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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Feb 10, 2020

Contrary to some popular internet opinions, the Mongol Empire was not an unprecedented, utterly unique presence on the stage of world history. It was neither the first or the last nomadic empire, though it was certainly the greatest. This depiction of the Mongol Empire as a total historical aberration is due, perhaps, to a lack of context. When one learns of the Mongols through hyperbole and dramatized retellings of the rise of Chinggis Khan, it neighbours portrayed only long enough to explain their destruction, it is easy to feel you’re learning about perhaps the only nomadic empire to really conquer anything, instead of just raiding. In this episode, we will provide first a very brief history of Mongolia based nomadic empires- not encyclopedic, but enough to give you an idea of what the precedent here was. Then, we will explain the first of what is known in Chinese history as the ‘conquest dynasties,’ the Khitan Liao Dynasty, the Tangut Xi Xia Dynasty, and the Jurchen Jin Dynasty, who laid the groundwork for the Asia Chinggis Khan would emerge into. With that background, it will make puts the events of the conquest of China into greater context for you, our dear listener, so that the significance of particular events should perhaps take greater event. Now, prepare yourself as we take a speedy 1,000 year journey through Mongolian and northern Chinese history. 

In broad strokes, we must first note that the Empire founded by Chinggis Khan in 1206 was not the first empire ever based in Mongolia. For that honour we must go back over 1400 years to the Xiongnu Empire, a tribal confederation founded around 209 BCE, perhaps a reaction to the unification of China under their first imperial dynasty, the Qin Dynasty. The well known Terracotta warriors come from the magnificent tomb of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, to place this into a well known context. The Xiongnu’s military might put the Qin’s successors, the famed Han Dynasty into what was essentially a vassal relationship, forcing them to send tribute for decades. Before the rise of the Mongols, the Xiongnu were the archetypal nomadic threat to the Chinese, who struggled to find ways to successfully resist their pressure. One effort was to ‘civilize’ the Xiongnu by sending them Chinese brides and goods, to force the Xiongnu to become dependent on them. It proved expensive and unsuccessful, and with the Xiongnu based still in Mongolia, they could maintain the divide between their society and the Chinese. The Han saw more success militarily, building border walls, expanding towards Central Asia to cut off the Xiongnu from their client kingdoms on whom they depended for revenues and forming alliances with various tribes along the Xiongnu’s border- although military operations into Mongolia proper were difficult and costly for the Chinese. What finally allowed the Han to overcome the Xiongnu was the end of their long unity. Unlike effectively every other nomadic confederation to follow them, the Xiongnu maintained a remarkable degree of unity from 209 until 60 BCE. The civil war which broke out over the Xiongnu ruler’s succession was the true end of their confederation. Various claimants sought support from the Chinese, increasing Chinese influence, weakening the central authority of the Xiongnu ruler, encouraging their enemies and ultimately, resulting in the fragmentation of the confederation and rise of other powers in Mongolia.


Now, you may ask, why did we have all that preamble for events literally over a millennium before Chinggis Khan? The reason is because of trends which will be apparent in this, and future episodes:

  1. The significance of Chinese goods and tribute, as something desired by the nomads, and a tool to be used by Chinese with the intention of ‘corrupting,’ or from the Chinese point of view, ‘civilizing’ the nomads, forcing them to lose their military edge in favour of the finer things.
  2. The great military potential of the nomads, and the difficulty the various Chinese dynasties had operating militarily directly in the vast Mongolian steppe, where the nomads could easily escape on horseback or surround them
  3. And nomadic unity: when they organized, the various nomadic powers were an incredibly potent weapon. But when they fragmented, invariably due to a succession crisis, their infighting was horrific, and old micro-tribal loyalties would assert themselves over the macro-tribal confederation. Wise Chinese dynasties would play these tribes off on-another, providing goods, resources or even military support to a certain leader, keeping the nomads at each other’s throats and preventing them from unifying and directing their fearsome energy to the south.


The Xiongnu was among the most stable and longest lasting tribal union in Mongolia’s history. Among these successors included the Xianbei confederation, founded in the late first century CE, then the Rouran, the first to use the title of Khan, then the Gokturk Khaganaes, and the Uighur Khaganate, which collapsed in 840 CE. All rose to power in what is now modern Mongolia, forming mighty empires which spanned huge territory and threatened the Chinese Dynasties. The Gokturks, in particular, saw their influence stretch even to Crimea, and proved highly influential to Turkic peoples who emerged in the following centuries.


