The Khitan people or Khitai, Kitan, or Kidan, were a nomadic people originally from Mongolia and Manchuria (or Northeast China) from the 4th century that spoke a language distantly related to the Mongolic languages. As the Liao dynasty, they dominated a vast area north of and including parts of China, but left few relics that have survived until today. The Qara Khitai, also known as the Kara Khitan Khanate or Western Liao, was a sinicized Khitan empire in Central Asia. The dynasty was founded by Yelü Dashi, who led the remnants of the Liao dynasty to Central Asia after fleeing from the Jurchen conquest of their homeland in the north and northeast of modern-day China. The empire was usurped by the Naimans under Kuchlug in 1211; traditional Chinese, Persian, and Arab sources considered the usurpation to be the end of the Qara Khitai rule. The empire was later taken by the Mongol Empire in 1218. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Khitan expanded in all directions in the latter half of the ninth century and the early years of the tenth century. By 925 the Khitan ruled eastern Mongolia, most of Manchuria, and much of China north of the Huang He. In the recurrent process of sinicization, by the middle of the tenth century Khitan chieftains had established themselves as emperors of northern China; their rule was known as the Liao Dynasty (916-1125). [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

The period of the eleventh and twelfth centuries was one of consolidation, preceding the most momentous era in Mongol history, the era of Genghis Khan. During those centuries, the vast region of deserts, mountains, and grazing land was inhabited by people resembling each other in racial, cultural, and linguistic characteristics; ethnologically they were essentially Mongol. The similarites among the Mongols, Türk, Tangut, and Tatars who inhabited this region causes considerable ethnic and historical confusion. Generally, the Mongols and the closely related Tatars inhabited the northern and the eastern areas; the Türk (who already had begun to spread over western Asia and southeastern Europe) were in the west and the southwest; the Tangut, who were more closely related to the Tibetans than were the other nomads and who were not a Turkic people, were in eastern Xinjiang, Gansu, and western Inner Mongolia. *

The Liao state was homogeneous, and the Khitan had begun to lose their nomadic characteristics. The Khitan built cities and exerted dominion over their agricultural subjects as a means of consolidating their empire. To the west and the northwest of Liao were many other Mongol tribes, linked together in various tenuous alliances and groupings, but with little national cohesiveness. In Gansu and eastern Xinjiang, the Tangut--who had taken advantage of the Tang decline--had formed a state, Western Xia or Xixia (1038-1227), nominally under Chinese suzerainty. Xinjiang was dominated by the Uighurs, who were loosely allied with the Chinese.*

The people of Mongolia at this time were predominantly spirit worshipers, with shamans providing spiritual and religious guidance to the people and tribal leaders. There had been some infusion of Buddhism, which had spread from Xinjiang, but it did not yet have a strong influence. Nestorian Christianity also had penetrated Inner Asia.*

In the eleventh century, the Khitan completed the conquest of China north of the Huang He. Despite close cultural ties between the Khitan and Western Xia that led the latter to become increasingly sinicized, during the remainder of that century and the early years of the twelfth century, the two Mongol groups were frequently at war with each other and with the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279) of China. The Uighurs of the Turpan region often were involved in these wars, usually aiding the Chinese against Western Xia.*

Forest Peoples of Manchuria: Kitans and Jurchens

Herbert Franke wrote in the “Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia”: “The political fragmentation of China in the 10th century A.D. and most of her history under the Sung dynasty (960–1234) was coeval with the emergence of states on her borders which were founded by non-Chinese peoples but largely patterned on Chinese models. Of these peoples the Kitans and the Jurchen are of special importance because they both succeeded in extending their domination over large parts of Northern China. In this respect they were the precursors of the Mongols whose final subjugation of the entire Chinese territory in the 13th century was made possible, or at least easier, because they were no longer faced with a unified China but by a Sung China which had been severely weakened by the Kitan and Jurchen conquests on her northern border. [Source: The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, edited by Denis Sinor. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990]

