Lecture Seventeen

Conquest States in the North

Scope: The collapse of the Tang at the beginning of the 10th century not only led to a period of division and conflict within China but also created opportunities for the rise of non-Chinese powers along the northern frontier. The Khitan people established the Liao dynasty in 907 and carried on a tense relationship with the Chinese over the next two centuries. As the Song state consolidated its power over most of China, the Liao retained control of the Sixteen Prefectures in the area near modern Beijing. The Liao became a state ruled by a non-Chinese elite but using Chinese bureaucratic systems to administer part of its territory. In the late 11th century, another northern people, the Jurchen, began to assert their power and, in an alliance with the Chinese, overthrew the Liao. They then went on to invade and conquer much of northern China, which they ruled under the Jin dynasty until the Mongols defeated them in 1234.


I. The collapse of Tang power created the conditions for non-Chinese states to arise along the former frontier of the empire.

A. All along the arc from Tibet to Manchuria, local peoples set up their own states.

1. The Tibetan empire, which had challenged Tang power in Central Asia in the 8th and 9th centuries, continued to control the high plateau.

2. A Uighur empire spread across the deserts and oases of the Tarim Basin.

3. Mongol tribes were the notable exception to this period of political development but would soon surpass their neighbors.

4. In the northeast, the Khitan were the first people to create a strong state.

B. The Khitan lived in the mountains and forests of what is now southern Manchuria.

1. In 907, they set up an independent state, which they called the Liao dynasty.

2. The first Liao leader, Abaoji, spent two decades campaigning against rival groups and against the Chinese just south of the Great Wall to build an extensive territory for his empire.

3. The Liao stale was able to seize and hold the so-called Sixteen Prefectures, a strip of land south of the Great Wall with a dense population of Chinese farmers.

II. With the rise of the Song in China, the Liao and the Chinese developed a tense but viable relationship.

A. The Chinese launched major military campaigns against the Liao in 1004 and 1044.

1. In each case, the goal was the recovery of the Sixteen Prefectures.

2. The Liao defeated Chinese forces and negotiated treaties with the Song.

3. These treaties compelled the Chinese to recognize the legitimacy of the Liao state and to pay annual subsidies of silk and silver to the Khitan rulers.

4. After the second war, the subsidies were doubled, and the Chinese refrained from further efforts to overthrow Khitan power south of the Great Wall.

B. The Khitan developed a system of dual administration to deal with their ethnically mixed population.

1. Although the Sixteen Prefectures formed only a small portion of the territory of the empire, the Chinese were almost 70 percent of the population.

2. The Khitan retained many old tribal traditions in their lands beyond the Great Wall but used Chinese administrative techniques and the Chinese language in the Sixteen Prefectures.

3. As time passed, the Khitan elite became increasingly assimilated to Chinese culture, and the traditional warrior ethos weakened.

III. The Chinese sought ways to weaken the Liao and, around the beginning of the 12th century, found an ally in the Jurchen people.

A. The Jurchen lived in the far north of Manchuria.

1. Some Jurchen lived in Liao territory and were subjects of the Khitan emperors, while others lived beyond the Liao frontier.

2. The so-called “raw” Jurchen, those not under Liao rule, allied with the Chinese to overthrow the Khitan.

3. In 1125, they swept the Liao state away.

4. But they did not stop there and continued to invade northern China.

B. The Jurchen captured much of northern China and ended the period known as the Northern Song.

1. In 1127, they captured Kaifeng, the Song capital.

2. They carried the Song emperor and many of the royal family away into captivity.

3. The remnants of the court had to flee south and fought for several years to survive.

4. By 1135, the Song had basically given up hope of regaining the north, and a new capital at Hangzhou became the center of the Southern Song.

IV. The Jurchen founded the Jin dynasty, which lasted until 1234.

A. Like the Liao, the Jin had a mixed population.

1. The proportion of Chinese to Jurchen was even higher than in the Khitan Liao, with the Chinese accounting for more than 90 percent of the total.

2. The Jin state, too, was a dual administration, but the Chinese dimension soon became dominant.

B. Although relations were always tense, the border between Jin and Song was more stable than the Song-Liao frontier had been.

1. After the campaigns of the 1120s and 1130s, the military situation settled down.

2. While the “recovery of the north” remained a powerful idea in political rhetoric and literati art, no real efforts were made to reconquer territory.

C. The Jin empire was essentially Chinese in its society and culture.

1. The farming population was largely unaffected by the conquerors.

2. Jin literary culture continued many of the trends of the Northern Song, preserving, however, the leading role of the wenren, while Daoxne became increasingly important in the South.

3. During the 12th century, the Southern Song underwent great economic development, which had serious implications for politics and culture; we will take up this topic in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Morris Rossabi, ed., China among Equals.

Supplemental Reading:

Hoyt Cleveland Tillman and Stephen H. West, eds., China under Jurchen Rule.

Questions to Consider:

1. The Chinese had always thought of themselves as the center of civilization. How did they deal with having to accept the Khitan and Jurchen as equal partners in treaties?

2. Why did the Khitan and Jurchen elites adopt Chinese surnames and other cultural practices, even as they tried to maintain their original cultural identities?

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