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.
(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
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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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troubled the Liao court after Emperor Taizong until the reign of Emperor
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 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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