An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Political History of the Western Xia Empire

Jul 24, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Origins and first realms of the Tangut people

The Tanguts (Chinese: Dangxiang 黨項) were one part of the Qiang 羌 ethnicity, relatives to the Tibetans. Historiography often calls them descendants of the Tuoba tribe 拓跋 of the Xianbei 鮮卑, which were actually proto-Mongolian. They lived in the area of the modern province of Qinghai as pastoral nomads. In the 6th and 7th centuries, heads of Tangut tribes were rewarded by the Chinese emperors for their submissive gesture with titles like general-in-chief (da jiangjun 大將軍), regional inspector (cishi 刺史) of indirectly administered prefectures (jimizhou 羈縻州), or commander-in-chief (dudu 都督). The chieftain Tuoba Chidi 拓跋赤敵 was bestowed the imperial family name Li 李 of the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907). When the kingdom of Tubo 吐蕃 (Tibet) destroyed in 609 the federation of the Tuyuhun 吐谷渾 that lived in the Tsaidam Basin, the Tangut tribes gradually migrated into Chinese territory inside the area of modern Gansu and northern Sichuan. Most of them dwelled in the area of the prefecture Xiazhou 夏州 (north of modern Shaanxi, just within the great Yellow River bend, the Ordos plateau). The chieftain Tuoba Shouji 拓跋守寂 took part in the suppression of the rebellion of An Lushan 安錄山 (703-757) and was rewarded with the title of Duke of Xiping 西平. His grandson Tuoba Sigong 拓跋思恭 (Li Sigong 李思恭) who contributed in the suppression of the Huang Chao 黃巢 rebellion was bestowed the title of Duke of Xia 夏 in 890. His descendants were loyal subjects to the Tang dynasty and, after the latter's demise, the Later Liang dynasty 後梁 (907-923), first of the so-called Five Dynasties 五代 (907-960). In exchange for their acceptance of the suzerainty of the Later Liang they were rewarded with the title of military commissioner (jiedushi 節度使) of the region of northern Shaanxi. The chieftain Li Yichao 李彝超 was the first to refuse to pay the Chinese dynasty tributes, proclaimed himself king of Xia and defated the troops of the Later Tang Dynasty 後唐 (923-936), the second of the Five Dynasties. He was therefore acknowledged as the supremate leader of all Tangut tribes in the 930s. Li Yichao’s brother Li Yiyin 李彝殷 assisted the Later Jin empire 後晉 (936-946) in their war against the Khitans 契丹 that founded the Liao empire 遼 (907-1125) in 944. After the foundation of the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) and their conquest of the greatest part of China, the Tangut chieftains lost their strength and were forced to offer hosts that had to dwell in the Song capital at Bianliang 汴梁 (modern Kaifeng 開封, Henan). Li Jiqian 李繼遷 decided to resist the mighty Song empire and began a rebellion in 984. He forged an alliance with the Liao empire in the northeast and obtained the Khitan' military support. 997 Li Jiqian could arrange a peace agreement with the Song emperor, but he broke this agreement soon. His son Li Deming 李德明 made new agreements with the Liao and the Song, was appointed military commissioner and as King of the Great Xia 大夏. Instead of further harassing Song border towns, he conquered lands in the west, defeated the army of some Tibetan kinglets and the khan of the Uyghur 回鶻 federation.

Foundation of the Western Xia empire

From his main seat in Xingzhou 興州 (modern Yinchuan 銀川, Ningxia 寧夏) Li Deming started to rule a relatively peaceful empire, profiting from its location along the trade routes to Inner Asia. His son Li Yuanhao 李元昊 (posthumous title Emperor Jingzong 西夏景宗, r. 1032-1048) was quite conservative and tried to go back to the roots of the Tangut people. He rearranged the military organisation, had created an own Tangut script based on the shape of Chinese characters, promulgated laws that called for traditional costumes and hairstlyes (short hair or bold heads instead of the long, knotted Chinese hairstyle), changed his family name back to the Tangutan name "Weiming" 嵬名 (this is, of course, Chinese pronunciation) and renamed the capital Xingqing 興慶. After some victorious combats against the Song, the polities of Tubo and the Uyghur tribes he proclaimed himself emperor of Xia (Western Xia, Xixia 西夏; or "White Superior Country", Tangut-Chinese: Bangniding 邦泥定, Chinese: Baishangguo 白上國) in 1038. Some years later, he even broke his arrangement with the Liao empire. From then on, three empires ruled in China: the Western Xia, the Liao, and (Northern) Song. Official Chinese historiography has never accepted Western Xia as an righteus Chinese state, and there was never written an no official dynastic history of the Western Xia dynasty.

