The Liao dynasty 遼 (907-1125) was the first great "barbarian" dynasty ruling over part of China. It was founded by Yelü Abaoji 耶律阿保機 (Emperor Taizu of the Liao 遼太祖, r. 907-927), khan of the steppe federation of the Khitans, a proto-Mongolian people. The Khitans had learnt how to wage war against the militarily superior armies of the Chinese. When the Tang empire 唐 (618-907) disintegrated, the Khitans took control over the polities in Northern China and deeply influenced the courts politics of the Five Dynasties 五代 (907-960). When Zhao Kuangyin 趙匡胤 (Emperor Taizu of the Song 宋太祖, r. 960-975) founded the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279)
and reunited China, he was not able to conquer northern China. Constant border conflicts with the Song characterized the tenth century. In 946 the Khitans even took the Song capital Kaifeng 開封 (modern Kaifeng, Henan). Tired of the ceaseless skirmishes with the nomad people, the Song government proposed a peace treaty in 1005 that promised quiet frontiers to the Chinese government. But they had to pay huge tributs ("peace presents") to the Liao empire in order to ensure a stable situation at the frontiers.
The Khitans imitated part of the administrative structure of the Song empire, but also retained many features of the structure of a nomad people. Khitan families were administrated according to different patterns than the Chinese living in the Liao empire. For administrative purposes, the Khitans even invented an own script that met better the character of their language.
In 1120, the Song government established an alliance with the Jurchens in the northeast with the plan to attack the Liao empire from two sides. The Liao government, weakened by economic disasters and internal quarrels, fell victim to the Jurchen assaults. Founding the Jin empire 金 (1115-1234), the Jurchen khan Wanyan Aguda 完顏阿骨打 (Emperor Taizu of the Jin 金太祖, r. 1115-1122) conquered northern China and even forced the Song court to move its capital to Lin'an 臨安 (modern Hangzhou 杭州, Zhejiang) in the far southeast.
Under the leadership of Prince Yelü Dashi 耶律大石 (Emperor Dezong 西遼德宗, r. 1124-1143) part of the Khitan people and elite migrated to the west where they founded the so-called Western Liao Empire Xiliao 西遼 (1124-1211), or Kara Kitan in Turkish. In 1218, the Mongols conquered the empire of Western Liao.
The name of the Khitan people lives on in the Russian term for China, Kitai, and in Marco Polo's designation for China, Cathay.
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