Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

China's Liao Dynasty

A Liao Dynasty marble Amitabha Buddha from Hebei, in the Northern Qi style (Cernuschi Museum, Paris)

A Liao Dynasty marble Amitabha Buddha from Hebei, in the Northern Qi style (Cernuschi Museum, Paris)

A Chinese dynasty and kingdom existed roughly in parallel to the better-known Song Dynasty, but this one ruled by the nomadic Khitans. A fascinating essay on governance, international relations, technology and exchange in China and its northern frontiers from 907 - 1123.

The Liao dynasty (907-1125) of China and its successor, the Western Liao (1124-1211), were founded by the Khitan, a proto-Mongol people who were originally nomadic pastoralists residing in modern Inner Mongolia, Mongolia, Manchuria, and perhaps as far north as Lake Baikal, in modern-day Russia. Mentioned in the Chinese sources as early as the fourth century, C.E., the Khitan, like other pastoral nomads, depended largely on their animals for survival, though a few tribes supplemented their incomes by fishing and farming. Their reliance on animals in regions plagued by high winds and considerable snow and ice made them vulnerable to their capricious environment. A devastating winter could lead to the deaths of many of their animals. In those circumstances, China often provided a safety net by permitting the pastoral nomads to trade for such necessities as grain and craft articles and such luxuries as silk and tea. On the other hand, when China was disunited, its northern pastoral neighbors would, on occasion, capitalize on its weakness to annex Chinese territories.

The Khitan and the Formation of the Liao Dynasty
Indeed, the Khitan sought to take advantage of the turbulence following the collapse of the Tang dynasty (619-907). Having been influenced by the Uyghurs, the first of the pastoral peoples of Mongolia to build a capital city and to devise an administrative system, they had begun to shift from a tribal organization to a larger confederation. They became intent on ruling rather than plundering the territories they occupied in China. By 938, when China was still disunited, the Khitan had wrested control over Sixteen Prefectures, including the area of modern Beijing.

Even earlier, they had manifested their desire to govern the Chinese regions they had seized and to establish a true dynasty. In 907, their ruler Abaoji proclaimed himself Khaghan (“Great Khan”) of a Khitan confederation, and within a decade he adopted a Chinese title, Shenze, for his reign. Khitan precedent dictated elections every three years for a new ruler, but Abaoji rejected that custom and instead sought to impose a hereditary rather than a tribal or elective system of succession. He overwhelmed opposition to his plan and retained power for almost two decades, setting a precedent for a Chinese-like system, which, however, continued to be contested. To bolster his legitimacy and to indicate his intent to rule both sedentary agricultural and mobile pastoral societies, he began to construct a capital city in 918. Although the capital, known by the Chinese name Huangdu (later changed to Shangjing) was based in modern Inner Mongolia, not at that time part of China, it signaled a change in his conception of governance. He now attempted to rule the sedentary population in his domains from a stationary site, with a regular administration. Inhabitants could count on relatively fixed and stable taxes rather than irregular and perhaps capricious demands. They could also rest assured that the government would not expropriate their farm land and convert it to pasture.

Development of written scripts marked still another change for Khitan society. As the Khitan envisioned rule rather than plunder of subjugated domains, they recognized the need for a written language for their proto-Mongol spoken language (which also incorporated Tungusic words). They developed both a large script and a small script, each of which has similarities to Chinese characters. Neither has been fully deciphered, somewhat restricting knowledge of their society. Yet their creation of these scripts reveals recognition of new responsibilities incurred with annexation of new lands and the need to govern them.