Tang dynasty influences on the Khitan empire and Daur population links

The Khitans: from Mongolic tribe to rulers of an empire
News photo

Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012

Worldly and spiritual riches: Gilt-silver crown (above) with a phoenix design (1018) and a stone buddha in Nirvana (1049).

Worldly and spiritual riches: Gilt-silver crown (left) with a phoenix design (1018) and a stone buddha in Nirvana (1049).

Special to The Japan Times
When I visited “The Splendor of the Khitan Dynasty” at the University Art Museum, Tokyo, I got a funny feeling that Japan somehow wanted to preserve good diplomatic relations with this mighty Empire. This makes perfectly good sense given this state’s great military strength and strategic position in North East Asia, but absolutely no sense chronologically as the Khitan Empire (907-1125 ) has long since ceased to be.

Despite having nothing to fear from the nonexistent Khitan embassy, the exhibition treads warily and shows too much deference. It also makes scant mention of the Khitans’ once fearsome military reputation. At times the show even comes across like a tourist promotion.

The show is divided into four sections: Nomadic Art, Inheriting Tang Traditions, Cities in the Steppes, and A Buddhist Country under Azure Skies. They all sound a warm, friendly, positive note, and they create a narrative of gradually enriching cultural and social progress that sits uneasily with the historical facts of the Empire’s decline and sudden downfall in 1125. A narrative that steered closer to the turbulent currents of history would have painted a far more interesting picture.

Most of the stuff worth seeing at the show comes from tombs discovered under the steppes of Inner Mongolia, including that of Princess Chen, an unfortunate young lady who passed away at the age of 18. In the first section of the exhibition, we can see her gold burial mask, her silver threaded burial suit, which looks rather like a fishnet body stocking, a pair of impressive gilt-silver boots with a phoenix motif, and her gilt-silver crown with similar decoration. There is also a great deal of horse-riding equipment and accoutrements.

Princess Chen: Gold burial mask (1018)

These have been dated to the year 1018, near the midpoint of the empire’s existence, which stretches from its foundation in 907, shortly after the collapse of the powerful Chinese Tang Dynasty, to its demise in 1125. What they reveal is a society in transition. Like many originally nomadic people from the plains of Eurasia, their rise to power was founded on two pillars: a fierce hunter-warrior culture and their ability to fight on horseback.

The contents of Princess Chen’s grave reveal a pagan belief in an afterlife. The Khitans believed the dead traveled to the sacred mountain of Tsaghan Khoton, where they lived together with their horses in an afterlife. It was therefore important for them to arrive equipped with the riches of this life as well as with their animals, which were sacrificed in order to accompany them.

Buried treasure: Painted wooden coffin (early 10th century) RESEARCH INSTITUTE OF CULTURAL RELICS AND ARCHAEOLOGY OF INNER MONGOLIA

Although they overran much of Northern China, the Khitans retained their links to their nomadic past. Their “Supreme Capital” was located on the steppes of Mongolia with four auxiliary capitals around it, including their southern capital, which later became Beijing.

But despite their efforts to retain their culture and identity as nomadic warriors, they slowly started to fall under the power of Chinese culture. Princess Chen’s gilt-silver crown is not only decorated with the Chinese motif of the phoenix, but also surmounted by a small golden figure of the Buddha. Despite the essentially pagan and shamanistic nature of this grave, the Buddhist influence is unmistakable and over time it became stronger.

The exhibition includes many Buddhist pieces including an impressive reclining marble Buddha, dated 1049, from the stunning White Pagoda that still stands on the ruins of the former Supreme Capital. During the reign of the Emperor Shengzong (982-1031), Buddhism seems to have been ascendant, especially among the ruling elite.

Along with other refinements of Chinese civilization, this may have made it easier to govern the subject Chinese population, but it seems to have also affected the warrior spirit of the Khitans, on which the empire was founded. In 1005, expansion to the south was abandoned when the Shanyuan Peace Treaty was signed with the Song Empire, which had successfully united the rest of China. This treaty, which also included large annual tributes of silver, tea and other goods from the Song empire, lasted until 1121 when a combined attack by the Song and the fierce Jurchen people of Manchuria destroyed the Khitan Empire and created a new power in the North in the form of the Jin Empire.

The period between the early aggressive expansion of the Khitans and the sudden demise of their empire was a time of relative peace that saw far-ranging trade and rising material comfort. The exhibition dwells on this with a number of items such as tea bowls and silver utensils that serve to show just how close the Khitans were to Asian nations today. But while they drank their tea and made obeisance to their buddhas, the cataclysm that was to destroy their empire was brewing. Perhaps this is why they don’t have an embassy in Tokyo.

“The Splendor of the Khitan Dynasty” at the University Art Museum, Tokyo runs till Sep 17; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,400. Closed Mon. http://www.geidai.ac.jp/museum.


