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China History Liao Dynasty
916 --- 1125
The Liao Dynasty was a regime established by the Khitan tribe (Qidan).
The Khitan ethnic group 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 7th Century they sought to establish their own state on China's frontier but failed due to the strong resistance of the Tang (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 which brought a rapid increase in 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 located his capital north of the Xar Moron River and named it Huangdu (Imperial Capital).

Notes: In 947, Emperor Taizong renamed his dynasty the "Great Liao". In 983, Emperor Shengzong revived the name Khitan. In 1066, Emperor Daozong restored the name the "Great Liao".

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

The Emperor Taizong (Yelu Deguang), reigned from 926 to 947. During this period, the Liao Dynasty expanded into territory which reached from the Mongolian border and into Manchuria together with the sixteen prefectures below the Great Wall. This area south of the Great wall was to remain outside Chinese control for more than 400 years. This posed a dangerous threat to the Northern Song (960 -1127). However, the region acted as a centre for the mutual exchange of culture between the Chinese and the northern peoples during this period.

After obtaining the sixteen prefectures, the Liao founded its alternate capital in Yanjing on the site of modern Beijing. Taking Beijing as their base, the Liao began its expansion to the Central Plains. In 946 they 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.

After the Emperor Taizong, political disputes troubled the Liao court until the reign of Emperor Jinzong.

Upon the death of Emperor Jinzong, his son, 12-year-old Yelu Longxu historically known as Emperor Shengzong succeeded to the Throne. As the new emperor was too young to conduct the state affairs, the court was actually under the control of Empress Xiao, his mother. Empress Xiao, appointing Yelu Xiuge as her senior general, launched a war and defeated the Song army in 987. From then on, the warfare between the two countries never stopped.

In 1104, Liao launched a war again and in the next year, tired of the ceaseless skirmishes with the nomad 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 relations between the Song and the Liao. The signing of the Shanyuan Treaty was the first time that the Liao forced the Song, who considered themselves the natural heirs to political dominance as the Central Kingdom, to recognize their legitimacy. After many years of fighting with one another, the Song and the Liao finally decided to negotiate peace, which was achieved through the Shanyuan Treaty. This 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 one of purely political rivalry to a supposedly fraternal one. For the first time in Chinese history there were two Sons of Heaven, each recognizing the other.

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

Political System

The dynasty claimed to be the legitimate successors of the Tang. They incorporated their 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. That is, different systems were applied to people from different cultures and economies in different areas. The system of administration mainly consisted of the tribal system, the slavery system, the Bohai system, and the feudal system which was for the Han people.

For Khitan people, tribal system was adapted, in which they maintained their traditional rites and to a great extent retained their own style of cuisine and clothing. And for Han people, particularly in the farming region, the system established under the Tang was used. This included the use of Tang official titles, an examination system for the appointment of the civil service and a Chinese style tax regime. The Chinese language continued to be used and the customs of the Han were kept.

Officials of that time were divided into two groups according to where they came from (the north or the south). Corresponding administration systems were set up for each area. The Khitan administrative system, called the orthodox system, was applied to Khitan officials who were called northern officials, while the Han administrative system was applied to the Han officials, who were called southern officials. Because of 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 the Han people resided. As the Liao Dynasty was founded by the Khitan, the northern officials were superior in status to their southern counterparts. But the southern administrative system was actually the feudal system that used to be practiced in the Central Plain states. After the Liao conquered the sixteen prefectures in the Yanyun area, this system was further 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, so its development remained slow and disrupted. It was not until the reign of Emperor Shengzong when the Liao managed to institute feudal reform, its economy attained some distinct progress. The Liao rulers also adopted a differential economic management system, similar to its political one. This system promoted the 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. Those engaged in agriculture were mostly the Han people who lived in the southern area and the Bohai people who lived in the eastern area. The nomadic zone consisted of various northern grassland nationalities and the fishing-hunting zone 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 a political system sped up communication between different nationalities and promoted a higher level economic development. The southern economy, which had been feudal for a long time, dominated the whole economy.

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

The Liao honored Confucian philosophy but the rulers patronized Chinese Buddhism. The Khitan dialect and the Han language were the main languages used by the Liao.

Collapse of the Liao Dynasty

After the prosperity enjoyed during the reigns of Emperor Shengzong and Xingzong, the Liao Dynasty went into a 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 their own dynasty 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 so as to attack the Liao. This was doubtless an alliance that the Song were to come to regret as the Jurchen later defeated the Song and established themselves 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, reestablished 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 with nine emperors occupying the throne. At the height of its power and influence, its territory reached the coast of the Northern Sea, the Eastern Sea, the Yellow Sea and the Bohai Sea in the east, the Jinshan (now the Altai Mountain) and Liusha (now the Bailongdui Desert in Xinjiang) in the west, the Kelulun, the E'erkun and the 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.

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