Liao dynasty (/ljaʊ/; Khitan: Mos Jælud; simplified Chinese:
辽朝; traditional Chinese: 遼朝; pinyin: Liáo cháo), also
known as the Liao Empire, officially the Great Liao (simplified
Chinese: 大辽; traditional Chinese: 大遼; pinyin: Dà Liáo), or
the Khitan Empire (Khitan: Mos diau-d kitai huldʒi gur ),, was an
East Asia that ruled from 907 to 1125 over present-day
Mongolia and portions of the Russian Far East, northern China, and
northeastern Korea. The empire was founded by Abaoji,
Khagan of the
Khitan people around the time of the collapse of Tang China and was
the first state to control all of Manchuria.
Almost immediately after its founding, the Khitan Empire began a
process of territorial expansion, with
Abaoji leading a successful
conquest of Balhae. Later emperors would gain the Sixteen Prefectures
by fueling a proxy war that led to the collapse of the Later Tang
(923–936) and would establish tributary relationships with Goryeo
Northern Song after failing to conquer Goryeo.
Tension between traditional Khitan social and political practices and
Chinese influence and customs was a defining feature of the dynasty.
This tension led to a series of succession crises; Liao emperors
favored the Chinese concept of primogeniture, while much of the rest
of the Khitan elite supported the traditional method of succession by
the strongest candidate. So different were Khitan and Chinese
Abaoji set up two parallel governments. The Northern
Administration governed Khitan areas following traditional Khitan
practices, while the Southern Administration governed areas with large
non-Khitan populations, adopting traditional Chinese governmental
Differences between Chinese and Khitan society included gender roles
and marital practices: the
Khitans took a more egalitarian view
towards gender, in sharp contrast to Chinese cultural practices that
segregated men's and women's roles. Khitan women were taught to hunt,
managed family property, and held military posts. Many marriages were
not arranged, women were not required to be virgins at their first
marriage, and women had the right to divorce and remarry.
Liao dynasty was destroyed by the
Jurchen people of the Jin
dynasty in 1125 with the capture of Emperor Tianzuo of Liao. However,
the remnant Khitan, led by Yelü Dashi, established the Qara Khitai
Western Liao dynasty), which ruled over parts of Central Asia for
almost a century before being conquered by the Mongols. Although
cultural achievements associated with the
Liao dynasty are
considerable, and a number of various statuary and other artifacts
exist in museums and other collections, major questions remain over
the exact nature and extent of the influence of the Liao Khitan
culture upon subsequent developments, such as the musical and
Khitans before Abaoji
Abaoji and the rise of the Khitans
2.3 Succession issues and the occupation of Kaifeng
2.4 Emperor Shengzong and the height of Liao power
2.4.1 Goryeo–Khitan Wars
Song dynasty and the Chanyuan Treaty
2.5 Imperial infighting
2.6 Rise of the Jin and fall of the Liao
3.1 Law and administration
4 Society and culture
4.1 Spoken and written languages
4.2 Status of women
4.3 Marriage practices
4.5 Cultural legacy
5 Historic site
6 See also
8 External links
Liao dynasty was officially known as the Khitan (now known as
Cathay) or Khitan state in 916. The name "Great Liao" began to appear
as the country name between 936 and 947. The dynasty name "Liao"
refers to the
Liao River in southern Manchuria, the traditional Khitan
homeland. Since 983, the state became again known as the Khitan, but
"Great Liao" reappeared as the country name in 1066, which lasted
until the end of the dynasty.
See also: Timeline of the Khitans
Khitans before Abaoji
See also: History of the Khitans
Neither the origins, ethnic makeup, nor early history of the Khitans
are well documented in historical records. The earliest reference
to a Khitan state is found in the Book of Wei, a history of the
Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534) that was completed in 554.
Several books written after 554 mention the
Khitans as being active
during the late third and early fourth centuries. The Book of Jin
(648), a history of the Jin dynasty (265–420), refers to the Khitans
in the section covering the reign of
Murong Sheng (398–401). Samguk
Sagi (1145), a history of the
Three Kingdoms of Korea, mentions a
Khitan raid taking place in 378.
According to sinologists
Denis C. Twitchett and Klaus-Peter Tietze, it
is generally held that the
Khitans emerged from the
Yuwen branch of
Xianbei people. Following a defeat at the hands of another branch
Xianbei in 345, the
Yuwen split into three tribes, one of which
was called the Kumo Xi. In 388 the
Kumo Xi itself split, with one
group remaining under the name
Kumo Xi and the other group becoming
the Khitans. This view is partially backed up by the Book of Wei,
which describes the
Khitans as being of
Xianbei origins. There are
also several competing theories on the origin of the Khitans.
Beginning in the Song dynasty, some Chinese scholars suggested that
Khitans might have descended from the
Xiongnu people. While modern
historians have rejected the idea that the Khitan were solely Xiongnu
in origin, there is some support for the claim that they are of mixed
Xiongnu origin. Beginning with
Rashid-al-Din Hamadani in
the fourteenth century, several Western scholars have theorized that
Khitans were Mongolic in origin, and in the late 19th
century Western scholars made the claim that the
Khitans were Tungusic
in origin—modern linguistic analysis has discredited this claim.
