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Dynasty of Nomads Volume 60 Number 6, November/December 2007
by Jake Hooker

Rediscovering the forgotten Liao Empire


The nomadic emperors of the Liao dynasty (A.D. 907-1125) built many pagodas, including Daming. (ImagineChina)

We live at the foot of the pagoda," says Tala, director of Inner Mongolia's Archaeological Research Institute, pointing to one of his workstations, a home away from home. As we drive along rows of cornfields and approach the thousand-year-old pagoda, it grows more and more imposing until I feel as if we're no longer driving toward the tower, but rather it is pulling us in.

Two hundred and sixty feet tall, the octagonal Daming Pagoda once stood at the heart of the Central Capital of the Liao, a dynasty that ruled an empire uniting the nomadic Khitan people of northern China from A.D. 907 to 1125. Now, the former Liao capital is one of several sites in northern China that is helping archaeologists like Tala resurrect this long-ignored dynasty.

The Liao Empire was once considered a minor state on the fringes of Chinese civilization. Chinese-language sources depicted the Khitan as barbarians; Western scholars, who hadn't seen much material evidence other than Liao pagodas, regarded the dynasty as esoteric. But discoveries in Inner Mongolia over the past three decades have prompted scholars to reconsider these views, and Liao society is now recognized as a sophisticated blend of Khitan and Chinese traditions.


Director of Inner Mongolia's Archaeological Research Institute, Tala has been instrumental in organizing exhibits of Liao artifacts that have brought the dynasty out of the shadows. (ImagineChina)

An exhibit of Liao artifacts from Inner Mongolia has been touring the world, generating excitement among scholars and the public. Unaccustomed to all the attention, Tala and some of his colleagues have nevertheless agreed to take me through the heart of the Liao Empire to visit two ancient Liao capitals and the tomb of the dynasty's first emperor.

Tala meets me at the tiny airport in Chifeng, Inner Mongolia. Then we drive south toward the Central Capital, taking a narrow road through the dry hilly terrain in his Landcruiser. Tala, who like many Mongolians uses only one name, oversees all excavations in a region that is almost three times the size of California. He has 40 field archaeologists under him, and theirs is an uncertain profession. China's building boom is unearthing artifacts everywhere, looters are rampant, and the government is often ambivalent about reinterpreting the past.

A sturdy man with a beard going gray at the edges, Tala has been digging in Inner Mongolia for 25 years. He works under China's guiding policy for protecting cultural relics, called "cooperation with national construction." It is a bureaucratic euphemism that holds for almost all archaeology in China: Tala's chief task is to salvage sites before highways, railroads, power plants, and other projects destroy them.

Before recent archaeological work, Liao history could only be reconstructed from Chinese-language sources. The Liao dynastic history describes the outlines of Liao culture in terms that Chinese historians could fathom--the economy, the government bureaucracy, the size and force of the cavalry, the number of vassal states. Other Chinese chronicles gave sketches of life and customs in Liao society, but they did not anticipate the profound impact that Liao innovations would have on China.


In 2003, archaeologists found a woman buried in a Liao-era tomb with a headdress similar to those worn by modern shamans. (Inner Mongolia Archaeological Research Institute)

Scholars agree Liao rulers adapted Chinese customs and traditions over time. They governed the sedentary Chinese population with a civil bureaucracy modeled on the earlier Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907): they wore Chinese dress on ceremonial occasions, built Chinese-style temples and pagodas that surpassed those built by Chinese empires, and adopted the dragon as a sacred emblem. Yet the Liao also followed the traditions of their nomadic culture. They continued to practice shamanism, and on the day of the winter solstice, they slaughtered a white sheep, a white horse, and a white goose. The Liao worshiped the mountains, the sun, and the moon, as well as the Buddha.

Chinese literati, living in some of the world's most cosmopolitan cities, did not understand these native customs, and sometimes their observations were insulting. One Chinese writer witnessed the preparation of the second Liao emperor Deguang's corpse after he died in battle, in A.D. 946. The intestines were removed and the body was filled with salt and fragrant herbs, then the arms and feet were wrapped in copper wire. The Chinese writer called the preserved remains "imperial dried meat."

"It goes without saying that Chinese and Khitan were hostile to each other," Tala says. "How can people who eat grass conquer we who eat grain? How can people who wear animal pelts compare to we who wear clothes? When we put the Liao artifacts on display in China people were shocked," he says. "They never imagined that people who rode horses could make such beautiful things."

Jake Hooker works for The New York Times in Beijing.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America