Learn more about Liao Dynasty
|History of China|
|3 Sovereigns & 5 Emperors|
|Spring & Autumn||Eastern Zhou|
The Liao Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 遼朝; Simplified Chinese: 辽朝; pinyin: Liáo Cháo), 907-1125, also known as the Khitan Empire, was an empire in northern China that ruled over the regions of Manchuria, Mongolia, and parts of northern China proper. It was founded by the Yelü (耶律 Yēlǜ) family of the Qidan or Khitan people in the final years of the Tang Dynasty, even though its first ruler, Yelü Abaoji, did not declare an era name until 916.
It was annihilated by the Jurchen of the Jin Dynasty in 1125. However, remnants led by Yelü Dashi established Xi (Western) Liao Dynasty 1125-1220, also known as Kara-Khitan Khanate, which survived until the arrival of Genghis Khan's Mongolian cavalry.
 Pre-Empire History
Since the Khitan had no written script until the eleventh century, we have to rely primarily upon Chinese records of their early history, which are quite scant prior to the seventh century, though the earliest mention of their existence dates to the fourth century. 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-era in China, it is known that the Khitan were subservient to the Uighurs 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 Uighurs. Other steppe peoples residing in the region were the Shiwei, Xi and Tartars. Remaining Uighurs 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 Uighurs had coerced the Tang Dynasty to pay them tribute. They also saw the fearsome effect steppe cavalry used by the Shatuo Turks, Kirgiz, and the Uighurs 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.
 Rise of Abaoji
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.
Chinese records refer to eight tribes of Khitan. The most powerful of these tribes was the Yila Tribe. Abaoji was born into this tribe in 872. The Yila Tribe did not use Chinese trappings such as surnames at this time in history, though they did have close relations with China, focusing on their struggle with northeastern jiedushi (military governors) of the Tang Dynasty.
Abaoji was elected to be the chieftain of the Yila Tribe in 901. Two years later, he was named “yuyue”, the commander of all Khitan military forces. The Yila Tribe had close relations with the Shatuo Turks. Li Keyong was a partially-sinified Shatuo Turk who was the jiedushi of northern Shanxi. In 905, Abaoji brought a force of 70,000 cavalry to Datong and swore a blood brotherhood with Li Keyong, a relationship that was to shape the region long after both of their deaths. The Khitan chose their Great Khan, “khaghan”, at triennial councils. A Yaolian was chosen at each of these councils since the 750s. However, Abaoji’s successes resulted in his rising status among the Khitan. Seeing him as being worthy, even the Yaolian assented to his election as Great Khan of the Khitan in 907.
 Liao Administrative System
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 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 sedentary populations, like Balhae, Koreans, and Chinese
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 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 Yelu. Chinese was the official administrative language of the region.
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. These 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.
 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 still numerous succession challenges to the end of the dynasty.
 Law in the Liao
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.
 Chinese acculturation
The level of sinification of the Khitan people has been debated. While it is clear that the ruling Yelu clan had been sinified to some extent, the bulk of the Khitan people seems to have resisted Chinese acculturation. The above resistance to the idea of primogeniture among the Khitan elite is only one indication of a resistance to Chinese acculturation. One of the stated purposes of the division of the empire between a Northern Chancellery and a Southern Chancellery is to create different forms of government for the steppe peoples in the north, which maintained steppe norms of society and government, and for the sedentary peoples in the south, which used mostly Chinese methods of governance.
Abaoji, who himself spoke Chinese and was somewhat familiar with Chinese culture, did not speak Chinese in front of his subjects. He revealed to Later Tang Dynasty envoy Yao Kun before his own death that he did not wish the Khitan people to lose the edge that they enjoyed as a nomadic people. He did not want them to become “soft” like the Chinese. Another indication of resistance to acculturation is the Chinese notion of the use of surnames. For a century and a half under the Yaolian clan, only the imperial clan used a surname. Only after Abaoji ascended to the position of Great Khan, did his clan as well as the Xiao consort clan adopt surnames, though the exact time is a matter of some debate. It may have taken place either before or after [[Abaoji]’s death. The issue arose again in the 1080s when a proposal to have all Khitan use surnames was refused by the emperor as being too-Chinese.
 Foreign Relations
 Chinese Dynasties
From the rise of Abaoji to the fall of the Liao Dynasty in 1125, a total of six dynasties ruled 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 within two decades, was able to incorporate the southern kingdoms into its realm, unifying nearly all of traditional Chinese lands.
 Later Tang
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. However, when he arrived, 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.
 Later Jin
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 began to display independence from the Liao. Consequently, the Khitan attacked as far as Kaifeng, where they stole maps archives, water clocks, musical instruments, the Classics and kidnapped craftsmen and scholars. They then decided to 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.
 Later Zhou
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 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 kingdom, the remnant of the Later Han Dynasty that was toppled in 950.
Emperor Song led the conquest of the Northern Han 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 Shengzong 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 met him with a force. The Treaty of Shanyuan, which 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.
When the Khitan conquered the kingdom of Balhae, the border with Korea had been pushed to the Yalu River. Korea itself was undergoing significant transformations at the same time. Koryo was founded in 918 and eventually unified the entire Korean Peninsula. The Silla kingdom, which had ruled the entire peninsula since the seventh century, fell in 935.
