The Khitan People: Nomadic Tribe, Chinese Dynasty, Lost to the Mongols
The Khitan people were a nomadic tribe that lived in Manchuria, in the northeastern part of China. Towards the end of the 9th century AD, the Khitan people emerged as a powerful force in the northern part of China and even managed to establish their own dynasty, the Liao Dynasty. Khitan domination of northern China lasted for about two centuries.
During the 12th century AD, the Liao Dynasty was toppled by the Jurchens. The defeated Khitans fled to the west, where they established the Kara Khitai, or Western Liao Dynasty. This state, however, was short-lived, falling to the Mongols during the 13th century. The Khitans assimilated with the local Turkic and Iranian peoples and eventually their culture was lost.
Liao Dynasty (907-1125) tomb mural by unknown painter in Inner Mongolia. Scene of everyday life for Khitan people. Men and boys have the distinctive Khitan hairstyle. (Public Domain)
History of Khitan People – Their Uncertain Origins
It is unclear as to the origins of the Khitan people. References to this tribe can be found in traditional Chinese sources dating back to the 4th century AD. The Chinese scholars who wrote about the Khitans, however, did not care too much about this tribe and merely reported that they were the offspring of the Xianbei, a major nomadic tribe in the north of China.
Between the 4th and 6th centuries AD, China was undergoing a period of fragmentation, and various smaller states emerged. Initially, the Khitans paid tribute to the Northern Yan, a state during the Sixteen Kingdoms period. When this state fell to the Northern Wei, the Khitan people presented tribute to the new ruler. Eventually, China was re-unified under the Sui Dynasty, and the Khitans submitted to the emperors of that dynasty.
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Khitan people using eagles to hunt. (Public Domain)
Life for the Khitan Under the Sui and Tang Dynasties
The Sui Dynasty, however, did not last long, and was soon replaced by the Tang Dynasty. The Khitans entered into the service of the Tang emperors during the early years of the dynasty. During the first half of the 7th century, the Khitans were unified under the Dahe family and were given some administrative roles. For example, the prefecture of Liaozhou was established in 619 AD and indirectly ruled by the Tang court through Khitan chiefs.
Relations between the Khitan people and their Tang overlords, however, soon turned sour. The first rebellion by the Khitans took place between 656 AD and 661 AD. Another rebellion, led by Li Jinzhong and Sun Wanrong, broke out in 696 AD. The Tang forces were defeated by the Khitans at Yingzhou, and the former adopted the title ‘Supreme Qagan’ after this victory. Li Jinzhong, however, died suddenly, and the rebellion was put down by the Tang Dynasty.
Khitan horsemen. (Yprpyqp/CC BY SA 4.0)
The Khitans continued their service under the Tang Dynasty more or less until the end of the 8th century AD. During this time, the Uighurs rose to power, and came to dominate the western part of the steppes. As a result, the Khitans fell under their power. The Uighurs, however, were defeated around the middle of the 9th century AD and fled westwards. The Tang Dynasty was in decline as well and would itself come to an end during the early years of the 10th century AD. It was around this time that the Khitans rose to power and founded their own imperial dynasty.
The Khitan Empire and Their Relations with the Song Dynasty
In 907 AD, a Khitan ruler by the name of Abaoji became the new qagan of the Khitans. The founding of the Liao Dynasty has been traditionally been dated to this year. About a decade later, Abaoji united the Khitan tribes and proclaimed himself emperor. Abaoji adopted certain Chinese practices that he felt were beneficial for the Khitans. For instance, a script, based on the Chinese Han script, was developed for the Khitan language, whilst the Chinese administrative structure was maintained.
Khitan inscription dated 1058 (清寧四年) found in Dornogovi. Written in Khitan in the large script of the Khitan language. (Yastanovog/CC BY SA 4.0)
Whilst the Khitans dominated the north, a native Han dynasty, the Song, was established in 960 AD. Relations between the Liao and the Song were initially cordial but soon deteriorated and war between the two broke out.
A turning point occurred in 1004, when an imperial expedition to the south was launched by the Liao emperor, which resulted in the signing of the Chanyuan Treaty in January of the following year. This treaty was a humiliation for the Song, as they were required to pay an annual tribute to the Khitans. Nevertheless, it was due to the Chanyuan Treaty that peace was maintained between the two powers for 120 years.
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A Khitan man. (Yprpyqp/CC BY SA 4.0)
Khitan Power and Culture Get Crushed
In 1125 AD, the Song stopped paying tribute to the Khitans. Instead, they combined forces with the Jurchens, another nomadic tribe, to attack them. The Liao Dynasty was crushed and replaced by the Jurchen Jin Dynasty. One of the Khitan chiefs, Yelu Dashi, succeeded in fleeing westwards with several thousand Khitans, where he founded the Kara Khitai, or Western Liao Dynasty. This dynasty, however, did not last for long and fell to the Mongols in the following century.
The Khitans eventually disappeared from history, as those who fled westwards with Yelu Dashi were absorbed by the local Turkic and Iranian populations. Nevertheless, the name of this tribe has been preserved linguistically. In the English language, for instance, China was known for a long time as ‘Cathay’, whilst the Russians still refer to the Middle Kingdom as ‘Kitai’.
Death masks, Khitan people, northern China and Inner Mongolia, Liao dynasty, c. 1000 AD, left copper, right silver - Östasiatiska museet, Stockholm. (CC0)
Top image: Wooden funerary figurines of Khitan people returning from a hunt. Liao dynasty (907–1125). Held at the Capital Museum, Beijing. (BabelStone/CC BY SA 3.0) Background: Stone tablet with fake epitaph inscription in the Khitan Large Script. Held at the Nationalities Museum of the Inner Mongolia University, but not on official display. It is an almost complete copy of the Epitaph for the Princess of Yongning Commandery (永寧郡公主墓誌銘) of 1092. (BabelStone/CC BY SA 3.0)
By Wu Mingren
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