10 November 2006

Part I, The Lost Empire of Western Xia

In the middle of the period of Tang dynasty, a people of shepherd nomads lived in a region of Ningxia, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces in northwestern China. One of these nomads called Tanguts, who were of a branch of Qiang tribe. During the turmoil of rebellions, the Tanguts answered to the call of the Tang imperial court and assembled an army to help Tang to subdue the rebels. For these contributions, the leaders of Tanguts were given imperial titles and were bestowed the surname "Li" of Tang emperors. The Tanguts were also married to the family members of Tang emperors. The leader of Tanguts first held a Tang title of Duke of Xiping (西平王, King Western-Ping) and then a Tang title of Duke of Xia (夏國公, King Xia ). This marked the rise of Tanguts.

By the beginning of Song dynasty, the Tanguts had established a kingdom equivalent to a duchy. This Tangut kingdom is known as Western Xia or Xi Xia according to Chinese history (Xia also called Hsia in English of older texts). Western Xia had been under imperial control but it was strong enough to assert independence. In 1038, a Tangut leader, Li Yuanhao, proclaimed himself emperor of the Great Xia. This proclamation caused a long war between Western Xia and Song. This war brought up economical difficulties and cost both sides enormously financially. At last, the two negotiated for peace. In a truce Li Yuanhao conceded to the imperial subjugation of Song and in return he received an annual tribute of 70,000 taels of silver, 150,000 bolts of silk and 30,000 catties of tea.

Meanwhile, a new empire called Liao rose in the northeast of China after the collapse of Tang dynasty. The Liao dynasty was founded by a group of nomads called Khitans in 907. Since the starting of Song dynasty, Liao had been competing for dominance in the north of China until Liao was overcome by another nomad called Jurchens in 1125. With Western Xia, Liao divided the north and continued the invasion and counter-invasion against Song. Thus, in China three dynasties co-existed — Song, Liao and Western Xia. The situation unchanged when Liao was replaced by the Jurchen's Jin dynasty. This division in China stayed until the coming of Mongols, who conquered all the dynasties.


After the passing of the Han (Western) dynasty, the Huns or Xiongnu were replaced by another nomadic tribe of Xianbei (Note 1) in the north-east of the north China. By the middle of Han (Eastern) dynasty, the Xianbei nomads moved into Inner Mongolia and intermixed with the remnant Huns. At the end of Han (Eastern) Dynasty, the Xianbei people expanded south and west. One group crossed over the Great Walls and moved into the provinces of Hebi and Shanxi; another group moved into the provinces of Gansu and Qinghai. By the period of 16 Nations (AD 304-420), the nationalities thus comprised of Han Chinese, Hun, Xianbei, Qiang, Di and Jiehu in the northern China. A branch of Xianbei with a name of Tuoba 拓跋 was extremely successful and established several dynasties in north China - the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534) and the subsequent Eastern Wei/Northern Qi dynasty (534-577) and the Western Wei/Northern Zhou (535-588) (Note 2).

Several nomadic groups had settled in the north-west China one after one there, particularly along the Silk Route in the corridor of Gansu. These various groups were generally called the Qiang 羌 since the Han (Eastern) dynasty. Later, a new nomad evolved from the western Qiang into a tribe called Tangut (Note 3). According to the folklores, the Tanguts descended from the leader of seven Qiang brothers and a Tibetan girl. They also claimed to have living around the Bailongjiang River in south Gansu and the border area among the provinces of Qinhai, Gansu and Sichuan. By the end of Northern Wei dynasty, the Tanguts moved to the east-southern winding of the Yellow River in Qinghai. Later, one Qiang tribe belonged to the Tuyuhun confederation was destroyed by the Western Wei dynasty and then another Tuyuhun Qiang tribe was destroyed by the Northern Zhou dynasty. The remnants of these two tribes joined to the Tangut and the western Qiangs were thus commonly called Tanguts in the later dynasties.

