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The origins and history of the Khitan


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#1 Guest_barbarian_*

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Posted 29 May 2004 - 09:59 AM

Who were the Khitan? Were they considered Mongols?

#2 General_Zhaoyun

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Posted 30 May 2004 - 01:10 AM

IMO, the Khitan were not considered part of the Mongols.

The Khitans (or "Qi Dan" in chnese) were a mongoloid ancient tribe that dwelled in the steppe of the Mongolia. They originated from one of the factions of the Xianbei (or Sianbei) tribe known as "Yu Wen", which was another ancient steppe tribe that influenced chinese history from 3rd to 5th centuary AD. During the Tang dynasty (Emperor Taizong's time around 630 AD), the Khitan was under the control from Tang, but the khitan fought several battles against the Tang, but the Tang, in allies with the Turks, defeated the Khitan.

In 10th century AD, the Tang, Turks and Uygurs declined, allowing the khitan a chance to revive. In 907 AD, the military chieftan of Khitan, Yelu Ahbao, gained control and proclaimed himself to be the Khitan Khan. He unified the 8 tribes of Khitan and in 916 AD, proclaimed himself as the Emperor and established the powerful Khitan Empire. Within 10 year's time, the khitan Empire expanded in Mongolia and North East China, thus becoming the most powerful empire in North China. His son, Yelu Deguang, further expanded the empire in north China, conquered the kingdom of "Late Jin" and in 947 AD, changed the country's name to "Liao" and had many chance of reaching into central China.

The Liao Dynasty lasted for 210 years and during this time, it formed a tri-political status with Northern Song and Western Xia dynasty in Chinese History.

In 1125, the Liao Empire was conquered by the new Jin Empire. Yelu DaShi fleed to the west to central asia and re-established the Liao, called "Western Liao". In 1219, the Western Liao was conquered by the Mongols.
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"夫君子之行:靜以修身,儉以養德;非淡泊無以明志,非寧靜無以致遠。" - 諸葛亮

One should seek serenity to cultivate the body, thriftiness to cultivate the morals. If you are not simple and frugal, your ambition will not sparkle. If you are not calm and cool, you will not reach far. - Zhugeliang

#3 Chinaconqueror

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Posted 30 May 2004 - 03:16 AM

In 1125, the Liao Empire was conquered by the new Jin Empire. Yelu DaShi fleed to the west to central asia and re-established the Liao, called "Western Liao". In 1219, the Western Liao was conquered by the Mongols.


Why was the Liao Empire conquered by the Jin? Were the Jin more powerful?

#4 Guest_chineseruler_*

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Posted 30 May 2004 - 04:23 AM

Why was the Liao Empire conquered by the Jin? Were the Jin more powerful?


It just so happened that Liao had been longtime feud with the Song. The Jin decided to conquer the Liao with the help of the Song, who allies with the Jin. With a combined force attacking from both north and south, the Liao could not well defend itself and thus collapse.

#5 Guest_genghis_*

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Posted 30 May 2004 - 05:40 AM

For hundreds of years, the Song Dynasty, built on top of Northern Zhou (AD 951-960) of the Cai(1) family, was engaged in the games of 'three kingdom' kind of warfares. Northern Song (AD 960-1127) would face off with the Western Xia (AD 1032-1227) and Khitan Liao in a triangle, and then played the card of allying with the Jurchens in destroying the Khitan Liao. With Northern Song defeated by the Jurchens thereafter, Southern Song (AD 1127-1279) would be engaged in another triangle game, with the other players being Western Xia and the Jurchen Jin. Southern Song would then play the card of allying with the Mongolians in destroying Jurchen Jin, and it even sent tens of thousands of carts of grain to the Mongol army in the besieging of the last Jurchen stronghold. Soon after than, the Southern Song generals broke the agreement with the Mongols and they shortly took over the so-called three old capitals of Kaifeng, Luoyang and Chang'an. But they could not hold on to any of the three because what they had occupied had been empty cities after years of warfare between the Jurchens and Mongols.

#6 Yihesan

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Posted 30 May 2004 - 11:28 AM

IMO, the Khitan were not considered part of the Mongols.

The Khitans, along with the Gumuoxi/Xi (Tataby), Dada (Tatar), Xianbei and Shiwei, were Mongolic. The "Mongols" of Chinggis Khaghan were originially one of the tribes of Shiwei.