“Another factor of general historical interest is that both for the Liao state of the Kitans and the Chin state of the Jurchen we have detailed dynastic histories written in Chinese. Unlike earlier invaders who settled for a while on Chinese soil such as Hsiung-nu, Hsien-pi and other tribal groups whose history is known only through Chinese eyes, we have for the 10th to 13th centuries historical sources which provide a very full documentation on states founded by non-Chinese peoples. The multi-state system of those centuries can therefore be studied not only from the Chinese angle but also from the Kitan and Jurchen viewpoints as well. For the first time in Inner Asian history we have in that period a wealth of information on “barbarian” peoples and their history that can be paralleled with the purely Chinese (and therefore necessarily China-centred) sources.

A Tungusic people, the Jurchen, ancestors of the Manchu, formed an alliance with the Song and reduced the Kitan Empire to vassal status in a seven-year war (1115-1122; see Caught Between the Russians and the Manchus). The Jurchen leader proclaimed himself the founder of a new era, the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). Scarcely pausing in their conquests, the Jurchen subdued neighboring Koryo (Korea) in 1226 and invaded the territory of their former allies, the Song, to precipitate a series of wars with China that continued through the remainder of the century. Meanwhile, the defeated Kitan Liao ruler had fled with the small remnant of his army to the Tarim Basin, where he allied himself with the Uighurs and established the Karakitai state (known also as the Western Liao Dynasty, 1124-1234), which soon controlled both sides of the Pamir Mountains. The Jurchen turned their attention to the Mongols who, in 1139 and in 1147, warded them off. *

Khitans in Central Asia

Following the fall of the Liao dynasty in 1125, a number of the Khitan nobility escaped the area westwards towards Western Regions, establishing the short-lived Qara Khitai. After its fall, a small part under Buraq Hajib established a local dynasty in the southern Persian province of Kirman. These Khitans were absorbed by the local Turkic and Iranian populations, Islamized and left no influence of themselves. As the Khitan language is still almost completely illegible, it is difficult to create a detailed history of their movements. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Khitans in Qara Khitai ruled from their capital at Balasagun (in today's Kyrgyzstan), directly controlling the central region of the empire. The rest of their empire consisted of highly autonomous vassalized states, primarily Khwarezm, the Karluks, the Kingdom of Qocho of the Uyghurs, the Kankali, and the Western, Eastern, and Fergana Kara-Khanids. The late-arriving Naimans also became vassals, before usurping the empire under Kuchlug. +

The Khitan rulers adopted many administrative elements from the Liao dynasty, including the use of Confucian administration and imperial trappings. The empire also adopted the title of Gurkhan (universal Khan). The Khitans used the Chinese calendar, maintained Chinese imperial and administrative titles, gave its emperors reign names, used Chinese-styled coins, and sent imperial seals to its vassals. Although most of its administrative titles were derived from Chinese, the empire also adopted local administrative titles, such as tayangyu (Turkic) and vizier.

European maps showed the land of "Kara-Kithay" somewehere in Central Asia for centuries after the disappearance of the Qara-Khitan Khanate. This 1610 map by Jodocus Hondius places it north of Tashkent. +

The Khitans maintained their old customs, even in Central Asia. They remained nomads, adhered to their traditional dress, and maintained the religious practices followed by the Liao dynasty Khitans. The ruling elite tried to maintain the traditional marriages between the Yelü king clan and the Xiao queen clan, and were highly reluctant to allow their princesses to marry outsiders. The Qara-Khitai Khitans followed a mix of Buddhism and traditional Khitan religion, which included fire worship and tribal customs, such as the tradition of sacrificing a gray ox with a white horse. In an innovation unique to the Qara-Khitai, the Khitans paid their soldiers a salary. +

The empire ruled over a diverse population that was quite different from its rulers. The majority of the population was sedentary, although the population suddenly became more nomadic during the end of the empire, due to the influx of Naimans. The majority of their subjects were Muslims, although a significant minority practiced Buddhism and Nestorianism. Although Chinese and Khitan were the primary languages of administration, the empire also administered in Persian and Uyghur. +

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Page Top

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.