The territories of the Tangut expanded from between the city Lintan in Gansu and the city Xining in Qinghai to the north of the city Turpan in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and to the south to the Songpan prairie in north Sichuan Province. Most of them settled in the area of the prefecture Xiazhou 夏州, north of Shaanxi Province and just within the great Yellow River bend of the Ordos plateau. In 585, a Tuoba chief of Tangut led his tribe to settle in Xuzhou (city of Lintan, Gansu). He sought suzerainty with the Tsui dynasty and was bestowed an official title of general-in-chief (Da Jiang Jun, 大將軍). By the beginning of Tang dynasty, more Tangut tribes migrated southward gradually into Gansu and northern Sichuan. The increasing contacts with the Han Chinese accelerated Tangut’s development in their economy and culture.

Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907)

In 628, another Tangut chieftain sought suzerainty. The Tang court and set up a prefecture for his tribe in the Schichuan Province and gave him a title of satrap 刺史. Very soon the other chieftains followed his example and pleaded for suzerainty and Tang court treated them the similar pattern. In 631, the strongest Tuoba tribe also sought suzerainty. The chief Tuoba 拓跋赤敵 was appointed the satrap (Ci Shi,刺史) of subordinated prefectures (Jimizhou, 羈縻州) and the commander-in-chief (Du Du, 都督). In addition, Tuoba Chid was bestowed the surname Li 李, the name of the imperial surname and was made a relative of the Tang court. In the 7th Century, the Tufa Kingdom of Tibetan expanded and advanced into the territory of Tanguts. Some of Tanguts were forced to migrate north. About 680, many more Tanguts were chased out and they started a mass migration into the Tang’s territory.

The chief Tuoba Shouji 拓跋守寂 took part in the suppressing the rebellion of An Lushan 安錄山. He received Tang Emperor Xuanzong's conferral as Duke of (Western Peace, 西平王), later the posts of satrap of Rongzhou and consecutively commander-in-chief of Lingzhou. During the 10-year turmoils of the rebellion , the Tanguts started another migration and moved to the mixed areas of Han Chinese and the other ethnicities. The Tanguts became the leader of various ethnicities.

Between 874 and 884, Huang Chao 黃巢 lead a peasant uprising; Huang Chao sacked Xian the Tang capital in 880. Tuoba 拓跋思恭, a grandson of Tuoba Shouji, came to aid Tang in 881. Emperor Xizong conferred Tuoba Sigong the title of Duke of Xia 夏國公 in 890. He also received the important post of regional satrap (Jie-du-si, 節度使) and he administrated five prefectures including Xiazhou, Suizhou, Yinzhou and Youzhou. Sigong was again bestowed the imperial name of Li and he thus became Li Sigong 李思恭. This marked the rise of the Tuoba-Tangut clan as a regional power.

In 895, Li Sigong passed away and his brother Li Sijian assumed the post of satrap.

Tang Empire
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Five Dynasties (Wudai, 五代)

After the Tang dynasty collapsed, the imperial court was changed by five consecutive dynasties: Later-Liang (907-923), Later-Tang (923-936), Later-Jin (936-946), Later-Han (947-950) and Later-Zhou (951-960). Three of these courts were founded by generals with a Turkic ancestry called Sha'to tribe. Tanguts was loyal to all the imperial courts dynasties in spite of the rapidly changes in the short period of 57 years.

In the Later-Liang dynasty, Sigon’s son Sijian received additional titles of monitoring captain and imperial attache. In 908, Li Yichang inherited the posts from Li Sijian; however, Yichang was killed by his general Gao Zongyi after three months.

An uncle of Yichang, Li Renfu, became the satrap. In 933, the son of Renfu (Li Yichao, 李彝超) assumed the post. Later-Tang Emperor Mingzong had campaigned against Li Yichao for his refusal to relocate to Yanzhou. After laying siege of Xiazhou for over hundred days, Emperor Mingzong withdrew the siege and re-confirmed Li Yichao's post. After Li Yichao'sdeath in 936, his brother, Li Yiyin 李彝殷, assumed the post.

When a son-in-law of Emperor Mingzong colluded with Khitans (Qidan, 契丹) to overthrow Later-Tang and establishing Later-Jin 後晉. Li Yiyin continued to receive the old conferrals. Later-Jin further caught Tangut rebels in AD 943 on behalf of Li Yiyin. When Khitans (Liao 遼 Empire) attacked Posterior-Jin in AD 944, Li Yiyin led a combined force of 40,000 Tanguts, Tibetans, and Han Chinese to attack the west of Khitans by crossing the Yellow River at Linzhou. The Later-Jin was destroyed by Khitans in 946.