For more insights to the Khitan peoples see:

DNA tribes “Generals of the Steppes: Basic genetic contributions of Tungusic, Mongolic and Turkic populations

The Khitans (or “Qi Dan” in chnese) were a mongoloid ancient tribe that dwelled in the steppe of the Mongolia. They originated from one of the factions of the Xianbei (or Sianbei) tribe known as “Yu Wen”, which was another ancient steppe tribe that influenced chinese history from 3rd to 5th centuary AD. During the Tang dynasty (Emperor Taizong’s time around 630 AD), the Khitan was under the control from Tang, but the khitan fought several battles against the Tang, but the Tang, in allies with the Turks, defeated the Khitan.

In 10th century AD, the Tang, Turks and Uygurs declined, allowing the khitan a chance to revive. In 907 AD, the military chieftan of Khitan, Yelu Ahbao, gained control and proclaimed himself to be the Khitan Khan. He unified the 8 tribes of Khitan and in 916 AD, proclaimed himself as the Emperor and established the powerful Khitan Empire. Within 10 year’s time, the khitan Empire expanded in Mongolia and North East China, thus becoming the most powerful empire in North China. His son, Yelu Deguang, further expanded the empire in north China, conquered the kingdom of “Late Jin” and in 947 AD, changed the country’s name to “Liao” and had many chance of reaching into central China.

The Liao Dynasty lasted for 210 years and during this time, it formed a tri-political status with Northern Song and Western Xia dynasty in Chinese History.

In 1125, the Liao Empire was conquered by the new Jin Empire. Yelu DaShi fleed to the west to central asia and re-established the Liao, called “Western Liao”. In 1219, the Western Liao was conquered by the Mongols


See DNA Match solves ancient mystery (China.org.cn)

At some time in ancient Chinese history a powerful nation—the Qidan in what is now Inner Mongolia—simply disappeared. Where did these people go? A question that has perplexed scholars for generations may now be solved thanks to DNA.
Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences (CAMS) and others from Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region have concluded that the modern-day Daur people have a genetic match to the Qidan of ancient China, making them possible descendants of the Qidan people.

One of 56 ethnic groups in China with a population of some 121,500, the Daur today mainly live in Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang and Xinjiang where they traditionally have engaged in agriculture and hunting, but now also maintain their own industries.

Liu Fengzhu, a researcher with the Nationalities Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences which first began using DNA technology in its research in 1995, in a recent telephone interview talked about the discovery.

The research team first identified Qidan tombs from inscriptions on memorial tablets. From the Yelu Yu family tombs, they extracted DNA from the skull and teeth as well as carpal bone from Qidan woman corpse. At the same time, blood samples of Daur, Ewenki, Mongol and Han people in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region were collected. From the blood samples, the researchers extracted DNA.

After sequence testing, they concluded that people of Daur ethnic group are all descendants of Qidan nationality.

Researchers also found possible links to the Qidan in other regions. They collected blood samples of the people with surnames of A, Mang and Jiang and other ethnic groups in Yunnan Province, who previously had claimed themselves descendants of Qidan rather than the ethnic groups such as Blang and Yi with which they were categorized on the founding of the People’s Republic of China more than 50 years ago.

“We found that the people in Yunnan Province with surnames of A, Mang and Jiang have similar patrilineal origins with Daur, so we identified them as descendants of Qidan, too,” Liu said.

The more than 100,000 people with surnames of A, Mang and Jiang who live mainly in Baoshan and Ruili districts of southwest Yunnan were particularly pleased that the DNA test substantiated their earlier claims.

Qidan was a nomadic tribe in ancient north China, living on fishing and hunting. They came into power in the last years of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) as people from central uplands who brought with them advanced agricultural and manufacturing technologies. In the year 916, Yeluabaoji, the chief of the Qidan nationality, became the first emperor of the Qidan State. The Qidan created their own written characters and had an official name of “Liao Dynasty (916-1125),” when many ethnic groups banded together.

Records about the Qidan nationality suddenly stopped in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), together with its culture, and what happened to them has remained a matter of speculation.

Liu Fengzhu believes the Qidan people were scattered through war, which explains the presence of their descendants in different areas of China. Liu said the Qidan, like many other groups, would have faced recruitment as soldiers by the Mongols in the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) as they established the Great Mongol Empire which stretched over Europe and Asia.

“Some continued to live in a big group, such as Daur, so they are preserved. Some were assimilated by the people where they came live, just like ice in the sea. But those in Yunnan Province managed to keep the memory of the original ethnic group.”

Actually, the fate of the Qidan is not so unusual, Liu said. Similar cases can be found among other minority groups. For example, some Uygur people (a major ethnic group of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region) now live in Taoyuan County of Hunan Province.