One thing we have not noted as of yet, is the make up of these empires. Were they Mongols? Proto-Mongolic? Turks? Irish? Well, prior to the Gokturks, known also as the Turkic Khaganates, who were unequivocally turkic tribes speaking turkic languages, the make up of these confederations is a messy, messy thing. Many a long academic paper has been written arguing for Mongolic, Altaic, Tungusic, Turkic, and many more, for the identity of these various earlier empires. These were all ethnically quite diverse, various tribes united by charismatic leadership or by one tribes military might. This is part of why these states suffered such violent fragmentations: once that leadership stopped being charismatic enough, generally associated with the death of a major monarch and conflict for the throne between his sons or brothers, then those old tribal ties would reassert themselves. These were not nation-states, but better thought of as military alliances. The constituent peoples who made up the empire could have all been nomads, but speaking totally unrelated languages, lacking a common identity beyond “we’re not sedentary or Chinese.”


The Uighur Khaganate, a Turkic empire, was destroyed in 840 under the assault of the Yenisei Kirghiz, who did not establish their own empire. Many Uighur moved south, to Gansu and Turfan in what is now modern China. With the fall of the Uighurs, and at a similar time the Tibetan Kingdom, China’s mighty Tang Dynasty, the most powerful Dynasty since the Han and the latest to unify the country, had lost its main rivals of the last century, and had no major nomadic threat on its border. However, the Tang Dynasty was well past its prime and collapsed in 907, creating a power vacuum across the whole of China. While China went through its favourite process of small kingdoms fighting their way back to unity, in the north a people speaking a Mongolic-language had unified, and were to proclaim their own kingdom, the first of the conquest dynasties. 


Oh yes, you guessed it: the Khitans! 


A nomadic group from southern Manchuria, culturally and linguistically close to the Mongols, under their chief Abaoji they declared their own empire after the final collapse of the Tang in the early 900s. Now, this was not a confederation/military alliance in the likes of the Xiongnu, where the ruler’s actual authority outside of military direction was limited, but a true, structured state, one which took on the outward trappings of a Chinese dynasty. In fact, among other things, they took their own dynastic name in the style of other Chinese Dynasties, Abaoji choosing Liao, from a river in their territory in southern Manchuria. The Khitan Liao empire incorporated much of Mongolia, Manchuria, and the very north of China, with what is now modern Beijing made their southern capital, a part of China known to their contemporaries as the 16 prefectures. The Khitans practiced a style of government which would be picked up by their nomadic successors, known as the dual administration system, to accommodate the nomadic tribesmen and vast sedentary Chinese population within their empire. Under this system, the nomadic tribes who made up the military core, command and the elite, were governed according to their own tribal customs, while the Chinese were separately administered under their own laws, its bureaucracy there based off the Tang model.


In Mongolia, the Khitan presence was not extensive, but it was notable especially in the east. Military forts and garrisons were established across the steppe, such as Bars-Hot, which were also centres of trade and provided valuable, reliable smiths. Essentially, they kept the peace, offering a stability to the region, though details on this aspect come as much from archaeology as they do the textual record: what happened on the steppe between nomads was not often of interest to Chinese writers. It does not seem to have been a level of control like that of the Manchu occupation centuries later.


Khitan rule in northern China lasted two centuries, and their name became the basis for Kitai or Cathay, the name by which China is known in a number of languages. Their rule was not uncontested: the most notable conflict was with the Song Dynasty which emerged in the south, swallowing up the petty kingdoms south of the Yellow River in the decades following the collapse of the Tang. The Song will be a dynasty we will revisit later in this series, but for now know this: while the northern conquest dynasties were ruled by nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples over a Chinese population, the Song were ruled by Chinese and considered themselves the heirs of Tang, though deliberately weakened the power of their military, to their later chagrin. The Song sought to bring the aforementioned 16 prefectures back under Chinese rule, and to this end fought a series of inconclusive wars with the Liao. The Song proved unable to wrest control from the Liao, while the Khitans were unable to push deep into Song territory, though they had a notable expedition to the Song capital of Kaifeng, culminating in the Treaty of Chanyuan in 1005, finalizing the border and the Song providing large amounts of silver and silk annually to appease the Liao. This was an often uneasy peace, one punctuated by raids and expeditions. The Song, for their part, cultivated extensive forests along their border with the Liao, an effort to hampher the cavalry which was so important to the Khitans. 


