An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Political History of the Liao Empire

Jul 24, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Origin of the Kitans

The proto-Mongolian people of the Khitans (Chinese: Qidan 契丹), together with the Xi 奚, were part of the so-called Eastern Hu 東胡 peoples that roamed the steppe in the eastern parts of modern Mongolia and the western parts of Manchuria. The name Qidan first appears in sources from the Northern Wei period 北魏 (386-534) that provide detailed informations about the early period of the Khitan people. The Khitan federation was divided into eight tribes and inhabited the area between the Huangshui River 潢水 (modern Siramören River in Inner Mongolia) and Huanglong 黃龍 (north of modern Changchun 長春, Jilin). They had commercial relations with the Northern Wei court and "exported" horses and furs. During the Tang period 唐 (618-907) they fought against the Türks (Tujue 突厥). The Khitan chieftain Kuge 窟哥 of the Dahe 大賀 tribe united the Khitan tribes in one federation. The Tang court made him commander-in-chief (dudu 都督) of the region of Songmo 松漠, and he was allowed to use the imperial family name Li 李. His descendants acted as local governors for several decades before Li Jinzhong 李盡忠 rebelled against the Tang. Later, Li Shihuo 李失活 was given a Tang bride, Princess Yongle 永樂公主, in order to bring him into a formal diplomatic alliance. Yet shortly before the outbreak of the rebellion of An Lushan 安祿山 the Khitans again showed hostility against the Tang empire, but for the rest of the Tang period there were good relationships. In 730 the Yaonian 遙輦 tribe became dominant and produced some khans. From 907 on the Yelü 耶律 tribe took over the dominance over the Khitan federation. In 916 Abaoji 阿保機 called himself king (wang 王) of the Khitan federation.

The Liao Empire

Yelü Abaoji 耶律阿保機 (posthumous title Emperor Taizu 遼太祖, r. 907-927) founded his capital at Linhuang 臨潢府 (modern Balinzuo Banner 巴林左旗, Inner Mongolia) and employed Chinese advisors to construct a bureaucratic central government. At the same time he promulgated laws and directives to curtail the power of the Khitan nobility. Yelü Diela 耶律迭剌, brother of Abaoji, created a Khitan script that was based on the shape of Chinese characters. Emperor Taizu undertook military campaigns to expand the territory of his empire, forced the Uyghurs in the west into submission, as well as the states of Fuyu 夫余 and Bohai 渤海 in the east, where he created the "Eastern Khitan" Dongdan 東丹國 state, with his own son Yelü Bei 耶律倍 as a ruler.

With the help of Empress Shulü 述律皇后 Prince Yelü Deguang 耶律德光 (posthumous Liao Taizong 遼太宗, r. 927-947) inherited the throne of the Khitan empire. Emperor Taizong interfered into the politics of the Five Dynasties 五代 (907-960) in the north of China and was able to control the succession of the Later Jin Empire 後晉 (936-946). He conquered the Jin capital Kaifeng 開封 (modern Kaifeng, Henan) and decided to name his empire Liao 遼, according to the River Liao from where the Khitans had come from. After the Khitan troops had plundered Kaifeng Emperor Taizong returned to Linhuang. He did not change the political system that had been created by his father. After his death the usurper Yelü Lihu 耶律李胡 tried to mount the throne, but Yelü Ruan 耶律阮 (posthumous title Emperor Shizong 遼世宗, r. 947-950) was able to defeat him. Yet Emperor Shizong was murdered by a relative. The new emperor Yelü Jing 耶律璟 (posthumous title Emperor Muzong 遼穆宗, r. 951-968) lived in a permanent conflict between the imperial line and the Khitan aristocracy. A third factor was the large group of unfree persons that lived as serfs of the Khitan nobles. Emperor Muzong was murdered by a servant in 969.

