Now that we have a rough framework of dynastic history upon which to hang our tale, we can now tell the story of the dawn of Kunming.
Kunming sits at the northern tip of Lake Dian. Lake Dian has been a home to people as long as there have been people. The fossil record includes lufang ramapithecus from 8 million years ago and yuanmou man from 1.7 million years ago, and archaeological finds show that modern man has been living there continuously for at least 30,000 years. But Kunming itself has its origins in the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).
One of the main states that gave the Warring States Period its name was the kingdom of Chu. Chu started as a fief of the Zhou dynasty, and was ruled by a viscount, who ruled from a city in what is now Henan Province. In 977 the Zhou ruler died; the dynasty started neglecting it southern holdings, and Chu started growing more and more autonomous. By 703 BC, the ruler of Chu was openly styling himself King, openly asserting an independence that was not contested. Chu grew in size and power (as well as in corruption and bureaucracy) until, by the time the Zhou dynasty had completely dissolved, Chu was one of the leading states of China, and a contender for imperial aspirations.
Our story starts towards the end of the Warring States Period, about 70 years before the establishment of the Qin dynasty. Chu was looking to expand, and the logical direction was south. Qin, though not yet an imperial power, was already the most powerful state in China, lay just to the west. Wei and Qi to the north less powerful as Chu, but either could weaken Chi enough to make it a target for Qin. But even more than that, the south offered control of valuable trade routes with Burma and India. So in 280 BC the king of Chu deployed an army led by a general named Zhuang Qiao with orders to conquer the territory that is now Yunnan province.
Over the next ten years General Zhuang was able to fulfill his orders, and succeeded in placing most of the region under his control. But then something happened that changed the situation entirely: Chu was invaded by Qin. The Qin armies marched across the south of Chu towards the coast; General Zhuang and his army were cut off from their capital. But as far as we can tell, the general saw this not as a problem but an opportunity. Zhuang declared that the territory he had conquered was now the Kingdom of Dian, and named himself as its King. His army married and assimilated with the local tribes, and settled themselves on the land surrounding the lake. And General Zhuang established his capital at what is now Kunming.
This small independent kingdom survived for well over a century, outlasting the rise and fall of the Qin dynasty. In 109 BC the great conqueror of the Han dynasty, Emperor Wu of Han (who also appears in the earlier post Historical Kunming 2: Discourses on Salt and Iron), conquered the neighboring states of Laoshan and Mimo, and the king of Dian decided to submit to Han voluntarily rather than be conquered. This submission was rather more in name than substance though; Dian routinely raided Han trading missions. And in 109 BC, after Dian massacred a Han trading party passing through with gifts intended for the far away nation of Bactria, Emperor Wu decided he had had enough. He emptied the jails in his capital city of Chang’an (modern day Xi’an), declared amnesty for any fugitives who would turn themselves in, and formed these into an army that finally brought Dian into submission and joined it to the empire.
So there you have it, the story of how Kunming was founded, and came to be part of China.