#7 Yun

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Posted 28 June 2004 - 09:40 AM

I just watched a Chinese documentary that sought to uncover the riddle of what became of those Khitan who remained in north China after the Jurchen conquest (rather than fleeing west to establish the Karakhitai/Western Liao state). The Khitan seem to just vanish from Chinese history, unlike the Jurchen who resurfaced later as the Manchus. There's also a recent Chinese book (itself based on an episode in a documentary series) that I read, dealing with the same issue.

Well, DNA tests have now proven that the Daur 达斡尔 people of Inner Mongolia are descended from the Khitan. Fortunately, they could obtain Khitan DNA from a Liao dynasty female corpse found in a tomb last year. So thanks to modern genetics, the mystery of what happened to the Khitan is now at least partly solved.

However, there is also a community in Sichuan that claims to be descended from a Khitan nobleman who was sent to be an official there by the Yuan dynasty. In a dramatic and tragic twist, the man who was bringing the genealogy that contains evidence of this Khitan descent to the authorities, met with a car accident and drowned in a river, with the genealogy also being lost forever. Now, there are only photocopies of the genealogy left, and they cannot be tested for age to prove that they aren't forgeries. Research is still ongoing, including DNA testing.
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#8 DaMo

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Posted 28 July 2004 - 03:38 PM

I'd like directions to some solid sources on the origins of the people known as the Khitans, the ones who founded the Liao dynasty. Exactly who were they? Where did they come from, and of what cultural, linguistic and ethnic type were they? What contemporary people would they have been most closely related to? Do we have any decent portraits of Khitans? Who are their modern descendants, if any?
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#9 General_Zhaoyun

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Posted 28 July 2004 - 06:54 PM

The Khitan (chinese: Qidan 契丹) were an ancient nomadic people tha dwelled in north China and Mongolia area. They originated from Xianbei, and were originally one group from Yuwen Xianbei tribe (宇文鲜卑部). During the mid 4th century AD, the Yuwen tribe was defeated by the Murong tribe (幕容部) and the khitan was forced to flee north. Later the Khitan was attacked by the Tuoba tribe (拓跋部) and escaped towards Huang river region. During the northern dynasty period, the khitan was divided into 8 groups, always combining to defend themselves from Rouran, Gaoli (Koguryo) and Turk's (tujue) attack.

By Tang dynasty period, these 8 Khitan groups formed a tribal federation/alliance and submit themselves to Tang dynasty during Emperor Taizong's time. After about 40 years, the khitan chieftan, who was humiliated by one of the Tang's commander, rebelled against the Tang, but they were defeated by a combined forces of Tang and Turks. After that, the khitan was successively ruled by Tang, Turks, Uighur. By mid 9th century, the Turks and Uighurs declined and Tang grew weaker, while the khitan grew strong.

In 907 AD, Khitan chieftan Yelu Ahbao proclaimed Khitan Khaghan. After a successful military campaign, they unified the 8 groups of Khitan and defeated any resistance. In 916 AD, he proclaimed himself emperor and named his empire "Khitan". Within 10 years, through an aggressive military campaign, Ahbao unified Mongolia and north-east China, and making khitan a strong empire in the north. His son, Yelu Deguang continued the expansion and forced later Jin to give up its 16 provinces to Khitan. From then on, the khitan had access to inner China and could easily attack China.

In 947 AD, Yelu Deguang conquered Later Jin and changed the name of his empire to "Liao". The Liao dynasty lasted for 210 years, but in 1125 AD they were conquered by the Jurchen Jin empire. A large portion of Khitan submit to Jin dynasty, another portion of khitan migrated westwards to Kazakstan area and re-established the liao empire, called "Western Liao". In 1218, the Western Liao was conquered by the Mongols. By late Yuan dynasty period, most of the khitan had already mixed with the han-chinese, while a small faction mixed with the Mongols. The Western Liao, on the other hand, had mixed with the Uighurs. From then on, Khitan began to disappear from history.

The khitan, like the Xianbei, belonged to the turkic-altaic branch of linguistic family.
They look Mongoloid. Today, we do not have any direct descendents from Khitan, since they had already been mixed with the han-chinese, mongols as well as uighurs.
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"夫君子之行:靜以修身,儉以養德;非淡泊無以明志,非寧靜無以致遠。" - 諸葛亮

One should seek serenity to cultivate the body, thriftiness to cultivate the morals. If you are not simple and frugal, your ambition will not sparkle. If you are not calm and cool, you will not reach far. - Zhugeliang

#10 Yun

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Posted 28 July 2004 - 09:08 PM

There used to be a thread on this, but it seems to have been deleted. One good book in English that has a chapter on the Khitan (besides also covering the Xiongnu, Xianbei, Jurchen and Mongols) is "Empires Beyond the Great Wall": http://www.amazon.co...=books&n=507846

