The Khitans: from Mongolic tribe to rulers of an empire

by C.B. Liddell

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.

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.

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. www.geidai.ac.jp/museum.