An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

The Tanguts 黨項

Jul 24, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

The Tanguts (Chinese transliteration Dangxiang 黨項, Tangwudang 唐兀愓 or Tanggute 唐古忒) were federation of tribes related to the Tibetans. They lived in the region of modern Qinghai and Gansu between the 6th and the 14th century. The Tanguts founded a lot of states (Cheng-Han 成漢, Later Liang 後涼, Former Qin 前秦, Later Qin 後秦, Qiuchi 仇池), of which the most important was the Western Xia empire 西夏 (1038-1227) that challenged the Chinese Song empire 宋 (960-1279). A more common Chinese term for the Tanguts is Qiang 羌, a designation for the pastoral nomads of the mountainous regions west of China proper. The Tanguts were famous riders and engaged in horse trade with the Chinese empires. Their social structure was geared to cavalry units.
The tribes of the Tanguts were named according to the family heading the social groups. The most important of these were Xifeng 細封, Feiting 費聽, Wangli 往利, Pochao 頗超, Yeci 野辭, Fangfang 房當, Miqin 米擒 and Tuoba 拓跋. The attribution of the latter as a Tangut family might also be a historiographical error because the Tuoba are normally identified as a Xianbei 鮮卑 family, belonging to a Türkic-speaking people. Most Tangut tribes accepted the suzerainty of the Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618) in the late 6the century, but some of them remained subservient to the federation of the Tuyuhun 吐谷渾. Around 630 the tribesleaders Xifeng Bulai 細封步賴 and Tuoba Chici 拓跋赤辭 declared their dependency towards the Tang empire 唐 (618-907) , whereupon the Tang court founded a dozen of indirectly administered prefectures (jimi zhou 羈縻州), whose prefects were the local chieftains. When the Tibetan empire of Tubo 吐蕃 threatened the western regions, the Tang court ordered the Tuoba tribe to settle down farther to the west in order to defend the western border against the Tibetans. The home territory of many Tangut tribes was occupied by Tibet. When the central government of the Tang lost its control over the regions after the rebellion of An Lushan 安祿山 (703-757), a lot of Tanguts settled down in the regions of modern Ningxia, northwestern and northern Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia. The Tang government attempted to separate the Tanguts from the Tibetan border because they were suspected of collaboration. A lot of Tanguts were settled down around Xiazhou 夏州 (modern Baichengzi 白城子, Inner Mongolia).
Tangut riders played an important role for the Tang armies in the late 9th century in the suppression of Huang Chao's 黃巢 rebellion. Their leader, Tuoba Sigong 拓跋思恭 was appointed military commissioner (jiedushi 節度使) and was allowed to bear the imperial family name Li 李.
After the demise of the Tang dynasty, the Tuoba Sigong was practically an independent ruler profiting from the control of the trade route between northern China and the Western Territories. Sigong's decendant Li Yuanhao 李元昊 proclaimed himself emperor of the Western Xia empire in 1032. This empire remained independant until it was conquered by the Mongols in 1227. The Tanguts continued inhabiting the region of western Shaanxi, southern Gansu, Qinghai and northern Sichuan.

Zhou Weizhou 周偉洲 (1992). "Dangxiang 黨項", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu), Vol. 1, 154.