The other notable relationship which emerged in this period, was with the Tangut Kingdom, known also as the Xi Xia Dynasty. The Tangut ancestors were a Tibetan people who had moved into the Gansu corridor, a sparse desert region of oasis cities, the great Ordos loop of the western Yellow River and the fertile valley known today as Ningxia. Slowly granted rights by the Tang Emperors, like many others they asserted their independence with the fall of the Tang, first as Kings, then in 1038 declaring their own empire, taking the dynastic name of Xi Xia, though they knew themselves as the State of White and High. The Tangut Kingdom was a peculiar little state: Buddhism was strong there, with Chinese Confucianism finding little ground. It was a diverse though small population of approximately three million, with Tangut rulers, about half the general population Han Chinese, and the remainder various Turkic or Tibetan peoples, a strong nomadic and agricultural element. They created their own script, visually similar to Chinese but distinct: likewise, their government had Chinese trappings but internally unique, and did not use the dual administration system of the Liao. Unfortunately due to the Mongols, little information on their internal structure survives to us. They had a strong, cavalry based military, though they lacked the great offensive potential of their neighbours in the steppes or the Khitans. Generally seen as trade oriented, especially in the 12th century they turned their attention to the silk routes in the west as much as they did the east, and had influence towards the Tarim Basin. A favoured destination for leaders in the Mongolian steppe seeking refuge, their relationship with the Khitan was amicable and had marriage relations with them: while with the Song Dynasty it often took the form of raids, urging the Khitans to join them in attack. Visually, the Tangut had a rather unique hair style which bears brief mention: known as a tufa, the head was shaved except for the bangs and temples, framing the forehead.Trust me when I say it is incredibly ugly, but it does make it easy to identify them in surviving artworks.


Though their rule was long, the Liao rulers after Abaoji were not his equals. Much like their successor conquest dynasties, the Khitan struggled between adopting Chinese customs and maintaining their nomadic heritage. One place this was manifested was the succession, something to take note of for future discussion. The Liao Emperor, often influenced by his wives,often wanted t a designated heir, as per the Chinese style. Yet the Khitan elite wanted to maintain the nomadic preference for electing who they saw as the most suitable ruler, a choice which could be from the emperor’s sons or brothers. In this case, most suitable often meant whoever had developed the greatest military reputation or contacts, or who this elite thought could be most malleable. These disputes could manifest into assassination, and neither the Liao nor the Mongols would ever find a suitable solution to this problem at the imperial level. The later Liao Emperors struggled to deal with the rebellions along their borders, such as the Tatars in Mongolia, and in Manchuria, the Bo-hai peoples of the former Bo-hai kingdom in the far east, and the Jurchen tribes in the north, and the ones to usurp the Khitans.


The Jurchen tribes were the ancestors of the Manchu, and a semi-nomadic Tungusic people, nomadizing only a part of the year and inhabiting a large swath of territory from northeastern Manchuria towards the Yalu River. The Liao court classified them into three broad groups, based on proximity to China: the ‘civilized’ Jurchen, the closest, around the Liao River who were under firm control and generally assimilated to Chinese culture. North of them were the ‘obedient’ Jurchen, under regular contact and, well, obedient. Beyond them were the largest group, the ‘wild’ Jurchen, of the middle valley of the Sungari and the eastern mountains of Heilongjiang. They were vassals of the Liao, but the court held little direct power there. Originally split between numerous small tribes and clans in spread out villages, over the eleventh century the wild Jurchen were gradually unified by the Wan-yen clan, who gained recognition and titles from the Liao. Though the Liao court held little direct control over the wild Jurchen, they could still pose a threat if they turned their might to them, and the Jurchen rankled over the perceived abuses of the Khitan border guards, a sentiment worked up by the ambitious Wan-yen chief, Aguda. 


The ultimate fall of the Liao Dynasty rose from a well known incident. It was the custom of the Liao Emperor to go on seasonal hunting and fishing trips into Manchuria, during which the tribes and chiefs of the region would come and pay homage to the Liao Emperor. As a gesture of submission, each chief would stand up and dance before him. During this ceremony in winter 1112, when it came time for Aguda to dance before the emperor, he refused. Annoyed, the Liao Emperor asked him again. Again, Aguda refused. On the third time, Aguda still refused. Incensed, the Liao Emperor wanted to execute Aguda for his insolence, but was talked out of it by his chancellor, allegedly saying something along the lines of ‘what harm could he do?’


In 1113, Aguda was elected chief of the Wild Jurchen; in autumn 1114, he began raiding the Liao frontier. That winter, he crushed Liao armies sent against him, and several border prefectures surrendered to him. By the start of 1115, Aguda had declared himself emperor of a new Jin Dynasty. What followed was the shockingly quick collapse of the Liao. A campaign by the Liao Emperor against Aguda was undermined when his court appointed his uncle as emperor in his absence. The Bo-hai in the east rebelled, killed their Khitan viceroy and submitted to the Jurchen. In 1118, Aguda crossed the Liao River, and the next year the Song Dynasty opened contact with the Jin, hoping to use this as a chance to regain those lost prefectures.


After a round of failed negotiations between Jin and Liao, war resumed in 1120. The supreme capital of the Liao Dynasty fell almost immediately, the imperial tombs sacked. By 1122, the Liao Emperor fled to inner Mongolia while his empire was swallowed by the Jurchen armies, their heavy cavalry rolling over all in their path. The Tangut attempted to aid the Khitans, but their army was swiftly defeated and forced to offer tribute. The Song, their armies initially distracted by war with the Tangut and an internal revolt, were finally able to attack the Liao, though embarrassingly were repulsed. This would not be the last time the Song would ally against their current enemy with a dangerous nomadic group from the north.


