Liao Dynasty (907-1125) tomb mural by unknown painter in Inner Mongolia. Scene of everyday life. Men and boys have distinctive Khitan hairstyle. (Public Domain) Insert: A famous Liao Dynasty Sancai Luohan, Circa 1000

An Intriguing Empire: The Lasting Impression of the Nomadic Liao Dynasty on Chinese Culture

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Well-represented in artifacts found in museums and private collections, the Liao Dynasty rose and expanded as the Tang Dynasty dwindled in power. This was the first state to control all of Manchuria. Founded by nomads, this empire was defined by the tension that arose as its rulers decided when to follow traditional Khitan social and political practices and when to incorporate Chinese customs. Liao statuary art, music, and poetry had a major impact on subsequent cultures.

The Liao Dynasty (written in Simplified Chinese as 辽朝) was a state that ruled the northern part of China between the 10th and 11th centuries AD. This dynasty was known also as the Khitan Empire, which is named after the ethnic group that its rulers belonged to. The Liao Dynasty was founded following the collapse of the Tang Dynasty, and came to an end when it was destroyed by the Jurchens, who in turn established the Jin Dynasty.

Going out. Mural from a tomb in Aohan, Liao Dynasty.

Going out. Mural from a tomb in Aohan, Liao Dynasty. ( Public Domain )

The New Dynasty

The Khitans were a nomadic people who inhabited the northeastern part of Asia. The existence of this ethnic group has been known by the Chinese since at least the 4th / 5th century AD. Nevertheless, it was only with the establishment of the Liao Dynasty that the Khitan became a major figure in the history of China. The founder of the Liao Dynasty was Abaoji (who had a Sinicized name, Yelü Yi, and was posthumously known as Emperor Taizu of Liao).

During the early part of the 10th century AD, the Tang Dynasty was in turmoil. It came to an end in 907 AD, when the last Tang Emperor was deposed. In the central and southern parts of China, smaller states rose and fought each other for control over the country. This period was known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. By contrast, the Khitans went unchallenged in the north and the Liao Dynasty was founded by Abaoji. Traditionally, 907 AD is regarded as the beginning of the Liao Dynasty, though Chinese historians prefer the year 916 AD, as it was when Abaoji formally established himself as emperor.

Statue in Huairen County, Shanxi, China, commemorating Abaoji and Li Keyong's meeting in 907 AD. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Dual Government and Cultural Features

The subjects of the Liao Dynasty included the Khitan as well as Han Chinese. Therefore, the rulers of this dynasty decided to make use of two separate systems of governance. In the north, the Liao government was set up on a tribal basis, as their subjects were nomadic tribes. In the south, by contrast, their subjects were Han Chinese. Therefore, the government in this area was based on the administration of the Tang Dynasty, which the Chinese would have been more familiar with.

In terms of culture, the Liao Dynasty was strongly influenced by that of the Han Chinese. For instance, under Abaoji’s rule, an imperial academy called Guozijian was established for the purpose of disseminating the teachings of Confucius.

Geyuan Temple Wenshu Hall built in 966 is the oldest known extant Liao building.

Geyuan Temple Wenshu Hall built in 966 is the oldest known extant Liao building. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

In addition, the ruling class of the Liao Dynasty also studied Chinese customs, philosophy, and traditions. Nevertheless, the Khitan were wary that the absorption of Chinese administrative practices and culture could potentially erode their own ethnic identity. Therefore, the Khitan made an effort to maintain their unique identity. For example, the Khitan did not use the Han script, but devised a different writing system for their language.

Memorial for Yelü Yanning 耶律延寧 (946–986). Dated 986. Upper half written in Khitan Large Script in the Mongolic Khitan language, with 19 lines and 271 characters. Lower half in Chinese. Largely a summary of Yelu Yanning's merits and family associations. Found in 1964 at Baimu Mountain, Chaoyang County, Liaoning, China.

Memorial for Yelü Yanning 耶律延寧 (946–986). Dated 986. Upper half written in Khitan Large Script in the Mongolic Khitan language, with 19 lines and 271 characters. Lower half in Chinese. Largely a summary of Yelu Yanning's merits and family associations. Found in 1964 at Baimu Mountain, Chaoyang County, Liaoning, China. ( Public Domain )

The Reign of the Liao Empire

In 960 AD, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms came to an end with the founding of the Song Dynasty. The relationship between the Song and the Liao was initially a peaceful one. This relationship deteriorated over time, however, and eventually war broke out between the two states towards the end of the 10th century AD. The conflict between the Liao and Song Dynasties was settled in 1005 AD with the signing of the Chanyuan Treaty. As a result of this, the Song Dynasty was forced to pay an annual tribute to the Liao Dynasty.

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