Khitan horsemen

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. *

Khitan mural

Liao Dynasty (937-1125) and the Empire of the Khitans

The Liao dynasty ruled an empire uniting the nomadic Khitan people of northern China from A.D. 937 to 1125. Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The Khitan, a league of tribes under the leadership of an apparently Mongol tribe, had grown steadily stronger in north-eastern Mongolia during the Tang epoch. They had gained the allegiance of many tribes in the west and also in Korea and Manchuria, and in the end, about A.D. 900, had become the dominant power in the north. The process of growth of this nomad power was the same as that of other nomad states, such as the Toba state, and therefore need not be described again in any detail here. When the Tang dynasty was deposed, the Khitan were among the claimants to the Chinese throne, feeling fully justified in their claim as the strongest power in the Far East. Owing to the strength of the Sha-t'o Turks, who themselves claimed leadership in China, the expansion of the Khitan empire slowed down. In the many battles the Khitan suffered several setbacks. They also had enemies in the rear, a state named Po-hai, ruled by Tunguses, in northern Korea, and the new Korean state of Kao-li, which liberated itself from Chinese overlordship in 919. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“In 927 the Khitan finally destroyed Po-hai. This brought many Tungus tribes, including the Jurchen (Juchen), under Khitan dominance. Then, in 936, the Khitan gained the allegiance of the Turkish general Shih Ching-Tang, and he was set on the Chinese throne as a feudatory of the Khitan. It was hoped now to secure dominance over China, and accordingly the Mongol name of the dynasty was altered to "Liao dynasty" in 937, indicating the claim to the Chinese throne. Considerable regions of North China came at once under the direct rule of the Liao. As a whole, however, the plan failed: the feudatory Shih Ching-Tang tried to make himself independent; Chinese fought the Liao; and the Chinese sceptre soon came back into the hands of a Sha-t'o dynasty (947). This ended the plans of the Liao to conquer the whole of China.

“For this there were several reasons. A nomad people was again ruling the agrarian regions of North China. This time the representatives of the ruling class remained military commanders, and at the same time retained their herds of horses. As early as 1100 they had well over 10,000 herds, each of more than a thousand animals. The army commanders had been awarded large regions which they themselves had conquered. They collected the taxes in these regions, and passed on to the state only the yield of the wine tax. On the other hand, in order to feed the armies, in which there were now many Chinese soldiers, the frontier regions were settled, the soldiers working as peasants in times of peace, and peasants being required to contribute to the support of the army. Both processes increased the interest of the Khitan ruling class in the maintenance of peace. That class was growing rich, and preferred living on the income from its properties or settlements to going to war, which had become a more and more serious matter after the founding of the great Song empire, and was bound to be less remunerative. The herds of horses were a further excellent source of income, for they could be sold to the Song, who had no horses. Then, from 1004 onward, came the tribute payments from China, strengthening the interest in the maintenance of peace. Thus great wealth accumulated in Peking, the capital of the Liao; in this wealth the whole Khitan ruling class participated, but the tribes in the north, owing to their remoteness, had no share in it. In 988 the Chinese began negotiations, as a move in their diplomacy, with the ruler of the later realm of the Xia; in 990 the Khitan also negotiated with him, and they soon became a third partner in the diplomatic game. Delegations were continually going from one to another of the three realms, and they were joined by trade missions. Agreement was soon reached on frontier questions, on armament, on questions of demobilization, on the demilitarization of particular regions, and so on, for the last thing anyone wanted was to fight.

Chinese Song Dynasty Tribute to the Khitans

As a result of the Treaty of Shanyuan in 1005, the Liao received an annual payment of a hundred thousand taels of silver and two hundred thousand bolts of silk from Song China. In 1042, the amount increased to two hundred taels of silver and three hundred thousand bolts of silk. A silver ingot from the Song dynasty, dated to the 11th or early 12th century and measuring 14.8-x-9 centimeters, was found in Dayingzi Rural Area, Linxi County, Inner Mongolia. “This silver ingot has an inscription engraved in Chinese on one side, part of which reads ‘forty-nine taels and seven,’ referring to the weight of the ingot. The ingot is most likely an example of the tribute items presented by the Song dynasty to the Liao empire. [Source: Cultural Relics Management Institute of Linxi County, Asia Society]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: The policy of nonintervention in the north was endurable even when peace with the Khitan had to be bought by the payment of an annual tribute. From 1004 onwards, 100,000 ounces of silver and 200,000 bales of silk were paid annually to the Khitan, amounting in value to about 270,000 strings of cash, each of 1,000 coins. The state budget amounted to some 20,000,000 strings of cash. In 1038 the payments amounted to 500,000 strings, but the budget was by then much larger. One is liable to get a false impression when reading of these big payments if one does not take into account what percentage they formed of the total revenues of the state. The tribute to the Khitan amounted to less than 2 per cent of the revenue, while the expenditure on the army accounted for 25 per cent of the budget. It cost much less to pay tribute than to maintain large armies and go to war. Financial considerations played a great part during the Song epoch. The taxation revenue of the empire rose rapidly after the pacification of the south; soon after the beginning of the dynasty the state budget was double that of the Tang. If the state expenditure in the eleventh century had not continually grown through the increase in military expenditure—in spite of everything!—there would have come a period of great prosperity in the empire. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Qara-Kitai: 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 +]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Then came the rising of the tribes of the north. They had remained military tribes; of all the wealth nothing reached them, and they were given no military employment, so that they had no hope of improving their position. The leadership was assumed by the tribe of the Juchen (1114). In a campaign of unprecedented rapidity they captured Peking, and the Liao dynasty was ended (1125), a year earlier, as we know, than the end of the Song. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

