The Liao dynasty (916–1125) was founded and ruled by a people called Khitan (Ch’i-tan), originally hunter-gatherers living in southern Manchuria along the Liao River valley, who gradually learned farming and herding. The Khitan were vassals of the Chinese Tang (T’ang) dynasty (618–907) in an unstable relationship.
Because of their location on the frontier of the Chinese empire, they were also involved with other nomadic groups, most notably the Turks. In the ninth century around 50 Khitan tribes coalesced under the dominant Yelu (Yeh-lu) clan, transforming them into a dynastic state.
The Khitan religion was shamanism, many of whose features were retained even after they adopted Buddhism in the ninth century. Scholars still debate over the linguistic affiliation of the Khitan language, which was probably traceable to several sources: Mongolian, Turkic, and Tungustic. Because there was no written Khitan until the 10th century, early records of them were solely from Chinese sources that go back to the fourth century.
A written script was first invented in 920, called the Khitan Greater Script, adapted from Chinese, but was not mutually intelligible and is mostly deciphered. A Khitan Lesser Script adapted from Uighur writing was invented in 924. Texts carved on stone in both scripts exist alongside Chinese texts; therefore some of the words have been deciphered. Written Khitan was not used after the dynasty fell and died out.
The Khitan seized the opportunity offered by a disintegrating Tang dynasty to begin their expansion. In 901 a powerful Khitan chief led an army of his people and began to conquer into northeastern China, seizing 16 prefectures in present Hebei (Hopei) province, including the city that would later be called Beijing.
In 907 the chief of the Yelu tribe named Abaoji (A-po-chi) assumed the title of emperor and proclaimed his state the Great Liao. He created a dual empire, part sedentary and part nomadic. The sedentary part was called “south-facing”; it was bureaucratic, headed by a southern chancellor, and staffed by Han Chinese who had surrendered to him.
It would rule the sedentary Han Chinese people under the Liao, based on a modified and harsher version of Tang laws. The southern chancellery’s task was to collect taxes from the Chinese subjects and to oversee their production of items the Khitan court required. The Tang style examination system was even instituted later, but the Chinese were treated as a subservient caste.
Chinese people were recruited to serve in the infantry that supported the Khitan cavalry and as a labor corps. The Khitan tribal people were to retain their tribal and nomadic traditions under a “north-facing” administration headed by a northern chancellor. They were ruled under their tribal laws. This dual system of government functioned for 200 years.
A Central Capital was 100 miles south of the Supreme Capital and its function was to administer a newly conquered tribe; the Western Capital was the old Chinese city Datong (Ta-tung) along the Great Wall of China in modern Shanxi (Shansi) province. The Southern Capital was the renamed Chinese city called Yan (Yen), at modern Beijing. Even though the cities conformed to Chinese concepts of city planning, large areas were left vacant to accommodate the yurts (tents) of the Khitan.
Sinicization of the Khitan
The Liao court moved from capital to capital, reminiscent of their nomadic ways. Despite resistance to Sinicization, the Khitan adopted many Chinese ways and began to enjoy the numerous luxuries their Chinese subjects offered. On the other hand such Khitan customs as the levirate (a man’s right to take his brother’s widows as his wives) and the sacrifice of many human victims when an important man died continued.
Even Abaoji’s powerful chief wife, who was also mother to his heirs, was asked to kill herself to be buried with him. She refused, claiming that her young adult sons still needed her guidance, but cut off one of her hands to be buried with her husband.
Nor did the Khitan fully adopt the Chinese rule of succession by primogeniture (where the eldest son of a ruler’s wife succeeded him on the throne) but continued to select one among the deceased man’s sons by consensus and acclamation, with the result that murderous succession struggles followed each ruler’s death, causing political instability.
Whereas few Chinese learned Khitan, the elite among the Khitan soon became fluent in written Chinese. Chinese was the international diplomatic language among the East Asian states and all treaties and diplomatic correspondence were in Chinese. Even the Northern Chancellery produced few if any documents in Khitan, and there are no drafts in Khitan of Liao correspondence with the Song (Sung).
The educated Khitan had much to gain from learning Chinese because of the abundance of written works produced in that language. When most Khitan became Buddhists in the 10th century, learning Chinese also gave them access to the teachings of Buddhism. In time the Khitan elite came to call those of their own people who strictly adhered to their nomadic traditions as “wild Khitan.”
In the 10th century the Liao state confronted two enemies among its sedentary neighbors. One was Korea, where a long-lasting dynasty was established over the unified peninsula in 918 called the Koryo dynasty. It would last until 1392. Liao invaded Koryo in the 890s and 990s and forced the Koryo kings to become Liao vassals, following the widely accepted Chinese tradition of interstate relations with its neighbors.
Liao and Song (Sung) Relations
Liao’s main neighbor and adversary was the Song (Sung) dynasty in China (960–1279). The initial peaceful relationship between the Song and Liao ended in 979 when Song emperor Taizong (T’ang-tsung) attempted to recover the 16 prefectures in the Beijing area the Liao had earlier conquered. He was beaten back, and later for a second time. In 1004 the two sides finally made a peace treaty, called the Treaty of Sangyuan.
It fixed their borders to reflect Liao’s control of the 16 prefectures, stipulated the opening of several markets for trade between the two states, and declared the two states equal to each other and their rulers as “brother” sovereigns; both promised not to build fortifications along their border. Significantly the Song agreed to give the Liao annually 100,000 ounces of silver and 200,000 bolts of silk.
Song records called it a “gift” to save face and argued that the cost was cheaper than war. The Liao however called the mandatory one-way gift a “tribute.” A new treaty between the two in 1042 increased the Song mandatory gift by 100,000 units in each category, justified in official Song accounts as “extending gentle kindness to faraway peoples to win the hearts.”
The century-long stability between the Song and Liao after the Treaty of Sangyuan provided stability and prosperity for both states. Until 1031 strong rulers with long reigns also ensured Liao power. Thereafter rulers of lesser ability, some youths, ascended the throne.
The lack of a certain set of rules on succession resulted in power struggles within the ruling Yelu clan and among its allied clans that weakened the monarchy. The Liao state was further weakened by the unresolved strains caused by factions that either supported or opposed Sinicization.
The Liao also had to deal with nomadic tribal groups along its frontier. North of the Khitan homeland there lived a primitive people called the Jurchen, who began their entry into history as the oppressed vassals of the Khitan.
Then appeared a powerful Jurchen chieftain named Wanyen Aguda (Wan-yen A-ku-ta ) (1068–1124), who coalesced his fierce warrior followers in eastern Manchuria and began raiding Liao outposts. In 1114 he defeated a Liao army sent against him. Emboldened he proclaimed himself emperor of the Jin (Chin) dynasty in the following year.
The Jurchen had long sent tributes to the Song, traveling by sea to the Song controlled coast in order to bypass Liao territory. Since both Song and the Jurchen had long held grudges against the Liao, they made a treaty jointly to attack the Liao and destroy it totally, then to share the spoils. Mainly because of the fighting qualities of the Jurchen warriors and with little assistance from the Song, the Liao dynasty ended in 1125.