Embrace Innovative Leadership Like the Western Liao Empire to win in ANY situation

If you’re into strength training, you’ve heard of Louie Simmons and the famous Westside protocol of strength periodization.

If you went to English class, you probably know, or heard of A Westside Story.

If you’re a biology or biochemistry scientist, you’ve heard of western blotting.

But, have you heard of another Western movement?

Where Confucian scholars meet Muslim nomads?

This is a story before the conquests of the Mongols.

The mighty reign of China’s illustrious Tang dynasty (618 – 907 C.E.) had past long ago.  In Japan, the Nara period (710 – 794 C.E.) too ended.

Almost 400 years since that time.

The empire had broken into the era of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, leading to the eventual rise of the Song dynasty (mostly Han Chinese) in Southern China.

The Liao, before the takeover by the Jurchen.

Yet it too had neighbouring rival in the north:  The Liao dynasty which had its lands covering what is now Manchuria, Mongolia, and parts of Northern China.

At one point in the early 12th century C.E., a tribe in the west called the Jurchen rebelled under the tribesman, Aguda,  and began to form a growing resistance to the Liao.

Eventually the Jurchen (in their newly formed Jin dynasty which lasted from 1115-1234 C.E) consumed the Liao Empire, leaving its people on the run for survival.

The Liao, after their migration due to the rise of the Jin/Jurchen

But this wasn’t the end for Northern China’s unique nation.

Yelu Dashi, a cultured nomad of the dying Liao dynasty was on the run.

His people were facing assimilation by the neighbouring Jurchen peoples (who had allied with the Song), and who had arisen as a threat that was consuming the existing Liao peoples.

What to do?

Well the first adaptation when armies of a foreign invader come after your lands and you can’t hope to repel, is to get up and run, burning adrenaline like the 1% burn cold cash.

What was so special of Yelu Dashi?

Apart from having been the descendant of the founder of the original Liao dynasty (Yelu Abaoji) Dashi was from modest origins.

Yelu Dashi had a balanced education, having learned both the Khitan and Chinese scripts, but was also very physical capable.

He was known to be good at archery and horseback riding.  In fact, you could say he was a scholar-warrior of his own right.

The Khitan small script, of which Yelu Dashi was literate in. Along with traditional Chinese script.

Unlike how you’d expect, Dashi started off as an entry-level bureaucrat in the multi-level, Liao government, but moved his way up with good performance.

However, he didn’t make his breakout until he showed his finesse as a reliable leader in augmenting an invasion by the Song.

Dashi utilized his incredible fighting skills along with his knowledge of the Chinese language to implore the Song to stay true to their past treaties with the Liao, preventing war.

Unfortunately he still struggled to save his people from the neighbouring Jurchen raiders.

In the quest to save whatever remnant of Liao culture and people that he could, Yelu Dashi was captured by the Jurchen for five months.

Stubbornly, he managed to escape, eventually pushing west with whatever survivors that were with him, to the northwestern garrison city of Kedun.

From there, taking around 10,000 men, he went to the area that we consider Kyrgyzstan which was at that point being occupied by the Qarakhanid people.

With notable victories such as in the Battle of Qatwan (1141 C.E.) against the Seljuk Turks, Dashi was able to gain the loyalty of many Turko-Muslim vassals in the area of modern Uzbekistan like Samarkand and Bukhara.

The Battle of Qatwan

This also put the important state of the Khwarizmi Shah as one of his vassals.

Dashi expanded his Qara Khitai (or black Khitan) empire to border some of the would-be major players in the next hundred years:  The Khwarizmi Persian empire in the West, Mongols in the North, and the Xia Xia which buffered the Jurchen, in the East.

In fact, the victory at Qatwan (brought Transoxiania into fold), built notoriety as far west as Crusader Palestine of Yelu Dashi and began the spreading of the legend of Prestor John (a legendary Christian patriarch).

After several political manoeuvrings, fighting more Jurchen, losing to some Muslim rulers in the central Asian area, he eventually amassed people from a diversity of ethnicities including:  Mongols, Uyghur, Han Chinese, Khitan, Bohai, and even Iranians.

It was around 1131/32 C.E. that his myriad of followers crowned their leader, both Gurkhan (Khan of Khans) as well as Tianyou (protected by heaven; title of a Chinese emperor).

This dual citizenship of sorts reflected the kind of power that Dashi had formed: These titles commanded respect of both the Inner Asian nomads as well showing the continued legacy of the Liao (who crowned their leaders as emperors).

However, he died shortly afterwards (r. 1124–1143), a sort of Alexander the Great in his short life.

So was it just Yelu Dashi’s ability as a leader and dumb luck that brought him to prominence?

Not exactly.

The environment that Yelu Dashi was in, on the world stage, was actually a really great time for such a rise to happen.

Historian, Michal Biran, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has explained that there were various factors that made it possible for the Qara Khitai Empire to form.

In Central Asia, small rulers (as was the case in the region) had been struggling to minimize nomadic influence on their sedentary populations.

These people had their own war on ownership of pasture lands against the nomads.

