Rock Paintings in Yunnan, China

Some New Light on the Old Shan Kingdom

By: Wang Ningsheng

Originally Published in 1985

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The southwestern part of Yunnan Province of China, bordered by Laos and Bur¬ma, is a tropical and mountainous region. Many ethnic groups live there. It is one of the least explored parts of the world, and very little was known about it until recently. Since 1960, I have done fieldwork on the archaeology and ethnology of this region. This prolonged study has resulted in the discovery of rock paintings (Wang Ningsheng 1982), among other things. Through these paintings, we can learn something about the ancient history of this region. Rock paintings are distributed in the northern part of Cangyuan County (E. Long. 98 ’52’-99° 42′, N.Lat. 23′ 3′-23° 30′). In my three surveys there (June through February 1965; July 1978; February 1982), ten rock painting sites were located and recorded (Fig. lb; Lin Sheng 1966, 1983).


All of the paintings were done in the open on the surfaces f vertical cliffs. Up to now, no paintings inside eaves have been discovered there. The paintings, without exception, were done in red pigment. A spectrum analysis sug­gests that hematite or similar iron-oxide ores were used by the rock painters who could obtain it nearby. Old pits of hematite ore were dis­ covered at two sites (Sites 5 and 10). Ethnographic data suggests that the binder for mixing the pigment was probably ox blood. For example, in the 1950s, the Wa —a major ethnic group in Cangyuan—still used this substance as a binding me­dium in the paint for ceremonial drawings on their headmen’s large houses.”

While the finger seems to have been the main painting implement, a kind of brush was also used to create the larger drawings. In Site 5, we can discern traces of brush painting. The most distinguishing features of technique of the Cang­yuan rock paintings are as follows:

1) The drawings are smaller than those in other rock paintings in the neighboring region of Ning­ming County, Guangxi (Guang­xi Minzu Diaocha Zu 1963). For example, the height of human figures generally ranges from 5 to 30 centimeters. The largest is only 50 centimeters or so. Dozens of drawings may be crowded into a space of about 1 meter square.

2)   Compared with rock paintings in the neighboring regions, Ning­ming County, Guang­xi, and Gong County, Sichuan (Guangxi Minzu Diaocha Zu 1963; Sichuan Sheng Powu Guan 1980; Chong Qing Shi Bowu Guan 1981), the Cangyuan drawings are not high off the ground. The highest is only 6 or 7 meters from the ground. By “the ground” I mean the narrow standing space that exists in front of every painted cliff.

3)   Rock painters did not care about rendering details. For example, none of the animals or human fig­ures has facial features, although some have ears. The drawings are like silhouettes.

4)   Rock painters did not express correct proportions. Sometimes, however, there is intentional dis­tortion in order to exaggerate and stress the importance of cer­tain parts of the body, for ex­ample, the elephant’s trunk, the buffalo’s horns, the hunter’s arm which holds a crossbow.

5)   Rock painters often used sym­bolism in their painting. For ex­ample, it is probable that animals Or human figures were painted upside down or lying on the ground to express their death (Figs. 9, 14), or that certain human figures were painted much larger than others to ex­press their important position or high rank.

In short, the technique of the rock painters of Cangyuan seems to be simple and primitive, but their works are impressive. Many of the expressive methods they used in their paintings are distinctive and skillful. Anyone who sees these rock paintings is deeply moved by their vitality.

Subject Matter and Interpretation

About 800 drawings are scat­tered on the cliffs at ten sites. The subject matter may be classified into the following categories.

1)  Human: Men wearing feathers on their heads or bodies (Figs. 8, 13); men holding shields, crossbows, spears or ox’s horns (Figs.10, 15). Also a few figures can be identified as female by their big bellies or large breasts (Figs. 14, 15).

2)  Animals: Buffalo (Fig. 14), zebus (Fig. 9), pigs (Fig. 6), elephants (Fig. 2), leopards (Figs. 3, 4) or tigers, monkeys (Fig. 14), wild boar (Fig. 5), snakes, and many kinds of birds (Fig. 13).

3)  Supernatural figures: An archer standing in the center of a shining sun (Fig. 16); a woman whose lower body is a fish’s tail (Fig. 17). Most of these figures probably have a mythological or­igin.

4)  Houses: Pile dwellings (Fig. 6) and tree huts (Fig. 7).

5)  Natural World: Trees (Fig. 3), mountains, caves.

6)  Marks: Dots, short lines, dice. Some of these may be numerals.