In the second year, Liu Zhiyuan of Shatuo established Later-Han Dynasty. Later-Han dynasty continued the pacification policy as to the Tanguts, and further ceded Jingzhou to Li Yiyin in 949 and conferred the title of minister for central secretariat. A governing magistrate of Shanxi killed Emperor Yindi of Later-Han and became Later Zhou.

In 954, Li Yiyin was conferred the title of Duke of Xiping. Under his positions, he was able him to freely appoint officials and to tax his subjects. In the end , Li Yiyin was ruling like a king and Xia was de facto a kingdom.

Song Dynasty (Northern AD 960-1127 & Southern AD 127-1279)

In 960, General Zhao Kuangyin engineered a coup to end Later-Zhou and the Five-Dynasty period by establishing Song Dynasty. Zhao reigned as Emperor Taizu from 960 to 976. Li Yiyin of Xia promptly dispatched an emissary to Song court to express loyalty, and Emperor Taizu bestowed him the imperial name of Zhao. He and the subsequent Xia rulers were recorded as Zhaos and the state of Xia was known as Western Xia by the Song historians. In 962, Li Yiyin tributed 300 stallions to Song court and received a jade belt as imperial bestowal in return. When Li Yiyin died in 967, Song EmperorTaizu ordered mourning for three days and conferred Li Yiyin the title of Duke of Xiping posthumously. Li Jipeng got the post. He went to live in the Song's capital Bianliang 汴梁 (now Kaifeng, 開封) as Song's military governor of Western Xia.

His cousin, Li Jiqian 李繼遷 objected to the submission of Song and began a rebellion in 984. He forged an alliance with the Liao Empire. He married a Liao princess in 990 and was recognized by Liao the Duke of Xia. In 991, Li Jipeng returned from Bianliang and received the acknowledgement of Duke Xiping from Liao court. In 1004, Li Jiqian died in a campaign against the Tibetans. Then in 1004, Li Jipeng died; the son of Li Jigian (Deming, 德明) made new agreements with Liao and Song. Li Deming ruled as Duke of Xia until 1031; in his ruling Western Xia passed a prosperous and peaceful period.

Northen Song - 02
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Declaration of Great Xia 大夏

After the death of Li Deming, his ambitious son Li Yuanhao got enthroned. Song dispatched a minister of engineering department, Yang Ji to the Western Xia and continued the previous conferrals onto Li Yuanhao (李元昊). The Khitans of Liao court also conferred Li Yuanhao the title of Duke of Xia.

In 1034, Li Yuanhao attacked Huanqing territories. Song General Wei Tong attacked the hind of the Tanguts. Tanguts then invaded Song territories again. Li Yuanhao captured Qi Zongju> who led relief soldiers from Huanqing and defeated Wang Wenwho led relief soldiers from Ningzhou. Then, Li Yuanhao released Qi Zongju for sake of peace with Song. After that, Li Yuanhao dispatched an army of 25,000 against the Tibetans, the Western Xia was defeated and its General Sunuer was captured. Li Yuanhao personally led an expedition against the Tibetans, but he was also defeated Li Yuanhao then changed target to the Huihe (Uygur) people. In 1036, Li Yuanhao took over Huihe territories of Guazhou, Shazhou and Suzhou in Gansu, and Western Xia controlled the He-xi Corridor for 191 years

After the victories, he changed his surname back into his Tangut name Weiming 嵬名, invented the 6,000 characters for the Tangut language, and re-started the traditions of Tangut. The rank of his army reached to near half a million soldiers. In 1038, Yuanhao proclaimed himself Emperor of the Great Xia 大夏 . He established his capital in Xingzhou 興州 (Xingqing 興慶), now Yinchuan 銀川 in Ningxia 寧夏 Province. In the letter to Song court, Yuanhao cited his Tuoba ancestry dated from Wei Dynasty and declared his imperial entitlement as Emperor Jingzong of Xia. The Xia Empire is known to historians as Western Xia (Xixia 西夏). Xia was also called White Superior Country - Bangniding 邦泥定 (or Bai Shang Guo 白上國 in Chinese). Some years later, he even broke his arrangement with Liao Empire. From then on, three empires ruled in China: Xia, Liao and Song.