By the time the
Book of Wei was written in 554, the
Khitans had formed
a state in what is now China's
Liaoning Provinces. The
Khitans suffered a series of military defeats to other nomadic groups
in the region, as well as to the Chinese
Northern Qi (550-577) and Sui
(589-618) Dynasties. Khitan tribes at various times fell under the
influence of Turkic tribes such as the Uighurs and Chinese dynasties
such as the Sui and Tang. This influence would significantly shape
Khitan language and culture. In the
Suishu (Book of Sui, Volume
84) the Khitan are described as "bellicose in plundering and raiding
borders" and "the most uncourteous and arrogant among all barbarians".
Liaoshi (LS, vol. 32 and 59) gives the following account of the
Residing in the Great Desert (大漠 - dàmò), where there is much
cold and much wind, they had livestock tending and fishing as food
source, fur as dress and migrated with the seasons. Their specialty
was carts and horses...In the old Khitan custom, their wealth was
horses, their strength was soldiers. Horses were released all through
the open country and demobilized soldiers were spread throughout the
people. When a matter of importance or battle arose they were called
to arms. If the order was given at 5am they would all assemble
forthwith at 7am. Horses followed water and grass. People relied on
milk and kumiss. They bent the powerful bow and shot animals for their
daily use. They had dried food and fodder. This was their Way (道 -
dào). On account of this they maintain victory and wherever they look
they encounter no opposition.
Liaoshi (LS, vol. 32) names the ancient eight tribes of the Khitan
(who are also mentioned in the Weishu):
These are the ancient eight tribes: the Xiwandan tribe, the Hedahe
tribe, the Fufuyu tribe, the Yuling tribe, the Nilin tribe, the Pixie
tribe, the Li (Black) tribe, the Tuliuyu tribe...Soon after increasing
in population they invaded the
Northern Qi (北齊 - Běi Qí) but
lost a hundred thousand people to captivity. Then, being pressed by
the Turks (突厥 - Tūjué), they temporarily resided in Korea
(高麗 - Gāolí) numbering not much more than ten thousand families.
The tribes became scattered and were no longer the eight tribes of
Khitan man in tomb painting in Aohan Banner, Inner Mongolia
For most of the century between 630 and 730, the
Khitans were under
the influence of the Tang dynasty. The arrangement was largely the
doing of the Khitan Dahe clan. The Tang emperor bestowed the Chinese
surname Li on the Dahe and appointed their leader to a governorship
that Twitchett and Tietze described as "an office specifically created
for the indirect management of the Khitan tribes". Towards the
turn of the century, however, Tang control of the north began to slip
as it focused attention on its other borders. In 696 the Dahe leader,
Li Jinzhong, launched a rebellion and led Khitan forces into Hebei.
Although the rebellion was defeated, it took over fifteen years before
the Tang were able to reassert control over the Khitans, and that
control would never be strong or long-lived. Re-disintegration of
Khitan-Liao relations in the 730s saw the Yaolian clan replace the
Dahe as the Khitan ruling clan, forcing Tang governor
An Lushan to
launch two invasions into Khitan territory in 751 and 755. After being
soundly defeated by the
Khitans during the first invasion, An Lushan
was successful in the second, but he then led a rebellion against the
Tang that included Khitan troops in his army. The
An Lushan Rebellion
marked the beginning of the end of the Tang dynasty.
An Lushan Rebellion, the
Khitans became vassals of the
Uighurs, while simultaneously paying tributes to the Tang, a situation
that lasted from 755 until the fall of the Uighurs in 840. From 840
until the rise of Abaoji, the
Khitans remained a tributary of the Tang
Abaoji and the rise of the Khitans
Main article: Emperor Taizu of Liao
Abaoji, who later became 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
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 Pagoda of Tianning Temple (Beijing), built around 1120 during the
The same year that
Abaoji became Great Khan, the Chinese warlord Zhu
Wen, who in 904 had murdered the last legitimate emperor of the Tang
dynasty, declared the Tang over and named himself emperor of China.
His dynasty dissolved quickly, ushering in the fifty-three-year period
of disunity known as the Five Dynasties period. One of the five
dynasties, the Later Jin (936–947), was a client state of the
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
to a paternal relative after serving a single three-year term.
Abaoji signaled his desire to become a permanent ruler at his
accession in 907, securing his position by killing most of the 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 his 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 his brothers were pardoned, with the other conspirators
suffering violent deaths. The 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
Abaoji made a number of changes moving the Khitan state
closer to the model of governance used by the Chinese dynasties. He
assumed the title of Celestial Emperor and designated an era name,
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 and the occupation of Kaifeng
See also: List of emperors of the Liao dynasty
In 916 Emperor Taizu (Abaoji) officially designated his eldest son,
Yelü Bei, as his successor. Succession by primogeniture was a
long-held standard in Chinese culture but was not accepted among the
Khitans, creating a friction between Taizu's desires and the beliefs
of the Khitan elites, including Taizu's wife, Empress Shulü Ping.
Taizu, sensing the possibility that the succession process would run
into difficulty, forced the Khitan leadership to swear allegiance to
Yelü Bei after he was installed as heir apparent. To the Khitans,
this was considered a radical move. This friction between
primogeniture and succession by the strongest candidate would lead to
repeated succession crises, the first of which occurred after Taizu's
sudden and unexpected death in 926.
This painting, titled Horse and Archer, is believed to have been
painted by Yelü Bei.
Yelü Bei was twenty-six years old at the time of his father's death.