(china.org.cn by Li Jinhui 08/02/2001)


Ancient Khitan nobleman ‘reborn’ on computer screen (People’s Daily Online)

The facial features of an ancient Khitan nobleman of the Liao Dynasty (916-1125), restored from skeletal remains, have vividly appeared on the computer screen of the Frontier Archeology Center of Jilin University in northeast China’s Jilin Province.

The skeleton was unearthed in March from a well-preserved tomb, which was decorated with colorful paintings, on Mount Tugaljin in northern China’s Infner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

The archeologists then opened a 1,000-year-old coffin, revealing a body covered in an eight layered silk blanket and wearing a necklace, bells around the ankles and a metal-studded mask and helmet, which was believed to be the remains of a nobleman of the Liao Dynasty founded by the Khitan ethnic group.

In August, the Archeology Institute of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region authorized the frontier archeology center of Jilin University to conduct research on physical anthropology, ethnology, facial image restoration and DNA testing on the skeleton.

Based on several months’ hard work, a three-dimensioned facial reconstruction of the nobleman was achieved.

On the screen of the computer, the facial image was well defined with a long face, short and narrow forehead, small narrow eyes, thin lips, prominent cheekbones and a flat nose.

The nobleman also has headgear, including two tiny braids decorated with some gold chips, a bowknot coiled at the rear of the head, eardrops with beryl studs and an agate necklace.

“The main racial characteristics of the nobleman are identical with the research conducted before on the Khitan, though the nobleman was not good looking,” said Zhu Hong, director of the frontier archeology center.

According to Zhu, who is also the vice president of the literary school under the Jilin University, the material data unearthed from the tomb, including clothes, headgear, eardrops and necklace, supplied rare and accurate information for the restoration work to the skeleton.

In the past, such work was based on cultural relics discovered from other tombs, he said.

Besides the facial reconstruction, the research also includes age and sex identification, and race analysis.

The research showed that the nobleman was a 1.6 m tall and aged30 to 35, which was different from the earlier estimation of a 20-year-old and 1.56-m tall female.

And it was still hard for the archeologists to accurately tell the sex of the nobleman though the head portrait had been restored via computer, said Lin Xuechuan, the key expert on the restoring team.

The conclusion from the race analysis that the nobleman fell into the Mongol ethic group in north Asia fit in perfectly with the earlier verdict made by the archaeologists.

The DNA testing on the ancient Khitan is still underway. It was the first time Chinese scientists had carried out physical anthropology and DNA testing on an ancient Khitan.

In May, the center successfully extracted DNA from the brain of an ancient human excavated from the Laoshan Han Tomb of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).


Evolution and migration history of the Chinese population
inferred from Chinese Y-chromosome evidence by Wei Deng et al.

Y-DNA haplogroups by populations of East and Southeast Asia

(see also XianbeiXianbei-Tuoba and Northern Wei Dynasty; Xianbei vs. Xiongnu; Daurs; Xianbei – a lost Koreanic tribe of Joseon?)

China to Test DNA of Ancient Skeleton (China.org.cn)

Chinese scientists announced Thursday they will soon test the DNA of a skeleton dating back some 1,000 years, hoping to shed more light on the Khitan people.

The research on the skeleton, believed to be the remains of a nobleman of the Liao Dynasty (916-1125), which was founded by the Khitan ethnic group, will include physical anthropology, molecular anthropology and facial reconstruction, said Zhu Hong, director of the Frontier Archeology Center of Jilin University in northeast China’s Jilin Province.

The 1.56-m skeleton was acquired by the Changchun-based archeology center earlier this month.

Scientists said it will be the first time for Chinese scientists to carry out physical anthropology and DNA testing on an ancient Khitan.

The skeleton was unearthed this March from a tomb on Mount Tugaljin in northern China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, according to archeologists.

“We could not find out the exact identity of the skeleton, as we failed to find any inscription in the tomb that might provide a clue,” said Ta La, the head of the team which unearthed the skeleton.

However, scientists and paleoanthropologists at the Frontier Archeology Center said they are optimistic about getting more accurate information on the skeleton through systematic physical anthropology and ancient DNA testing.

In May, the center successfully extracted DNA from the brain of an ancient human excavated from the Laoshan Han Tomb of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).

“We will be able to identify the skeleton’s age, sex and facial image within some two months,” Zhu said. “A lot of significant information about the history of the Khitan people is expected to emerge from the research.”

However, the skeleton’s broken limbs and darkened bones might lead to some difficulty to the study, said scientists at the university’s archeology center.

“We are not 100 percent sure that we can extract DNA from the skeleton,” said Professor Zhu Hong.

Usually ancient human tissue can only be dehydrated and kept in a special environment, and is rarely found in archeological field work. Equipped with China’s first professional DNA research laboratory, the Frontier Archeology Research Center has set up a DNA database on ancient humans and successfully carried out DNA studies of bones of ancient humans found in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Inner Mongolia and Qinghai Province.

(Xinhua News Agency August 29, 2003)

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