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Thailand - Nanchao Period (650-1253 AD)

The forebears of the modern Thai were Tai-speaking people living south of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) on the mountainous plateau of what is now the Chinese province of Yunnan. Early Chinese records (the first recorded Chinese reference to the Tai is dated sixth century B.C.) document the Tai cultivating wetland rice in valley and lowland areas. During the first millennium A.D., before the emergence of formal states governed by Taispeaking elites, these people lived in scattered villages drawn together into muang, or principalities. Each muang was governed by a chao, or lord, who ruled by virtue of personal qualities and a network of patron-client relationships. Often the constituent villages of a muang would band together to defend their lands from more powerful neighboring peoples, such as the Chinese and Vietnamese.

The state of Nanchao played a key role in Tai development. In the mid-seventh century AD, the Chinese Tang Dynasty, threatened by powerful western neighbors like Tibet, sought to secure its southwestern borders by fostering the growth of a friendly state formed by the people they called man (southern barbarians) in the Yunnan region. This state was known as Nanchao. Originally an ally, Nanchao became a powerful foe of the Chinese in subsequent centuries and extended its domain into what is now Burma and northern Vietnam. In 1253 the armies of Kublai Khan conquered Nanchao and incorporated it into the Yuan (Mongol) Chinese empire.

During the Nanchao Period (650-1253 AD) the Thai people founded their kingdom in the southern part of China which is Yunnan, Kwangsi and Canton today. Tai, believed to be the ancestor of Thai people, came from the Altai Mountain Range in Southern Mongolia. They founded the Nanchao Kingdom in Southern China, which now is Yunnan, Kwangsi and Canton.

A history of the kingdom of Yunnan, as reported by M. Carthew (1952), was written by a Chinese scholar, Yang-Tsai, in 1537 AD and was discovered and translated into English by G.W. Clarkin 1894 AD. This book, called “History of the Southern Princes” is extremely obscure as, it is reported, G.W. Clark published it by his own means in a very limited edition for distribution to his friends. As Carthew wrote, only four copies were known to exist, all in the hands of one owner. The rarity of this book, which amounts to non-existence, does not permit further research. The beginning is compiled from local legends, but the recorded history commenced only in 280 BC. It gives the name of every king who ruled the Nan Chao kingdom and the chief events of each reign until the kingdom ceased to exist as an independent kingdom after its conquest by Kublai Khan in 1253 AD.

According to this work the traditional origin of the Nanchao group of states is connected with the kings of Magadha, and there seems to be nothing unreasonable in the supposition that military or priestly adventurers from that country first civilised and collected under a political administration the scattered tribes of Yunnan. Hindoo adventurers gave the earliest known organized dynasties to all the states of the Indo-Chinese peninsula and the Java-Borneo-Sumatra archipelago alike. Just in the same manner adventurers from China made their way to Corea, Canton, Soochow, Hangchow, parts of Central Asia, etc., and founded kingdoms or principalities afterwards to be absorbed in the Chinese empire.

It is certain that centuries elapsed before all Yunnan yielded to Chinese rule. As early as the first half of the 7th century of the Christian era, the strong Tai State of Nanchao existed in Western Yunnan, which long maintained itself as the kingdom of Tali until its final conquest by Kublai Khan in the 13th century. In the 8th century, Burma was under the suzerainty of Nan-chao, an ancient Shan Kingdom, which has been identified with the modern Talifu in Yunnan. Owing to its contiguity to Tibet, Nan-chao appears to have been influenced by that country.

Towards the close of the 8th century AD, the King Yung-K iang, hearing that Nan-chao had become part of the T'ang Empire, had a desire to join China too, and sent an envoy named Yang Kia-ming to Kien-nan. The Viceroy of Si-ch'wan, Wai Kao, begged permission to offer the Emperor some barbarian songs, and, moreover, told the P'iao State to send up some musicians. His Majesty made Shu-nan-do President of the Imperial Mews, and sent him back. The Governor of K'ai Chou submitted a panegyric upon the P'iao music. In the year 832, the Nan-chao monarch kidnapped three thousand Burmans, and colonised his newly acquired eastern dominions with them.

Probably the pressure of the Chinese advance southward was the principal cause of the gradual growth and consolidation of this Tai kingdom. For a long time before it comes to notice historically, Burman history tells of two great military expeditions from Yunnan into Burma by Taroks, one not long before the Christian era and the other about AD 241. These could not have been the Chinese, for the Chinese did not have any connection with the Burmans until after the conquest of Yunnan by Kublai Khan in AD 1253. These Taroks must have been Tai, who were at the time the predominant people in Yunnan, and their invasions of Burma seem to indicate the presence at those early dates of a strong Tai kingdom or kingdoms in Yunnan, whence they were sent.

More than this, the great homogeneity of the different divisions can be accounted for only by the existence of one or more strong Tai States in South-Western China for a considerable time before the first historical notice of Nanchao. Of that State or those States Nanchao, by its peculiar situation, was probably the only part to maintain its independence. Only by the early existence of such a State or States could the remarkable unification of the Tai people have taken place, as it must have done before the migration of the present divisions began.

The existence of the Tai kingdom of Nanchao in the 7th century is a fact of too late a date to account for the striking homogeneity of the Tai peoples, which has so wonderfully withstood centuries of separation and the strong influences of alien races and diverse political connections. It should also be noted that the Pai'y and some other tribes in the south and west of Yunnan are undoubtedly the remnants of the Tai people stranded on the borders of the ancient home of their race. Their language and customs bear indubitable proof of their descent.

Later, a great number of them migrated south. They settled and set up small city-states, which were rapidly grown into powerful kingdoms. Including Lan Na (in Northern Thailand), Sukothai (in Central Thailand) and Lan Xang (in the land of Laos). A great number of people migrated south as far as the Chao Phraya Basin and settled down over the Central Plain under the sovereignty of the Khmer Empire, whose culture they probably accepted. The date of this migration has not been determined to general satisfaction and may well have involved at least two separate migrations. One of these, south-west from China, took waves of Thai into today's central plains where they became subject to the Khmers.

Suffice to say that all the migrations probably occurred over many centuries. Then, in 1238 the Thai founded their own independent state of Sukhothai – Sukhothai translates as 'The Dawn of Happiness'. As a cross-reference, this was the period of the Sung Dynasty in China and the European Crusades to the Holy Land.

The Mongol conquest of south China was a difficult and protracted process, in contrast with their successful lightning strikes and conquests of parts of western Asia and Europe. Mongol strategy was to outflank the Southern Song on the west. In 1253 the non-Chinese kingdom of Nanzhao (Nan-chao) in the Yunnan region fell, and offensives against Sichuan then preceded the final assault on the Song of 1272-1279.

Nanchao's significance for the Tai people was twofold. First, it blocked Chinese influence from the north for many centuries. Had Nanchao not existed, the Tai, like most of the originally non-Chinese peoples south of the Chang Jiang, might have been completely assimilated into the Chinese cultural sphere. Second, Nanchao stimulated Tai migration and expansion. Over several centuries, bands of Tai from Yunnan moved steadily into Southeast Asia, and by the thirteenth century they had reached as far west as Assam (in present-day India). Once settled, they became identified in Burma as the Shan and in the upper Mekong region as the Lao. In Tonkin and Annam, the northern and central portions of present-day Vietnam, the Tai formed distinct tribal groupings: Tai Dam (Black Tai), Tai Deng (Red Tai), Tai Khao (White Tai), and Nung. However, most of the Tai settled on the northern and western fringes of the Khmer Empire.

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Page last modified: 08-04-2012 18:43:20 ZULU