The final Liao emperor was soon joined by the able general Yelu Dashi, a distant relation who brought with him the empress and a number of Khitan troops. Yelu Dashi however, quickly became disillusioned with the Liao Emperor’s incompetence and abandoned him, gathering up the Khitan garrisons of Mongolia and moving west to Central Asia. There, he founded the Qara-Khitai Empire, a state we will revisit in the future. By doing so, the garrison outposts in Mongolia were abandoned, and there was no reason at this time for the Jin to expand their presence into the steppe, leaving Mongolia in a power vacuum. The Liao Emperor was finally captured in 1125 by the Jin, and spent his final years humiliated and imprisoned. Thus ended the Liao Dynasty.


Aguda did not live to see this great success, dying in 1123 a few months after concluding the alliance treaty with the Song. The Song still hoped to gain those prefectures back, but their poor military performance, and the overwhelming might of the Jin armies, radically changed the balance of power as the Liao state disintegrated. The relationship was tense, and by the end of 1125 the Jin under Aguda’s brother attacked the Song. Once more, Jin success was shocking. By 1127, the Song capital of Kaifeng had fallen, the emperor captured and the dynasty was reeling. Jin advance forces were even able to cross the Yangtze River. Yet it seems the speed and scale of their conquest was too rapid, and they struggled to hold onto the vast territory they now controlled. Local militias sprang up to resist the Jurchen, and Song forces rallied under the command of the talented Yue Fei, who pushed the Jin back over the 1130s, culminating in a peace treaty in 1142 which set the Huai River as their border. The older Song-Liao treaty was used as a basis, and the Song had to deliver 250,000 bales of silk and bolts and silver yearly, and the Jin Emperor was to be regarded as the ‘elder brother’ of the Song emperor, now based in Hangzhou in the south. Though the war would flare up again between the two, the treaty of 1142 effectively set the borders of China until the Mongol conquests. 


For the Song Dynasty, this was a grand humiliation, the total loss of northern China to the invaders. 1127 is the end of what is known as the ‘Northern Song Dynasty,’ its salvaged successor the ‘Southern Song,’ which found trade and economics more to their skill than military aspects. The Jin Dynasty, at its height in the 12th century, was perhaps the single greatest military on earth. The Jurchen state had a number of problems however. Perhaps four million Jurchens now ruled over fifty million northern Chinese. Many of the Khitans of the Liao had not left with Yelu Dashi, but remained in northern China. The Jin borders were distant, their territory vast: garrisoning the entire kingdom with just Jurchen troops was impossible. Khitans and Chinese were incorporated in large numbers into the army, but excluded from promotion in both the military and government. The Khitans, still skilled horsemen, did not forget or forgive the loss of their dynasty, and rebelled periodically. The long reign of Emperor Shizong, from 1161-1189 was a golden age for Jin rule, but saw a growing sinicization of the Jurchen rulers, separating them from their kinsmen remaining in Manchuria. Under Shizong’s successors, corruption became endemic and was compounded by intense natural disasters, particularly devastating flooding of the Yellow River in the early 1190s. Like the Liao, the Jin ruled through a dual administrative structure, and maintained the Liao practice of having five capitals, one of which was at the site of modern Beijing. Prohibitions were made preventing Jurchen from wearing Chinese clothes or to learn Chinese and vice versa, in an effort to preserve Jurchen culture, and Chinese were even forbidden from calling the Jurchen ‘barbarians.’ Unique Jurchen scripts were developed, and Jurchen bards were to play the old songs in the emperor’s presence. These efforts could not halt the steady flow of assimilation, however, and only in the Manchurian homeland, removed from the Chinese culture altogether, were any Jurchens able to resist sinicization


This was China as the Mongols would find it in the thirteenth century: the Jurchen ruled Jin Dynasty in the north, a massive military power but spread thin over its vast borders, its rulers adopting Chinese customs, important sections of its military and population, especially the Khitans, feeling alienated and disrupted by natural disasters. Conflict would be renewed with the Song Dynasty in the south in 1206, the heirs of the Tang Dynasty who still dreamt of bringing the north back under Chinese control, but though their economic might in the Asian trade routes was significant, militarily they were not the equals of the conquest dynasties. In the northwest, the Tangut ruled Xi Xia dynasty bordered the Mongolian steppe, a small but sturdy state which was the vassals of the Jin, but had no great love for the Jurchen. A fractured China, ready to descend into warfare with the correct spark. That sparks name would be Chinggis Khan.


We hope that you have enjoyed this introduction to 13th century, a basis for our explanation on the upcoming Mongol conquests, so be sure to hit subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!