Another book that I have is in Chinese, bought in Shanghai last year and based on an excellent CCTV series. I'll start translating the book for you soon (it's not very long), but for now just let it be said that the closest living descendants of the Khitan has been proven from DNA testing to be the Da'ur nationality in Inner Mongolia.
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#11 General_Zhaoyun

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Posted 28 July 2004 - 09:51 PM

Why was that thread deleted?
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"夫君子之行:靜以修身,儉以養德;非淡泊無以明志,非寧靜無以致遠。" - 諸葛亮

One should seek serenity to cultivate the body, thriftiness to cultivate the morals. If you are not simple and frugal, your ambition will not sparkle. If you are not calm and cool, you will not reach far. - Zhugeliang

#12 General_Zhaoyun

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Posted 29 July 2004 - 03:13 AM

Oh.. Yun, you found the thread and merge it..
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"夫君子之行:靜以修身,儉以養德;非淡泊無以明志,非寧靜無以致遠。" - 諸葛亮

One should seek serenity to cultivate the body, thriftiness to cultivate the morals. If you are not simple and frugal, your ambition will not sparkle. If you are not calm and cool, you will not reach far. - Zhugeliang

#13 Yun

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Posted 29 July 2004 - 04:13 AM

Sorry, my mistake - the thread was still there, but it was pushed out of my window because only the threads started in the last 30 days were being displayed. I've now merged those two threads into one. Guys, if you find some earlier threads to be missing, just adjust the settings to display all the threads from the beginning of this forum.

My translation of "In Search of a Vanished People" 《追寻远逝的民族》, by Zhang Li 张力 (Changsha: Hunan Science and Technology Press 湖南科学技术出版社, 2003), will be serialised into five parts according to the five chapters of the book. The book itself is based on an episode in the CCTV Series "Journeys of Discovery" 《发现之旅》, which aired in 2001.

Chapter 1 - Emerging from the Depths of History

Strange characters from an ancient tomb

21 June 1922 was the Summer Solstice, Xiazhi 夏至 in the Chinese calendar - the day when the sun shines directly upon the Tropic of Cancer, producing the year's longest stretch of daylight in the Northern Hemisphere. It was a day for extraordinary happenings, it seems.

Early that morning, on the vast plains at Balin Youqi 巴林右旗 (the "Balin Right Banner") in Inner Mongolia, the herds of cattle and flocks of sheep were joined by a European in a black robe. He was no shepherd of sheep, but rather a "shepherd of men" - a Belgian missionary named Kervgn. Kervgn was in China to preach Roman Catholicism, but for some reason he had also developed a strong interest in the many ancient tombs in this area.

Balin Youqi is in the southeastern part of Inner Mongolia. Throughout history, many northern nomadic peoples have left their traces in the grasslands and mountains here - hunting, herding, having children, and nursing their wounds after battle. Many still lie buried here. "Balin" in Mongolian means "military camp". Centuries of weathering have taken their toll, but many ruins and tombs can still be seen today - including several tombs of Liao dynasty rulers from 800 years ago.

At Suoborigasumu 索博日嘎苏木 in Balin Youqi, there still stand the ruins of Qingzhou 庆州 city from the Liao dynasty, with the white pagoda rising from its northwestern corner being the most prominent testimony of that era. It is said that Qingzhou city was built for the purpose of guarding and making sacrifices at three Liao imperial tombs. Those three tombs are situated in the Greater Khingan range 大兴安岭, more than 10,000m north of the Qingzhou ruins, and are known as the Liao Qing tombs 辽庆陵. The sad thing is that shortly before Kervgn's arrival at Balin Youqi, tomb robbers had already looted everything from these tombs. Kervgn may even have been drawn here by news of the treasures that had been looted - curious to see if there was anything left to discover.

The white pagoda of Qingzhou:

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After a long search among the hills, Kervgn finally found a tomb of considerable size, implying that its occupant was a person of some great rank - perhaps even an emperor. The tomb had been forced open and looted, but something of value might still have been left behind. Kervgn entered the tunnel leading to the tomb. In contrast to the sunny day outside, the interior was dark, musty and cold. Kervgn lit a torch and gingerly made his way forward. But to his disappointment, the robbers seemed to have made a clean sweep, and the tomb was totally empty.

