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Liao Dynasty

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The Liao Dynasty was established by the Khitan tribe (Qidan).

The Khitan minority was an ancient nomadic tribe that lived in Northern China. They were first mentioned in historical records in 389 during the Northern Wei Period. By the early seventh century they sought to establish their own state on China's frontier but failed due to the strong Tang resistance (618-907). As a result, the Khitan tribe was brought under Chinese rule. After the decline of the Tang, the Khitan tribe frequently attacked its neighbors, capturing people from other states that rapidly boosted its power.

In 916, Yelu Abaoji, the chief of the Khitan tribe, established the Khitan Kingdom and proclaimed himself emperor. Historically, Yelu Abaoji was called Emperor Taizu. Two years later, Yelu Abaoji based his capital north of the Xar Moron River and named it Huangdu (imperial capital).

(In 947, Emperor Taizong renamed his dynasty the "Great Liao"; In 983, Emperor Shengzong revived the name Khitan; and in 1066, Emperor Daozong restored the name "Great Liao.")

After the founding of the kingdom, Abaoji gradually conquered its weak neighboring tribes. In 926, he conquered the Uigurs in Ganzhou and captured the Bohai State.

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Emperor Taizong (Yelu Deguang) reigned from 926 to 947. During this period, the Liao Dynasty reached Manchuria and the sixteen prefectures below the Great Wall from the Mongolian border. The area south of the Great wall remained outside Chinese control for more than 400 years. Although this posed a threat to theNorthern Song (960-1127), the region acted as a center for cultural exchanges between the Chinese and northern peoples during the period.

After obtaining the sixteen prefectures, the Liao founded its alternate capital in Yanjing (Beijing). Taking Beijing as its base, the Liao began its expansion to the Central Plains. In 946 it took Kaifeng, the capital of the Song Dynasty, and proceeded to attack the weak troops of the civil-oriented Song government. However, due to strong resistance in the Central Plains, the attempt was abandoned.

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Political disputes troubled the Liao court after Emperor Taizong until the reign of Emperor Jinzong.

Upon the death of Emperor Jinzong, his son, 12-year-old Yelu Longxu succeeded him to the throne, historically known as Emperor Shengzong. Since the new emperor was too young to conduct state affairs, the court was controlled by Empress Xiao, his mother. Empress Xiao appointed Yelu Xiuge as her senior general and launched a war, defeating the Song army in 987. From then on, the warfare between the two countries never stopped.

In 1104, Liao launched another war. In the following year, having tired of the ceaseless skirmishes with the nomadic people, the Song proposed the Shanyuan Treaty with the Liao. The treaty required the Liao to ensure quiet frontiers for the Song. In return, the Song had to pay a yearly tribute to the Liao.

The conclusion of the Shanyuan Treaty was the pivotal point in Song-Liao relations. The signing of the Shanyuan Treaty was the first time the Liao forced the Song -- which considered itself the natural heir to political dominance as the Central Kingdom -- to recognize its legitimacy. After many years of fighting the Song and Liao finally decided to negotiate peace, which was achieved through the Shanyuan Treaty. The amicable relationship lasted until 1125 when the Song broke the treaty by inviting the Jin to attack the Liao.

After the treaty was signed, the nature of the relationship between these two states changed from pure political rivalry to a supposed fraternity. For the first time in Chinese history the two were the Sons of Heaven, each recognizing the other.

The Liao Dynasty, using the tributes paid by the Song, achieved rapid progress and reached a zenith both economically and politically.

 The Political System

The dynasty claimed to be the legitimate successor of the Tang. It incorporated its own tribes under respective chieftains and formed a confederation with other subdued tribes in the region, which was then transformed into a hereditary monarchy.

The Liao employed a differential ruling system where different systems were applied to people from different cultures and economies in different areas. The administration system mainly consisted of the tribal, slavery, Bohai and feudal systems for the Han people.

The Khitan people adapted the tribal system in which they maintained their traditional rites and, to a great extent, retained their own style of cooking and dress. As for Han people, particularly in the farming regions, the system from the Tang was imposed. It included the use of Tang official titles, an examination system for the appointment of civil service and a Chinese-style tax regime. The Chinese language continued to be used and the customs of the Han were also preserved.

