An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Liao Dynasty (Kitans) 遼 (907-1125)

The Liao dynasty 遼 (907-1125) was the first great "barbarian" dynasty ruling over one part of China. It was founded by Yelü Abaoji 耶律阿保機 (Emperor Taizu of the Liao 遼太祖, r. 907-927), khan of the steppe federation of the Kitans 契丹, a conglomerate of proto-Mongolian tribes. The Kitans had learnt how to wage war against the militarily superior armies of the Chinese.

When the Tang empire 唐 (618-907) disintegrated, the Kitans took control over the states in Northern China and deeply influenced the courts politics of the Five Dynasties 五代 (907-960). When Zhao Kuangyin 趙匡胤 founded the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) and reunited China, he was not able to conquer the parts of China lying north to the Yellow River. Constant border conflicts with the Song characterized the tenth century. In 946 the Kitans even shortly conquered the Song capital Kaifeng 開封 (today in the province of Henan). Tired of the ceaseless skirmishes with the nomad people, the Song government proposed a peace treaty in 1005 that promised quiet frontiers. Yet they had to pay huge amounts of tributes to the Liao in order to ensure a stable situation at the frontiers.

The Kitans imitated part of the administrative structure of the Song empire, but also retained many features of the structure of a nomad people. Kitan families were administrated according to different patterns than the Chinese living in the Liao empire. For administrative purposes, the Kitans even invented an own script that met better the peculiarities of their language. In 1120, the Song government established an alliance with the Jurchens in the northeast with the plan to attack the Liao empire from two sides. The Liao, weakened by economic ruptures and internal quarrels, fell victim to the Jurchen assaults. Founding the Jin empire 金 (1115-1234), the Jurchen khan Wanyan Aguda 完顏阿骨打 (Emperor Taizu of the Jin 金太祖, r. 1115-1122) conquered northern China.

Under the leadership of Prince Yelü Dashi 耶律大石 (Emperor Dezong 西遼德宗, r. 1124-1143) part of the Kitan people and elite migrated to the west where they founded the so-called Western Liao Empire (Xiliao 西遼, 1124-1211), or Kara Kitan in Türkic. In 1218, the Mongols conquered the empire of Western Liao.

The name of the Kitan lives on in the Russian term for China, Kitai, and in Marco Polo's designation for China, Cathay.

This chapter of the encyclopaedia gives an overview of the political history of the Liao empire, the geography of the realm and its surroundings, provides a list of its rulers, describes the administration and political structure of the empire, and gives insight into the religion and beliefs of the time, as well as the fine arts, the economy, literature and philosophy.