Just as he was leaving, however, he was almost tripped up by something on the ground. Squatting down, he put his torch to it and found it to be a stone stele, most of which was buried in the ground. The curious Belgian managed to dig it out after much effort, and was thrilled to see that inscribed on it were rows of characters that looked like a kind of language. The strokes and shape resembled Chinese, yet they were apparently not any Chinese characters that he recognised. Kervgn was baffled - he had some knowledge of Chinese culture, but had not yet learnt to read much Chinese. He hurried back to the nearby village, and brought a scholar with him to the tomb. To his surprise, the scholar could make no sense of the characters either - could they be some language not known to man?

Kervgn was convinced that God had led him to this tomb to reveal some great secret of the past. But to his dismay, the stele was too large and heavy to move out of the tomb - otherwise, the tomb robbers would already have made off with it. He thought of making a rubbing of the stele, but none of the nearby inhabitants knew how to make rubbings. In the end, he had to ask the village scholar to copy out the characters with ink and brush - a task that took five days. Kervgn then returned to Beijing with this copy.

Half a year later, the Bulletin Catholique de Pekin published an article on these characters, followed by the French academic journal on Far Eastern history, T'oung Pao 《通报》. The academic world began to debate and theorise regarding the origin of these strange characters, and how they could be interpreted.

A new language discovered

Although no one could decipher the strange characters for a long time, experts were sure that it was one of the written scripts that the nomadic peoples of the north had created based on the Chinese script. But there had been at least ten of these peoples - including the Xiongnu, Donghu, Xianbei, Turkut, Uyghur, Khitan, Tangut, Jurchen, Mongol and Manchu. Which of them had used this script?

Kervgn's discovery had been made in the tomb of a Liao ruler or noble - could this stele therefore be recording the events of that person's life? It was very likely then that the script was that used by that person's own people - the Khitan.

According to the "History of the Liao" (Liao Shi 《辽史》), the Khitan had created their own written language based on the Chinese written script after establishing their Liao dynasty in 916 AD. Unfortunately, except for some sketchy descriptions in the histories, no ancient book written in Khitan has survived to the present day. Even in the Ming dynasty, the Khitan written language had already died out and there was no one left who could read it. Since no one had ever seen written Khitan in 1922, how was one to be sure that the characters on the stele were indeed Khitan?

Scholars turned to an indirect process of elimination. They knew what the Mongol and Manchu written scripts looked like, and so these two were ruled out. Judging from the form of the characters, there was some resemblance to written Tangut and Jurchen, both of which had themselves been derived from Chinese characters. But Kervgn's characters were even older than the Jurchen written language, since the Jurchen had only created their written script after destroying the Liao dynasty.

The Tangut script was as old as these characters, but the Western Xia state founded by the Tangut had always been at war with the Liao, so how could there be a Tangut stele in a Liao tomb? Besides, research showed that the structure of Tangut characters differed from these characters in significant ways. This process of elimination removed most of the doubt that these characters were in the long-lost Khitan script.

This was certainly an exciting conclusion - what secrets about the Khitan, that ancient people as mysterious as their language, would this stele now reveal?

A people who rode in on the wind

The Khitan were in fact not unfamiliar at all to experts on Chinese history and the peoples of the north. As Chen Zhichao 陈智超, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), points out, "When European travellers first reached China by the overland route, they encountered the Liao dynasty of the Khitan. That is why China was known as Cathay (Khitai) at the time, and the Russian language still refers to China by that name."

Few people have read much about the Khitan, but the legend of the Generals of the Yang Family (Yang Jia Jiang 《杨家将》) is known to most Chinese. That legend is about the courageous generals of the Yang clan in the Northern Song, and their enemies on the battlefield were none other than the Khitan of the Liao dynasty. Despite the martial skill and valour of these generals, all lost their lives in battle against the Liao army, and eventually only the women in the family were left to carry on the fight.

Of course, the Yang Generals legend contains many elements of myth, fiction and exaggeration. But it cannot be denied that the Khitan warriors were indeed fearsome in battle, and that their dynasty was more than a match for the Northern Song.

The earliest mention of a people called the Khitan is in the "Book of the Northern Wei Dynasty" (Wei Shu 《魏书》):"The country of the Khitan is to the east of the Kumoxi 库莫奚, and they are two different peoples but of the same ancestry." Here we clearly see the Khitans' land of origin and ethnic roots. The Northern Wei existed from the 4th to the 6th century, and thus the origin of the Khitan cannot have been more than 1,700 years ago - a relatively young people as peoples go. How then did such a young nation come to dominate the north within a few centuries?

According to experts, the Khitan were originally a branch of the Yuwen Xianbei, who originally lived in the upper reaches of the Amur River (Heilongjiang 黑龙江) as nomadic herders and hunter-gatherers. Their skill as cavalrymen allowed their rise from a small tribal confederation into a major empire of conquest.

