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)



Several of the Liao’s policies also diverged from traditional Chinese practices and beliefs and thus charted out a unique identity. First, unlike the Confucian scholar-official class, the Khitan supported merchants and commerce. Traditional Confucians considered trade to be a parasitic pursuit, but the Khitan, whose nomadic pastoral economy required the exchange of goods, had a much more favorable attitude toward merchants. They developed extensive commercial networks, trading with the Song, the Tungusic peoples, Koryo, the Tangut of northwest China, and with regions as far away as Central Asia. They provided horses, sheep, furs, carpets, lumber, and slaves to the Song and received silver, silk, tea, and gold and silver ornaments in return. Other trading partners offered the Khitan ginseng, jade, and cotton cloth, among other goods.

Second, the Liao elites adopted Chinese religions, particularly Buddhism, but they did not abandon traditional beliefs. The Liao Emperors provided funds for the construction of monasteries and temples and for the printing of texts. To be sure, Buddhism influenced their views and their funerary practices. However, they also maintained practices associated with divination and shamanism, some of which the State sponsored. Even as they adopted Chinese-style ancestral rituals, they made offerings of deer meat rather than the traditional fruits and grains.

Third, although Buddhism inspired some of their art works (which were often produced by Chinese craftsmen), the Khitan also valued objects that reflected and glorified their nomadic pastoral heritage. They commissioned artisans to produce elaborately designed and often gold-encrusted saddles, stirrups, boots, funerary urns in the form of tents, and amulets, among the many objects that evoked their love of horses and other animals.

Fourth, the Khitans’ development of two written scripts reflected still another means of differentiating themselves from the traditional Chinese dynasties.