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The Khitan people ( ; ), or Khitai or Kidan, were a nomadic people, originally located at Mongoliamarker and Manchuria (the northeastern region of modern day China) from the 4th century. They dominated a vast area in northern China by the 10th century under the Liao Dynasty, but have left few relics that have survived until today. After the fall of Liao in 1125, many Khitans moved further west and established the state of Kara Khitai, which was finally destroyed by the Mongol Empire in 1218.

The Khitai are said to have learned from history. On the one hand, they observed the fearsome effect that steppe cavalry had on the Chinese, through their use by the Uyghurs, Shato, Kyrgyz, and later themselves. On the other, they also noted the effect that the adoption of Chinese writing and other tools of administration had on their cultural integrity.

There is no clear evidence of there being any descendant ethnic groups of the Khitai in modern-day Northeast China, but some recent genetic studies and family genealogy researches have substantiated the hypothesis that the Daur ethnic group of Inner Mongolia are possible descendants of the ancient Khitans. In addition, the Yunnanmarker Han Chinese clans of A, Mang, Jiang, plus dozens of other clans who self-identified as Yelu descents and were called Ben People by other Yuannan ethnic groups claim to be descendants of the Khitai. Furthermore, the Liu clan in a few dozen villages with the name Yelu Zhuang also claim descent from the Yelu clan of the Khitans. During the Liao period, ethnic Khitans were divided into two clans, Yelu and Xiao; Yelu was later sinicized. The Daur language is classified as Mongolic.


There is no consensus on the etymology of the name of Khitan. There are basically three speculations. Feng Jiasheng argues that it comes from the Yuwen chieftains' names. Zhao Zhenji thinks that the term originated from Xianbei and means "a place where Xianbei had resided". Japanese scholar Otagi Matuo considers Khitan's original name is "Xidan", which means "the people who are similar to the Xi people" or "the people who inhabit among the Xi people".

The word "Khitan" survives in the Russian word for Chinamarker (Китай, Kitay), as well as the archaic English (Cathay), Portuguese (Catai), and Spanish (Catay) appellations of the country.


From Xianbei origins, they were part of the Kumo Xi tribe until 388, when the Kumo Xi-Khitan tribal grouping was roundly defeated by the newly established Northern Wei, allowing the Khitan to resume their own tribe and entity, and beginning the Khitan written history.

From the 5th to the 8th centuries, they were dominated by the steppe power to their West (Turks, then the Uyghurs, during the 8th and 9th centuries) and the Chinese to their south (Northern dynasties or Tang, respectively during the 5th and 6th, and 7th to 10th centuries), and in some cases under Korean domination (from the East, mainly Goguryeo), according to the balance of power at any given time. Under this triple domination and oppression, the Khitan started to show growing power and independence. This rise was, compared to other cases, slow. Slow because it was frequently crushed by its neighbouring powers, each using the Khitan warriors when needed, but each ready to crush them when the Khitan rose too much and became powerful, close to becoming an independent fourth regional power. The 696-697 Li-Shun Rebellion is really instructive on this "2 adults and 1 teenager" game : the Khitan were encouraged by the Turks to take all the risks and revolt against the Tang, which they successfully accomplished, before being attacked at their rear by the Turks, to the great advantage of the newly-reborn Turkish empire (2d, 682-745).

Enjoying the departure of Uyghur people for West, and the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in early 10th, they established the Liao Dynasty in 907. The Liao Dynasty proved to be a significant power north of the Chinese plain, continuously moving south and West, gaining control over former Chinese and Turk-Uyghur's territories. They eventually fell to the Jin Dynasty of the Jurchen in 1125, who submit and absorb Khitans to their military benefit.

Following the fall of the Liao Dynasty, a number of the Khitan nobility escaped the area westwards towards Western Regions, establishing the short-lived Kara-Khitan or Western Liao dynasty, they were in turn absorbed by the local Turkic and Iranic populations and left no influence of themselves. As the Khitan language is still almost completely illegible, it is difficult to create a detailed history of their movements.

Language and writing systems

The Khitan language (also known as Liao, Kitan [ISO 639-3]) is a now-extinct language once spoken by the Khitan people. Khitan is believed to be genetically related to Proto-Mongolic.

There were two writing systems for the Khitan language, known as the large script and the small script. These were functionally independent and appear to have been used simultaneously in the Liao Empire. They were in use for some time after the fall of that dynasty. Examples of the scripts appeared most often on epitaphs and monuments, although other fragments sometimes surface.

Many scholars recognize that the Khitan scripts have not been fully deciphered, and that more research and discoveries would be necessary for a proficient understanding of them.

Although there are several clues to its origins, which might point in different directions, the Khitan language is most likely a descendant of Pre-Proto-Mongolic (and thus related to the Mongolic languages).