In the last years of the Tang dynasty, a Khitan tribal chieftain named Yelu Abaoji 耶律阿保机 (872-926) unified the various Khitan tribes. In 907 he took the title of emperor, and in 916 he founded the state of Khitan, which was shortly afterwards renamed as the Great Liao 大辽 - the Liao dynasty known to history today.

Conquerors from the northeast

After the founding of the Liao, the Khitan carried out a whirlwind campaign of conquest to expand their empire. They first acquired the strategic 16 Provinces of Yan-Yun 燕云十六州 through their patronage of Shi Jingtang 石敬瑭, emperor of the Later Jin 后晋. Eventually they were in open confrontation with the Northern Song, which had reunified all of China except for the Yan-Yun provinces.

The Northern Song, with its capital at Kaifeng, was intent on regaining the 16 Provinces of Yan-Yun. In 979, Emperor Song Taizong 宋太宗 personally led his army on an offensive that reached the city of Youzhou 幽州, but after half a month of battle against the armoured cavalry of the Khitan, the Song were badly defeated and Song Taizong had to escape by disguising himself as a peasant riding a donkey. After that, the Song launched several more campaigns, but all were beaten back, with the famous patriarch of the Yang Generals, Yang Ye 杨业, losing his life in one of them.

The Liao, on their part, were drawn to the riches of the Central Plains and mounted numerous offensives of their own. But the Song army, led by skilled generals like the Yang, put up a fierce resistance. In addition, the Liao pastoral economy could not sustain a long war, and so the Khitan found themselves unable to expand towards the Yellow River. After many protracted wars, despite the strength of the Liao armies under the leadership of the able Empress Dowager Xiao 萧, a stand-off still ensued with the Song army personally led by Emperor Song Zhenzong 宋真宗. At Chanyuan 澶渊 prefecture (also known as Chanzhou 澶州, near Puyang 濮阳 in modern Henan) in December 1004, a treaty was signed between the two empires - known to history as the Treaty of Chanyuan. The border was set at Baigou 白沟 (south of Zhuozhou 涿州 in modern Hebei), and a peaceful stalemate set in for the next 100 years or more.

Although the Liao dynasty only lasted for about 200 years, it had a great impact on East-West interaction. The Silk Road was controlled by the Khitan and the Tangut, with the result that Europeans had nearly no contact with the Northern Song, and thought that all China was being ruled by the Khitan. They thus took "Khitai" (Cathay) as the name for China, and this usage has lasted till today in Slavic languages like Russian.

The truth is, even in China our understanding of the Khitan has been much limited by the quality of sources available. Among all the official histories, the "History of the Liao" is the most sketchy and substandard, lacking details in every aspect. For that reason, the popular image of the Khitan has been as nothing more than fierce warriors, like the hero Xiao Feng 萧峰 in the famous martial arts novel "Tianlong Babu" 《天龙八部》 by Jin Yong 金庸 (Louis Cha). They ride in on the wind, and then just as suddenly ride off again, disappearing on the far horizon.

But is that all there is to the Khitan? Is there more that we can learn and understand about them, other than from legends - those faint echoes of the past?

Deciphering a language

No matter what the intentions of the missionary Kervgn may have been, we do have to thank him for bringing the Khitan language out of that empty tomb, back into the eyes of the world. There is nothing more important in understanding a people's history, after all, than understanding their language.

Although the Khitan script was derived from written Chinese, their meaning and form are actually vastly different from Chinese. For a long time, even the experts could only make sense of a handful of Khitan characters.

According to historical accounts, the Khitan originally had no written script, and made records using the primitive method of notches in wood. Later, they created their own script in two stages. When Yelu Abaoji founded the Liao dynasty, he first commanded Yelu Tulubu 耶律突吕不 and Yelu Lubugu 耶律鲁不古 to create a script from the basis of Chinese characters. The number of characters created was quite small - 1,000 to 3,000. These characters are known as Greater Khitan 大契丹字.

In 925, Yelu Abaoji's younger brother Yelu Dieci 耶律迭刺 adopted some features of the Uyghur script and created another set of characters with more complex strokes. This is known as Lesser Khitan 契丹小字. The characters discovered by Kervgn were Lesser Khitan, and experts concluded that they were a eulogy for Emperor Xingzong 兴宗 and Empress Renyi 仁懿 of the Liao. But whether Greater or Lesser, they had one major difference from Chinese - whereas Chinese is a pictographic or pictophonetic script (i.e. characters represent meanings, or both meanings and sounds), the Khitan script is a purely phonetic one (i.e. each character represents a sound or combination of sounds), especially Lesser Khitan.

