Liao Dynasty

The Liao Dynasty (simplified Chinese: 辽朝; traditional Chinese: 遼朝; pinyin: Liáo Cháo; Khitan language: Mos Jælut), also known as the Khitan Empire (simplified Chinese: 契丹国; traditional Chinese: 契丹國; pinyin: Qìdān Guó; Khitan: Mos diau-d kitai huldʒi gur), was an empire in East Asia that ruled over Mongolia and portions of Kazakhstan, the Russian Far East, and northern China proper between 907–1125. It was founded by the Khitan Great Khan Abaoji around the time of the collapse of the Han Chinese tang dynasty.

The Liao Empire was destroyed by the Jurchen of the jin dynasty in 1125. However, remnants of its people, led by Yelü Dashi, established Western Liao Dynasty, also known as Kara-Khitan Khanate, which ruled over parts of Central Asia for almost a century before being conquered by Genghis Khan's Mongolian army.


Khitans before Abaoji

The Khitan were a Mongolic tribe who originally formed a part of Tanshihuai's Xianbei state before submitting along with the Kumo Xi to the Yuwen chieftains after the state's disintegration. They considered themselves descendants of the legendary Qishou Khagan, who was descended from Tanshihuai (reigned 157–181). The Kumo Xi and Khitan separated as one body from the Yuwen after the Yuwen were defeated by Murong Huang of the Murong tribe in 344. In 388 the Khitan separated from the Kumo Xi.

This began the written history of the Khitan as an independent tribe. In the period of Zhenjun (r. 440–449) they 'asked for paying tribute' (any presentation of gifts by foreigners were seen as submissive 'tribute') and presented famous steeds to the court of the northern wei. In the Xianzu period (466–470) Mofuhe Hechen of the Khitan leading the eight Khitan tribes (Xiwandan, Hedahe, Fufuyu, Yuling, Rilian, Pijie, Li and Tuliuyu) presented famous steeds and high quality fur to the northern wei at their capital Datong and the Khitan were 'allowed' to trade in the area of modern-day Miyun County of Beijing City.

The Khitan lived on the eastern slopes of the Greater Khingan Mountain range, within the eastern portions of present-day Inner Mongolia . The area is ideal for the raising of cattle and horses, which was the basic source of wealth for the Khitan people. Their culture evolved over the course of centuries, influenced by both conflict and cultural interaction with their neighbors, both nomadic and sedentary. It was also common for Khitan to intermarry with people from neighboring steppe tribes.

During the tang dynasty in China, it is known that the Khitan were subservient to the Uyghurs who had their capital set in the Mongolian Plateau before their move westward in the 840s. Initial expansion was to the west in the Mongolian plains, filling the power vacuum created by the departure of the Uyghurs. Other steppe peoples residing in the region were the Shiwei, Xi and Tartars. The remaining Uyghurs fled west in the face of the Khitan advance.

Over the course of time, the Khitan had made some important observations. They noticed how the Uyghurs had coerced the tang dynasty to pay them tribute. They also saw the fearsome effect steppe cavalry used by the Shatuo Turks, the Kyrgyz, and the Uyghurs had against Chinese military forces. Khitan leaders also apparently made the observation that to become sedentary themselves would mean that they would have to compete with the Chinese on their terms, something in which the Khitan would have no hope of success. They knew that they must have access to the resources of China without losing the culture and/or identity that was a critical component of their steppe culture.

From the 750s, a clan using the surname Yaolian had held the title of khan, holding a monopoly on power for more than one hundred fifty years. They had full relations with the tang dynasty court. The first Yaolian khan even had the imperial surname of Li bestowed upon him, though no one in the steppe bothered with it. Yaolian khans wavered from alliance with the tang dynasty to joining in with coalitions against it. During this period of time, only the Yaolian clan used a surname among the Khitan.

