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Gilded Splendor: A Nomadic Tribe Creates a Dynasty

By Susan Saccoccia | HUMANITIES, July/August 2006 | Volume 27, Number 4

Genghis Khan and his grandson Kublai Khan were not the first northern invaders to penetrate the Great Wall of China and forge an empire. In the twelfth century, a people called the Liao controlled steppe, oasis, and sea routes of the Silk Road and conducted cultural and economic exchange with states far and near.

The Asia Society in New York City has created the first exhibition in the United States to present the achievements of the Liao, "Gilded Splendor: Treasures of China's Liao Empire (907-1175)." On view from October 4 through December 31,the exhibition comprises more than two hundred recently excavated objects, most on display for the first time in this country. The presentation sheds new light on the significance of the Liao in Chinese history.

"Official Han Chinese histories treat the Liao as borderland barbarians with foreign cultural practices," says Adriana Proser, John H. Foster Curator of Traditional Asian Art at the Asia Society. "The picture that objects provide is quite different: They show a settled people who developed rich and complex political, social, and trade relationships."

Founded by the Khitan, a nomadic tribe from eastern Mongolia, the Liao Dynasty was once the most powerful regime in East Asia. The exhibition and accompanying catalog explore the transformation of a tribal people with prowess in warfare, hunting, and falconry into the ruling elite of an empire rich in political, economic, and cultural assets.

At the time of the Liao's rise, the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) governed China's prosperous agricultural heartland and was the Liao's chief rival for regional supremacy. Its people were Han Chinese, the ethnic majority of China. Worn down by constant border attacks, the Song entered a treaty with the Liao in 1005 and agreed to pay annual tribute in silks and silver. The Liao gained both wealth and prestige from the truce, which forced the Song to recognize a regime founded by foreign warrior nomads.

But Liao tactics were not just military in nature. While maintaining their northern steppe traditions, the Liao assimilated elements of neighboring cultures to weave together a vast and ethnically diverse empire. So widespread was Liao renown and influence that the tribal name "Khitan" became the root of the word "China."

Han Chinese historians were dismissive of the Liao, casting them as uncivilized invaders. However, the eloquence of excavated objects is challenging the biases of traditional writings. Over the past twenty years, archaeological digs of burial sites in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region have spurred scholars to reappraise the Liao.

While incorporating Song customs, crafts, and civic infrastructures, the Liao retained their own heritage. Although they adopted Han Chinese as the lingua franca of politics and trade, they devised a separate writing system for their spoken language based on Han Chinese characters.

The Liao created a hybrid form of government that sustained a balance of power between the two regimes. Capitalizing on the strengths of the Song, the Liao blended their tribal ruling practices with Song systems, including an examination-based civil service and a comprehensive tax structure. Khitan officials were superior in status but Song bureaucrats were in charge of agriculture, and their administrative system dominated the economy.

"The Liao system of dual administration . . . constituted a giant step forward in the history of the Inner Asian peoples," writes Nicola Di Cosmo in his catalog essay. He describes the Liao as the first in a new succession of strong, northern nomadic regimes that combined their own heritage with Han Chinese systems--a line that ended with the Manchu in 1911.

The Liao employed a decentralized scheme to rule their vast realm: Borrowing a practice of another northern tribe, the Bohai, the Liao established a network of capitals. Their five imperial cities included the first capital erected on the site of modern Beijing.

Following the Han Chinese model, the Liao erected walled cities and palaces. Relocated to the capitals, Song artisans ran the workshops and kilns that produced the metal work and ceramics favored by the Liao. Khitan and Han Chinese people resided in separate zones within Liao cities, which included open land believed to provide space for yurts.

Innovators in architecture as well as statecraft, the Liao constructed soaring buildings characterized by intricate woodwork. The tallest wooden building in China is the Timber Pagoda in Shanxi Province. Built in 1056, this five-story Liao structure has survived more than ten earthquakes. No timber pagoda by the Song remains standing. "Above ground and beneath," writes architectural historian Nancy S. Steinhardt in another catalog essay, "even today Liao buildings are the only structures that break the continuity of the Mongolian grasslands."

The exhibition comprises four sections: the Nomadic Heritage, the Han Chinese Burial Tradition, Religious Life, and Luxuries and Necessities. Each demonstrates how the Liao asserted legitimacy through cultural assimilation while retaining steppe customs, and along the way produced opulent, exuberant, and often sublimely beautiful objects.

Liao jewelry and wares display traditional Han Chinese motifs, such as mythical dragons and phoenixes. But their pendants and boxes in jade, amber, and crystal also render the fauna of the natural world they knew, such as geese, bear, and fish. A miniature amber carving shows a barbarian subduing a lion; deer gambol on a yurt-shaped ceramic urn.