In the Khitan script, the forms of Chinese strokes and radicals are only used as phonetic symbols (like an alphabet), and have almost no pictographic function whatsoever. In Lesser Khitan, a character is made up of several strokes and radicals resembling Chinese ones, such that a single character can contain several syllables to express a more complex meaning than a single Chinese character. This accounts for the highly complicated structure of Khitan characters, which has made the work of the linguists especially hard.

Of course, there are some Khitan characters that are relatively simple - those for numbers, dates, and months of the year. The linguistics experts started from these simple characters and worked their way through the harder ones. In the 1950s, some experts also made a significant breakthrough by comparing Khitan pronunciations with Mongol pronunciations, since the two have great similarities in tone.

But the real breakthrough came in the 1970s, when experts discovered that some characters in Khitan had been directly borrowed from Chinese, and were pronounced in the same way. With this tool, they gradually deciphered 350 phrases and 170 characters - still a small number but a great start nonetheless.

An example of Lesser Khitan:
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An example of Greater Khitan:
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More Khitan characters:
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A tomb stele for a Liao emperor, containing identical inscriptions in Khitan and Chinese, now in a collection in Tokyo University (click on images to see full size): http://www.um.u-toky...KITTAN/HOME.HTM

The linguists

Among the small number of scholars studying the Khitan script, there is an elderly one named Liu Fengzhu 刘凤翥, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. In his youth he was a student of the renowned Khitan language expert Chen Shu 陈述. He has now spent half his life researching the Khitan script, and his achievements in this field have been many. In analysing the features of structure and pronunciation in Khitan characters, he used the case study of the Khitan character for "xiao" 孝 (filial piety). He showed that it was made up of five components, together pronounced as "shi chi de ben" - a four-syllable character.

To aid his research, Liu Fengzhu has collected nearly all the rubbings made thus far of Khitan characters. He also makes frequent trips to the ancient sites of the Khitan for field study. After much analysis of both the rubbings and the Chinese histories, he has become the most knowledgeable person alive on the subject of the Khitan script. In 1985, he published the authoritative work "A Study of Lesser Khitan" 《契丹小字研究》 in collaboration with Qingge'ertai 清格尔泰, Chen Naixiong 陈乃雄, Yu Baolin 于宝林, and Xing Fuli 邢复礼. Has Liu Fengzhu then unlocked all the secrets of the Khitan past? Are we now able to read all the Khitan inscriptions as easily as reading Chinese?

Liu's answer is rather disappointing: "The Khitan characters are very hard to interpret, and we started pretty late in the day. I may have spent many years studying them, but the number that I can understand is still limited." Besides the difficulty of understanding the inscriptions, even those we can understand often shed little light on Khitan society, since they are mostly formulaic tomb eulogies.

Liu Fengzhu admits, "These are mosly epitaphs or eulogies, with a simple summary of the person's life along with much inflated praise. Of course there have been other relics found, like seals, bronze plaques, bronze mirrors, and coins. But the number of words on them is very small." The Khitan people certainly were stingy with their writing, leaving us with few clues for unraveling the puzzle of how they truly lived.

To date, no one has discovered any books written in the Khitan script. Did they all get destroyed in the flames of war? Or were they lost in the process of migration? Among the Khitan wall murals that we have found, there are quite a number depicting the process of breaking camp or returning to camp, showing that the Khitan did preserve their nomadic lifestyle to some extent. But they can hardly have abandoned their books just because of that.

When Qin Shuhuang burned the Confucian classics 2,000 years ago, even that did not succeed in erasing those books from history. Compared to this, the Liao dynasty fell only 900 years ago. Besides, it is not as if no books have lasted down to today from the Liao dynasty. There is a large number of Buddhist scriptures from the period - unfortunately, they are all in Chinese or Sanskrit. It's hard to believe that the Khitan created a written script out of scratch, only to use it for decorative purposes!

It's no surprise that some scholars have suggested from this that the Khitan script never developed to maturity, and never enjoyed popular use. That profusion of strokes and those multi-syllabic characters would have made it more difficult for people to learn, let alone use. It proved useless for writing literature and history, and was restricted to ceremonial and symbolic functions among the aristocracy - used in stele inscriptions, mirrors, coins and so on.

