Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

China's Liao Dynasty

A Liao Dynasty marble Amitabha Buddha from Hebei, in the Northern Qi style (Cernuschi Museum, Paris)

A Liao Dynasty marble Amitabha Buddha from Hebei, in the Northern Qi style (Cernuschi Museum, Paris)


Preservation of Khitan Identity: Administration, Life-Style, Trade and Religion
The Liao also benefited from the new relationship with the Song. Treatment as equals by the most powerful dynasty in East Asia bolstered the Khitan image. They could borrow Chinese institutions and practices without starting to lose their own identity. Recognizing that they needed such institutions to govern their Chinese domains, they selectively adopted Tang dynasty institutions, but without totally abandoning their own system of governance. They maintained a balance between the Chinese institutions and their own more rudimentary administrative structure, choosing what they perceived to be the most useful or appealing Chinese practices.

Establishment of a dual administration was thus a second means of preserving their identity. Two governments ruled from the Supreme Capital. The northern government, manned by Khitan officials, dealt principally with the mostly pastoral peoples of the steppes, while the southern administration, staffed mainly by Chinese officials, governed the mostly sedentary agricultural society with agencies and institutions familiar to the mostly Chinese inhabitants. The Khitan eventually constructed five capitals, with four of them administering local regions within the Liao domains. Although the Khitan were the first semi-nomadic people to build cities in the Mongol steppelands, the dual administration permitted the Khitan in the north to maintain their traditional lifestyles as stockbreeders.

The means of selection of the ruling families furthered the Khitan efforts to retain their identity. The Khitan were divided into two main clans, the Yelu and the Xiao: the Yelu clan supplied the Emperors but was limited to consorts from the Xiao clan. The ruling emperors could not marry women from the Chinese, Tungusic, Uyghur, or other foreign communities that the Khitan had subjugated. The purity of the Imperial family was thus assured.

Liao political culture differed somewhat from the Chinese model. At least three Liao empresses had tremendous power and often decided on court policies, a distinct deviation from Chinese practices, in which strong women who sought to play political roles, such as Empress Wu of the Tang dynasty, were reviled. The authority and status of ordinary Khitan women are not known, but some elite women had more power than their Chinese peers.

Although the imperial family enjoyed opulent lifestyles in the palaces built in the various capitals, they persisted, both symbolically and in practice, in maintaining their links to their pastoral nomadic heritage. The Chinese chronicles indicate that the Liao emperors periodically moved from one capital to another and one site to another, continuing the Khitan legacy of mobility. Even after the construction of elaborate palaces, the emperors and their retinues, on occasion, slept in tents. It may be that this supposed link was a gesture and perhaps artificial. Nonetheless, the courts appeared to have felt duty-bound to share the traditional lifestyles of their people. A likelier and more heart-felt link to their heritage was the emperors’ repeated organization of hunts and other outings, a standard activity in Khitan society designed both to obtain food and to sustain proper rituals.