Western Xia- Xi Xia 西夏

Above: Buddhist Apsara (guardian angel) roof tile statue from Western Xia
Below: An Iron Sparrowhawk Cavalryman and an attendant from an altar decoration in a 
form of a lacquered leaf. 12-14th century. Xi -Xia, Khara-Khoto

The Kingdom of Western Xia, or Xi Xia at its greatest extent

One of greatest examples of the former Tang client kingdoms that were able to assert a great decree of power and rise to prominence was Western Xia, or Xi Xia. Western Xia was a multi-ethnic state composed of an ethnic Tangut elite that ruled over various denizens of Han Chinese, Tibetan,  Uyghur, and Qiang minorities in what is now the arid Gansu Province. At the height of their power they ruled a state the size of about 800,000 square kilometres (310,000 square miles).

In 881 the Tangut general Li Sigong (his original native Tangut name unknown) was granted control of the Dingnan Jiedushi, also known as Xiasui by the Tang emperors, for assisting the Tang in suppressing the Huang Chao Rebellion (874–884)- for their services, their clan was conferred the Tang imperial clan's last name of "Li" which were retroactively applied to all of the clan's ancestors. Their newly appointed title of Jiedushi- or military governors was hereditary and passed down through family, this would lay the foundation for the fully independent Tangut state of Western Xia from the 11th to 13th centuries.

For assisting the Tang in suppressing the Huang Chao Rebellion (874–884)- for their services, their clan was conferred the Tang imperial clan's last name of "Li" which were retroactively applied to all of the clan's ancestors.

Like the Khotan Kings, after the fall of Tang they too would claim blood relations to the now- dead Tang Emperors and would pursue their claims in a series of wars of conquest to subdue their neighboring kingdoms. They would be an important local power and retain their independence (while pledging their allegiance to the memory of the dead Tang "ancestors")

The Tanguts were semi-nomadic warriors with tonsured pate, their state was a curious contradiction. They preferred both Han Chinese institutions and Tibetan theocratic teachings. Thus the state was a mix of nomadic warriors, Han administrators, and Tibetan lamas. The Li rulers revered the memories of the Tang emperors while implemented a meritocratic Confucian system for its governance. 

After the fall of Tang in 907, the rulers of Dingnan were granted honorary titles by the Later Liang. In the ensuing centuries the Emperors of Western Xia would not only brand themselves as the heirs of the Tang. They would field a powerful army with powerful cavalry that warred with foes from every direction. To the west they warred with the Turkic invaders, to the east they faced the Khitan Liao and the Northern Song, to the south they attempted to rebel and conquer the Tibetan warlords, and to the north, they faced the steppe nomads that raced down from the Gobi Desert. In 1036 the Xia annexed the Guiyi and Ganzhou Uyghur states.

Western Xia Iron Sparrowhawk Cavalryman. They were the military 
elite of the Western Xia state

An Iron Sparrowhawk Cavalryman from an altar decoration in a form of a 
lacquered leaf. 12-14th century. Xi -Xia, Khara-Khoto

Mural depicting what many scholars have deeped to be
a Western Xia Iron Sparrowhawk Cavalryman. They 
were the military elite of the Western Xia state

In 1038 Li Yuanhao declared himself the first emperor of the Great Xia with his capital at Xingqing in modern Yinchuan. What ensued was a prolonged war with the Song dynasty which resulted in several victories. However the victories came at a great cost and the Xia found itself short of manpower and supplies. In 1044 the Xia and Song came to a truce with the Xia recognizing the Song ruler as emperor in return for annual gifts from the Song as recognition of the Tangut state's power. Aside from founding the Western Xia, Li Yuanhao also ordered the creation of a Tangut script as well as translations of Chinese classics into Tangut.

After its founding, the state was immediately challenged by its bigger foes from the north. In 1049 the Liao dynasty launched an invasion of Western Xia and vassalized it. The disasters would continue until the ascension of the infant Chonzong Emperor at the age of 2. When the child emperor was enthroned, his grandmother (his father, Emperor Huizong's mother) became regent again and launched invasions of the Liao dynasty and the Song dynasty. Both campaigns ended in defeat and Chongzong was forced to take direct control of Western Xia. He ended wars with both Liao and Song and focused on domestic reform.


The heaviest of Mongol heavy cavalry eventually adopted the armament and fighting techniques of the Jin cataphracts. During the Jin dynasty, the vanguard of their cavalry- these Jin cataphracts: were called Iron Pagodas or Iron Buddhas. 

The Song/ Jin gambit for the north. In the scramble for Liao lands in the collapse of the Liao government and the exodus of the Khitan (Liao) people. Both the Song and Jin agreed to parcel out the remaining territories between themselves- that is, if they could conquer them. The areas of the 16 Prefectures (circled) would mark the new bondaries between the 2 empires. Because the Jin were an upstart power and the Song were the senior member of the alliance, the Song were promised the majority of the area. 

