A few hundred years ago, what is now the Dai and Achang prefecture of Dehong (德宏傣族阿昌族自治州) was known to the Chinese Emperors as the “Southern Imperial Domain” (南甸) and ruled by the ‘Pacification Commissioner’ whose headquarters were in Lianghe (梁河), a town just one hour away from the ancient village of Heshun (和顺) and the town of Tengchong (腾冲) in western Yunnan province (云南).
In this southwest corner of Yunnan province, Lianghe is not only an easy off-the-beaten path one-day trip destination from the region of Tengchong (腾冲), it is also a gateway to the exotic Dehong (德宏) prefecture (which borders on Myanmar / Burma) and the travellers who have been in China proper for too long, they will sense, thanks to the Dai and Achang ethnic groups, a taste of Southeast Asia.
The “Dai Imperial Palace”
The residence of the Southern Imperial Domain’s Pacification Commissioner (南甸宣抚司署) in Lianghe is also called “the Dai Imperial Palace” (傣族故宫), in reference to the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Although the Yuan dynasty had anchor parts of Yunnan provinces into the imperial realm, there were still a few region that escaped direct Chinese rule when the Ming took over the power in 1368. Ming emperors established a system of indirect rule over southwest China’s ethnic borderland where non-Han people live. This system known as the tusi system (土司制度) is summarized in four Chinese characters : 以夷治夷 – barbarian rule barbarians.
Chinese emperors let local ethnic leaders rule their own people. Nominal military title such as “Pacific Commissioner” (宣慰使) were bestowed upon these ethnic leaders. The Dai rulers of Dehong and Xishuangbanna (西双版纳) were paying a tribute to the Chinese emperors in Beijing, but also to the kings of Burma and Thailand.
The headquarters of the Pacification Commissioner of the Southern Imperial Domain (南甸) is a succession of four courtyards with gardens, local official buildings, living quarters and a theater which reminds of the layout of the Forbidden City in Beijing.
The construction started during the first year of Emperor Xianfeng (咸丰) of the Qing, in 1851 and was finished in 1935. It is the largest historical building of its kind in the region and a witness of China’s indirect imperial rule over the region. Travelers have to pay a 30 RMB ticket fee to visit.
A taste of southeast Asia
Lianghe looks like any small town in China. However, there are two pagodas that remind the travelers of the southeast Asian influences of the Dai ethnic minority traditional culture.
The first one is the Mengdi pagoda (勐底佛塔), a classic Southern Buddhism pagoda with a central pagoda and four smaller-scale pagoda on each end of the Sumeru seat. According to my Dai driver, the original Mengdi pagoda was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and replaced by the local police station. The pagoda was rebuilt in the late 1980s at its original location, next to a Han-Chinese Buddhist temple (汉传佛教寺).
The second pagoda is a brand new Vajra (or Diamond) throne pagoda flanked with four seating Buddha on each side seating on top of a short hill. It’s located across the river, near the national road that links Tengchong to Lianghe and Yingjiang in the southwest.
The pagoda dominates a square where locals gather to celebrate the water-splashing festival (泼水节) during the Thai new year.
Other Lianghe’s landmarks
Li Genyuan Courtyard House
Modern Chinese history aficionados will not want to miss the courtyard house of Li Genyuan (李根源). Born in Lianghe in 1879, Li Genyuan was in important figure in the Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命), which contributed to the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, and a founding member of the Chinese Republican party.
Unfortunately, Li Genyuan’s courtyard mansion was closed when I visited. Instead, I visited two more temples, both under renovation.
The Taiping Temple
The Taiping Temple, not far from Li Genyuan’s mansion, is a classic Buddhist courtyard temple which was founded during the Ming dynasty. Originally, the temple used to be home of the local tusi until his headquarters were upgraded into what is now the ‘Dai Imperial Palace’.
The Huangge Temple (皇阁寺), is located on top of the hill that dominates Lianghe. The temple is home to a small community of Zen Buddhist nuns who will happily welcome you with a cup of hot green tea. The whole temple was under renovation when I went there, so, you may see something quite different when you visit.
How to get there
Lianghe (梁河) is located in western Yunnan province, in the Dai and Achang autonomous prefecture of Dehong (德宏), just one hour away from Heshun (和顺) and Tengchong (腾冲). From Tengchong, you can take a bus from the east bus station (东汽车站) – there is a bus every 30 minutes (roughly).
From Lianghe, there are frequent buses back to Heshun and Tengchong or you can pursue the exploration of Dehong southwest to Yingjiang (盈江) – another 1h30 by bus.
The residence of the Pacification Commissioner of the South Imperial border or 南甸宣抚司署 (Nandian xuanfu sishu) is located within walkable distance of the bus station on Nandian Road (南甸路). You can hire a local driver to visit the pagodas.