But Liu Fengzhu disagrees with such a view. He believes the Khitan script was a mature and versatile one, and has simply been out of use for too long for us to recognise that. Furthermore, the Liao dynasty did not prohibit the use of the Chinese script alongside the Khitan one. Although the Liao and the Song were enemies, the Khitan were also heavily influenced by Han Chinese culture. Starting from Yelu Abaoji, the Liao rulers recruited many Han people as advisors. Every literate subject of the Liao, from scholar to artisan, knew how to use Chinese characters, and Khitan writers and poets even wrote in Chinese.

Research has shown that the stele discovered by Kervgn in 1922 contained both Khitan and Chinese characters, and that the Khitan and Chinese inscriptions on the stele had basically the same meaning. That implies that although the Khitan had their own written script, there was no great need for it to be used for communication and records - the Chinese script served well enough for that. In that case, did their proficiency in the Chinese language allow the Khitan to achieve a higher level of cultural sophistication than if they had relied only on their own script?

For the answer to that question, we will have to turn away from words themselves, and look to material culture.

The princess with the golden mask

Today, more than 800 years after the fall of the Liao dynasty, the only thing left for us to remember it by seems to be legends. Like a man picking up leaves from the ground, we may despair of ever restoring the tree in all its former glory. Were the Khitan really ever a great people? If so, how did they suddenly vanish into obscurity? The frustrating Khitan characters are inadequate for answering this question, and so we put our hope in newer archaelogical findings.

One day in June 1986, at Naimanqi 奈曼旗 (Naiman Banner) near Tongliao 通辽 city in Inner Mongolia, at a location 10,000m northeast of the town of Qinglongshan 青龙山, excavator operators were hard at work digging out a reservoir for irrigation. Suddenly, one of the excavators dug a few bricks out of the earth. How did those man-made objects get so deep in the ground? The workers quickly realised that they had come across an ancient tomb, because several such tombs had previously been found in the Tongliao area.

Archaeological teams soon got wind of the discovery at the reservoir site, and found that it was indeed an ancient brick-and-mortar tomb with a front chamber, a rear chamber, and two wing chambers for burial items. The walls of the tomb were covered with murals depicting people and scenery.

In the tomb, archaeologists found a stele with the inscription "tomb inscription of the late Princess of Chen" (故陈国公主墓志铭) in Chinese characters. The Princess of Chen was the nephew of the Liao emperor Shengzong 圣宗 and the granddaughter of emperor Jingzong 景宗. She was buried in 1018 after dying at the young age of 18. Further digging revealed that this was a twin burial - interred along with the princess was her 35-year-old husband, the Khitan nobleman Xiao Shaoju 萧绍矩.

The former chief curator of the Tongliao museum, Xi Mude 希木德, was one of the archaeologists at the site in 1986, and was among the first people to handle the treasures uncovered there. He still remembers like it was yesterday how amazed he was at the sight that awaited him in the burial chamber: "There was so much gold everywhere that I didn't know where to look. I had never seen such a well-preserved and well-protected tomb, and from the burial items alone I could tell that the Khitan were a highly civilised people, not at all the barbarians that some people have made them out to be."

An undying legacy

In the burial chamber, the Princess of Chen lay supine on the left and her husband on the right. Their bodies had disintegrated, but their elaborate burial suits of woven silver wire mesh remained intact. On their heads they wore crowns of gold and silver, and on their faces burial masks of gold. Their heads lay on pillows of silver decorated with gold, and necklaces of amber, pearls and jade lay upon their chests. They wore belts of gold with daggers and silver awls, and boots of silver plate decorated with gold. The princess also wore numerous items of jewellery on her fingers and wrists. Her husband carried a jade-handled silver knife that was 25.8cm long and still retained its shine and sharpness after all those years. Every single item bore testimony to the opulence of the tomb's occupants.

More than a thousand burial items were found in the rest of the tomb, including exquisite items of gold, silver, porcelain, glass, jade, pearls, agate, crystal, amber and wood. Some of these were personal gifts to the princess from the emperor.

In short, the tomb of the Princess of Chen has the most artifacts ever found in any Liao dynasty tomb, and was the archaeologists' first glimpse into the luxurious world of the Liao imperial house. Little is still known about the lives of the Princess of Chen and Xiao Shaoju, but the fine workmanship of her burial items clearly shows that there was more to the Khitan than martial prowess. Of course, as nomads and cavalrymen, the Khitan could never forget their horses, and there were fine horse fittings in the tomb as well.

