General Introduction to Liao Dynasty

Liao Dynasty The Liao Dynasty was a regime founded by an ethnic minority called the Qidan (Khitan) who lived in the northeast areas of China. In 916, a Qidan man named Yelu Abaoji established the Qidan Kingdom. Initially, the kingdom was under the slavery system. Till 947, the title of the kingdom was officially changed into Liao, with Balin Left Banner (in current Inner Mongolia) as its capital city. The territory of the Liao Dynasty mainly covered the northern part of China, with the estuary of the Amur River in the northeast, the middle part of Mongolia in the northwest, Tianjin and Hebei Province in the south.

 

Although it was originally known as the Empire of the Khitan, the Emperor Yelü Ruan officially adopted the name "Liao" (formally "Great Liao") in 947 (938?). The name "Liao" was dropped in 983, but readopted in 1066. Another name for China in English, Cathay, is derived from the name Khitan. This is also the origin of the Russian word for China, Китай or Kitay, and that of several other East European languages. The Liao Empire was destroyed by the Jurchen of the Jin Dynasty in 1125. However, remnants of its people led by Yelü Dashi established Xi (Western) Liao Dynasty 1125-1220, also known as Kara-Khitan Khanate, which survived until the arrival of Genghis Khan's unified Mongolian army.

 

Rise of Abaoji

From the 750s, a clan using the surname Yaolian had held the title of khan, holding a monopoly on power for more than one hundred fifty years. They had full relations with the Tang Dynasty court. The first Yaolian khan even had the imperial surname of Li bestowed upon him, though no one in the steppe bothered with it. Yaolian khans wavered from alliance with the Tang Dynasty to joining in with coalitions against it. During this period of time, only the Yaolian clan used a surname among the Khitan.

 

Liao administrative system

Abaoji introduced a revolutionary new system of governing both nomadic and sedentary populations simultaneously. His concept was to divide the empire into two sections called Chancelleries. The Northern Chancellery consisted of nomadic steppe peoples, including the Khitan and conquered steppe tribes. The Southern Chancellery, by contrast, included territories incorporated into Khitan domains that was populated by Chinese and the people of Balhae. The Northern Chancellery was run on a steppe military model. Abaoji was known as the Great Khan of the Northern Chancellery. The entire steppe population was constantly mobilized, ready for military action should it be required. The Khitan language, for which scripts were devised in 920 and 925, was the official language of the Northern Chancellery. The Xiao family, the consort family to the new imperial family, would govern the North.

 

Succession issues

Abaoji had named his eldest son, Prince Bei, heir apparent in 918. However, his widow, Empress Dowager Yingtian, was more of a traditionalist than her husband. Thus, she did not so readily accept the notion of primogeniture. She believed that her second son, Deguang, would have made a more appropriate Khitan emperor because he displayed the traditional traits deemed appropriate to steppe leadership. He was declared the successor to Abaoji while Prince Bei retained his title. Prince Bei later went to China, where he was assassinated in 936.

 

Law of Liao

Law in the Liao Dynasty was applied differently in the Northern and Southern Chancelleries. The Northern Chancellery, governed by the Xiao consort clan, retained a distinctive Khitan-steppe character. The Yelu clan, who governed the Southern Chancellery, were considerably more sinified in character. Initially, justice was not delivered in an even-handed fashion to the Chinese inhabitants of the empire. This is reported to having changed from 989. Beginning in 994, Khitans having committed one of ten grave crimes would be punished according to Chinese law. This is indicative of a transition from “ethnic law” to “territorial law.”

Liao acculturation

The level of sinification of the Khitan people has been debated. While it is clear that the ruling Yelu clan had been sinified to some extent, the bulk of the Khitan people seems to have resisted Chinese acculturation. The above resistance to the idea of primogeniture among the Khitan elite is only one indication of a resistance to Chinese acculturation. However, physical similarities aside, the cultural assimilation is clearly noted by the fact that Russian people who had established contact with the Khitan people, had in fact believed they've established contact with the Chinese people, and the name for "China" in the Russian language has always been "Китай", which is pronounced "kitai".

Decline of Liao Dynasty

The Qidan were a warlike people. Rulers of Liao attacked the Northern Song Dynasty many times, coveting Song territory in the central plain areas. However, due to the evenly matched military forces between Liao and Song, Liao did not finally realize its ambition. In 1005, Liao and Song signed the notable Tanyuan Treaty in Tanzhou (currently Puyang in Henan Province). After that, Liao kept a friendly relationship with Song for almost 120 years during which time the Liao society became more and more prosperous. The Liao Dynasty began to decline later because of the incompetence and tyranny of later rulers. In 1120, Song made an alliance with the newly founded Jin Dynasty and attacked the Liao Regime. Finally in 1125, the last emperor of Liao, Emperor Tianzuo, was captured by the Jin army ending the Liao Dynasty.