A polymath, Bei exemplified many of the values of the Chinese
aristocracy; he was an expert in music, medicine, fortune-telling,
painting, and writing (in both Chinese and Khitan). He was also an
accomplished warrior, leading troops into battle during his father's
conquest of Balhae. After the campaign ended in victory for the Liao
in 926, Emperor Taizu gave Bei command of the conquered
territory––which became known as the principality of
Dongdan––as well as the title of Prince of Dongdan.
Empress Shulü Ping, who became known as Empress Dowager Yingtian
following the death of her husband, was an exceptionally powerful
figure both before and after Taizu's death. While the latter was
alive, Shulü Ping commanded an army of 200,000 horsemen that was
tasked with maintaining order while Taizu led military campaigns
abroad. She also led campaigns herself. Following the death of her
husband, the Empress rejected the traditional Khitan custom of being
buried with him, and elected to cut off her right hand and bury that
with the Emperor instead. Shulü Ping then seized full military and
civil authority in order to oversee the imperial succession under her
own terms. The Empress's refusal to kill herself and be buried
with Taizu effectively ended the longstanding custom.
Precisely because Prince
Yelü Bei exemplified both Chinese and Khitan
Empress Shulü Ping objected to Bei assuming the role of
Emperor. The Empress believed that Bei's openness to Chinese culture
detracted from his leadership ability as a Khitan, and she instead
favored Emperor Taizu's more traditionalist second son, Yelü Deguang.
Deguang enjoyed not only the support of his mother, but also of the
Khitan nobility. Realizing that he could not assume the throne, and
that it would be dangerous to try, Bei campaigned in favor of allowing
his younger brother to assume the throne, and by the end of 927,
formally stated to his mother that Deguang's qualifications were
superior to his own, functionally ending his ability to challenge
Deguang's ascension to the throne.
Khitan men in tomb painting in Inner Mongolia
Geyuan Temple Wenshu Hall built in 966 is the oldest extant Liao
Despite Bei voluntarily relinquishing his claim, Deguang, who had
assumed the title of Emperor Taizong of Liao, viewed Bei as a threat.
Bei still held the role of Prince of Dongdan, and moved back there
after relinquishing his imperial claim. In order to break any
potential power base Bei might form in Dongdan, Emperor Taizong
ordered that the capital of Dongdan and all of its people move to what
is now Liaoyang. Prince Bei himself was placed under surveillance
by the Emperor. In 930 Prince Bei fled to the Later Tang, where he
became an honored guest of Emperor Mingzong, who went as far as to
bestow upon Prince Bei the Emperor's own surname of Li (李).
There are two conflicting accounts of Prince Bei's death: he was
assassinated either in 936 by Emperor Mo of
Later Tang in retaliation
for the Khitans' support in overthrowing the Tang and replacing it
with the Later Jin, or in 937 by
Emperor Gaozu of Later Jin
Emperor Gaozu of Later Jin (Shi
Jingtang) as a show of loyalty to Emperor Taizong of Liao.
After Emperor Mingzong died in 933, the
Later Tang began to crumble
from its own succession crisis. Mingzong's son and successor Li
Conghou ruled for only five months before he was killed in 934 in a
coup led by his adoptive brother Li Congke (Emperor Mo of Later Tang).
Prince Bei, who was still an honored guest at the Tang court at the
time, wrote to his brother Emperor Taizong (Yelü Deguang), advising
him to invade the Tang. Instead, Taizong lent military support to a
rebellion led by Shi Jingtang, a Tang governor and son-in-law of the
former Emperor Mingzong. With Khitan help, in 936 Shi Jingtang
succeeded in replacing the
Later Tang with his own Later Jin.
After some negotiation with the more powerful Khitans, he ceded
sixteen border prefectures stretching from modern-day
province) to the coast of the
Bohai Sea east of what is now Beijing,
to the Liao. Since the
Sixteen Prefectures contained numerous
strategic passes and fortifications, the
Khitans now had unrestricted
access to the plains of northern China.
Shi Jingtang also agreed
Emperor Taizong of Liao as his own father, a move that
symbolically elevated Taizong and the Liao to a superior position.
The relationship between the Liao and the Later Jin soured after the
Shi Jingtang in 942 and the elevation to the throne of Shi
Chonggui, also known as Emperor Chudi of Later Jin. The new emperor
surrounded himself with anti-Khitan advisers, and in 943 he expelled
the Liao envoy from the Jin capital of
Kaifeng and seized the property
owned by Khitan merchants in the city. By the end of the following
year Emperor Taizong had launched an invasion of the Jin. Although the
invasion took three years and the Liao faced several setbacks, by the
end of 946 Emperor Taizong had secured the surrender of the head of
the Later Jin forces and was able to march into
Emperor Taizong celebrated his victory with the adoption of the
dynastic name "Greater Liao". The invading Liao forces, who had
not brought adequate supplies for their invasion, began looting the
newly conquered territory and imposed high taxes on the ethnic Chinese
population in the formerly Jin lands. This sparked a series of
rebellions that culminated in 947 with the establishment of the Later
Han by the former Jin governor Liu Zhiyuan. After occupying Kaifeng
for only three months, Emperor Taizong and the Liao were forced to
retreat north. During the retreat Emperor Taizong died of a sudden
illness, just south of modern-day Shijiazhuang, Hebei.
