The Khitans (Chinese: Qidan 契丹) were a non-Chinese people that dominated northern China from the late 9th century on. A tribal chieftain united the Khitans in a federation and founded the Liao dynasty 遼 (907-1125) that ruled northern China for more than two centuries before it was destroyed by the Jurchens.
The ethnical and linguistic affiliation of the Khitans is still not clear. Some scholars call them proto-Mongols. Traditional Chinese scholars did not much care about such matters and just called them offsprings of the Xianbei 鮮卑, a proto-Turkic federation that had ruled the northern steppe in the 3rd and 4th centuries.
The Khitans have created an own script, based on the Chinese script, in order to write in their own language (see Khitan script).
The Khitans are first mentioned in the Korean history Samguk sagi 三國史記 and shortly later appear in the Chinese history Weishu 魏書 where they are described in a separate "biography" (契丹传 Qidan zhuan). The Beishi 北史, Suishu 隋書, the two Tangshu 唐書 and the two Wudaishi 五代史 all have separate accounts on the Khitans. During the Southern and Northern Dynasties period they roamed the steppe between the Liao River 遼河 and the Šira Mören River (in Chinese known as Xilamulun 西拉木倫河). The Chinese histories report that it was custom among them not to weep at the death of the parents because this would be an expression of weekness. The corpses were laid on a rack for three years. After that period the remains were burnt in a special ceremony.
There were eight tribes, namely the Xiwandan 悉萬丹, Hedahe 何大何, Fufuyu 伏弗郁, Yuling 羽陵, Rilian 日連, Piqie 匹挈, Li 黎 and Tuliuhan 吐六干 (or Tuliuyu 吐六于), all in Chinese transcription. The Khitan federation first presented tributes to the Northern Yan dynasty 北燕 (409-436), which on her part enfeoffed the qagan ("khan") as Prince Guishan 歸善王. During the Northern Wei period 北魏 (386-534) the Khitans regularly presented tributed to the Wei court in the shape of horses and animal skins. There was a regular border trade in Helong 和龍 (modern Chaoyang 朝陽) and Miyun 密雲. In 553 the Khitans were heavily defeated by the armies of the Northern Qi empire 北齊 (550-577) and lost a large part of their population, and also many cattle. In 584 they declared their submission to the Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618). During the early years of the 7th century the family Dahe 大賀 wielded great power among the chieftains and unified the Khitan tribes in a federation that was able to raise 34,000 males as troops. During war all eight tribes joined together, yet for civilian activities like hunting, the tribes acted on their own. In 619 the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) court set up the prefecture of Liaozhou 遼州 which was to be indirectly administered by the Tang through the Khitan chieftains as quasi-state officials of the Tang. In 648 the area command (dudufu 都督府) of Songmo 松漠 was established, with 10 prefectures. Kuge Qagan 窟哥, highest leader of the Khitan federation, was appointed commander-in-chief (dudu 都督) and was allowed to bare the imperial surname Li 李. he was furthermore enfeoffed as District Baron of Wuji 無極縣男. His descendant Li Jinzhong 李盡忠 joined with a powerful chieftain, Sun Wangrong 孫歲榮, in rebellion against the Tang in 696. After his first victory at Yingzhou 營州 he adopted the title of Supreme Qagan 無上可汗. His sudden death and the takover by Sun Wanrong ended this short period of dominance. The Tang sought for support by the Turks and defeated the Khitans. The Khitans thereupon submitted to the Later Turkic empire for a decade or so, but in 716 again, the highest leader Li Shihuo 李失活 declared his submission to the Tang. He was appointed commander-in-chief of Songmu and enfeoffed as Commandery Prince of Songmo 松漠郡王 and granted the title of great general of the insignia of the imperial encampment (xingzai jinwu da jiangjun 行在金吾大将军. He was also given a Chinese princess to his wife. His successor Li Guozhe 李過折 was killed in 735 by a certain Nili 泥禮, and this was the end of the domination of the family Dahe.
For defense measures the Chinese court set up the military commands of Fanyang 范陽 and Pinglu 平盧. Yet instead of protecting Tang China against the Khitans, the military commissioner An Lushan 安禄山 used these garrisons as a base for his rebellion against the Tang dynasty. After the rebellion was ended, the Khitans again submitted to the Tang and presented tributes for a while, before the Khitans came under the sway of the Uighur federation 回鹘 that dominated the western part of the the steppe in the late 8th century. In the mid-9th century the Uighurs were defeated, and the Khitans again became subject to the Tang dynasty. The federation was during that time led by the family Nian 輦 until 907 when the qaganship was taken over by Abaoji 阿保機 from the Yelü family 耶律. In 916 he united all Khitan tribes, proclaimed himself not only qagan, but also emperor (as Liao Taizu 遼太祖, r. 907-927), of the empire of the Qidan (Qidan guo 契丹國). Abaoji had created an own script for the Khitan language, modeled on the Chinese script. He also had imitated the administrative structure of the Chinese empires, established a capital and adopted a reign title. After the destruction of the empire of Bohai 渤海 in the east, he also adopted the dynastic name of Liao, according to the river in the heart of his empire. The Liao empire dominated the weak dynasties in China's north during the first half of the 10th century and was a match for the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279), founded in 960. The most famous incidents proving the power of the Liao empire was the forced cession of sixteen prefectures (shiliu zhou 十六州) by the Later Jin dynasty 後晉 (936-946) in 936, and the treaty of Chanyuan 澶淵 concluded in 1004 by which the Liao empire forced the Song to present annual tributes and to accept the Liao ruler as the "older brother". The empire of the Khitans was the first in a long series to be ruled by foreign dynasties that the Chinese could not simply do away with as barbarians. The cultural prevalence of the many Chinese subjects in the Liao empire caused Emperor Shengzong 遼聖宗 (r. 982-1030) to rename his country in Kitan. Only in 1066 the name Liao was again adopted as the official name of the realm, at least in Chinese documents.
In 1125 the Liao empire was crushed, yet by another foreign dynasty, the Jurchen Jin dynasty 金 (1115-1234). Shortly before the final blow to the Liao empire, Prince Yelü Dashi 耶律大石 (emperor Dezong 西遼德宗, r. 1124-1143) left with a few thousands of Khitans for the west where he founded the Western Liao empire 西遼, by the Uighurs called Kara Kitan "Black Khitans". This empire lasted until 1218 when it was destroyed by the Mongols. Their rulers had adopted the Christian faith. In its last months the Western Liao empire was reigned by a Naiman ruler.
The Khitans were so prevalent in northern China and into Central Asia that medieval Western travelers called China “Cathay” or "Kitai", a designation still used in Russia today.
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Chen Shu 陳述 (1992). "Qidan 契丹", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史, vol. 2, p. 767. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.
Chen Shu 陳述 (1992). "Qidan 契丹", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Minzu 民族, pp. 367-368. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.