Abaoji and the rise of the Khitans

Abaoji, who would later become Emperor Taizu of Liao, was born in 872, the son of the chief of the Yila tribe. At that time, the Yila tribe was the largest and strongest of the eight affiliated Khitan tribes, however the Great Khan, the overall leader of the Khitans, was drawn from the Yaolian lineage. In 901 Abaoji was elected to be the chief of the Yila tribe by its tribal council. By 903, Abaoji had been named the Yüyue, the overall military leader of the Khitans, subordinate only to the Great Khan. Four years later, in 907, Abaoji became the Great Khan of the Khitans, ending nine generations of Yaolian rule. Abaoji acquired the prestige needed to secure the position of Khitan Great Khan through a combination of effective diplomacy and a series of successful military campaigns, beginning in 901, against the Han Chinese forces to the south, the Xi and Shiwei to the west, and the Jurchens in the east.

The same year that Abaoji became Great Khan, the Chinese warlord Zhu Wen, who had in 904 murdered the last legitimate emperor of the tang dynasty, declared the tang dynasty over and himself the emperor of China. His Dynasty dissolved quickly, ushering in the 53 year period of disunity known as the Five Dynasties period. One of the five dynasties, the Later jin dynasty, was a client state of the Khitans.

For much of Chinese history, the position of Emperor was determined by primogeniture; the position would pass from father to first born son upon the father's death. While Khitan succession was also kept within families, an emphasis was placed on selecting the most capable option, with all of a leader's brothers, nephews, and sons considered valid choices for succession.

Khitan rulers were expected to hand over power a paternal after serving a single three year term. Abaoji signaled his desire to become a permanent ruler in 907, securing his position by killing most of other Khitan chieftains. Between 907 and 910 Abaoji's rule went unchallenged. It was only after 910, when Abaoji disregarded the Khitan tradition that another member of the family assume the position of Great Khan, that Abaoji's rule came under direct challenge. In both 912 and 913 members of Abaoji's family, including most of his brothers, attempted armed insurrections. After the first insurrection was discovered and defeated, Abaoji pardoned the conspirators. After the second, only Abaoji's brothers were pardoned, with the other conspirators suffering violent deaths. Abaoji's brothers plotted additional rebellions in 917 and 918, both of which were easily crushed.

In 916, at what would have been the end of his third term as Khitan Grand Khan, Abaoji made a number of changes which moved the Khitan state closer to the model of governance used by the Chinese dynasties. Abaoji assumed the title of Celestial Emperor and designated an era names, named his oldest son Yelü Bei as his successor, and commissioned the construction of a Confucian temple. Two years later he established a capital city, Shangjing (上京), which imitated the model of a Chinese capital city.

Before his death in 926, Abaoji greatly expanded the areas that the Khitans controlled. At its height, the Liao Dynasty encompassed modern day Mongolia, parts of Kazakhstan and the Russian Far East, and the Chinese provinces of Hebei , Heilongjiang , Inner Mongolia , Jilin , Liaoning , and Shanxi .

Succession issues

Abaoji had named his eldest son, Prince Bei, heir apparent in 918. However, his widow, Empress Dowager Yingtian, was more of a traditionalist than her husband. Thus, she did not so readily accept the notion of primogeniture. She believed that her second son, Deguang, would have made a more appropriate Khitan emperor because he displayed the traditional traits deemed appropriate to steppe leadership. He was declared the successor to Abaoji while Prince Bei retained his title. Prince Bei later went to China, where he was assassinated in 936.

Succession issues were not solved upon Deguang's death in 947. Empress Dowager Yingtian, favoring her third son, immediately denounced her grandson, who was in line to become the third Liao emperor. However, Prince Lihu was seen by all as being wholly inappropriate to be the leader of the Khitan. Civil war loomed, but did not materialize as the court failed to support Yingtian on this occasion. Her grandson became emperor Shizong.

Succession did not return to Prince Bei's line, as intended by Abaoji in 918, until 969 with the death of Muzong and the accession of Yelu Longxu as Emperor Jingzong. Succession would remain in this line until the fall of the Liao Dynasty in 1125. Despite this misleading stability, there were a lot of challenges to face.


By the mid 11th century, the Khitan had lost their morale and started adopting a defensive attitude towards their neighbors. This was in part due to the influence of Buddhism and loss of the nomadic way of life among many of the Khitan. Around the 12th century, the empire's slow decline sped up as a result of succession problems, natural disasters, and the positive progress of the Jurchen in the northeast. More pressure was put on the Khitan when the Jurchens & Song entered the Alliance on the Sea against them and in 1124-1125, the Khitan Empire collapsed.