A small troop of Liao, under the command of a member of the ruling family, fled into the west. They were pursued without cessation, but they succeeded in fighting their way through. After a few years of nomad life in the mountains of northern Turkestan, they were able to gain the collaboration of a few more tribes, and with them they then invaded western Turkestan. There they founded the "Western Liao" state, or, as the western sources call it, the "Qara-Kitai" (Kara-Kitai) state, with its capital at Balasagun. This state must not be regarded as a purely Khitan state. The Khitan formed only a very thin stratum, and the real power was in the hands of autochthonous Turkish tribes, to whom the Khitan soon became entirely assimilated in culture. Thus the history of this state belongs to that of western Asia, especially as the relations of the Qara-Kitai with the Far East were entirely broken off. In 1211 the state was finally destroyed.

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. +

Khitan Archaeology

Archeological sites associated with the empire, which include two capitals, are located mostly in Inner Mongolia. Jake Hooker wrote in Archaeology magazine, “The Liao Empire was once considered a minor state on the fringes of Chinese civilization. Chinese-language sources depicted the Khitan as barbarians; Western scholars, who hadn't seen much material evidence other than Liao pagodas, regarded the dynasty as esoteric. But discoveries in Inner Mongolia over the past three decades have prompted scholars to reconsider these views, and Liao society is now recognized as a sophisticated blend of Khitan and Chinese traditions. [Source:“Dynasty of Nomads” by Jake Hooker, Archaeology magazine, Volume 60 Number 6, November/December 2007 -]

“In 2003, archaeologists found a woman buried in a Liao-era tomb with a headdress similar to those worn by modern shamans. Before recent archaeological work, Liao history could only be reconstructed from Chinese-language sources. The Liao dynastic history describes the outlines of Liao culture in terms that Chinese historians could fathom — the economy, the government bureaucracy, the size and force of the cavalry, the number of vassal states. Other Chinese chronicles gave sketches of life and customs in Liao society, but they did not anticipate the profound impact that Liao innovations would have on China. -

“Scholars agree Liao rulers adapted Chinese customs and traditions over time. They governed the sedentary Chinese population with a civil bureaucracy modeled on the earlier Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907): they wore Chinese dress on ceremonial occasions, built Chinese-style temples and pagodas that surpassed those built by Chinese empires, and adopted the dragon as a sacred emblem. Yet the Liao also followed the traditions of their nomadic culture. They continued to practice shamanism, and on the day of the winter solstice, they slaughtered a white sheep, a white horse, and a white goose. The Liao worshiped the mountains, the sun, and the moon, as well as the Buddha. -

“Chinese literati, living in some of the world's most cosmopolitan cities, did not understand these native customs, and sometimes their observations were insulting. One Chinese writer witnessed the preparation of the second Liao emperor Deguang's corpse after he died in battle, in A.D. 946. The intestines were removed and the body was filled with salt and fragrant herbs, then the arms and feet were wrapped in copper wire. The Chinese writer called the preserved remains "imperial dried meat." "It goes without saying that Chinese and Khitan were hostile to each other," Tala, the chief archeologist in China working at Khitan sites, says. "How can people who eat grass conquer we who eat grain? How can people who wear animal pelts compare to we who wear clothes?” -

Liao-Era Tombs in Northern China

In 2017 Archaeology magazine reported: “Archaeologists in the northern Chinese city of Datong have completed excavations of a circular tomb dating to the Liao Dynasty (A.D. 907–1125) believed to belong to a husband and wife. An urn with cremated human remains was found in the middle of the tomb. The tomb’s walls feature four vividly colored mural panels that depict cranes, servants, and many articles of dress. The degree of preservation has impressed researchers. In the mural on the west wall, garments colored sky-blue, beige, bluish-gray, yellowish-brown, and pink hang from two clothing stands. One item has a green diamond pattern, with a small red flower that can still be made out at the middle of each diamond. [Source: Daniel Weiss, Archaeology magazine, July-August 2017]

On a discovery ca;;ed the Tomb of the Jealous Dog. Archaeology magazine said: “Archaeologists have uncovered a Liao Dynasty (A.D. 907–1125) brick tomb in Datong City in northern China’s Shanxi Province. The tomb had been looted, but only valuable, portable artifacts were taken, which left its remarkable wall paintings intact. The murals cover more than 160 square feet and depict constellations, wooden architecture, travel, and daily life. One panel shows servants standing around an empty bed while a cat plays with a silk ball and a dog, to the right, looks on, perhaps a bit jealously. [Source: Jarrett A. Lobell, Archaeology magazine, March-April 2015]

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.

Last updated August 2021

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