During the reign of Yelü Xian 耶律賢 (posthumous title Emperor Jingzong 遼景宗, r. 969-982) the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) was founded and ended the period of the Five Dynasties. The Liao officials Han Derang 韓德讓, Yelü Xiuge 耶律休哥 and Yelü Xiezhen 耶律斜軫, defenders of the southern capital of the Liao empire, Youdu 幽都 (modern Beijing), obtained an eminent position within the Liao empire as military affairs commissioners (shumishi 樞密使). Han Derang, who was later granted the name Yelü Longyun 耶律隆運, even acted as a regent for Empress Dowager Chengtian 承天太后 and the under-age emperor Yelü Longxu 耶律隆緒 (posthumous title Emperor Shengzong 遼聖宗, r. 982-1030). In 986 the Liao armies were badly defeated by the Song troops, and then again in 999. In 1004 the two empires of Song and Liao concluded a peace treaty in Chanyuan 澶淵, according to which the Song empire delivered annual tributes to the Liao and accepted a common borderline south of modern Beijing. Instead of further engaging militarily with the Song, the Liao armies concentrated on conflicts with Inner Asian peoples like the Tatars 韃靼 (ancestors of the Mongols 蒙古) or the Uighurs. They were defeated and had to submit regular tributes to the Liao empire. In the east, the Liao interfered into the politics of the Korean kingdom of Koguryŏ 高句麗. Under the long reign of Emperor Shengzong the Liao empire steadily expanded. Inside, important administrative changes took place. Khitans and other peoples, especially the Chinese population of northern China, were now equally treated according to the law, Chinese administration methods were applied, and the imperial palace buildings in the Central Capital (Zhongjing 中京) at Dading 大定府 (modern Daming 大名, Liaoning) were constructed in Chinese style. The position of the slaves was also ameliorated. On the other hand, there was also a strong native movement among the Khitan aristocracy that was so strong that between 983 and 1066 the Liao empire 遼國 was renamed Khitan empire 契丹國.

The long reigns of the emperors Xingzong 遼興宗 (r. 1031-1054) and Daozong 遼道宗 (r. 1055-1100) were characterized by power struggles at the court between the Khitan aristocracy, the imperial house, empresses families and their favorites. There was even a case of witchcraft around Empress Xuanyi 宣懿皇后. The country itself was shaken by numerous uprisings against the Liao government, and from outside, tribal federations among the Tatars in Mongolia and the Jurchens 女真 in Manchuria endangered the stability of the northern borders. From the 12th century on the Jurchens in the northeast began attacking the Liao empire. These military attacks were accompanied by rebellions among the aristocracy of the former Bohai state. Emperor Yelü Yanxi 耶律延禧 (known as the Tianzuo Emperor 遼天祚帝, r. 1101-1125) fled to the far west, but Prince Yelü Chun 耶律淳 (posthumous title Emperor Xuan 遼宣宗, r. 1122) proclaimed a Northern Liao (Beiliao 北遼) empire, but he died soon. General Yelü Dashi 耶律大石 defended the southern capital against the attacks of the Song troops. He then decided to give up Yelü Chun and decided to escape to the west. In 1125 Yelü Chun was captured by the Jurchens that incorporated the Liao state into their Jin empire 金 (1115-1234).

The Western Liao Empire

After the Jin armies had destroyed the Liao empire Yuelü Dashi assembled the surviving troops and tribes, withdrew to Zhenzhou 鎮州 in the west (in modern Mongolia) and established a new empire called Western Liao (Xiliao 西遼). He was strong enough to subdue Uyghur tribes and founded a capital in Balashagun 八剌沙袞, modern Kirgizstan (also known as "Husi Woluduo" 虎思斡魯朵, Kuc-Ordo or Kus-Ordo). His empire is also known under the Türkish name Qara-Khitan (Chinese: Halaqidan 哈喇契丹) "Black Khitans". He expanded his empire to the west and southwards into the city states of the Tarim Basin. After Yelü Dashi's death (posthumous title Emperor Dezong 西遼德宗, r. 1124-1143) the empire was periodically reigned by women of the imperial family, like Empress Chengtian 承天皇后. In 1211 the Naiman 乃蠻 chieftain Kücülüg (Chinese: Quchulü 屈出律), who had escaped the Mongols, sought shelter at the Western Liao court, but he was strong enough to force Yelü Zhilugu 耶律直魯古 to resign. He took over the throne, but in 1218 the Mongols conquered the Western Liao empire.

Tao, Jing-shen (1988). Two Sons of Heaven: Studies in Sung-Liao Relations (Tucson: University of Arizona Press).