As nomadic people, the Khitans originally engaged in stockbreeding, fishing, and hunting. Looting southern Chinese villages and towns, as well as neighbour tribes, was also a helpful source of slaves, chinese handcraft, and food, especially in famine times. Under the influence of their Chinese peoples, and following the administrative need for a sedentary administration, the Khitans began to engage in farming and cropgrowing, and cities building. Agriculture was almost exclusively in the southern and western parts of their territory where the Chinese made up a great part of the population. Different from the Chinese and Balhae farmers, who cultivated wheat and sorghum millet, the Khitan farmers especially cultivated panicled millet. The ruling class of the Liao Dynasty still undertook hunting campaigns in late summer in the tradition of their ancestors. After the fall of the Liao dynasty, the Khitans returned to a more nomadic life.


The Khitans' original religion was a veneration of numerous natural appearing that were thought to represent and inheriting deity, and above all the sun. Thus, the Liao emperor faced the east, where the sun rises, rather than the south as Chinese emperors did. Because the Khitan gave ritual priority to the left, the north was given priority to the south.

Though the founding emperor Abaoji ordered the construction of Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist temples, successive emperors embraced Buddhism. A noticeable increase in devotion to Buddhism can be traced to the reign of Emperor Shengzong. Within a century, local government offices report that there 360,000 monks and nuns in 1078, representing about ten percent of the population. Even if exaggerated, it is clear that Buddhism was an integral part of Liao life.


Very few relics of Khitan poems and literature are preserved, and much less texts or fragments in Khitan language. Because the Khitan language is not fully reconstructable, there are still many difficulties in understanding Khitan language documents.

Although Khitan scripts were invented, the use of them was limited. Khitans, like ancient Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese people, also adopted Chinese characters as their writing system. They wrote a large part of the literature in Chinese, especially political documents. The Chinese official history book for the Liao Dynasty, Liao Shi, compiled in the Yuan Dynastymarker, is based upon some earlier "veritable records" (shilu 實錄) compiled during the Liao period.

See also


  1. 契丹傳說源流 --《施甸長官司族譜》Legend of Khitan(Chinese Traditional Big5 code page) via Internet Archive.
  2. [1]
  3. Xu Elina-Qian 2005, p.7.
  4. Xu Elina-Qian 2005, p.8.
  5. Xu Elina-Qian 2005, p.8-9.
  6. Xu Elina-Qian 2005, p.258
  7. Xu Elina-Qian 2005, p.241 and p.237


Pre-dynastic Khitan

  • MATSUI, Hitoshi 松井等 (Japan). "Qidan boxing shi 契丹勃興史 (History of the rise of the Khitan)". Mamden chiri-rekishi kenkyu hokoku 1 (1915).

    Translated into Chinese by Liu, Fengzhu 劉鳳翥. In Minzu Shi Yiwen Ji 民族史譯文集 (A Collection of Translated Papers on Ethnic Histories) 10 (1981). Repr. in: Sun, Jinji et al. 1988 (vol. 1), pp. 93-141
  • Chen, Shu 陳述. Qidan Shi Lunzheng Gao 契丹史論證稿 (A Study on the History of the Khitan). Beijing: Zhongyang Yanjiu Yuan Shixue Yanjiu Suo 中央研究院史學研究所, 1948.
  • Chen, Shu 陳述. Qidan Shehui Jingji Shi Gao 契丹社會經濟史稿 (A Study on the Khitan's Social Economical History). Shanghai: Sanlian Chuban She 三聯出版社, 1963.
  • Feng, Jiasheng 1933.

Liao Dynasty
  • Shu, Fen (舒焚), Liaoshi Gao 遼史稿 (An History of the Liao). Wuhan: Hubei Renmin Chuban She 湖北人民出版社, 1984
  • WITTFOGEL, Karl & FENG, Chia-sheng. History of Chinese Society: Liao (907-1125). Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1949.

Post-Dynastic / Qara Khitai
  • Biran, Michal. The Empire of the Qara Khitai in Eurasian History: Between China and the Islamic World, ISBN 0521842263

Useful official dynastic histories
  • Wei Shu 魏史 (Dynastic History of the Northern Wei Dynasty): Wei, Shou 魏收 et al. eds. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju 中华书局, 1973.
  • Xin Wudai Shi (XWDS) 新五代史 (New Dynastic History of the Five Dynasties): Ouyang, Xiu 歐陽修 et al. eds. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju 中华书局, 1974.
  • Sui Shu (SS) 隋書 (Dynastic History of the Sui Dynasty): Wei Zheng 魏徵 et al. eds. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju 中华书局, 1973.
  • Jiu Tangshu (JTS) 舊唐書 (Old Dynastic History of Tang Dynasty): Liu, Xu 劉昫 et al. eds. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju 中华书局, 1975.
  • Xin Tangshu (XTS) 新唐書 (New Dynastic History of the Tang Dynasty): Ouyang, Xiu 歐陽修 et al. eds. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju 中华书局, 1975
  • Liao Shi (LS) 遼史 (Dynastic History of the Khitan Liao Dynasty): Tuotuo 脱脱 et al. eds. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju 中华书局, 1974
  • Song Shi 宋史 (History of Song): Tuotuo 脫脫 et al. eds. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju 中华书局, 1974
  • Zizhi Tongjian (ZZTJ) 資治通鑒 (Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government): Sima, Guang 司馬光 ed. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju 中华书局, 1956


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