Yunnan Province Profile



Yunnan province is located in China’s southwest region and shares borders with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. It has a population of 45.7 Million (2009) containing 25 of the 56 registered ethnic groups. The province is increasingly well known for its ethnic, geographical and biodiversity, and its economy is derived from mineral wealth and agricultural production. Its diversity has led to a sky rocket in tourism and development for the province which the government is struggling to balance with “eco-friendly” aspirations.


Pre-China Yunnan:

In the 1960s while working in Yunnan, railway engineers in Yuanmou discovered fossilized teeth from belonging to hominids who were living in Yunnan between 1.75 to 2.5 million years ago. This suggest that Yunnan, the once-considered “wild” and uncultured boarder of China, is perhaps the oldest inhabited province of the mainland.

Evidence of a bronze era village was discovered at Lake Dian in the 1950s. Historical record shows the area around Lake Dian close to the site of modern Kunming was controlled by a Chu general named Zhuang Qiao who became the self-proclaimed King of Dian, bringing order to the then chaotic Yunnan during the Warring States period (453-221). Zhuang was largely responsible for increased connection with the larger China, as well as responsible for much of the early importation of Chinese culture to Yunnan.

As each dynasty passed, Yunnan has grown (and continues to grow to this day) more and more connected with China at large. In the Qin dynasty, Emperor Qin Shihuang built an extension on a road that connected Sichuan and Qujing in Yunnan’s north. This became the first prefecture of Yunnan. During the Han dynasty, the world famous Silk Road was built, connecting Yunnan with Burma and India. This, of course, rapidly increased trade and cultural imports coming into China.

But with increased economic power came an increased thirst for autonomy. Starting with the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280) Yunnan began to consolidate. A Kingdom including Yunnan, Southern Sichuan and Western Guizhou was formed, known as Nanzhong. As Nanzhong grew, China’s central authority gradually weakened. In the 7th Century AD, a new kingdom formed named Nanzhao. It lay just south of present day Dali. This kingdom, ruled by the Bai minority, was originally partnered with China against Tibet, but as they grew in power, they broke free and established their individual kingdom, defeating the Tang army well into the 8th Century. The Nanzhao became a powerful kingdom by taking control of southwest Yunnan, essentially monopolizing trade to Burma and India. The Nanzhao kingdom remained in power until its fall in the 10th century.

In 937 AD, Duan Siping successfully overthrew the Nanzhao kingdom and created his own  which he called the Dali Kingdom. But the rein was short lived. In 1253, the Dali Kingdom was concurred by the Mongols and ruled by Khublai Khan, though the previous Duan dynasty members were included as governors, resulting in semi-control over their dynasty. During the Mongols rule, Dali also came to include sections of Burma. Dali became an independent state that, the Chinese dynasties could never entirely quell. The Ming in particular used ethnic purges of both the Mongols and the Hui Muslims that the Mongols had brought in. However, Dali resisted Chinese control until the Qing dynasty. In 1698, the southwest area of Dali was folded into the Chinese province of Yunnan.

Though part of China in name, Yunnan remained, and to some extent still remains, an exotic “other land” within China. After bring incorporated to the Mainland, much of the frontier boarder remained undeveloped. Chinese villages were few and far between, and the gaps between them were filled with aboriginal people and Chinese minorities. Yunnan thus became the wilds of China, often serving as the location of choice for exile of government officials during numerous political purges.

Yunnan remained undeveloped and “wild” until the 20th century. It was the site of many ethnic purges  (including the Panthay rebellion where numerous ethnic Muslims were executed for forced to flee into neighboring kingdoms) and lacked government funding for development and growth. However, during the Japanese War, after the Japanese controlled the Eastern seaboard where much of China’s government, trade and power was held, the Chinese authorities were forced to develop Yunnan as many industries, colleges, and officials moved to Yunnan for safe haven. Relocating to Yunnan was a strategic move. It was not only far from Japan’s eastern control, but it also served as a location from which to shuttle in supplies for the war effort. Yunnan’s rapid development would later benefit the communist effort. The communists gained significant support during their grassroots campaign in Yunnan as they appealed to the large population of peasants who felt unsupported by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government.

Modern Yunnan

Today, Yunnan retains its ethnic diversity and, to some extent, lack of government funding. It is both the most diverse and most poverty stricken province in China (see the economic profile for more information). Yunnan is known for having the highest number of ethnic minorities over any other province. It is the home to 25 of the 56 registered ethnic minorities, including the Zhuang, Hui, Yi, Miao, Tibetans, Mongols,Yao, Bai, Hani, Dai, Lisu, Lahu, Wa, Naxi, Jingpo, Pumi, Nu, Achang, Bulang, Jinuo and Drung. Ethnic minorities in Yunnan make over one third of the population, but use over two thirds of the land.Yunnanspopulation

Economic Profile

Yunnan has historically been one of the most poverty stricken provinces in China. In 2000, more than 4.3 million people lived below the poverty line. With the governments aid (totaling over 3.15 billion RMB) the number fell to 3.15 billion in 2002. Yunnan has five pillars of industry: agriculture, tobacco, mining, hydro-electric power and tourism. Tourism in particular has been widely developed and has largely contributed to the heightening GDP.Yunnan’s 2014 GDP was reported to be 1,281,459 million RMB.