The death of Taizong set up a second succession crisis, again
instigated by Empress Dowager Yingtian and fueled by the conflict
between Chinese primogeniture and Khitan succession customs. Yelü
Ruan, oldest son of Prince Bei and nephew of Emperor Taizong,
proclaimed himself Emperor while still in Hebei. Emperor Taizong
raised Yelü Ruan, following Yelü Bei's departure for the Later Tang,
and the relationship between uncle and nephew was close. Yelü Ruan
accompanied the emperor during his invasion of the Later Jin, and he
earned the reputation as a capable warrior and commander, and as one
of courteous and noble-minded disposition. Empress Dowager Yingtian
supported Emperor Taizong's younger brother, Yelü Lihu, for the
throne instead. The Empress Dowager sent two successive armies to face
Yelü Ruan, who defeated them both. Ultimately Lihu, who the Khitan
nobility viewed as cruel and spoiled, was unable to gain enough
support to further challenge Yelü Ruan, and after a peace was
brokered by a cousin of the Yelü clan, Yelü Ruan formally assumed
the role of emperor and the title of Emperor Shizong of Liao. Emperor
Shizong promptly exiled both Empress Dowager Yingtian and Yelü Lihu
from the capital, ending their political ambitions. Emperor
Shizong's rule would be characterized by a series of rebellions from
within his extended family. Although he would rule for only four years
before being killed in 951 in a rebellion led by one of his nephews,
Emperor Shizong oversaw a refinement of his grandfather's dual system
of government, which brought the structure of the Southern
Administration closer to the model used by the Tang dynasty.
Emperor Shizong would be succeeded by Emperor Taizong's son Yelü
Jing, also known as Emperor Muzong of Liao. Emperor Muzong, who died
in 969, would be the second and the last of the emperors to succeed
Abaoji who was not a direct descendant of Yelü Bei.
Emperor Shengzong and the height of Liao power
The reign of Emperor Shengzong from 982 to 1031 represented the height
of the Liao dynasty's power. Shengzong oversaw a successful
military campaign against the
Song dynasty which secured a long-term
peace agreement with terms favorable to the Liao. He also oversaw a
failed military campaign against the Korean
Goryeo Dynasty. In 990
Liao emperor recognizes a "king of Xia" for Li yuanhao.
Main article: Goryeo–Khitan Wars
The location of the
Balhae in the year 900
Liao dynasty (green) bordering Korea, the Song (orange), the Xi Xia
(blue) and the Uyghur Kingdom of Qocho
Abaoji conquered the
Balhae state in 926, most of the population
was relocated to what is now Liaoning, China. At least three groups
remained in the former
Balhae territory, one of which formed the state
of Ding'an. Despite launching two invasions, in 975 and 985, the Liao
forces were unable to defeat the Ding'an. Unable to eliminate the
threat, and weary of Jurchen groups also inhabiting the region, the
Liao established three forts with military colonies in the Yalu River
With military action in close proximity to
Goryeo territory, coupled
with a cancelled Liao invasion of
Goryeo in 947 and a strong
diplomatic and cultural relationship between the
Goryeo and Song
Goryeo relations were exceedingly poor. Both Liao and
Goryeo saw each other as posing a military threat; the
Goryeo would attempt to foment rebellions among the Balhae
population in Liao territory, while
Goryeo feared invasion by the
Khitans did invade
Goryeo in 992, sending a force that the
Liao commander claimed to be 800,000 strong, and demanding that Goryeo
cede to territories along the Yalu River.
Goryeo appealed for
assistance from the Song dynasty, with which they had a military
alliance, but no Song assistance came. The
Khitans made steady
southward progress before reaching the Ch'ongch'on River, at which
point they called for negotiations between Liao and
leaders. While the Liao initially demanded total surrender from
Goryeo initially appeared willing to consider it, the
Korean negotiator was eventually able to convince the
accept a resolution in which the
Goryeo dynasty became a tributary
state to the Liao dynasty. By 994, regular diplomatic exchanges
between Liao and
Goryeo began, and the relationship between
Song irrevocably chilled.
The peace did not last two decades. In 1009 the
Goryeo general Gang Jo
murdered King Mokjong of
Goryeo and put King Hyeonjong of
the throne with the intention of serving as the boy's regent. The Liao
immediately sent an army of 400,000 men to
Goryeo to punish Gang Jo;
however, after an initial period of military success and the breakdown
of several attempts at peace negotiations,
Goryeo and Liao entered a
decade of continuous warfare. In 1018 the
Khitans faced the most
significant military defeat in the dynasty's history when their army
was all but annihilated at the
Battle of Gwiju by the
under General Gang Gam-chan, but by 1019 they had already assembled
another large army to march on Goryeo. At this point both sides
realized that they could not defeat each other militarily, so in 1020
King Hyeonjong resumed sending tribute to the Liao, and in 1022 the
Liao officially recognized the legitimacy of King Hyeonjong's reign.
Goryeo would remain a vassal, and the relationship between Liao and
Goryeo would remain peaceful until the end of the Liao dynasty.
Song dynasty and the Chanyuan Treaty
Zhao Kuangyin, also known as Emperor Taizu of Song, founder of the
In 951, the
Later Zhou emerged, the last of the five short-lived
dynasties making up the
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. The
founding emperor of the
Later Zhou died in 954 and was succeeded by
his adopted son, who would rule with the name Emperor Shizong of Later
Zhou. Shizong believed that the
Liao dynasty was poised to invade the
Zhou, and in 958 he launched a preemptive military campaign against
the Liao, aiming to take the sixteen prefectures ceded to the Liao by
Emperor Gaozu of Later Jin
Emperor Gaozu of Later Jin in 938. Emperor Shizong died in 959, before
his army had even met the Liao forces. In 960 the commander-in-chief
Later Zhou palace guard, Zhao Kuangyin, usurped the throne,
then occupied by Emperor Shizong's seven-year-old son, and proclaimed
himself the founder of the Song dynasty.