Tangut roots and Chinese habits

The next century in the history of Western Xia is characterized by power struggles between the family of the emperors and those of the imperial consorts, and by the question of which customs and political-ritual arrangements were to be followed, either the bureaucratic Chinese or the tribal Tangut ones.
In order to enhance the power of the imperial family and the central government, the emperor had to rely on a Chinese-pattern administration and bureaucracy, and on the other side, he had to rely on the support of the mighty Tangut clans by holding high Tangut customs and habits. Li Yuanhao was assassinated by his brother-in-law Mozang Epang 沒藏訛龐 who was able to control the court under the child emperor Weiming Jingzuo 嵬名諒祚 (Li Jingzuo 李諒祚, posthumous title Emperor Yizong 西夏毅宗, r. 1049-1067). Li Jingzuo was later successful in eliminating Mozang Epang and the Empress Dowager, and appointed his own brother-in-law, Liang Yimai 梁乙埋, as Counsellor-in-chief. Liang Yimai reintroduced Tangut customs and rituals at the court. Li Liangzuo's son Li Bingchang 李秉常 (posthumous title Emperor Huizong 西夏惠宗, r. 1068-1086) relied on Chinese customs but faced a harsh opposition from among the Tangut nobility, especially from the family of his mother, the Liang 梁.
Li Qianshun 李乾順 (posthumous title Emperor Chongzong 西夏崇宗, r. 1087-1139) finally could eredicate the power of the mightiest Tangut nobles related diretly and by marriage to the imperial family. After some disastrous defeats in campaigns against the Liao and Song empires in the years after 1114, Emperor Chongzongsaw that it was necessary to construct an effectful civil and military adminstration that could only be established by Confucian-trained scholar officials. This politics was continued by his son Li Renxiao 李仁孝 (posthumous title Emperor Renzong 西夏仁宗, r. 1140-1193), whose mother was a Chinese and therefore inclined to a Chinese style of government. Emperor Renzong's most important improvements were the foundation of a National University and the introduction of state examinations for the recruitment of officials. These loyal officials were able to by and by replace the old Tangut aristocracy.

The Mongol invasion

At the end of Li Renxiao's reign many natural disasters caused a lot of rebellions of exploited peasants, discontent soldiers and unsatisfied Tangut aristocrats under the leadership of Ren Dejing 任得敬. In the years 1205 to 1206 the Mongols for the first time invaded the Western Xia empire, destroyed cities and abducted people and cattle. From now on, it was impossible to keep a working central government intact, and every few years the emperor of Xia was replaced by a young prince, influenced by court cliques. During the years 1216 to 1232, when Li Zunxu 李遵頊 (posthumous title Emperor Shenzong 西夏神宗, r. 1211-1223) escaped from the Mongol invaders, his son Li Deren 李德任 held the fort at the capital Xingqing (renamed to Zhongxing 中興). At that point of time he Western Xia sought an alliance with the Jin empire 金 (1115-1234), the succession state of Liao, but the Jin themselves were in dire straits in their fights against the Mongols: In 1227 Li Xian 李睍, the last emperor of the Western Xia, submitted to the Mongols and was killed on the way to their headquarters.

Note: The short-lived Eastern Xia empire Dongxia 東夏 was founded by a sideline of the Silla 新羅 kingdom in Korea and occupied the territory of the modern province of Jilin. It has nothing to do with the Tangutan Western Xia empire.