After the conquest of the Liao Dynasty several hundred members of the Khitan nobility, led by Yelü Dashi, fled northwest across the Gobi desert to the border area and military garrison of Zhenzhou, in modern day Xinjiang province. Yelü Dashi convinced the people there, around 20,000 Liao cavalry and their families, to follow him and attempt to restore the Liao Dynasty. Yelü Dashi proclaimed himself emperor in 1231, after which he moved further northwest into modern Kazakhstan, and after a failed attempt in 1134 to reclaim the territory formerly held by the Liao, decided to instead to stay where he was and establish a permanent Khitan state in Central Asia. The state, known as the Kara-Khitan Khanate or the Western Liao Dynasty, controlled several key trading cities, was multicultural, and showed evidence of religious tolerance. The state survived for nearly a century before being conquered by the Mongol Empire in 1218.


Law and administration

Abaoji introduced a revolutionary new system of governing both nomadic and sedentary populations simultaneously. His concept was to divide the empire into two sections called Chancelleries. The Northern Chancellery (北院) consisted of nomadic steppe peoples, including the Khitan and conquered steppe tribes. The Southern Chancellery, by contrast, included territories incorporated into Khitan domains that was populated by Chinese and the people of Balhae.

The Northern Chancellery was run on a steppe military model. Abaoji was known as the Great Khan of the Northern Chancellery. The entire steppe population was constantly mobilized, ready for military action should it be required. The Khitan language, for which scripts were devised in 920 and 925, was the official language of the Northern Chancellery. The Xiao family, the consort family to the new imperial family, would govern the North.

The Southern Chancellery (南院) was run on a civil model. Here Abaoji served as an emperor more in line with the Chinese model of leadership. The vast majority of the administrative work was done by the sedentary populations themselves under the leadership of Abaoji's family, who at some point adopted the surname Yelü. Chinese was the official administrative language of the region. The Southern Chancellery even adopted the Tang practice of competitive civil service examinations to staff the various bureaucracies of government required to govern a large sedentary population. However, due to suspicions over this overtly Chinese system, initially small numbers of jinshi degree holders were actually appointed to government posts. Loyalty, a holdover of common steppe practices, was still a more important means of appointment, even in the Southern Chancellery.

Despite the brilliance of this administrative innovation, it most certainly did not meet with universal approval from the Khitan elite. They believed, with some justification, that the development of a Chinese-style imperial system would seriously harm their interests within Khitan society. Thus, many elite, including those in Abaoji's own family, rebelled against his rule. This persisted for nine years.

In 916, Abaoji began his attempt to institute another stabilizing innovation, borrowing the Chinese notion of primogeniture. He named his eldest son, Prince Bei, heir apparent, a first in the history of the Khitan. However, despite Abaoji's support for this system, it never really took hold until the end of the tenth century.

In 918, the government occupied a newly constructed walled-city that would serve as the Liao capital. Called Shangjing 上京 (Supreme Capital), it not only served as the administrative center of the new empire, it also included a commercial district called the Chinese city 漢城 (Hancheng – not to be confused by the former Chinese name for Seoul which was the same). The city was built on a site hallowed by the Khitan people at the headwaters of the Shira Muren River.

More than thirty walled cities were built, including four additional capitals that served as subsidiary capitals for the four other regions of the empire. An Eastern Capital was built near present-day Liaoyang. After the Sixteen Prefectures were absorbed into the empire, a Western Capital was built near Datong while the Southern Capital was constructed on the site of present-day Beijing . There was also a Central Capital. These cities were not only capitals of their respective regions, they also served as centers of commerce, and provided considerable wealth for the Liao Dynasty.

Law in the Liao Dynasty was applied differently in the Northern and Southern Chancelleries. The Northern Chancellery, governed by the Xiao consort clan, retained a distinctive Khitan-steppe character.