7)  Handprints: Stenciled hand­prints are a very popular subject matter in rock paintings in other parts of the world, but in Cang­yuan, only one such handprint was found, in Site 5.

8)  Graffiti: Among the drawings, there are some rough and appar­ently insignificant lines that can only be considered graffiti prob­ably done by children or non­specialists of that time (Fig. 8).

While many of the drawings stand alone, some individual elements are related. In the latter case, we can call them a “scene.” The meaning of some scenes may be interpreted and explained as follows:

1)   Hunting: There are hunters with crossbows shooting leopards or tigers (Fig. 4); a hunter spearing deer; hunters running after ele­phants (Fig. 2); and a hunter catching some prey or being sur­prised by a prey like a wild boar (Fig. 5).

2)   Herding: A man leads a zebu (humped cow) with the herd fol­lowing; a herdboy rides on a buf­falo (Fig. 14).

3)   Warfare: Some warriors hold weapons while others lie on their sides to indicate their death or defeat (Fig. 9).

4)   Village Life: A circle represents the border of a village and en­closes many pile dwellings with people pounding grain nearby. Several lines connected to the outside of the circle represent paths or roads. Figures of people and animals are shown walking on roads towards the village. Some people are carrying weap­ons, while others are driving pigs and oxen. These domestic ani­mals seem to have been captured from other villages (Fig. 6).

5)   Pounding: Pairs of people, each with a pestle, pound grain in a common mortar (Fig. 18).

6)   Dancing: In many sites, dancers hold shields and weapons to im­itate fighting or hunting (Figs. 11, 15). In Site 7, five dancers are waving their arms and standing in a circle to perform a dance (Fig. 12).

7)   Acrobatics: Among the dancers, we find a few men performing juggling and balancing acts, such as a man standing on the shoul­ders of another, or balancing a long pole on his head (Figs. 14, 15). Such subject matter is rare in rock paintings in other parts of the world.

Most of the drawings and scenes probably have religious significance. I agree with those scholars who sug­gest that ancient people believed that to paint a scene of hunting, or even the figures of individual prey, would ensure success in future hunts; that a scene of fighting would ensure victory in a future war; that a scene of herding or even drawings of individual domestic animals would ensure fertility of the herd; and that drawings of female figures with big bellies or large breasts would ensure the people’s own fertility and increase their population.

Perhaps many of the dances and acrobatics shown in rock paintings are also relevant to certain ceremo­nies or rituals. Similarly the images of supernatural beings might have been objects of worship. Further­more, in many societies pounding grain is associated with various cer­emonies, feasts, and rituals. Since scenes of daily activities were prob­ably not frequently depicted in the rock paintings, these scenes of pounding grain must have also rep­resented ceremonial scenes rather than daily activities. A few of the drawings and scenes, however, may still be considered secular. For ex­ample, the village scene, mentioned above, was probably a pictorial re­cord of a successful raid on another village.


Archaeologists have nu merous new methods for determining the date of ex­cavated artifacts, but nothing for dealing with rock art. They can date organic artifacts by carbon 14 anal­ysis, pottery by thermolumines­cence, timber by dendrochronology, and so on. But none of these tech­niques can be applied to date the lines painted on cliffs. Therefore, the date of the Cangyuan rock paint­ings, like that of paintings from Aus­tralia, South Africa, North America, and many other places in the world, is very difficult to ascertain.

After comparing the Cangyuan rock paintings with other archaeo­logical finds from Yunnan whose dates are known, and after refer­ring to relevant Chinese sources, we can find some clues that help to date the paintings. First, certain mo­tifs or subjects seen in the rock paintings are also found on bronze objects excavated From the Shizhai-shan) site in Jinning County (Yunnan Sheng Bowu Guan 1959) as well as on ear­ly bronze drums (Wen Yu 1957) from southwestern China (F. Heger’s Type I: Heger 1902). These motifs include: pile dwellings with two birds on the roofs and two people pounding in mortars nearby; dan­cers with a shield in one hand and a short weapon in the other; and people wearing feathers on their head. These subjects are very sim­ilar not only in topic but also in style and expressive method to the rock paintings (Fig. 18). The Shizhaishan culture flourished in the period from the 3rd century B.C. to the 1st century A.D., although its origin was earlier. The early bronze drums also belong to this period (Wang Ningsheng 1978).

