the Khitans

The Khitans (in Chinese: Qìdān 契丹; in Korean: Georan) were a nomadic para-Mongolic people, originally from Mongolia and Manchuria, appearing in historical records well before the Táng. The original ethnic centre of the Khitans seems to have been Inner Mongolia. The Khitans were one of the foremost steppe peoples, and exerted enormous influence on northern and Inner Asia until the 13th century, yet they are very little known outside of the restricted circle of people interested in East Asian history. The current name of China in several languages stems from the name of the Khitans (e.g., Bulgarian and Russian: Китай; Kazakh: Қытай; Mongolian: Хятад), as well as the ancient name of 'Cathay' formerly used in most European languages (see my earlier post about Bento de Góis). This is testament to their importance at the time.

Under the Táng, the Khitans were vassals to either the Táng or the Türks, depending on the balance of power between the two, or to the Uyghurs when the latter replaced the Türks as the main steppe power.

After the Ān Lùshān Rebellion (755-763), the Khitans did not take advantage of the weakening of the Táng but remained peaceful vassals of the Uyghurs. In 916, in the interregnum between the Táng and Sòng dynasties, the Khitan khan Ābǎojī (阿保機) declared himself emperor; for the very first time in their history, the Khitans became a united nation. In 926, the Khitans conquered much of the northernmost part of Ancient Korea, and absorbed it into their empire. In 935, the Khitans conquered the so-called 'Sixteen Prefectures' (which correspond to the province named 'Liáo' on the map on p28 of The Celestial Empire). In 947, the Khitan Empire adopted Buddhism as its state religion and a Chinese-like strong central government, and was re-named the Liáo Dynasty (Liáo Cháo 遼朝). The Khitan script was modelled in imitation of the shape of Chinese characters. At its height, the Liáo Empire stretched from Manchuria in the east to the Tarim Basin in the west. To the people along the Silk Road, the Khitan Empire was "China", since all the Chinese goods they saw came from it — hence the naming patterns for 'China' mentioned in the introduction of this post.

Although they had become Sinicised and had adopted a Chinese-style government for their sedentary subjects, the Khitans did maintain part of their nomadic lifestyle: the court of the Liáo emperor moved between its various capitals; rather than build palaces, the nobles lived in luxurious tents. Contention over succession was resolved amongst brothers by violence, nomad-style.

the Sòng and Liáo Empires

From its very beginning, the Sòng Dynasty was hostile to the Liáo, and used military force in an attempt to recapture the Sixteen Prefectures. However, Sòng forces were repulsed by the Liáo forces who engaged in aggressive yearly campaigns into northern Sòng territory until 1005 when the signing of the Chányuān Treaty ended these northern border clashes. The Sòng were forced to provide a yearly tribute to the Khitans of 100,000 ounces of silver and 200,000 bolts of silk. These border clashes feature prominently in the Míng novel the Water Margin (chapters 83-89 of the 100-chapter version).

The Sinicised Khitan Empire of the Liáo remained a major player in north-east Asia until 1125, when it was defeated and destroyed by the Jurchens (see p30 of TCE). Most relics of the Khitan culture were destroyed when the Liáo Empire fell. Tombs were disinterred in acts of revenge by the Jurchens, which had been oppressed during the Khitan reign.

The remnants of the Liáo Dynasty escaped the area towards the Western Regions (Xīyù 西域), establishing the short-lived Kara-Khitan Khanate, which fell to the Mongols in 1218. That was the end of the Khitans. No later people has been established as their descendents, and their language also died out.

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