War with Song Empire (1038-1044)

The Song court rejected the proclamation of Li Yuanhao and replied with closing of the border and the market posts and stripping him of all titles. The following war lasted several years and caused very heavy losses on both belligerents. The interruption of importation of grain and other goods of Song made the life easy difficult for the Western Xia and bred general discontent. On the other side, the Song people had to grapple with grave financial difficulties due to the war. In addition, Liao joined Western Xia to threaten Song in 1042. The two sides finally decided to pursue peace. In a truce in 1044, Li Yuanhao conceded to the imperial subjugation of Song and was bestowed the title of the King of Xia (夏國主). In addition, he annually received a tribute and a present for his birthday that totalled 72,000 taels (weight unit) of silver, 153,000 bolts of silk and 30,000 catties of tea. In spite of this agreement, Li Yuanhao had reported to be still using the title of emperor within his realm.

copper coin In AD 1048, a brother-in-law assassinated Li Yuanhao. Later, two young emperors reigned. The three-year old Emperor Chongzong was enthroned in 1086. In 1099, Chongzong took over the administration; he centralized his authority over the nobles and cut the power of generals. He adopted the feudal system of Song dynasty and built an academy to teach Confucianism. In the foreign relations, he forged an ally with Liao to counter Song’s court. Western Xia flourished under the generally peaceful environment with Song and Liao empires. Controlling the north-eastern part of the Silk Route, it benefited from trade with both east and west and markets. The people of Western Xia had more interacted with the people of Song and the Tanguts became absorbing into the mainstream of Chinese culture.
Western Xia copper coin
circulated in the Tiansheng year (AD 1149)

From 1104 to 1119, Western Xia was attacked by Song. Chengzong obtained help from Liao dynasty through tributes and marriage. When Liao invaded Song, Western Xia sent troops to help Liao. While the Jurchens were taking over the Liao Empire, Song made the Western Xia submit in 1119. As the last Liao emperor was fleeing, Western Xia fought against the Jurchens in 1122 but it was defeated. In 1126, Chengzong made a treaty with the new Jin Empire. He recognized Jin's superiority and was ceded some territories of the old Liao empire. Then his son took the rule as Emperor in 1139, Western Xia continued the allegiance with Jin but kept the peaceful relation with Song. In this period, he pleaded for several times to cede land from Jin; thus Western Xia expanded to the limit of its territory.

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The Conquer by Mongols

After the death of Emperor, Western Xia started to fall with political power and corruption in the court and coincided with the rise of the Mongols.

In the years of 1205-06, Timuchin, the strong leader of Mongols, started to invade Western Xia, destroyed cities and abducted a number of people and camels. At the grand assembly of Mongol tribes, Timuchin was selected to be their chief and he was given the title Genghis Khan (Chingis Khan).In the pretext of tributes, Genghis Khan led a campaign to attack Western Xia again.

In 1207, the Mongols took over the city of Ke-wo-luo-hai and attacked the citadel Wo-luo-hai-cheng, north of Hetaoand near the northern pass of Lang-Shan Mountain. Five months later the Mongols retreated after Emperor Xiangzong (襄宗 or Li Anquan 李安全) was able to send a relief army to the citadel.

After the Huihe people in Gaochang killed the governor of Western Liao and surrendered to Mongols, Genghis Khan seized the opportunity of the exposed defence in the north-western. In 1209, the Mongols marched 650 miles into the south of Western Xia and attacked the Wo-luo-hai-cheng again. Emperor Xiangzong dispatched his son Cheng-zhen to repel the attack. The Mongols captured his deputy commander and later captured the Imperial Tutor of Western Xia. In April, the defenders of the citadel surrendered to the Mongols, Mongols then intruded southward towards Ke-yi-men Pass. General Weimingling-gomng with fifty thousand men ambushed Mongols in a valley and drove Mongols out of the mountain pass. Two months later, Mongols trapped and captured Weimingling. The Mongols then sacked Ke-yi-men and intruded to the capital of Western Xia. In September, the Mongols flooded the city with water from the Yellow River. The water as deep as several feet destroyed houses in the city and drowned numerous people. The Jurchens of Jin Dynasty refused to come to aid the Western Xia. In the winter, the dikes built by the Mongols were breached by flood and the water flooded the camps of Mongols. The siege was raised in the spring 1210. In the subsequent truce bargained by Emperor Xiangzong with Genghis Khan, Xianzong delivered his youngest daughter to Genghis Khan as a bribe. After the truce was conducted with Mongols, Western Xia was angry at the Jurchens and broke the treaty with the Jin Empire.