Second, the scenes of acrobatics in the rock paintings remind us of a section in the History of the Later Han. The section records that during the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D., the king of the Shan kingdom (Cangyuan is located within the territory of this ancient kingdom) sent “illusionists”  to the Han court at Luoyang (4 Ps.) in A.D. 120 to perform both magic and acrobatics, in­cluding juggling. This combination of magic and acrobatics is an ancient tradition, and in China it continues to the present day.

Although there are no more rec­ords referring to the “illusionists” of the Shan kingdom, the phrase “Dulu xuntong” appears in the literature of the Han Dynasty (Zhang Heng, 1st century A.D.) and later. This is an expression referring to acrobatics (Zhao Bangyan 1933). The traditional in­terpretation of this phrase is that the Dulu were famous for their bal­ancing acts, especially climbing a long pole. “Xuntong” literally means a long pole and “Dulu” is a term referring to a specific place or a tribe. Although the term “Dulu” is problematic, it is certain that the lo­cation of Dulu was in the region of present-day northeastern Burma (Teng tianfengba 1936), in or near the Shan kingdom. Therefore, it is not surprising that balancing acts are illustrated in the Cangyuan rock paintings.

To briefly summarize the above clues for dating: First, certain motifs and subjects found on the Cangyuan rock paintings are similar to those on bronzes from the Han and earlier periods. Second, some of the Cang­yuan drawings of acrobatics may be pictorial representations of Shan “il­lusionists” and of “Dulu xuntong,” both of which existed during the Han period according to historical records.

Based on the above clues, I sug­gest that the rock paintings of Cang­yuan already existed around the be­ginning of the Christian era, about 2000 years ago. Of course, like other rock paintings in the world, the Cangyuan tradition lasted a long time and rock painters continued to produce after the Han period.

Who Painted the Paintings?

Let us look at more closely the Shan kingdom mentioned above. According to Chinese literature, during the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. a kingdom named. Shan appeared in the region of today’s Southeast Asia. This is one of the earliest states established in the Southeast Asian mainland. Be­cause the materials concerning the Shan kingdom are rare and scat­tered, most scholars pay little atten­tion to it. Here we will piece to­gether information from several chapters of the History of the Later Han together with other documents (Yuan Hong, 4th century A.D.), to provide information concerning the Shan kingdom.

From these sources we learn the following:

1) Location: Records show that this Shan kingdom occupied a large area to the south of Yongchang District. The center of Yongchang is present-day Bao­shan County, Yunnan (Ruan Yuan, 19th century). It is therefore evident that the Shan kingdom was located in present-day northeast Burma and part of southwest Yunnan, including Cangyuan County. Today, this part of Burma is still known as the Shan States, and the Thai-speaking people from this region are called the Shan People.

2) Population and Language: Ac­cording to the historical records, “many Man and Yi barbarians” lived in the Shan kingdom. Hence we can con­clude that besides the Shan people, there were many dif­ferent peoples who probably be­longed to other language groups. That their languages differed from Chinese can be seen in the following example. When Shan envoys arrived at Luoyang, their language could not be directly translated into Chinese. They had to go through “multiple interpreters”.

3) Form of Leadership: Kings ruled the Shan kingdom; however, only the name of one has come down to us—Yong You­diao. Under the king were many “small chieftains”. When the king Yong Youdiao sent envoys to pay tribute at Luoyang, it is recorded that the Emperor presented the king and his “small chieftains” with gifts and seals that were regularly used as a symbol of title granted by the court. According to Chinese policy, the material used to make the seal and the color of the ribbon cor­responded to differences in rank. At this time, the Shan king was given a gold seal with a purple ribbon; the “small chieftains” were given seals and other gifts “each differing from the other”. Based upon this ci­tation. I suggest that a ranked hi­erarchy existed within the Shan kingdom.

4) Communication with the Out­side World: Records show that the Shan kingdom had paid tribute to the Eastern Han Em­peror at least three times, in A.D. 97, 120 and 131. During the tribute mission of A. D. 120, a troupe of “illusionists” were brought to the Han court to en­tertain the Emperor. They per­formed magic, such as fire-spit­ting, dismembering themselves and “exchanging the heads of horse and oxen,” as well as ac­robatics such as juggling. The Emperor thoroughly enjoyed these performances and even banished an officer who objected to them.

Records also inform us that there was a road between Shan kingdom and Ri Nan whose location s within present-day Vietnam. In iddition, it is interesting to note that he “illusionists” declared themselves to be from Daqin. Although Daqin has always been thought to be the East Roman Empire, there is also a likelihood that it referred to Dakisnapatha in ancient India (Feng Cheng Zhun 1935). Therefore it is evident that communication between the Shan and many neighboring regions existed at that time.

