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Dian Culture

Southeast Asian Kingdom of Dian


Bronze Dian Culture Cowrie Shell Container Dian Culture

This bronze jar held cowrie shells, and is of a characteristic style of the Dian culture called tiger and bulls. Excavated from the Jinning site in Yunnan province, China


Prior to the creation of the Han Dynasty, the Bronze Age Dian Kingdom (~500-109 BC) was one of the most powerful entities in southwestern China. The Dian culture is what archaeologists call the cultural tradition that developed into the Dian Kingdom, which became a vassal state to the Han. This period during the Bronze Age of China traditionally falls between the 8th centuries BC and the end of the Jin Dynasty, in 420 AD.


  • 8th-6th centuries BC first Bronze age occupation
  • 5th century BC, rise of elites at Yangfutou cemetery, Shizhaisan founded as a town
  • 4th century BC, kingdom established
  • 3rd century BC, Shizhaishan and Lijiashan founded as cemeteries
  • 109 BC conquest by the Han Dynasty emperor
  • 109 BC - 420 AD, Han to Jin dynasties

Over 40 sites associated with the Dian culture have been located within the Lake Dian basin of Yunnan province in southwest China: the kingdom likely extended throughout eastern Yunnan by 500 BC. Most of the archaeological research has been focused on about 1,000 burials: only a handful of settlement sites have been identified and none of them have been fully excavated.


A 2005 study by Alice Yao used grave goods to identify social ranking of individual burials: poor preservation of the bones themselves precluded alternate forms of research. The highest ranked burials had the largest-sized grave plots and included a wide range of bronze weapons and defensive tools. Bronze chimes and serving wares for communal ceremonies were found in only a handful of the highest ranked burials. Two elite burials, presumably of high status women, included bronze weaving implements, as well as bronze weaponry and gold scabbards.

Burial #6 at Shizhaishan held a gold seal which held an inscription reading "Seal of the King of Dian": astonishingly, this seal is recorded in the Han Dynasty record of the Shiji, in which author Sima Qian reported that it had been given to the Dian King when the Han Dynasty conquered Dian. Other goods in the king's grave included 166 small jade plaques.

Intermediate ranks were identified by the same range of artifacts, but contained fewer bronze or gold objects. Equestrian tools and weaving tools are common in intermediate ranked burials. Lower ranks contained the least amount of weaponry and wealthy goods: most however contain bronze and iron weaponry, suggesting these represent a warrior class. The lowest ranked graves contained one or no grave goods, in the least elaborated graves.

Dian in the Shiji

A chapter in Sima Qian's Shiji (written between 145-90 BC) was titled "South-Western Barbarians", and in it was described a region loosely organized into tribes with distinct chiefs. Dian was identified as a polity commanding 30,000 men, and an advanced political and economic structure centered on farming and stockraising.

At the time of the conquest, according to the Shiji, Emperor Han Wudi bestowed upon the new vassal-king a gold seal bearing his name: this report in the Shiji was confirmed by the excavation of Burial 6 at Shizhaishan.

Dian Lifeways

Dian culture lifestyles inferred from the few settlements investigated (Wangjiadun and Citongguan), were that of settled agriculturalists living in lake dwellings raised on wooden pilings. Even though there is clear evidence for social strata in the burials, no palaces or defensive works have been identified at any of the site.

The people grew rice, wheat and millet, and had a wide range of craft specialization in bronze, copper, iron and gold, with a sophistication that included special alloying techniques, lost-wax bronze casting, gilding and tinning, engraving and inlay artisanship, and lacquer in black, green and vermillion.

All of these techniques were established by the Dian prior to Han Dynasty conquest, although only copper and iron working shops have been found at the residential sites to date. Trade with the Dong Son culture in northern Vietnam is in evidence, through a similarity in some artifacts, including large drums, bronze pails and weaponry designs.


Yunnan provincial excavations were held at Shizhaishan in the late 1950s, excavations at Lijiashan and Tianzimiao in the 1970s and again in the 1990s, and excavations at Shizhaishan in 1996. Archaeologists associated with Dian A broad based survey of the Dian basin was reported by Alice Yao and Jiang Zhilong in Antiquity in 2012.

Shizhaishan necropolis, Hebosuo village, Yizhou, Gucheng, Yangfutou cemetery, Tianzimiao burial, Lijiashan, Shangmacun, Datuanshan, Tuanshan, Wangjiadun village.


Allard F. 1998. Stirrings at the Periphery: History, Archaeology, and the Study of Dian. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 2(4):321-341.

Allard F. 1999. The archaeology of Dian: trends and tradition. Antiquity 73(279):77-85.

Allard F. 2006. Frontiers and Boundaries: The Han Empire from its Southern Periphery. In Stark M, editor. Archaeology of Asia. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. p 233-253

Jin ZY, Wu YJ, Li G, Fan AC, Cheng GS, and Yan LF. 2012. Luminescence determination of firing temperature of archaeological pure sand related to ancient Dian bronze casting, China. Quaternary Geochronology 10(0):387-393.

Stark MT, and Allen SJ. 1998. The Transition to History in Southeast Asia: An Introduction. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 2(3):163-174.

Yang X. 2004. Cemeteries of the Dian People at Shihaishan, Lijiashan and Yangputou, Yunnan Province. In: Yang X, editor. Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century: New Perspectives on China's Past. New Haven: Yale University Press. p 267-270.

Yao A. 2005. Scratching beneath iconographic and textual clues: A reconsideration of the social hierarchy in the Dian culture of Southwestern China. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 24(1):378-405.

Yao A. 2010. Recent Developments in the Archaeology of Southwestern China. Journal of Archaeological Research 18(3):203-239.

Yao A, and Zhilong J. 2012. Rediscovering the settlement system of the ‘Dian’ kingdom, in Bronze Age southern China. Antiquity 86(332):353-367.

Yun KL. 1996. Material representations of status in the Dian culture. Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association 14:216-225.

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