Founding of Nanzhao Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The founding of the kingdom of Nanzhao may have represented the establishment of the first major Thai state. A major power, Nanzhao both allied with and fought against China, eventually falling to the invading Mongols.

Summary of Event

Nanzhao apparently emerged from several Thai states in southern China. It was a major power for several centuries, extending its control over parts of Burma and even attacking Hanoi, in northern Vietnam. Nanzhao sometimes allied itself with China against Tibet and sometimes fought against China. It finally fell to the Mongol invasion in 1253, touching off increased migration of Thai and related people to the south. Migrations;Thai to Southeast Asia [kw]Founding of Nanzhao (729) [kw]Nanzhao, Founding of (729) Nanzhao China;729: Founding of Nanzhao[0580] Government and politics;729: Founding of Nanzhao[0580] Sinulo Pilaoko Kolofeng Kublai Khan

Although scholars accept the existence of the kingdom of Nanzhao (Nanchao or Nan Chao), there is some disagreement on whether it really was the first Thai state, or the first state led by Tai-speaking people, as the speakers of Thai, Shan, Lao, and other related languages are often called. According to historian Keith W. Taylor, Nanzhao was actually led by Tibeto-Burmans, and the Thai or Tai peoples played only a marginal role in the kingdom. However, other historians have long held that Nanzhao was the first known major Thai state and that although its leaders may have been heavily influenced by the Chinese and Tibetan cultures, those leaders were of the same ethnic and linguistic heritage as their followers.

People of Thai ethnicity are thought to have settled in southern China by the first century of the common era. Their region was bounded by the Red River in the east, by the Yangtze River in the north, and by the upper Mekong in the west. Ancient Chinese documents refer to these people as the Ailao Ailao . According to some accounts, the Ailao moved up into southern China from the Indian subcontinent and established a federation of muangs (muong or meuang). The word muang Muangs in modern Thai refers to a country or a people; Thailand itself is often known as Muang Thai. The ancient word appears to have meant something along the lines of a tribe or a principality, a collection of scattered villages. Each muang was led by a chao, or lord. Leadership was based on personal ties between the lord and those who followed him, and the lords’s authority came from their personal qualities.

The Chinese emperors had brought the region under their control by about the third century. However, disorder in China enabled many local chieftains to establish their independence. During the middle of the seventh century, struggle with China inspired many muangs to join together into larger groupings. Reportedly, as many as six Thai states came into existence. Nanzhao, which means “the southern principality,” took shape as one of these states. By about 650, Nanzhao was ruled by King Sinulo Sinulo . The Chinese Tang Dynasty Tang Dynasty;Nanzhao and (Tan’g; 618-907) accepted the existence of the new kingdom and established a treaty with it. The ties between Nanzhao and China resulted in many lasting Chinese cultural influences on the Thai.

After Sinulo died in 674, he was succeeded first by his son, Loshengyen, and then, in about 712, by his grandson, Shenglope. In 728, Pilaoko Pilaoko , the king who apparently led the rise of Nanzhao as a powerful kingdom, came to the throne. Pilaoko allied himself with the Chinese emperor Xuanzong Xuanzong (Tang emperor) (Hsüan-tsung; r. 712-756) and agreed to defend the borders of China from all enemies, especially from Tibet. Pilaoko then turned to attack Tibet, seizing several Tibetan settlements. He also used his position as a vassal of the Chinese to dominate the neighboring states and to extend the territory of Nanzhao. Fortifying himself in the Tali Lake Plain, which is surrounded by mountains and gorges, Pilaoko was able to build his dominion into a place that was easy to defend and difficult to attack. In 735, Pilaoko formally accepted Chinese sovereignty over Nanzhao. In turn, the Chinese recognized Pilaoko as the lord of Yunnan.

