Liao Dynasty

Liao Dynasty

History of China

Liao Dynasty
Khitans hunting with birds of prey, 9–10th centuries ©Image Attribution forthcoming. Image belongs to the respective owner(s).
916 Jan 1 - 1125

Liao Dynasty

Bairin Left Banner, Chifeng, I

The Liao dynasty, also known as the Khitan Empire, was an imperial dynasty of China that existed between 916 and 1125, ruled by the Yelü clan of the Khitan people. Founded around the time of the collapse of the Tang dynasty, at its greatest extent it ruled over Northeast China, the Mongolian Plateau, the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, southern portions of the Russian Far East, and the northern tip of the North China Plain.


The dynasty had a history of territorial expansion. The most important early gains was the Sixteen Prefectures (including present-day Beijing and part of Hebei) by fueling a proxy war that led to the collapse of the Later Tang dynasty (923–936). In 1004, the Liao dynasty launched an imperial expedition against the Northern Song dynasty. After heavy fighting and large casualties between the two empires, both sides worked out the Chanyuan Treaty. Through the treaty, the Liao dynasty forced the Northern Song to recognize them as peers and heralded an era of peace and stability between the two powers that lasted approximately 120 years. It was the first state to control all of Manchuria.


Tension between traditional Khitan social and political practices and Han influence and customs was a defining feature of the dynasty. This tension led to a series of succession crises; Liao emperors favored the Han concept of primogeniture, while much of the rest of the Khitan elite supported the traditional method of succession by the strongest candidate. In addition, the adoption of Han system and the push to reform Khitan practices led Abaoji to set up two parallel governments. The Northern Administration governed Khitan areas following traditional Khitan practices, while the Southern Administration governed areas with large non-Khitan populations, adopting traditional Han governmental practices.


The Liao dynasty was destroyed by the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty in 1125 with the capture of the Emperor Tianzuo of Liao. However, the remnant Liao loyalists, led by Yelü Dashi (Emperor Dezong of Liao), established the Western Liao dynasty (Qara Khitai), which ruled over parts of Central Asia for almost a century before being conquered by the Mongol Empire. Although cultural achievements associated with the Liao dynasty are considerable, and a number of various statuary and other artifacts exist in museums and other collections, major questions remain over the exact nature and extent of the influence of the Liao culture upon subsequent developments, such as the musical and theatrical arts.

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