An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Political System of the Western Xia Empire

Jul 24, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

The political system of the Western Xia empire 西夏 (1038-1227) was a mixture between the old Tangutan tribal (buluo 部落, boluo 蕃落) structures and the bureaucratic administrative system of the Song empire 宋 (960-1279). While the chieftains of the ruling Tuoba 拓跋 family (not to be confused with the people of the Taɣ​bač, a branch of the Xianbei 鮮卑 that founded the Northern Wei empire 北魏, 386-534) had by the rulers of the Tang 唐 (618-907) and Five Dynasties 五代 (907-960) empires been bestowed with Chinese offices like military commissioner (jiedushi 節度使) over the areas where a larger Chinese population dwelled, the rest of the Xia kingdom - later empire - was ruled by Tangutan chieftains (qiuzhang 酋長) that were relatively autonomous heads of their tribe. Emperor 西夏景宗 (r. 1032-1048) in 1033 introduced the Chinese administration structure of the Song empire, with the highest institutions of the state secretariate (zhongshu 中書), the Bureau of Military Affairs (shumiyuan 樞密院), three the State Financial Commission (sansi 三司), the Censorate (yushitai 衘史台), and the subordinated directorates and offices for the administration of the state finances, state rites, and the imperial court. Most offices were open for both Chinese and non-Chinese, but some were restricted to Tanguts. In the sphere of civil and crimial law, traditional Tangut laws were employed for a long time, but more and more articles of the Song code were implemented in the Western Xia law code, especially under Emperor Renzong 西夏仁宗 (r. 1140-1193) who had compiled the Tiansheng lüling 天盛律令 codex.
The armies were composed of recruited pesasants that had to provide armament, weapons and feeding for themselves. The higher organisation with the officers were composed of Tangut or non-Chinese people that provided a horse and a camel for themselves. Higher officers took part in a council of war and used to swear a blood oath for loyalty. The Xia rulers often led troops in own person and commanded a special imperial force and cavalry.
It is known that the Tanguts made much use of Chinese books of Buddhist as well as Confucian and pracital content and that a large amount of Chinese literature was translated into Tangutan language. But there is not a sufficient amount of source material to obtain a deeper insight into scholarship and the education system of the Tangutan empire and the recruitment of state officials.