In 1115, the neighboring Jürchen Jin dynasty defeated the Liao. The Liao emperor fled to Western Xia in 1123. Western Xia submitted to the Jin demand for the Liao emperor and Western Xia became a vassal state of Jin. After the Jin dynasty attacked the Song and took parts of the northern territories from them, initiating the Southern Song period, Western Xia also attacked and took several thousands square miles of land.

Chongzong and Renzong of Western Xia were two of its most capable rulers, their longevity provided the state a great source of stability. Both were also men who preferred peace while excelled at war if they wars were needed. 

Chongzong died in 1139 and was succeeded by his son Li Renxiao who became Emperor Renzong of Western Xia. Immediately following Renzong's coronation at the age of sixteen, many natural disasters occurred and Renzong worked to stabilize the economy. After ascending into the throne, Renzong made friendly overtures to the Jin Dynasty. In domestic politics, Renzong created many schools and used examinations to choose his officials. He respected Confucianism, and built many temples worshipping Confucius. During era Tian Sheng, Renzong hired a Tibet lama as a religious advisor and printed many copies of Buddhist teachings.

Portrait of a Monk, with attendants flanking the bottom, Khara Khoto

Ironically it was during their inward reforms and restructurings that the Tangut state reached its territorial zenith. The unique Tangut script was adopted and even made onto block prints. A meritocratic Confucian education system was implemented.

In 1170, Renzong discovered a plot to kill him. He executed the generals who were behind the plot. Like his father, he distrusted the native Tangut nobles, who were fearful of the increased authority of the crown. As a result, Renzong distrusted his army generals and the army began to fall into incompetence. During his later years, Western Xia began to fight wars against various enemies.

Renzong's reign was the peak of Western Xia Dynasty. Many tribes to the north and west became vassal states of Western Xia, and Renzong's focus on internal politics allowed the central government to be more efficient. His reign coincides with the peak of the Southern Song and the Jin Dynasties, and there were relatively few conflicts between these three countries.


Renzong died in 1193 and his son Li Chunyou became Emperor Huanzong of Western Xia. In the late 1190s and early 1200s, Temujin- who one day would become Genghis Khan began consolidating his power in Mongolia. Between the death of Tooril Khan, leader of the Keraites, until Temujin's Mongol Empire in 1203, the Keraite leader Nilqa Senggum led a small band of followers into Western Xia. However, after his adherents took to plundering the locals, Nilqa Senggum was expelled from Western Xia territory.

Using his rival Nilga Senggum's temporary refuge in Western Xia as a pretext, Temujin launched a raid against the Western Xia in 1205 in the Edsin region. The Mongols plundered border settlements and one local Western Xia noble accepted Mongol authority.

In 1206, Temujin was formally proclaimed Genghis Khan, ruler of all Mongols, marking the official start of the Mongol Empire. In the same year, Huanzong was killed in a coup by his cousin Li Anquan, who installed himself as Emperor Xiangzong of Western Xia.

Genghis Khan commanded some initial raids against Western Xia before launching a full-scale invasion in 1209. This invasion marked both the first major invasion conducted by Genghis and the beginning of the Mongol invasion of China. Despite a major set-back during a nearly year-long siege of the capital, Yinchuan, when the diverted river accidentally flooded their camp, the Mongols convinced Emperor Li Anquan to surrender in January 1210. For nearly a decade the Western Xia served the Mongols as vassals and aided them in the Mongol–Jin War.

In 1219, Genghis Khan launched his invasion of Khwarezmia and Eastern Iran and requested military aid from Western Xia. However, the emperor and his military commander Asha refused to take part in the campaign, stating that if Genghis had too few troops to attack Khwarazm, then he had no claim to supreme power.Infuriated, Genghis swore vengeance and left to invade Khwarazm while Western Xia attempted to create alliances with the Jin and Song against the Mongols. After defeating Khwarazm in 1221, Genghis sent out his armies to punish Western Xia for their betrayal.

After having been blast apart by the rapid Mongol advances in September 1227, The Western Xia Emperor Mozhu surrendered to the Mongols and was promptly executed. The Mongols then pillaged Yinchuan, slaughtered the city's population, plundered the imperial tombs west of the city, and completed the effective annihilation of the Western Xia state. With the Tangut capital's utter destruction in 1227, along with the political entity most of its written records and architecture were destroyed. Therefore, its founders and history remained obscure until 20th-century research in the West and in China.


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Der said…
The Tang emperors granting the Li surname to Khotan, Xi Xia, etc, ... is this why Li is the most numerous surname in China today?
Dragon's Armory said…
It's one of the reasons :)

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