Relations between the Liao and the Song were initially peaceful, with
the two dynasties exchanging embassies in 974. Following the
collapse of the Tang dynasty, several territories formed small,
independent states that were never reunified during the Five Dynasties
and Ten Kingdoms period. Additionally, several additional territories
that were controlled by military governors during the
Tang dynasty had
fallen under the control of local warlords following the Tang
collapse. Rather than focus on reclaiming land from the Liao dynasty,
Zhao Kuangyin, who would take the title Emperor Taizu of Song, focused
on reclaiming these smaller break-off territories. He would die in 976
having reestablished control over all but one of these territories,
Northern Han kingdom. Despite the Northern Han's status as a
protectorate of the Liao dynasty,
Emperor Taizu of Song
Emperor Taizu of Song launched an
invasion of the kingdom in 976, only months before his death. The
Northern Han received assistance from the Liao, and the invasion was
repelled. Emperor Taizong of Song, brother of the founding emperor and
the second emperor of the Song dynasty, launched a second invasion in
Northern Han again received Liao assistance, but this
invasion was successful; the
Northern Han crumbled, and the Song were
able to assume control of the territory. Emperor Taizong of Song
immediately followed this victory with an attempted invasion of the
sixteen prefectures, but the unrested and undersupplied Song troops
were thoroughly routed by the Liao in the Battle of Gaoliang
Liao dynasty in 1025
Over the next two decades, the relationship between the Liao and Song
continued to deteriorate. The Liao were continuously informed of Song
attempts to create military alliances with other groups sharing a
border with the Liao, and minor border skirmishes were common.
Beginning in 999
Emperor Shengzong of Liao led a series of campaigns
against the Song that, while generally successful on the battlefield,
failed to secure anything of value from the Song. This changed in 1004
when Emperor Shengzong led a campaign that rapidly worked its way to
right outside of the Song capital of
Kaifeng by only conquering cities
that quickly folded to the Liao army, while avoiding protracted sieges
of the cities that resisted heavily.
Emperor Zhenzong of Song
Emperor Zhenzong of Song marched
out and met the Liao at Chanyuan, a small city on the Yellow River. In
January 1005 the two dynasties signed the Chanyuan Treaty, which
stipulated that the Song would give the Liao 200,000 bolts of silk and
100,000 ounces of silver each year, that the two emperors would
address each other as equals, that they would finalize the location of
their disputed border, and that the two dynasties would resume cordial
relations. While the sums (referred to as gifts by the Song and as
tributes by the Liao) were later increased to 300,000 bolts of silk
and 200,000 ounces of silver per year out of Song fears that the Liao
might form a military alliance with the Western Xia, no major wars
were fought between the Liao and Song for over a century following the
signing of the treaty. By signing the treaty the Song dynasty
functionally ceded its claim over the sixteen prefectures.
Liao dynasty polychrome wood-carved statue depicting Guanyin
Emperor Shengzong died in 1031, leaving behind instructions that named
his son Yelü Zongzhen as heir. Yelü Zongzhen, known historically by
the name Emperor Xingzong of Liao, became the Emperor of the Liao
dynasty at the age of fifteen, and his reign immediately became
plagued with courtly infighting. Emperor Xingzong's mother was a
low-ranking consort, Nuou Jin, but he was raised by Emperor
Shengzong's wife, Empress Ji Dian. Nuou Jin quickly moved to
marginalize Ji Dian and her supporters, fabricating a coup and using
it to justify exiling Ji Dian and executing most of her supporters in
several months of purges. Nuou Jin eventually sent assassins to kill
Ji Dian; however, Ji Dian instead committed suicide.
With her rival for power dead, Nuou Jin declared herself the regent
and began personally conducting duties normally within the purview of
the emperor. When it became clear that Emperor Xingzong was unhappy
with his mother's grab for power, Nuou Jin plotted to replace the
emperor with another of her sons, Zhong Yuan, whom Nuou Jin raised
herself. Zhong Yuan informed the emperor of their mother's plans,
however, and the emperor promptly exiled Nuou Jin.
For the remainder of his reign, Emperor Xingzong would have to compete
for power with his mother, whose supporters still held key postings,
and whose influence was so great that she was eventually allowed to
return to the capital and undergo a ceremony to symbolically de-exile
herself. Zhong Yuan, for his part, would be rewarded for revealing his
mother's plot by being given a succession of higher- and
higher-ranking positions, culminating with a governorship outside of
the capital. Historian
Frederick W. Mote explains the importance
of this factional infighting and its relation to the Liao dynasty's
downfall by stating that it "shows to what extent the succession issue
within the imperial clan still was the source of weakness in the
leadership of the state. It wasted people, diverted energies, and
deflected the attention of the rulers from the tasks of
The Pagoda of Fogong Temple, built by Emperor Daozong in 1056 at the
site of his grandmother's family home.
Emperor Xingzong died in 1055. His eldest son, Yelü Hongji (who would
later be known by the name Emperor Daozong of Liao), assumed the
throne having already gained experience in governing while his father
was alive. Unlike his father, Emperor Daozong did not face a
succession crisis. While both Ji Dian and Zhong Yuan remained alive,
and both had the political influence to interfere with the succession
process, neither did.
