sure to tempt you. The Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple enjoy great fame throughout Yunnan, as the 1,200-year-old Central Pagoda is one of the few remnants of Dali’s ancient Buddhist past. The nearby Cangshan Mountains are a popular spot for adventure tourists looking to explore the Zhonghe Temple and the Butterfly Spring, which is perpetually shrouded in a flurry of multi-coloured butterflies. The city also boasts some lovely museums, including the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture Museum and the Palace of Du Wenxiu[1]. However, by far the most popular tourist attraction in Dali is the ancient city itself, with its stunning architecture, ethnic minority culture and plethora of teahouses, restaurants and vibrant Western bars.

Dali is about 350 kilometres from Kunming and can be reached by plane, train or bus. From Kunming to Dali, the flight takes about an hour, the train takes about 8 hours and the bus takes around 6 hours. There are numerous hotels and hostels throughout the city that range widely both in price and quality. If you’re travelling through Yunnan, be sure to grab your own little slice of paradise and make a stop in Dali.

[1] Du Wenxiu (1823-1872): He was a Chinese Muslim who led Muslims from the Hui ethnic minority in the Panthay Rebellion (1856-1873) against the Qing Dynasty. His headquarters were based in Dali.

Dali Ancient Town

As the Three Pagodas rise up through the mist on a cool spring morning in Dali, the people of old town wake up not to the roar of engines or the clamour of construction work, but to the peaceful pitter-patter of feet on flagstone streets and sweet chirping of birds. As an act of preservation, the local government banned the construction of new buildings and the use of motor vehicles in the ancient part of Dali, so it has remained truly unchanged since it was rebuilt in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Tragically much of the original city was lost when the Mongolians overthrew the Kingdom of Dali in 1253, but parts of the ancient capital still remain and are complemented beautifully by the perfectly preserved Ming-style architecture.

The ancient town is fast becoming one of the most popular destinations for foreign tourists and is speedily adapting to this end. The town itself exhibits wonderful examples of Ming-style architecture, from the elaborately carved eaves of the roofs through to the characteristically white-washed walls. It is also one of the few places where you can witness the traditional architecture of the Bai ethnic minority. The Bai people make up over 65% of Dali’s population at prefecture level and, with the multitude of Bai tearooms, batik[1] stores and homes scattered throughout the city, they certainly make their presence known.

Bai houses consist of three rooms: one main room and two side rooms. Facing the main room, there is always a wall called the “shining wall”. It is so called because, when the sun sets, the sunlight shining on the wall is reflected into the courtyard, thus brightening up the whole house. Bai people love to decorate their homes, so these traditional houses are flush with colourful paintings, woodcarvings, marble ornaments, and Bai batik cloth. Walking into a Bai household can feel like entering a precious art exhibition; it all looks so beautiful but you’re too scared to touch anything!

There are a number of Bai teahouses dotted throughout the old town where you can take part in the traditional Three Cups of Tea ceremony. First, you must drink one cup of bitter tea, then one cup of sweet tea, and finally one cup of aftertaste tea. The first represents suffering, the second represents the success and happiness that comes after hardship and the third represents reflection on the past. However, to the weary traveller they may all just represent a relaxing cup of tea!

If you fancy testing out your Chinese or your haggling skills, Yu’er Road hosts a plethora of antique and craftwork shops that are all placed very close together. You could easily spend a whole day browsing through all of the antiques, Bai batik works and Miao embroidered clothes on offer. However, the most marvellous souvenirs are the ornaments made from Dali marble. Dali is famous throughout China for its many types of marble, which are used both in construction and for decorative objects. This marble is so famous that the Chinese word for marble, “dàlǐ shí” (大理石), literally means “Dali stone”. Some of the larger and more complex marble ornaments fetch prices of up to 10,000 yuan (about £1,000), so choose wisely or you may not have any money left for your flight home!

The town has become particularly famous for its Yangren or “Foreigners” Street, which is lined with some of the most vibrant Western-style cafés, restaurants, and bars that the city has to offer. Many of these establishments are run by foreigners who have chosen to settle in Dali, making them the perfect place to meet other backpackers and take a break from the Chinese way of life. There are plenty of hotels and hostels scattered throughout the old town, so you’ll never be at a loss if you want to get away from the commotion of the city’s modern district. The simple, old-fashioned way of life in Dali Ancient Town is what draws so many people here, and the city itself, surrounded by verdant mountains and shimmering lakes, is what makes them stay.

[1] Batik: A cloth-dying process whereby a knife that has been dipped in hot wax is used to draw a pattern onto the cloth. The cloth is then boiled in dye, which melts the wax. Once the wax has melted off, the cloth is removed from the boiling dye. The rest of the cloth will be coloured by the dye but the pattern under the wax will have remained the original colour of the cloth.