The Khitan demanded that the Koryo submit as a vassal state. Silla and Koryo both sent envoys to the Khitan in 915. [Koryo]] sent another mission to Abaoji in 924. Relations between the Koreans and the Liao started off well, but the Liao took a more aggressive posture later in the tenth century.
The Koreans were forced to sue for peace when the Liao invaded the peninsula in the 980s and 990s. A patent of investiture was sent to the Koryo king in 995, following the Chinese pattern of interstate relations. When the Koryo king was threatened by a revolt in 1005, the Liao sent assistance to support their vassal. The results were not good for the Koreans. Emperor Shengzong led Liao forced into the Koryo capital of Kaekyong, present-day Kaesong. The city was burned and looted. The Liao made territorial demands in the peninsula from 1013 to 1019. However, a negotiated settlement was reached between the two. Relations would improve between the two with the sending of a Khitan princess to marry into the Koryo royal family. Relations once again took a turn for the worse when the heirs to the imperial family of Balhae rebelled against the Liao. When they were defeated, they fled to Koryo. The Koryo court granted them protection and the royal surname. However, while the Liao cut off diplomatic relations with the Koreans, no invasion threat was made.
 Other Contact
From the time of the empire's creation all the way to its decline, the Liao Dynasty was recognized by Korea. The Khitan were also in contact with Japan and the Abassid empire, and the court of Baghdad once asked for a Khitan princess for marriage. These relations established the Khitans all across the steppes, before the Mongol expansion. Commercial activity allowed the Khitans to make their name known beyond the Pamirs and in Europe.
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 the fact that they had absorbed much of Chinese culture, which had a effect on their manners. 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 north east. More pressure was put on the Khitan when the Jurchen & Song made an alliance against them and in 1124-1125, the Khitan Empire collapsed.
After the fall of the empire, a part of the Khitan nobility led by Yelü Dashi emigrated to the Uighurs of Xinjiang and with their help created the Kingdom Of Karakhitan. This was a Turko-Mongol kingdom that was very sinicized. The kingdom allowed Buddhism and Nestorian Christianity to flourish. Its capital was at Balasaghun, south of Lake Balkhash and extended to the areas of Kashgar and Samarkand. The kingdom enjoyed a victory over the Seljuk Turks near Samarkand in 1141 and remained stable until it was destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1218.
 Liao Dynasty 907-1125
|Temple Names ( Miao Hao 廟號 miàohào)||Posthumous Names ( Shi Hao 諡號 shìhào)||Born Names||Period of Reigns||Era Names (Nian Hao 年號 niánhào) and their according range of years|
|Convention: "Liao" + temple name except Liao Tianzuodi who is referred using "Liao" + posthumous name|
|Taizu (太祖 Tàizǔ)||Shen Tian Huangdi||Yelü Abaoji (耶律阿保機 Yēlǜ Ābǎojī)||907-926||Shence (神冊 Shéncè) 916-922
|Taizong (太宗 Tàizōng)||Xiao Wu Huangdi||Yelü Deguang (耶律德光 Yēlǜ Déguāng)||926-947||Tianxian (天顯 Tiānxiǎn) 927-938
|Shizong (世宗 Shìzōng)||Tian Shou Huangdi||Yelü Ruan (耶律阮 Yēlǜ Ruǎn)||947-951||Tianlu (天祿 Tiānlù) 947-951
|Muzong (穆宗 Mùzōng)||Yelü Jing (耶律璟 Yēlǜ Jǐng)||951-969||Yingli (應曆 Yìnglì) 951-969
|Jingzong (景宗 Jǐngzōng)||Yelü Xian (耶律賢 Yēlǜ Xián)||969-982||Baoning (保寧 Bǎoníng) 969-979
|Shengzong (聖宗 Shèngzōng)||Wen Wu Da Xiao Xuan Huangdi||Yelü Longxu (耶律隆緒 Yēlǜ Lóngxù)||982-1031||Qianheng (乾亨 Qiánhēng) 982
|Xingzong (興宗 Xīngzōng)||Xiao Zheng Huangdi||Yelü Zongzhen (耶律宗真 Yēlǜ Zōngzhēn)||1031-1055||Jingfu (景福 Jǐngfú) 1031-1032
|Daozong (道宗 Dàozōng)||Yelü Hongji (耶律洪基 Yēlǜ Hóngjī)||1055-1101||Qingning (清寧 Qīngníng) 1055-1064
|Tianzuodi (天祚帝 Tiānzuòdì)||Yelü Yanxi (耶律延禧 Yēlǜ Yánxǐ)||1101-1125||Qiantong (乾統 Qiántǒng) 1101-1110
 References & Sources
- Jacques Gernet (1972). "A History Of Chinese Civilization". Cambridge Univeristy Press. ISBN 0-521-24130-8
Mote, F.W. (1999). Imperial China (900-1800). Harvard University Press, 31-91.
 See also
- Chinese history
- Chinese sovereign
- Song Dynasty
- Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period
- Tang Dynasty
- Jin Dynasty