"Mobility was important to the nomadic lifestyle of the Liao," says exhibition curator and catalog editor Hsueh-man Shen, senior curator of Chinese art at the National Museums of Scotland and a lecturer in Chinese art at the University of Edinburgh. "They made portable objects such as pendants and body ornaments in far larger quantity than the Han."

As they adopted a court lifestyle, the Liao also created stationary versions of the tools they had brought from their mobile way of life. A flask of white porcelain replicates the round body, strap, and spout of a leather original, and its raised ridge resembles a seam of sewn leather.

Whether crafted for daily life or the afterlife, Liao wares wed Khitan imagery with the materials and techniques of other peoples. From the Islamic world come an engraved bronze basin and a Persian glass flask decorated with wheel-cut geometric patterns. Also on display are specimens of Yue greenware--celadon pottery imported by sea from Southeast China. From North China are a white porcelain drinking set and a headrest in the form of a lion.

"Liao people were very clever in creating a culture that amalgamated various elements from different sources," says Shen. "From the Altai Mountain region, they adopted heavy use of gold, which the Chinese did not traditionally use. And they employed amber far more than the Song.

"Liao control extended to northeast Asia and the central Asian states and reached westward to the Islamic regions and beyond to the Baltic Sea--the source of their amber. They also had full control of the oasis route all the way down to India, where they obtained their rock crystal, and enjoyed easy access to Southeast China via the sea."

The Liao combined steppe traditions of burial with belief systems and practices of the Han Chinese. Like the Han, the Liao entombed their deceased nobles in a personal universe designed to preserve their privileged lifestyle after death. Findings from Liao tombs include a gilded silver spittoon, a golden bowl with motifs of mandarin ducks and fish, and a silver calligraphy tool set with a jade water basin and inkstone.

The Liao often encased the body of a deceased noble in a metal mesh suit and face mask. The exhibition displays the complete funerary attire of the Princess of Chen, the granddaughter of a Liao emperor. A golden mask bears the features of the princess, who was just seventeen years old when she died. Her body suit is woven of fine silver threads and her crown, boots, and headrest are of gilt silver filigreed with phoenixes. At the top of the crown a Taoist figure sits cross-legged on a lotus-petal base.

When her tomb was opened in 1986, the princess was wearing necklaces of tiny amber beads, birds, fish, animals, and flowers. They are to be on display along with golden body ornaments, including belts, earrings, hairpins, and bracelets. Adorning her gilded silver cosmetics case are a dragon and flying phoenixes, symbols of fertility. Small boxes inside the case held white facial powder and rouge blackened with time.

As a society that prized horses, the Liao also often entombed deceased aristocrats with sumptuous equine accessories. A Plexiglas model of a horse is outfitted with a gilded silver saddle ensemble, a jade-encrusted, silver bridle and belt, and gilded steel stirrups.

Unlike the Song, the Liao embedded whole houses in some tombs and used these structures as coffins. The exhibition displays a yurt-shaped house with a bed, table, and chair--all made of cypress wood. When archaeologists discovered the house in 1970, they found the remains of a man and woman lying on the bed, their heads pointed toward the east and their faces covered with bronze masks. Silver vessels for food and drink were on the table.

The Liao adopted the Han Buddhist practice of cremation--but without entirely relinquishing steppe traditions. On display is a life-size wooden mannequin of a man. Its hollow chest held the ashes of the deceased. With its movable marionette-like limbs, the figure seems designed to recreate the body lost in cremation.

The section entitled Religious Life shows that the Liao were also eclectic in their Buddhist rituals. Like the Song, they carved stone images of the Buddha. But they shared with their Korean neighbors the practice of venerating sacred texts as manifestations of the Buddha. Anticipating the onset of a spiritual dark age in 1052, the Liao attempted to preserve the power of Buddhist law by duplicating sacred texts and enshrining them in pagodas. On display are sheets of gold and silver incised with an incantation. A sutra wrapper of embroidered silk has a Khitan image--a man astride a horse at full gallop holding a falcon in each hand--with a Persian motif, a band of pearls.

"Han Chinese written history focuses on the Song era, regarded as a golden age of Chinese art," says Shen, "and ignores its counterpart, the Liao, who are equally important in the study of Chinese art and material culture. The Liao had extensive contacts with neighbors, while the Song were isolated by their inferior military power. In medieval China, the Liao were the first foreign rulers to make so much effort in all directions.

"Nowadays, China is a strong player in the global economy. But in the past, it was regarded as closed to the outside world. This exhibition reveals a point in history when China was open to the world."

Susan Saccoccia is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"Gilded Splendor: Treasures of China's Liao Empire (907-1175)" received $264,000 in NEH funding. It opens at the Asia Society in New York on October 4.