China's Liao Dynasty

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

A Chinese dynasty and kingdom existed roughly in parallel to the better-known Song Dynasty, but this one ruled by the nomadic Khitans. A fascinating essay on governance, international relations, technology and exchange in China and its northern frontiers from 907–1123.

The Liao dynasty (907–1125) of China and its successor, the Western Liao (1124–1211), were founded by the Khitan, a proto-Mongol people who were originally nomadic pastoralists residing in modern Inner Mongolia, Mongolia, Manchuria, and perhaps as far north as Lake Baikal, in modern-day Russia. Mentioned in the Chinese sources as early as the fourth century, C.E., the Khitan, like other pastoral nomads, depended largely on their animals for survival, though a few tribes supplemented their incomes by fishing and farming. Their reliance on animals in regions plagued by high winds and considerable snow and ice made them vulnerable to their capricious environment. A devastating winter could lead to the deaths of many of their animals. In those circumstances, China often provided a safety net by permitting the pastoral nomads to trade for such necessities as grain and craft articles and such luxuries as silk and tea. On the other hand, when China was disunited, its northern pastoral neighbors would, on occasion, capitalize on its weakness to annex Chinese territories.

The Khitan and the Formation of the Liao Dynasty

Indeed, the Khitan sought to take advantage of the turbulence following the collapse of the Tang dynasty (619–907). Having been influenced by the Uyghurs, the first of the pastoral peoples of Mongolia to build a capital city and to devise an administrative system, they had begun to shift from a tribal organization to a larger confederation. They became intent on ruling rather than plundering the territories they occupied in China. By 938, when China was still disunited, the Khitan had wrested control over Sixteen Prefectures, including the area of modern Beijing.

Even earlier, they had manifested their desire to govern the Chinese regions they had seized and to establish a true dynasty. In 907, their ruler Abaoji proclaimed himself Khaghan (“Great Khan”) of a Khitan confederation, and within a decade he adopted a Chinese title, Shenze, for his reign. Khitan precedent dictated elections every three years for a new ruler, but Abaoji rejected that custom and instead sought to impose a hereditary rather than a tribal or elective system of succession. He overwhelmed opposition to his plan and retained power for almost two decades, setting a precedent for a Chinese-like system, which, however, continued to be contested. To bolster his legitimacy and to indicate his intent to rule both sedentary agricultural and mobile pastoral societies, he began to construct a capital city in 918. Although the capital, known by the Chinese name Huangdu (later changed to Shangjing) was based in modern Inner Mongolia, not at that time part of China, it signaled a change in his conception of governance. He now attempted to rule the sedentary population in his domains from a stationary site, with a regular administration. Inhabitants could count on relatively fixed and stable taxes rather than irregular and perhaps capricious demands. They could also rest assured that the government would not expropriate their farm land and convert it to pasture.

Development of written scripts marked still another change for Khitan society. As the Khitan envisioned rule rather than plunder of subjugated domains, they recognized the need for a written language for their proto-Mongol spoken language (which also incorporated Tungusic words). They developed both a large script and a small script, each of which has similarities to Chinese characters. Neither has been fully deciphered, somewhat restricting knowledge of their society. Yet their creation of these scripts reveals recognition of new responsibilities incurred with annexation of new lands and the need to govern them.

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.

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.

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.

Fall of the Khitan Liao

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

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.

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