While Emperor Daozong's reign started off strong, it too was
eventually plagued by factional infighting, aggravated by the
emperor's own general weakness. The emperor's first major error
was in ordering the execution of Xiao A La, a loyal minister and close
friend of the emperor, whom the emperor was nonetheless convinced to
execute by a rival minister. The 14th-century History of Liao
speculates that had Xiao A La not been killed, two major incidents
that came to dominate Emperor Daozong's reign would have been
avoided. The first of these incidents was a rebellion in 1063,
when several high-ranking members of the Yelü clan, led by a grandson
of Emperor Shengzong, attempted to assassinate Emperor Daozong while
he was on a hunting trip. He was saved with the assistance of troops
led by his mother, Empress Dowager Ren Yi, and he retaliated by
executing all of the people involved in the plot, as well as their
Stupa in the Khitan city
Bars-Hot in Mongolia
This major change in leadership solidified the power of the chancellor
Yelü Yixin and his ally Yelü Renxian, a chancellor and military
leader. When Yelü Renxian died in 1072, Yelü Yixin began to view
Emperor Daozong's son and heir apparent, Prince Jun, as the only
possible threat to Yelü Yixin's power, and set in motion plans to
eliminate the prince. He first eliminated Prince Jun's mother, the
emperor's wife, by fabricating evidence that she had an affair with a
palace musician. Believing Yelü Yixin's trap, Emperor Daozong ordered
his wife to commit suicide. Yelü Yixin then fabricated a coup by
implicating his own enemies within the court of planning to depose of
Emperor Daozong and place Prince Jun on the throne. While the emperor
was initially unmoved, Yelü Yixin eventually convinced him to exile
his son by creating a false confession. Prince Jun was immediately
exiled, at which point Yelü Yixin sent assassins to eliminate the
prince and his wife, preventing both the prince from being returned to
power and Yelü Yixin's plot from being discovered. Yelü Yixin's
treachery was eventually discovered when, in 1079, he attempted to
convince the emperor to leave the new heir at the palace during a
hunting trip. When other members of the court protested that the young
boy would be in mortal peril if left behind with Yelü Yixin, the
emperor finally saw through Yelü Yixin. By 1080 Yelü Yixin was
stripped of his rank and sent to a low-ranking post outside of the
capital. Shortly afterwards he was executed.
Aside from the machinations of Yelü Yixin, the only other event of
note from Emperor Daozong's rule was a war fought between 1092 and
1102 between the Liao and a Mongolian, possibly Tatar tribe, group
known as the Zubu. The
Zubu were located at the northwest border of
Liao territory and had fought several wars with the Liao when the Liao
tried to expand in that direction. In 1092 the Liao attacked several
other tribes in the northwest, and by 1093 the
Zubu attacked the Liao,
striking deep into Khitan territory. It took until 1100 for the Liao
to capture and kill the
Zubu chieftain, and another two years to fight
off the remaining
Zubu forces. The war against the
Zubu was the last
successful military campaign waged by the Liao dynasty.
Rise of the Jin and fall of the Liao
Further information: Jin–Song Wars
Aguda, founder of the Jin dynasty
The 12th century saw the rapid rise of the Jurchen people, which
culminated in 1115 with the foundation of the Jin dynasty by the
Jurchen warlord Aguda. The Jurchens, led by Aguda, captured the
Liao dynasty's supreme capital in 1120 and its central capital in
1122. The Liao emperor Tianzuo fled the southern capital Nanjing
(today's Beijing) to the western region, and his uncle Prince Yelü
Chun then formed the short-lived
Northern Liao in the southern
capital, but died soon afterwards. In 1125, the Jurchens captured
Emperor Tianzuo and ended the Liao dynasty.
In 1124, just before the final conquest of the Liao dynasty, a group
Khitans led by
Yelü Dashi fled northwest to the border area and
military garrison of Kedun (Zhenzhou), in modern-day northern
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 1131,
after which he moved further west into modern Kazakhstan and then
Karakhanid city of
Balasaghun (in modern Kyrgyzstan).
After a failed attempt in 1134 to reclaim the territory formerly held
by the Liao, Dashi decided instead to stay where he was and establish
a permanent Khitan state in Central Asia. The state, known as the Qara
Khitai 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.
An analysis by F. W. Mote concluded that at the time of the Liao
dynasty's fall, "the Liao state remained strong, capable of
functioning at reasonable levels and possessing greater resources of
war than any of its enemies" and that "one cannot find signs of
serious economic or fiscal breakdown that might have impoverished or
crippled its ability to respond". Mote also concluded that
acculturation did not lead to the replacement of traditional Khitan
values with Chinese culture, and that the Khitan commoners were
"supremely able and willing to fight", which Mote pointed to as
evidence that Khitan society remained strong. Mote instead
attributes the fall of the Liao to the leadership ability of Aguda and
to the actions of the Khitan Yelü and Xiao clans, which used early
defeats at the hand of Aguda as a pretext for plotting the overthrow
of Emperor Tianzuo. Historian
Jacques Gernet disagrees with Mote,
writing that "by the middle of the eleventh century the Khitan had
lost their combative spirit and adopted a defensive attitude to their
neighbors, building walls, ramparts for their towns, and fortified
posts." Gernet attributes this change to the influence of
Buddhism, which abhors violence, as well as to Chinese wealth and
culture in general. Like Mote, Gernet attributes the ultimate downfall
of the Liao to the interference by the ruling clans, and he
additionally credits a series of droughts and floods, as well as
attacks by the Jurchen tribes on the north-east edge of Liao
territory, with weakening the Liao to a critical level.