Officials were divided into two groups, according to their origin (north or south). Corresponding administration systems were set up for each area. The Khitan administrative system, called the orthodox system, was applied to northern Khitan officials, while the southerners used the Han system. Because of the different customs and levels of economic development, the northern officials mainly governed the Khitan Tartars and other nomadic peoples, while the southern officials took charge of agriculture mainly in areas where Han people resided. Since the Liao Dynasty was founded by the Khitan, the northern officials were considered superior, but the southern administrative system was actually the feudal system that was practiced in the Central Plain states. After the Liao conquered the sixteen prefectures in the Yanyun area, the system was improved.

 Social Economy

The Liao went through different stages of economic development. In its early years, it mainly depended on outward expansion, slavery and thievery, and its development remained slow and disrupted. It was not until the reign of Emperor Shengzong when the Liao managed to institute feudal reform, and its economy attained some distinct progress. Liao rulers also adopted a differential economic management system similar to its political one which promoted economic development throughout the whole northern area.

The Liao economy was based on horse and sheep raising and agriculture. Fishing also played an important complementary role. The Hans, who lived in the southern areas, were mostly engaged in agriculture, including the Bohai people who lived in the east. The nomadic zone consisted of various northern grassland nationalities, the fishing-hunting zone that covered the Khitan area between the Xar Moron and Tuhe rivers and the Jurchen people's area in the northeast. The integration of the three economic zones into one political system sped up communications between different nationalities and promoted a higher level of economic development. The southern economy, which had been feudal for a long time, dominated the whole economy.

Salt supply was controlled by a government monopoly and provided an important source of revenue. Iron smelting was also an important industrial contribution to the wealth of the dynasty.


Culturally, the Liao achieved much in astronomy, the calendar, medicine and architecture. Not only did the Liao calendar retain the best parts of the Central Plain Han calendar, it also kept some of the special traits of the Khitan people. Important achievements were made in acupuncture, pulse-feeling diagnosis, gynecology, obstetrics and the preservation of corpses. The Book of Acupuncture and Pulse-Feeling, written by a celebrated doctor named Zhi Lugu, enjoyed wide popularity at the time. Liao architecture, influenced by the Tang and accommodating Khitan customs, achieved its own unique style.

While the Liao honored Confucian philosophy, the rulers patronized Chinese Buddhism. The Khitan dialect and the Han language were the main languages of the Liao.

 Collapse of the Liao Dynasty

Following the prosperity enjoyed during the reigns of Emperor Shengzong and Xingzong, the Liao Dynasty went into decline. In the early years of the 12th century, the Jurchen tribe gradually grew in strength and became a great threat to the Liao. In 1115, the Jurchen established its own dynasty, the Jin (Kin) Dynasty (1115-1234), with Aguda as the emperor. In the same year, the Jin army captured Huanglong, a strategically important town of the Liao. Later, the Jurchen established an alliance with the Song to attack the Liao. This was, undoubtedly, an alliance the Song would come to regret as the Jurchen later defeated the Song and established itself as the Jin Dynasty in 1115.

The Liao government, weakened by economical disasters and internal quarrels, became brittle. Quickly, the Jin army occupied most of the Liao territory. In 1125, Emperor Tianzuo was captured by the Jin army, which brought the Liao Dynasty to an end. In 1131, Yelu Dashi, a minister of the former Liao, re-established the Liao in the Chuhe valley which became known as the Western Liao. In 1218, the Mongols conquered the kingdom of Western Liao.

The Liao Dynasty lased for 219 years and had nine emperors. At the height of its power and influence, its territory reached the coast of the Northern Sea, Eastern Sea, Yellow Sea and Bohai Sea in the east; Jinshan (Altai Mountain) and Liusha (Bailongdui Desert in Xinjiang) in the west; Kelulun, E'erkun and Selun'ge Rivers in the north; the southern side of the Outer Xing'anling Mountains in the northeast; the northern part of Shanxi, Baigou in Hebei Province; and the northern part of Gansu in the south.