Although Daqin has always been thought to be the East Roman Em­pire, there is also a likelihood that it referred to Daksinapatha in an­cient India (Fong Cheng Zhun 1935). Therefore it is evident that communication between the Shan and many neighboring regions ex­isted at that time.

Now let us consider the following points. The location of the Cang­yuan rock paintings is within the territory of the ancient Shan king­dom; the date of the Cangyuan rock paintings corresponds to the periods when the Shan kingdom was pros­perous; the acrobatic acts shown in the Cangyuan rock paintings were a famous cultural activity of the Shan kingdom recorded in literature. So we can say that the rock painters of Cangyuan were from one of the ethnic groups in the Shan kingdom.

But who were they? What was the relationship between this eth­nic group and the ethnic groups who live in present-day Cangyuan County? It is impossible to give a simple answer to these questions. Here we can only provide a few clues for further research.

Today, there are seven ethnic groups living in Cangyuan County. About 80% of the population are Wa, 10% of the population are Thai-speaking or Dai, and the re­maining 10% are groups such as LahuLisu, and Han. The Han came to this re­gion only about 200 years ago. (See box on languages spoken in Yunnan.)

It is interesting that many cus­toms shown in the rock paintings are still practised by non-Han peo­ples in Cangyuan. Comparatively, the Mon-Khmer-speaking Wa peo­ple have kept more of these cus­toms than others, for example, the pile dwellings decorated with two wooden birds on the roof, the ox horn used by hunters to surprise their prey, and the mortar pounded as a musical instrument during cer­emonies. All of these were customs that still existed in Wa daily life up to the 1950s. Moreover, the paint­ings of the Wa people, including those on their “large houses,” are similar to the rock paintings both in style and in motif (Fig. 19). The her­itage of the ancient ethnic group who created the Cangyuan rock paintings appears to have been passed on to the Wa people. There­fore, I would like to suggest that the rock painters of Cangyuan belonged to an ancient ethnic group within the Shan kingdom who were the ancestors of the Wa.

Some scholars (Luo Xianglin 1955) equate the population of the ancient Shan kingdom with the present-clay Thai. But in my opin­ion, the ancient Mon-Khmer-speak­ing group formed a large part of the population of this kingdom.

Languages Spoken in Yunnan Province, China

Yunnan is a collage of people and languages. About 6% of China’s population belong to mi­nority ethnic groups, but in southwestern China, the various ethnic groups constitute nearly 20% of the total population.

The people living in Yunnan speak languages belonging to three major language groups: (1) Sino-Tibetan; (2) Austro-Thai; and (3) Austro-Asiatic. Among the Sino-Tibetan group we find the Sinitic or Chinese languages, which are spoken by the Han Chinese, as well as the various Tibeto-Burman languages spoken by such ethnic groups as the Lob, the Lahu, and the Lisu.

There is frequent reference in this article to Thai-speaking peo­ples. Thai belongs to the Austro-Thai language group. The Thai-speaking people can also be sub­divided into various ethnic groups such as the Dai people in southern Yunnan, the Shans in northeastern Burma, and the Thais of Thailand. Also found in the Austro-Thai group are the Miao and Yao languages spoken by the Yao and Miao who are represented in Yunnan.

Mon-Khmer is one of three subgroups within the Austro-Asiatic language category and is the only subgroup represented in China today. Mon-Khmer speakers are relatively few in Yunnan; the Wa are one of only three ethnic groups that speak this language.


Although the Shim kingdom held an important position in Southeast Asian history, written records of it are rare. Up to now, we knew little about its in­ternal situation. Through our re­search on Cangyuan rock paintings, we at last can throw some new light on the economics and the daily life of at least a part of the people of the Shan kingdom.

In summary, we may now say that about 2000 years ago, an ethnic group within the Shan kingdom had recorded their steps towards civ­ilization. They built permanent houses, led a sedentary life in large settlements, and engaged in planting and herding. In their mor­tars, they pounded some kind of grain (rice?). They raised pigs and oxen as their main domestic ani­mals. They also hunted animals such as leopards, elephants, and deer in several ways—chasing them and spearing and shooting them. Some form of leadership probably existed. Battles often occured, and rituals, ceremonies, and related dances were frequently held. All of these themes were depicted in the rock paintings on the cliffs.

Cite This Article

Ningsheng, Wang. "Rock Paintings in Yunnan, China." Expedition Magazine 27, no. 1 (March, 1985): -. Accessed February 29, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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