At its height, the
Liao dynasty controlled what is now Shanxi, Hebei,
Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang, and Inner
Mongolia provinces in China,
as well as northern portions of the Korean peninsula, portions of the
Russian Far East, and much of the country of Mongolia. The
peak population is estimated at 750,000
Khitans and two to three
million ethnic Han Chinese.
Law and administration
Haotian Pagoda of Beijing, built during the Liao dynasty
Main article: Administrative divisions of the Liao dynasty
The Liao employed two separate governments operating in parallel with
one another: a Northern Administration in charge of Khitan and other
nomadic peoples, most of whom lived in the northern side of Liao
territory, and a Southern Administration in charge of the Chinese
populace that lived predominantly in the southern side. When Abaoji
first established the system, these two governments did not have
strict territorial boundaries, but Emperor Shizong established
formally delineated boundaries for the two administrations early in
his reign. The newly delineated Northern Administration had large Han
Chinese, Balhae, and Uighur populations, and was given its own set of
parallel northern and southern governments.
The governments of the Northern Administration and the Southern
Administration operated very differently. The Northern Administration
operated under a system which Twitchett and Tietze called "essentially
a great tribal leader's personal retinue". Many of the
governmental appointments dealt with tribal affairs, herds, and
retainers serving the imperial house, and most powerful and
high-ranking positions dealt with military affairs. The overwhelming
majority of officeholders were Khitans, mainly from the imperial Yelü
clan and the Xiao consort clan. The Southern Administration was
more heavily structured, with Twitchett and Tietze calling it
"designed in imitation of a T'ang model". Unlike the Northern
Administration, many of the low- and medium-ranked officials in the
Southern Administration were Chinese.
Territory of the Liao in 1110, which controled almost area in now
Liao dynasty was further divided into five "circuits", each with a
capital city. The general idea for this system was taken from the
Balhae, although no captured
Balhae cities were made into circuit
capitals. The five capital cities were Shangjing (上京), meaning
Supreme Capital, which is located in modern-day Inner Mongolia;
Nanjing (南京), meaning Southern Capital, which is located near
modern-day Beijing; Dongjing (东京), meaning Eastern Capital, which
is located near modern-day Liaoning; Zhongjing (中京), meaning
Central Capital, which is located in modern-day
Hebei province near
the Laoha river; and Xijing (西京), meaning Western Capital, which
is located near modern-day Datong. Each circuit was headed by a
powerful viceroy who had the autonomy to tailor policies to meet the
needs of the population within his circuit. Circuits were further
subdivided into administrations called fu (府), which were
metropolitan areas surrounding capital cities, and outside of
metropolitan areas were divided into prefectures called zhou (州),
which themselves were divided into counties called xian (县).
Despite these administrative systems, important state decisions were
still made by the emperor. The emperor met with officials from the
Northern and Southern Administrations twice a year, but aside from
that the emperor spent much of his time attending to tribal affairs
outside of the capital cities.
Society and culture
Spoken and written languages
Further information: Yelü Chucai
The Memorial for Yelü Yanning, which contains 271 characters of
Khitan large script
The Khitan spoken language is most closely related to the Mongolic
language family; some broader definitions of the Mongolic family
include Khitan as a member. More broadly, Khitan is an Altaic
language, although scholars are divided on the question whether the
Altaic is a true language family or linguistic area in which
originally distinct languages have influenced each other over a long
period. Khitan shares some terms with the Altaic but non-Mongolic
Turkic spoken by the Uighur peoples, who shared the steppes of North
Asia with the
Khitans for several hundred years.
Prior to their conquest of north China and the establishment of the
Liao dynasty, the
Khitans had no written language. In 920 the first of
two Khitan scripts, the Khitan large script, was developed. A second
script, the Khitan small script, was developed in 925. Both
scripts are based on the same spoken language, and both contain a mix
of logographs and phonographs. Despite the similarities to Chinese
Khitan scripts were functionally different from
Few documents written in either the Khitan large or small script
survive to this day. Most surviving specimens of both Khitan scripts
are epitaph inscriptions on stone tablets, as well as a number of
inscriptions on coins, mirrors and seals. Only a single manuscript
text in the
Khitan large script
Khitan large script is known (Nova N 176), and no
manuscripts in the
Khitan small script
Khitan small script are known. The Liao
emperors could read Chinese, and while there were some Chinese works
translated into Khitan during the Liao dynasty, the Confucian
classics, which served as the core guide to the administration of
government in China, are not known to have been translated into
Status of women
A women's funeral mask from the Liao dynasty
The status of women in the
Liao dynasty varied greatly, with the
Khitan Liao (like many other nomadic societies) having a much more
egalitarian view towards women than the Han Chinese did. Han Chinese
living under the
Liao dynasty were not forced to adopt Khitan
practices, and while some Han Chinese did, many did not.
Unlike Han society, which had a strict separation of responsibilities
along gender lines, and placed women in a subservient role to men, the
Khitan women of the
Liao dynasty performed many of the same functions
that the Khitan men did. Khitan women were taught how to hunt, and
managed family herds, flocks, finances, and property when their
husbands were at war. Upper-class women were able to hold
governmental and military posts.