Pilaoko’s son, Kolofeng Kolofeng , reportedly turned against the Chinese. Kolofeng struck an alliance with the Tibetans and invaded China. In response, the Chinese invaded Nanzhao once again, in 752-754, but failed to impose their will on the rebellious state. Over the next 150 years, Nanzhao maintained troubled relations with China, but the former did send missions and tribute to the powerful Chinese empire. Kolofeng also turned his attention south, where the main power in the Irawaddy River basin was the ancient Pyu Pyu Empire. The Pyu derived their wealth from trade between India and China. By shifting the trade route away from the Irawaddy, Nanzhao reduced the the strength of the Burmese empire. The Pyu became vassals of Nanzhao by about 800, when Chinese records reported that Nanzhao had sent Pyu musicians to the imperial court of China.

After the death of Kolofeng in 779, his son, Imoshun Imoshun , tried to invade China but was defeated. In the years that followed, Imoshun reconsidered his enmity with the Chinese. He sent a letter to the emperor repudiating his alliance with Tibet, and the Chinese, in turn, recognized Imoshun as king of Nanzhao. Imoshun, however, died in 808. Imoshun’s successor reportedly attacked China once again, capturing several provinces and bringing captive artisans and scholars back to Nanzhao. In about 832, Nanzhao turned on the weakened empire of the Pyu, already a vassal, and conquered the Burmese state.

Kublai Khan, from a Chinese engraving.

(Library of Congress)

Chinese records report that in 859, Tsuiling Tsuiling became king of Nanzhao and took on the title of emperor. This angered the Chinese emperor Yizong Yizong (Tang emperor) (I-tsung; r. 859-873), because that title was supposed to represent supremacy over all other rulers and to belong to the ruler of China alone. Warfare broke out once again between Nanzhao and China, and Nanzhao invaded China, laying siege to Chengdu. At this time also, the armies of Nanzhao moved to the southeast to invade northern Vietnam, then a part of the Chinese empire. In 862 and 863, the forces of Nanzhao attacked and occupied the Vietnamese city of Hanoi. The presence of Nanzhao in Vietnam Vietnam;Nanzhao invasion of was short-lived, however, because a Chinese general retook the region about 866.

Taiking Taiking became king of Nanzhao in 877 and made peace with China. With his death, about 902, the dynasty that had begun with Sinulo came to an end. Nanzhao continued to exist, but little information is available on its history. There is little mention of it in the Chinese records, the chief source for modern historians. The silence probably indicates continued good relations between the two countries.

In 1253, Kublai Khan Kublai Khan , the ruler of the Mongols Mongols;invasion of Nanzhao in China, invaded and conquered Nanzhao. This brought an end to the kingdom. Some historians have claimed that the rulers of Nanzhao were not Thai at all, but members of some other ethnic group. Whatever the ethnicity of those at the top, though, the Mongol conquest apparently set off another large wave of migration. Although some Tai-speaking people remain in modern-day southern China, many tribes left for other locations with the breakup of Nanzhao.


If Nanzhao was a Thai kingdom, as many believe, then it was the first appearance of a major state organized by people of an ethnic group that later came to occupy an important place in Southeast Asian history. It may also have been a central source of immigrants to the lands that are now known as Laos and Thailand.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coedès, George. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Translated by Susan Brown Cowing. Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1968. A classic work on Southeast Asian history. Several chapters in the book refer to Nanzhao.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tapp, Nicholas, and Andrew Walker, eds. The Tai World: A Digest of Articles from the Thai-Yunnan Newsletter. Canberra: Australian National University, 2001. A collection of articles first published in a newsletter devoted to folklore, history, rituals, and beliefs among the Thai, Lao, and people of Yunnan. These demonstrate the continuing close connections between the tribes in Yunnan and the Thai people.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Keith W. “The Early Kingdoms.” In Cambridge History of Southeast Asia. Vol. 1, edited by Nicholas Tarling. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. The author rejects the idea that Nanzhao was primarily a kingdom of Tai-speaking people.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wyatt, David K. Thailand: A Short History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. Provides an accessible introduction to Thai history.

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