A Liao Dynasty marble Amitabha Buddha from Hebei, in the Northern Qi style (Cernuschi Museum, Paris)
The Khitan adopted a Chinese name for their dynasty and Chinese reign titles and temple names for their emperors, built a Chinese-style capital city, and devised a Chinese-influenced administrative system and written scripts. Thus, they governed in their traditional domains and in the territories they occupied in China for about two centuries. By the middle of the tenth century, the Khitan, with a population of about 750,000, directly ruled about two and a half million Chinese and traded, had diplomatic relations, were was in touch with a China whose population numbered in the tens of millions. How did they retain their identity and remain under their own dynasty and leadership with so much exposure to and adoption of many features of Chinese civilization? How did they resist assimilation?
Expansion of Khitan Territory
The Khitan’s relations with China, though initially hostile, eventually bolstered their self-image and contributed to the preservation of their identity. By 926, Abaoji crushed and occupied the Bohai Kingdom (in Manchuria), which China had perceived as a vassal state. Twelve years later, his immediate successor gained control over the Sixteen Prefectures of China, including modern Beijing. In 947, his troops ventured as far south as the Yellow River, briefly occupying the city of Kaifeng. However, the Khitan had overstretched their supply lines and could not maintain their hold over a region so distant from their base. They abandoned the city, but not before the Emperor adopted the Chinese name of Liao for his dynasty. The Longxu Emperor (r. 982-1021) turned his attention to Korea, and in 994, after several Khitan military expeditions, the Kingdom of Koryo accepted a status as a vassal of the Liao. Meanwhile the Song Dynasty reunified China in 960, fifty-years after the collapse of the Tang Dynasty.
After a period of initial resistance, the Song achieved a rapprochement with the Liao court, thus offering prestige to the Khitan emperors. The second Song emperor led an abortive attempt to recover the Sixteen Prefectures, but after this failure, the Song began to reevaluate its policies toward its northern neighbors. Analyzing the reasons for the collapse of the Tang dynasty, Song officials concluded that its predecessor had expanded beyond the Chinese cultural frontiers, in part precipitating its fall. By adding these new territories, the Tang found itself ruling over troublesome and restive non-Chinese peoples and incurring enormous expenses in attempting to maintain its empire. Wars and vast expenditures ensued, undermining the Tang’s finances and economy. Thus, in order to avoid the fate of the Tang Dynasty, the Song determined to be a “lesser empire.” It would not seek to annex foreign territories nor would it maintain as large a military force as the Tang. By deemphasizing the use of the military, the Song laid the foundation for a peaceful relationship with its northern neighbors, including the Liao.
To further this objective, the Song negotiated the Treaty of Shanyuan (1005) with the Liao, an agreement (in the form of “sworn letters” dispatched by the two emperors) that would have significant ramifications for both sides. By signing the Treaty, the Song accorded diplomatic parity to the Liao. The Song emperors would now address the Liao rulers as equals, a challenge to the traditional system of Chinese foreign relations which assumed that the Son of Heaven (i.e. the Emperor) was superior to all other rulers. The Song also committed itself to an annual payment of 200,000 bolts of silk and 100,000 taels of silver to the Liao. The agreement ensured relative peace and stability for the Song and permitted it to focus on technological innovations and economic growth.
Coexistence with the Liao proved beneficial and contributed to what some scholars have labeled a Song technological and economic revolution. The Song witnessed the development of a substantial iron industry, a profusion of inventions in agriculture and navigation, an increase in population and an ensuing accelerated pace of urbanization, and a cultural efflorescence in painting, porcelain production, literature, and philosophy. Peace along its northern frontiers allowed greater Song investment in the economy and was one factor in these remarkable economic and cultural developments.