The sexual freedoms of Liao also stood in stark contrast from those of
the Han Chinese. Women from the upper Liao classes, like those of the
Han Chinese upper classes, had arranged marriages, in some cases for
political purposes. However women from the lower classes of
the Liao did not have arranged marriages, and would attract suitors by
singing and dancing in the streets. The songs served as
self-advertisements, with the women telling of their beauty, familial
status, and domestic skills. Virginity was not a requirement for
marriage among the Liao, and many Liao women were sexually promiscuous
before marriage, which stood in sharp contrast from the beliefs of the
Han Chinese. Khitan women had the right to divorce their husbands
and were able to remarry after being divorced.
Abduction of marriage-age women was common during the Liao dynasty.
Khitans men of all social classes participated in the activity, and
the abductees were both Khitan and Han. In some cases, this was a step
in the courtship process, where the woman would agree to the abduction
and the resulting sexual intercourse, and then the abductor and
abductee would return to the woman's home to announce their intention
to marry. This process was known as baimen (拜門). In other cases,
the abduction would be non-consensual and would result in a rape.
In Liao custom betrothal was seen as being equally serious to, if not
more serious than, marriage itself, and was difficult to annul. The
groom would pledge to work for three years for the bride's family, pay
a bride price, and lavish the bride's family with gifts. After the
three years, the groom would be allowed to take the bride back to his
home, and the bride would usually cut off all ties with her
Khitan marriage practices differed from those of the Han Chinese in
several ways. Men from the elite classes tended to marry women from
the generation their senior. While this did not necessarily mean that
there would be a large gap in ages between husband and wife, it was
often the case. Among the ruling Yelü clan, the average age that boys
married was sixteen, while the average age that girls married was
between sixteen and twenty-two. Although rare, ages as young as twelve
were recorded, for both boys and girls. A special variety of
polygamy known as sororate, in which a man would marry two or more
women who were sisters, was practiced among the Liao elite.
Polygamy was not restricted only to sororate, with some men having
three or more wives, only some of whom were sisters. Sororate
continued throughout the length of the Liao dynasty, despite laws
banning the practice. Over the course of the dynasty, the Liao
elite moved away from polygamy and towards the Han Chinese system of
having one wife and one or more concubines. This was done largely
to smooth over the process of inheritance.
Further information: Bars-Hot
One of the famous set of lifesize Yixian glazed pottery luohans,
sancai, early 12th century
By the time
Abaoji assumed control over the
Khitans in the early tenth
century, a majority of the Khitan population had adopted Buddhism.
Buddhism was practiced throughout the length of the Liao dynasty.
Monasteries were constructed during the reign of the first emperor,
Buddhism was especially prominent during the reigns of
Emperors Shengzong, Xingzong, and Daozong.
Buddhist scholars living during the time of the
Liao dynasty predicted
that the mofa (末法), an age in which the three treasures of
Buddhism would be destroyed, was to begin in the year 1052. Previous
dynasties, including the Sui and Tang, were also concerned with the
mofa, although their predictions for when the mofa would start were
different from the one selected by the Liao. As early as the Sui
dynasty, efforts were made to preserve Buddhist teachings by carving
them into stone or burying them. These efforts continued into the Liao
dynasty, with Emperor Xingzong funding several projects in the years
immediately preceding 1052.
Shanhua Temple Daxiongbao Hall built in the 11th century in Datong
Evidence from excavated Liao burial sites indicates that animistic or
shamanistic practices were fused with
Buddhism and other practices in
marriage and burial ceremonies. Both animal and human sacrifices have
been found in Liao tombs, alongside indications of Buddhist practice.
Indications of Daoist, zodiac, and Zoroastrian influences have also
been found in Liao burial sites.
During the reign of the
Liao dynasty the
Niujie Mosque was designed by
Nazaruddin, the son of a local Imam.
The influence of the
Liao dynasty on subsequent culture includes a
large legacy of statuary art works, with important surviving examples
in painted wood, metal, and three-color glazed sancai ceramics. The
music and songs of the
Liao dynasty are also known to have indirectly
or directly influenced Mongol, Jurchen, and Chinese musical
The rhythmic and tonal pattern of the ci (词) form of poetry, an
important part of
Song dynasty poetry, uses a set of poetic meters and
is based upon certain definitive musical song tunes. The specific
origin of these various original tunes and musical modes is not known,
but the influence of
Liao dynasty lyrics both directly and indirectly
through the music and lyrics of the Jurchen Jin dynasty appears
likely. At least one Han Chinese source considered the Liao (and
Jurchen) music to be the vigorous and powerful music of horse-mounted
warriors, diffused through border warfare.
Another influence of the Liao cultural tradition is seen in the Yuan
dynasty's zaju (杂剧) theater, its associated orchestration, and the
qu (曲) and sanqu (散曲) forms of Classical Chinese poetry. One
documented way in which this influence occurred was through the
incorporation of Khitan officers and men into the service of the
Mongol forces during the first Mongol invasion of 1211 to 1215.
This northern route of cultural transmission of the legacy of Liao
culture was then returned to China during the Yuan dynasty.
The Chinese state news agency Xinhua announced in January 2018 that
the ruins in Duolun County, Inner Mongolia, of an ancient palace that
served as the summer retreat for the royal family and retinue of the
Liao Dynasty. They would move each year from mid-April to mid-July to
avoid the heat. The site includes foundations of 12 buildings of more
than 2,500 square feet that have been recorded and artifacts, such as
glazed tiles, pottery and copper nails that were used to date the
Imperial China portal
List of emperors of the Liao dynasty
Emperors family tree
Western Liao (Qara Khitai)
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