The Khitan people were nomads who originated from the Xianbei (early Mongolians) and occupied China’s northern frontier before the rise of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). They were part of the Kumo Xi tribe which later split into two groups in 388 AD: the group that retained the Kumo XI name and the Khitan (Ch’i-tan) which appeared in Chinese records in the fourth century AD. This led to the rise of the Khitans and the defeat of the Tatars which is recorded on the Biblical Timeline with World History after the start of 800 AD.
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During the last years of the Sui Dynasty (581-618), the Khitan people united and invaded the Chinese provinces of Hebei and Shaanxi. They later established good relations with the Tang during the Dynasty’s early years. To control the tribe, the imperial court gave their leader a distinctly Chinese-sounding surname of Li, as well as appointed him the governor of his people who lived in Tang territories. The Li clan rose to prominence within the tribe, as well as the imperial court and many of their own men later served as Tang soldiers and generals.
The Gokturks (Tu’chueh), the Khitan people’s powerful Turkic neighbors, rose during the latter part of the eighth century. When they rebelled against the Tang, the Gokturks attacked the rear of the Khitans’ army to prevent them from dominating the steppes just in case they win against Tang China. The Khitans’ ally, the Hsi, also switched sides to the Tang. This caused the group to be defeated and driven out of China.
The Gokturks’ power declined, and Tang China continued to expand its borders. The Khitan people had no choice but to submit to them once again. However, their submission to China did not last long after dissatisfied tribesmen opposed their tribe’s subjugation to China and launched a renewed rebellion. A new Khitan leader named Ketuya emerged during the 720s. He was pushed into the center of the rebellion after he experienced the arrogance of a high-ranking Tang official in the imperial court. He was not one to let the offense pass, so 10 years later Ketuya killed the Khitan king and rebelled against the Tang by submitting to the Gokturks as vassals. Ketuya was killed four years later, but the Tang would never regain complete control of the Khitans.
Power changed hands once again in the succeeding years of the ninth century when the Gokturks while another Turkic group of people, the Uyghur, rose to prominence. With a new powerful neighbor, the Khitans once again submitted themselves as vassals. A renewed Tang-Khitan alliance ended their submission to the Uyghurs. China, by then, had split into different provinces that were ruled by different warlords. The Khitans, meanwhile, took advantage of China’s weakened state to unite their own people. The last years of the Tang saw the rise of the renowned Khitan leader, Abaoji, who would eventually become the first Liao Dynasty Emperor Taizu, one of China’s alien dynasties.
Abaoji was a prominent warrior of the Ila tribe of the Khitan.. He later became the commander of the khagan’s (the Mongolian equivalent of an emperor) personal bodyguard. He then became the chieftain of the Ila in 901 AD and proceeded to attack the neighboring Shiwei, Jurchen, and their former ally, the Hsi. Abaoji was elected as the successor of the deposed Khitan khagan and immediately started the domination of a militarized but divided China. He went on to establish the Liao Dynasty which dominated China for another 200 years. They also subdued the Zubu, a neighboring Tatar tribe, in the 10th century. Emperor Shengzong of Liao quelled a Zubu bid for independence in 983 and finally forced to submit to the Khitan ruler in 1003.
Pictcure By Crop of work done by English Wikipedia user Talessman – File:Asia 1025ad.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18353938
Franke, Herbert, and Denis Twitchett. The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 6: Alien Regimes and Border States, 907-1368. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Mote, Frederick W. Imperial China, 900-1800. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
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