In 1211, Li Zunxun usurped his nephew Xiangzong and became as Emperor Shenzong. Taking advantage of Jin's defeat at Huihebao, Western Xia raided into the Jin's territories. In 1213, the Jin court reprimanded Western Xia and then caught a spy who disclosed a secret agreement between Western Xia and Song. At Qingyang, the Jurchens defeated a 30,000 army of Western Xia. Still after more battles, the Jurchens sought the peace with Western Xia.

The Emperor Li Zunxu 李遵頊 (Shenzong 神宗) fled to the Tibet to escape from the intruding Mongols . His son Li Deren 李德任 hold the fort at the capital (renamed to Zhongxing 中興). Under the pressure of Mongols, Shenzong abdicated to the throne to his second son , Li Dewang as Emperor Xianzong in 1223. After Xianzong had enthroned, he changed the tactics against the Mongols from subjugation to counter-attacks. In 1224 and 1225, Jin and Western Xia reached a mutual peace pact.

Using the pretexts of harbouring enemies of Genghis Khan and of the delay of hostage, Genghis Khan personally led a force of 180,000 troops to subdue Western Xia in 1226. He captured the Black River (Note 4) and marched towards the capital. The abdicated Shenzong died of sickness in May and then Emperor Xianzong died of fright and worry in July. A nephew of Xianzong, Li Xian 李睍, succeeded to the throne and was called as the Emperor Xixia Modi 西夏末帝 by the historians. In November, the Mongols crossed the Yellow River and defeated the defenders of Western Xia; in the same month, an astronomical sign of the conjunction of five stars was appeared in the south-western sky. In the next spring, Genghis Khan pulled out a majority of his force and crossed the Yellow River back to conquer the Jin. Li Xian succumbed to plea for surrender to the Mongols in June 1227 and Genghis Khan died in July of the same year. The last emperor of Western Xia, Li Xian 李睍surrendered but he and his entourage were ambushed to go to Mongol’s headquarter. To follow their tradition of unyielding cities, the Mongol massacred the capital of Western Xia (Note 5).

Thenceforth, the Kingdom Western Xia ended in 1227 after 190 years of Tangut's rule since 1038.

The End of Western Xia

After the Mongols established the Yuan dynasty in AD 1271, the laws were applied according to four hierarchical classes. The Mongols were the most privileged. The next were the heterogeneous peoples of the west regions and of Western Xia. The third was classified to be the “Hans” who comprised of the northern Han Chinese, Khitans and the others under the rule of Jin Empire. The last was called the Southerners who were the Hans and the other ethnicities of the Southern Song dynasty. Only the Mongols and the heterogeneous peoples could take the most senior posts in the Yuan dynasty. However, this practice was sometimes overruled by exception. For instance, the last campaign to subdue the remnants of the Southern Song dynasty was led by the son of a Han general of Jin Empire and his deputy commander was a descendent of the emperor of Western Xia. In the last naval battle of 1279, the defending general embraced with the child Song emperor and drowned themselves in the South China Sea in or near the present Hong Kong.

The surviving population of Western Xia were not accounted for in the history. Some of them had reverted to the nomad lifestyle as the Mongols did not put a priority in tending the farms, at least initially. The others could have fled to the cities in the old Jin and Song empires (Note 5). The Tanguts must have been assimilated in the population of China year by year. Therefore, the Tangut is now considered an extinct people and is not represented by a distinct nationality. The complicated characters of the Tangut language had also fallen in use. Furthermore, the area of Western Xia was incorporated into the homeland territory of Mongols, who had started to use their written language. Because of undetermined reasons, the ancient historians had neglected Western Xia and treated this kingdom only as a local province. Many mysteries of this kingdom have not solved due to the absence of manuscripts. Only until the Qing dynasty, the Manchu (descendents of Jurchens) had written some documents about the Kingdom Western Xia (Note 6).


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