Yunnan GDP

Yunnan’s has a thriving agricultural industry, despite only 5% of its land being made up of level farming land. The main crop is rice, but other food crops include rapeseed, wheat, barley, corn, sweet potatoes and soybeans. Yunnan is also well known for growing tea, sugarcane, cotton, and is particularly well known for its tobacco industry which makes up a large portion of Yunnan’s exports. Mountainous areas are also used for growing livestock and timber, particularly teak.


Yunnan’s manufacturing industries include iron and steel production, chemicals, fertilizers, textiles, copper production, commercial vehicles and optical instruments. Yunnan’s primary industries (industries directly using natural resources such as agriculture, mining, fishing, etc.) accounted for 17.9% of the 2011 GDP, the secondary industries (manufacturing industries creating finished, usable products) accounted for 43%, and tertiary industry (service industry) accounted for 39.1% of the GDP.

Environmental Profile

Yunnan prides itself as being a “green” province, taking measures to promote eco-friendly tourism. It is the most biologically diverse province in China. Yunnan boasts more than 18,000 species of tropical, subtropical, temperate and aline plants, 366 species of fresh water fish, 792 species of birds, 98 species of amphibious animals, 147 species of reptiles, 278 species of mammals (approximately half of Chinas animal diversity), and more than 150 kinds of minerals though it only takes up 4% of the country’s total space.

The province has over 600 rivers and 40 lakes, totaling around 9,000 square kilometers water area. This lends itself to massive development of hydropower in Yunnan. In 2005, it was estimated that that the hydropower reserve of the country 103.64 million kw, and accounted for 20.5% of the nation’s hydropower reserve.Yunnan currently has 15 Damns in operation, 8 under construction and 14 more being currently planned.There are reasonable concerns for the number of dams being built in Yunnan province and the environmental impact they have. The dams have been shown to be the cause of earthquakes, displacement and resettlement of native peoples, and destruction of wildlife. A number of environmental groups have pushed anti-dam movements, with occasional, though rare, success.

Regional relations

Yunnan has 4,060 km of boarder shared with Burma in the west, Laos in the south and Vietnam in the southeast, making it a natural trading and access point between China and the ASEAN nations. Yunnan is the only non-country to join the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), an area bound naturally together by the Mekong river consisting of about 2.6 million square kilometers and containing a population of over 3.1 million. Yunnan’s case is interesting because it is the only province (that is, the only non-country) to join the GMS. It additionally joined 10 years before China and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed free trade agreements.

South East Asian and Yunnan have an extensive network of trade. In 2005, exports included electromechanical equipment (0.22 billion USD), phosphate-chemical products (0.14 billion USD), agricultural products (0.48 billion USD), textile products and clothes (59.64 million USD), rolled steel and iron products (58 million USD). Imports included timber (0.17 billion USD),minerals (0.17 billion USD), agricultural products (69.6 million uSD) electromechanical products (11.8) million USD and natural rubber (11.62 million USD).

YunnansIndustries YunnansImports

Sharing border space creates numerous issues for Yunnan as well. Heroin smuggling across the southern borders leads to increased drug consumption and higher risk for HIV/AIDS in Yunnan province. Additionally, at times of war, refugees from border towns flee into Yunnan, creating financial burdens on the government.

Current Issues


Yunnan’s boarders with Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam create hard to control areas plagued by drug trafficking. When Heroine made its big appearance in Yunnan in 1983, HIV/AIDS came with it. The disease spread from Yunnan in 1983 largely through shared needles with intravenous drug use, but now over 80% of new cases are spread through unprotected sex, mostly with sex workers. Today, there varying reports between 45,000 and 1.5 million people living in China with HIV/AIDs, but approximately 15% of the total is found in Yunnan.

Today, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is still highly stereotyped and misinformation is passed around. In particular, lack of education about how the disease is spread causes widespread and unnecessary fear in regards to the HIV/AIDS patients. Many still believe the disease can be spread the same as the common cold; through water droplets that leave our mouths and nose when we breathe and talk. People publically identified with HIV/AIDs are ostracized, bullied, and often forced out of their jobs, schools or apartment complexes. There are an increasing number of Yunnan organizations raising awareness about what HIV/AIDS is, and encouraging support rather than ostracizing of HIV/AIDS positive patients.

Wars and Refugees

Wars in countries bordering Yunnan often result in refugees crossing the border into Yunnan looking for a safe haven. In February 2015, the Myanmar National Democratic army Alliance (MNDAA) broke a ceasefire agreement, starting a conflict with the Burmese army. The MNDAA are from an area of Myanmar called Kokang, an area largely populated by ethnic Han Chinese living in Burma. In this area, most people speak Mandarin, signs have Chinese characters, and the Renminbi is even the currency of choice. The Han of Kokang often identify as Chinese, and thus many of the mainland Chinese have reached out to support the victims of the Kokang Conflict by helping to establish and raise funds for refugee camps in Yunnan.

But the conflict brings more than refugees. On March 13, 2015, the Burmese army dropped bombs near the Chinese city of Lincang. These bombs killed 4 and injured 9, bringing outrage from the government. The Burmese army reported that it was a mistake, they had been trying to drop the bombs on MNDAA rebels hiding out on a mountain inside of Burma. At this point in time, there have been official demands for apologies and cries for more care to be taken by the Burmese army, but no official attacks have been launched by the Chinese government. This is largely due to China’s foreign policy of non-interference, as well as their desire to maintain good status with the ASEAN Nation.

This basic Yunnan profiles was completed by Jessica Stayton in April 2015.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *