Despite being the largest city in China’s southern Yunnan Province, Kunming is a little away from it all. Bordering Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, Kunming rests high up in the mountain plateaus. Compared to many other mainland cities, Kunming is much more quiet, way less polluted and relaxed, generating an overall unhurried vibe that reflects the peacefulness of the nearby picturesque mountains and temples, amidst splendid limestone forests. Never too hot or too cold, Kunming stands out as a place to leisurely explore and experiment.
Even though the province is majority Han Chinese (dating back to the Han and Ming dynasties), Yunnan is one of China’s most diverse regions, home to the Yi, Hui, Bai, Miao, Dai and Tibetan people. While the government foresees the city to grow as a major hub for international and pan-Asian communities by introducing a high-speed train network linking China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore (to be completed 2022), for now Kunming holds its own as China’s slightly overlooked “city of eternal spring.”
Historically, the tea horse route linked Kunming to Tibet and India, connecting Yunnan’s many different peoples, cuisines, and languages with thousands of others through caravan trade. The city’s diverse cultural landscape is furthered by its complex imperial history, as many imperial dynasties established roots in the region, expanding the city in their own ways. During the Yuan Dynasty, established by the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, a provincial governor named the city “Zhongjing Chen” where he constructed Buddhist and Confucian temples, and mosques. After Ming Dynasty, the last dynasty ruled by the Han Chinese that expanded and established much of the city’s old infrastructure. This entailed building a wall around the city and establishing it as a large market and transportation hub within the region. During the next and last Dynasty, the Manchu people ruled the Qing Dynasty, during which Du Wenxiu, a Chinese-Muslim leader from the Hui minority formed the Panthay rebellion and razed many Buddhist temples to be replaced by mosques. While the rebellion collapsed, its shadow reminds the region of bloody massacres and a large emigration of Hui people towards Burma.
In 1908, Kunming became one of China’s many treaty ports, forced open to trade through unequal treaties, and later became a backup wartime capital, air force and military base during the many tumultuous wars of the 20th century. During the Cultural Revolution, the government sent off political exiles to distant, remote Kunming.
Today, the city is lush and known for its many mosques and temples, as well as beautiful parks. A major horticultural exposition, “the Garden of the World” took place in 1999 and left a major landmark for the city, as well as establishing Kunming as the largest flower exporting region in Asia. This passion for florals lives through its arts communities as well. Liu Lifen, artist and founder of the Tai Project in Kunming’s Chuangku Art Loft district, sees plants and the natural world as central to her practice and space. Built out of bright blue shipping containers, Tai Project is a gallery and gathering space supporting emerging and experimental artists, as well as a peaceful place to catch up for conversations over tea. Though the Tai Project sadly closed in 2019 after Liu Lifen moved away, she coordinated over a decade of artist exchanges and exhibitions in the space. The surrounding arts district took root in 2001, founded by artists Ye Yongqing and Tang Zhigang in a former industrial park. Today, now home to art galleries, cafés and breweries popping up alongside design shops, but is slated for demolition.
Another long-running residency program and one of the earliest independent art spaces in China is TCG Nordica. It started as a collaboration between two women poets, Anna Mellergård and Wu Yuerong, to create a space for cross-cultural international experimentation. According to curator and artist Luo Fei who directed the program for years, Kunming is “a really good place to grow as an artist.”
Kunming’s creative scene had moments of salience in the 1980s, when artists like Zhang Xiaogang and other created the Southwest Artist Group. Today, newly opened spaces like Contemporary Gallery Kunming CGK and new venue Kong Art Space, founded by performance artist He Libin, are hosting exhibitions and talks centering Yunnan and the surrounding region.
Works of choreographer Yang Liping grace local and global stages as well as on national television during major Spring Festival galas, becoming a household name in China for her Peacock dances. In 2017, Kunming hosted its first China International Dance Festival for contemporary dance. Musically, Kunming is home to Dian opera traditions as well as a recently home-grown folk and electro scene. There are a few indie venues to catch live shows at, like the Turtle, where owners Sean and Sam Debell run the music label Sea of Wood and host ‘Made in Yunnan’ live music nights where bands like Kawa play. National indie music staples like Mao Livehouse also operate a venue in Kunming, and Modern Sky Lab has a bookstore, record shop and café inside the shopping mall New 2 opened in 2017.
Music festivals and celebrations of indigenous cultures like the Naxi Sanduo festival, the Wa Xinmi Festival and the Dai Water-Splashing Festival pass on living musical and cultural traditions throughout the year in the city and surrounding regions.
Though the scene is small, Kunming is home to a growing number of dedicated creative communities working to continue traditions and create new ways of expression in step with a more leisurely outlook on life from up in the mountains.
With beautiful historic architecture, the Historic center is what remains of when Kunming was a walled city during the Ming Dynasty. It is today the city’s most vibrant “hip” cultural hub with many cafes, restaurants, and bars that sell a more Chinese and foreign hipster type crowd.
Chenggong New City was developed in the early 2000s as Kunming’s “satellite city”, a separate municipality that is supposed to be economically independent from the city’s main core. Until 2010, this area could have been characterized as what is commonly known as a “ghost city”, which does not mean that it has been abandoned but rather that the rate of urbanization is very slow compared to the rate at which the infrastructure was built. In 2015, different forms of public transportation were introduced into this sector which blossomed its economy and livelihood: most governmental offices that used to be based in the historic center relocated here, along with universities.
Home to Kunming’s elite, the Higher End New Suburbs consist of tall apartment buildings and fancy mansion style homes with manicured outdoor public spaces. While the city center provides cute shops and small restaurants tucked in alleys, here one can find larger shopping centers and malls.
The industrial/old suburb areas homes a much less wealthy demographic, and the amenities are more run down. Many state owned industrial plants are in the process of being demolished to build more residential modern buildings. It is also common to find dense “urban villages” in these areas, which are old agricultural villages that used to surround the old city, but have now been weaved into the city’s expanding perimeter.
This city guide video was directed and filmed by Nathaniel Brown, edited by AJ Sinker, produced by Kira Simon-Kennedy, with additional camera work by Lindsay Brown & Vivian Sangsukwirasathien. This guide is written by Kira Simon-Kennedy & Shahong Lee, with edits by Vera van de Nieuwenhof.