Fall of the Khitan Liao
A Liao Dynasty marble Amitabha Buddha from Hebei, in the Northern Qi style (Cernuschi Museum, Paris)
Liao’s inability to settle on a regular system of succession to the Imperial throne was a critical problem for their survival. In the Khitan pre-dynastic state, the tribal chiefs would convene and elect the next leader. The Chinese, however, favored a hereditary system. As a result, clashes repeatedly arose between different elite factions about the principles of succession. At the same time, conflicts reared up between the nomadic pastoral Khitan and the more sinicized Liao court elites. The traditional lifestyle was pitted against the increasingly Chinese values that began to characterize the Khitan in the south. These internal struggles weakened the Liao.
The dynasty’s neighbors and subordinates capitalized on such disharmony and the ensuing disarray at the Liao court. The Bohai people of Manchuria rebelled and sought assistance from the Jurchen, a Tungusic people who previously accepted the supremacy of the Liao. Aguda, a capable Jurchen military leader, challenged Liao control, and in 1115 proclaimed himself emperor of the Jin dynasty. The Song, renouncing the Treaty of Shanyuan, also attacked the Liao, but without much success. Nonetheless, these hostilities made the Liao vulnerable and facilitated the Jurchen’s final defeat of the dynasty in 1125.
The Khitan did not immediately disappear. Yelu Dashi, a descendant of the Imperial family, led remnants of the Khitan military and their families westward to modern Xinjiang and neighboring regions in Central Asia to found the Khara Khitai (in Chinese, Xi, or Western, Liao) dynasty, which survived until the Mongol conquest of 1211. Some capable Khitan officials who remained in China served later dynasties. Yelu Chucai (1189-1243), the most prominent such official, helped Chinggis Khan (r. 1206-1227) and his son and successor Ögödei (r. 1229-1241) devise institutions suitable for ruling China.
The Liao was the first foreign dynasty that sought to combine its traditional system of governance with the Chinese administrative structure. It succeeded for about two hundred years and served as a model for other foreigners, including the Mongols, who attempted to rule China.
Rossabi, Morris, ed. China among Equals. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
Shen Hsueh-man. Gilded Splendor: Treasures of China’s Liao Empire (907-1125). New York: Asia Society, 2006. This is the catalogue for the Asia Society’s ground-breaking exhibition on the Liao dynasty, which brought together recent archaeological finds from museums in Inner Mongolia that had never before been seen outside of China. Visit the exhibition website at http://www.asiasociety.org/arts/liao/
Tao Jingshen. Two Sons of Heaven: Studies in Sung-Liao Relations. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1988.
Wittfogel, Karl, and Feng Chia-sheng. History of Chinese Society: Liao, 907-1125. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1949.
Author: Morris Rossabi.