The Yelu clan, who governed the Southern Chancellery, were considerably more sinified in character. Initially, justice was not delivered in an even-handed fashion to the Chinese inhabitants of the empire. This is reported to having changed from 989. Beginning in 994, Khitans having committed one of ten grave crimes would be punished according to Chinese law. This is indicative of a transition from "ethnic law" to "territorial law. "

Five Dynasties

From the rise of Abaoji to the fall of the Liao Dynasty in 1125, a total of six dynasties ruled what is now northern China. First were the Five Dynasties, which ruled northern China in succession from 907 to 960. Then, there was the song dynasty, which succeeded the later zhou dynasty in 960, and which within two decades, was able to incorporate the southern kingdoms into its realm, taking nearly all of traditional Chinese lands.

The later tang dynasty was founded by the Shatuo Turks in 923 after its founder, Li Cunxu, the son of Abaoji's blood brother Li Keyong, had overthrown the later liang dynasty . However, relations between the two were deteriorating, largely because of Khitan incursions into Hebei , taking booty and captives.

Li Cunxu had died in 926. Despite the general deterioration in relations, the later tang dynasty sent an envoy by the name of Yao Kun to the Liao Dynasty. When he arrived, however, Abaoji was on campaign, completing the conquest of the sedentary kingdom of Balhae (known in Chinese annals as Bohai. ) Abaoji's appetite for expansion had apparently not been sated by the conquest of Balhae, because he sent a demand for cession of the Sixteen Prefectures, which made up the border region between the two empires. However, Abaoji died on September 6, temporarily removing attention from the Sixteen Prefectures.

The later tang dynasty weakened in the 930s. When Shi Jingtang revolted, the Liao sent a large army through the passes at Shanxi to assist. In return for assistance in his revolt, the new Later jin dynasty, Shi ceded the Sixteen Prefectures to the Liao.

Han Chinese and Shatuo Turks living in Later Jin territories chafed at the subordinate position they had in relation to the Liao. This led the Later Jin court to begin to display independence from the Liao. Consequently, the Khitan attacked as far as Kaifeng, where they stole maps archives, water clocks, musical instruments, and copies of the Classics, and kidnapped craftsmen and scholars. They then decided to move further into the present day provinces of Hebei and Shanxi . However, faced with the difficulties of governing a large sedentary population, the Liao emperor changed his mind about being emperor of China and decided to return to the Southern Capital. On the return in 947, the emperor died.

These events led to the collapse of the Later jin dynasty, and with the power vacuum left when the Liao emperor's death, the short-lived Later han dynasty was founded.

The later zhou dynasty struck at Liao positions in 958 in an attempt to regain the Sixteen Prefectures. After successfully taking two prefectures in Hebei , Emperor Muzong sprung into action, leading a Khitan cavalry force to the Southern Capital the following year. Military confrontation was averted with the death of the later zhou dynasty emperor.

song dynasty

The song dynasty succeeded the later zhou dynasty, the last of the Five Dynasties, in 960. Initially, the song dynasty court focused on reunifying the Chinese realm by incorporating the remaining southern kingdoms left over from the Ten Kingdoms period in the south. However, once wuyue was brought into the fold in 978, Emperor Taizong began to focus on the north.

Two major issues caused relations between the Liao and the Song to sour. One was the continued Liao occupation of the Sixteen Prefectures. The other was Liao support for the northern han dynasty kingdom, the remnant of the Later han dynasty that was toppled in 950.

Emperor Taizong led the conquest of the northern han dynasty in 979. Then, he led an ill-advised invasion of the Sixteen Prefectures. The result was a resounding Liao victory, forcing the Song emperor to retreat in disgrace.

Song Emperor Taizong tried to take advantage of a fifteen-year-old Liao emperor by launching a three-pronged invasion in 986. The Song were decisively defeated on all three fronts. The Song court then resumed diplomatic contact with the Liao.

The Liao invaded the song dynasty in 1004, and stopped just north of Shanyuan, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of the Song capital of Kaifeng. The Song emperor Zhenzong met them with a force. The Treaty of Shanyuan was worked out in January, 1005. The song dynasty was required to pay an annual tribute to the Liao. The treaty also stipulated that the two imperial families address one another using familial terms. The tribute was increased and extended to Xi Xia when the Liao and Tanguts threatened further invasion in 1042.

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