Yúnnán, China’s sixth-largest province, has always been a bit of a renegade. Its remote location, harsh terrain and diverse ethnic make-up have made it a difficult province to govern, and for centuries it was considered a backward place inhabited by barbarians.
Qin Shi Huang and the Han emperors held tentative imperial power over the southwest and forged southern Silk Road trade routes to Burma, but by the 7th century the Bai people had established their own powerful kingdom, Nanzhao, south of Dàlǐ. Initially allied with the Chinese against the Tibetans, this kingdom extended its power until, in the middle of the 8th century, it was able to challenge and defeat the Tang armies. It took control of a large slice of the southwest and established itself as a fully independent entity, dominating the trade routes from China to India and Burma.
The Nanzhao kingdom fell in the 10th century and was replaced by the kingdom of Dàlǐ, an independent state that lasted until it was overrun by the Mongols in the mid-13th century. After 15 centuries of resistance to northern rule, this part of the southwest was finally integrated into the empire as the province of Yúnnán.
Even so, it remained an isolated frontier region, with scattered Chinese garrisons and settlements in the valleys and basins, a mixed aboriginal population in the highlands, and various Dai (Thai) and other minorities along the Mekong River (Láncāng Jiāng).
During the Republican period, Yúnnán continued to exercise a rebellious streak. When Yuan Shikai tried to abandon the republican government and install himself as emperor, military leaders in Yúnnán rebelled. One local military commander even renamed his troops the National Protection Army and marched them into Sìchuān, a stronghold for forces loyal to Yuan. Military forces elsewhere in China turned out in support and Yuan was forced to retreat.
Yúnnán, like the rest of the southwest, has a history of breaking ties with the northern government. During China’s countless political purges, fallen officials often found themselves here, adding to the province’s character.