Yunnan Provincial Museum in Kunming


Treasures from the Kingdom of Dian


Photos from an exhibition catalogue:  Albert Lutz, “Dian, Ein versunkenes Königreich in China”, Museum Rietberg Zürich, 1986  and (1) from  where also more information can be found.



The Provincial Museum in Kunming houses an extraordinary, startling collection of bronze and iron castings found south of Lake Dian Xi in Yunnan. They were found and excavated in 1953-60 in graves at two locations: Lijiashan and Shizhaishan. The Lijiashan findings date back to the late 6th  to 3rd century, those in Shizhaishan to between the 3rd and 1st  century BC. The culture is the same in both places.


Very little is known about the Dian Kingdom except that a Chinese royal seal from the Western Han Dynasty (2nd cent BC to 1st cent AD) was found and that the Dian Kingdom is mentioned in Chinese documents of the same time. It is obvious from the archeological material, some of which is presented here, that this culture was not Chinese. Indications are that their inventive forms have connections with the steppe cultures of Central Asia and possibly with the Sassanian Empire in Iran.  -  But his is a delicate subject, which I’ll have to leave to the archeologists (see the two reference above).


Despite of travelling exhibitions in Paris in 1973 and in Switzerland and Germany in 1986-87 this material has remained little known except to some China experts.    






Ceremonial table, 43 cm high, 76 cm long (6th-5th cent BC).  From a sculptural point of view the sine-qua-non piece of the collection. It shows the bull as the main sacred animal of this culture and an attacking tiger like in steppe art.



Five bulls on the lid of a cowry container, another speciality of the Dian culture. Cowrie shells were used as money and stored in these containers.  (480-220 BC)





Sacred animals on the lid of a cowrie container: a tiger or panther and three stags circling a bull.  The stag plays an important role in Iranian and the steppe cultures.  Notice the graphic incisions on the bod of the container a method possibly borrowed from contemporary Chinese vessels. (6th to 5th cent BC)




Another container seemingly showing a procession of notables. The king is followed by man leading his horse  -  which was introduced to the Chinese realm from Central Asia. These scenes on lids are a pecularity of the Dian culture.  The practise has no antecedents or relatives.  (480-220 BC)  (from:  




Most intriguing are a number of compact sculptures of animals and men. Similar designs are found in the Asian steppe cultures (e.g., Ordon bronzes), but few reach the complexity and structural impact achieved by the Dian culture. (480-220 BC)




An elegant wine flask in form of a gourd with a bull on its lid.  (6th to 5th cent BC)









A container showing a lively scene of a fight between several people.  (481-222 BC)





In the opinion of several European archeologists this  scene shows a ritual human sacrifice. The profusion of individually charcterised people is impressive. (150 to 50 BC).



A compact  bronze showing 4 men trying to tie a bull to a post. Notice the large snake winding itself between the legs of the group. A motive not shared with steppe art. (150 – 50 BC)



People watching a bull dance(!) from a grandstand.  The bull is entering the arena where 10 bull dancers with long scarves are waiting for him. (150 – 50 BC)




Dancers and musicians.  Dances and musical instruments, like horses were importet to China from Central Asia. (150 – 50 BC)



Another spectacular compact bronze :  A tigress surrounded by her cubs attacks a bull.  (150 – 50 BC)





A squatting man .  (150 – 50 BC)




Model of a house or temple with animals and people  -  and a snake on the door post. (150 – 50 BC)





An apotropaic sculpture of a bull head, two snakes, a skull and two bulls in a highly original arrangement, related to steppe art. (150 – 50 BC)





Dancers juggling flat disks and a snake.  One of the most remarkably executed sculptures in the collection. Gilded bronze. (150 – 50 BC)




A gilded rider surrounded by bulls on a cowrie-shell container.  Besides the ritual table the signasture piece of the collection.

(150 – 50 BC)


Note:  these museum reproductions are posted strictly as illustrative educational material. They should not be copied for any other purpose.