After review by the state's archaeological authorities, the tomb of the Princess of Chen was selected as one of the "ten great archaeological finds during the period of the seventh Five Year Plan". However, no matter how much closer this tomb brought us to the life of the Khitan aristocracy, it probably did not reflect the face of the wider Khitan population who were less privileged. Was the splendour of the princess' tomb more the exception than the rule when it came to the Khitan?

The Princess of Chen's gold burial mask:

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Her husband's gold burial mask:

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Actually, compared to relics from beneath the ground, most people are more likely to gain their understanding of the past from relics above ground - especially architecture.

North of the Yellow River, there stand many ancient Buddhist monasteries and pagodas. Many have actually been dated to the Liao dynasty, and among these the most famous are the Dajue Monastery 大觉寺, Jietai Monastery 戒台寺 and Tianning Monastery Pagoda 天宁寺塔 in Beijing; the Duobaofo Pagoda 多宝佛塔 in Liangxiang 良乡; the Northern Pagoda of the Yunju Monastery 云居寺北塔 in Fangshan 房山; the Daming Pagoda 大明塔 in Ningcheng county 宁城县 of Inner Mongolia; the Huayan Sutra Pagoda 华严经塔 in Wanbu 万部, Hohhot; the Pagoda at Guangji Monastery 广济寺塔 in Jinzhou 锦州, Liaoning; the Twin Pagodas of Chongxing Monastery 崇兴寺双塔 at Beizhen 北镇; the Southern Pagoda 南塔 in Chaoyang 朝阳; the Liao Pagoda at Nongan 农安辽塔 in Jilin; the Huayan Monastery 华严寺 and the Liao Pagoda of Jueshan Monastery 觉山寺 in Datong, Shanxi... the list goes on.

Some of these were first built in the Liao dynasty, others were rebuilt. All have remained standing for nearly a thousand years. But the most magnificent of them all must be the Daxiong Hall 大雄宝殿 in the Fengguo Monastery 奉国寺 at Yi county 义县 in Liaoning; the Guanyin Chamber 观音阁 in the Dule Monastery 独乐寺 in Ji county 蓟县, Tianjin; and the Sakyamuni Pagoda 释迦塔 in the Fogong Monastery 佛宫寺 in Ying county 应县, Shanxi.

The Daxiong Hall is one of the largest Buddhist worship halls in China, while the Guanyin Chamber of Dule Monastery is the oldest extant multi-storeyed wooden structure in China. The Sakyamuni Pagoda (also known as the Wooden Pagoda of Ying county) is 67m tall and 30m wide at the base, and is built entirely of wood without a single nail being used. It remained standing through a 7-day earthquake in the Yuan dynasty. Today, it is the oldest and tallest wooden tower in the world. How did a nomadic people with little history of their own establish a dynasty that could produce some of China's finest architecture?

One cannot deny, faced with these pieces of evidence, that the people behind these feats had a solid economic base and a wealth of engineering talent to draw upon. At the same time, one gets an idea of the pragmatic policy by which the Khitan absorbed the culture and aesthetics of the Central Plains through trade with the Northern Song and the recruitment of Han Chinese.

The empire of the Khitan did create an age of prosperity in north China, besides just conquering and ruling the land. The riddle then is this: why did that power and prosperity fail to last?

End of Chapter 1

An architectural drawing of the Sakyamuni Wooden Pagoda:

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The pagoda itself:

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The dead have passed beyond our power to honour or dishonour them, but not beyond our ability to try and understand.

#14 Yun

Yun

    Sage-King

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Posted 29 July 2004 - 01:46 PM

Man... translation is hard work. I think I'll take a break for a few days before I translate the next chapter of the book. I assure you it'll be worth the wait!

Meanwhile, regarding DaMo's request for portraits of the Khitan, check out these great tomb murals:

http://www.mcah.colu...iao_mural_1.jpg

http://www.mcah.colu...iao_mural_4.jpg

http://www.mcah.colu...iao_mural_5.jpg

http://www.mcah.colu...iao_mural_6.jpg
(nice band of musicians)

http://www.mcah.colu...iao_mural_8.jpg
(the first depiction of rope-skipping I've seen in Chinese art!)

http://www.mcah.colu...iao_mural_9.jpg

Oh well, why don't you go to this page http://www.mcah.colu...hineseart/large
and look at all the murals there! There are nearly a hundred of them (not counting those that are just enlarged sections of an earlier picture) and they're all beautiful. Just scroll down until you see the words liao_mural, and start from there :)
The dead have passed beyond our power to honour or dishonour them, but not beyond our ability to try and understand.

#15 Snafu

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Posted 29 July 2004 - 03:52 PM

Wow Yun, tremendous work. You're a one-man museum.




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