Inadvertently, this led to an increase in nomads in the region, which Biran speculates, led to a need of a large number of fighting people looking for new and promising leadership.

Enter Yelu Dashi!

This instability created the two pronged effect of increasing un-subjected nomadic peoples as well as decreasing the power of local rulers, such as the Muslim Qarakhanids.

In addition, Yelu Dashi:

  • Brought a rich supply of horses to these lands (horses plus nomads equals very happy!)
  • Enjoyed his double prestige of respect as a bearer of Chinese cultural indemnity as well as nomadic power
  • Had respect of defeating the Jurchen
  • Had a Series of military successes
  • Strong personality
  • Smart tendency to retain local rulers in their positions, helping breed stabilization with all this mobility (HEY! We used a movement analogy!)

Biran continues that, interestingly, this dual identity of having such strong Chinese authority in a largely Mongol-Turkic region of the world actually HELPED the Qara Khitai gain stability.


Prestige of the Chinese label.

Contrast actually enabled the creation of stability.

From this situation and the capitalization of it, stood an empire that ran from the Oxus to the Altai Mountains, and what many consider the only legitimate Chinese dynasty within Central Asia.

The Khitan, were actually a small minority in this land which was actually dominated by central Asians like Turks (Uyghur), Iranians, Mongols, and Han Chinese.

The majority of the population was also sedentary, save for some of the Khitan, Mongols, and Turkic tribes.

Interestingly, most of the population was Muslim (even though you had Buddhist, Nestorian, and Jewish communities in a precursor to the religious variety that the Mongols would have, albeit with a more aggressive conquering agenda).

How Environment Shaped the Rise of the Western Liao and survival of Liao culture…with a twist

Sunrise.. Sun shining on Muztagh Ata peak. Photo taken from Karakul lake in the Pamir region of Xinjiang, China. Shared with permission of Boaz Rottem via Flickr

Now aside from the direct influence on the Qarakhanids in central Asia, the arrival and the establishment of the Khitan dynasty didn’t really have a religious impact on the government.

It’s strange.

You’re surrounded by Muslim nomads and apart from the normal diffusion of religion that is almost impossible to stop, there was no government-level transformation towards an Islamic system.

The reason for this apparent lack of Islamic influence on the government level was partly due to the retention of Chinese traditions.

On the flip side, the Muslim-Turkic nomads of the region were known to have a high regard for Chinese culture and even called the leader of the Western Liao, the Khan of China.

The Qarakhanids were Muslims but had this long standing connection with China that goes way back to the early (618-906 C.E.) Tang period (a time where the Abbasid Muslim empire connected with Chinese borders) some five hundred years prior to invasion by Qara Khitai in what is considered the modern province of Xinjiang.

The Qarakhanids were the chief rival of the new Qara Khitai in the area of Kashgar and Transoxania.  Interestingly, most Muslims of the area viewed this nation as already being part of China, even calling their leader as the King of China and the East.

Transoxania was an area not unfamiliar to Chinese presence.

western liao
Transoxiana and the Talas River in the 8th Century C.E. It would eventually be part of the Qara Khitai several centuries later

The battle of Talas (751 C.E.) took place which was the considered the first major military contact between these two groups of people.

Talas was in what is later known as Transoxania, the land of the Qarakhanids in what, in the 11th century C.E., would become the home base for the Western Liao.

In the spirit of this relationship, its even more interesting to know that the use of the word ‘Dashi’ in Qarakhanid culture.

Hello Yelu Dashi!

It is known that in Chinese this word meant Arabs or Arabia but included eventually the subjects of the Arab empire (Persian sand Turks).  In this way, it is speculated that the Qara Khitai were described as being of the ‘state of Dashi.”

talas western liao
Battle of Talas River. The Battle of Talas. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

These factors in mind, it makes sense that the retention of Chinese customs, seals, and ceremony would have added to the prestige that the Western Liao were endowed with.

Biran speculates that it would be safe to assume that this impact on their survivor-ship would have played a major role in the retention of Chinese culture by the migrant Khitan.

Moreover, by the time the Qara Khitai had arrived in Central Asia, they shared many similarities with the culture of the Turkic nomads.

Things like warfare in daily life, the high status of women (for the most part) and the high position of merchants were all deemed as similarities between the two cultures.

Prosperity of religions structures of Muslims as well as economic politics continued (more or less) with limited interference of Qara Khitai armies and officials.

Relatively speaking, the impact of governorship by the Qara Khitai was less invasive than its succeeding counter parts, the Mongols.

Kingdoms were retained and apart from financial and military obligations, people were left to their own devices.

In fact, no permanent army by the Liao was ever recorded as being placed in the Turko-Persian city centers and any discourse between the government and its Muslim subjects was always conducted via a Muslim liaison.

Likewise Buddhist monks would serve in the same capacity in the areas with a high level of Buddhism practise.

More importantly, as practitioners of the Islamic faith, the Muslim subjects were not subject to greater shows of fealty in their religions practises.

There was no obligation to mention the government in the Friday sermons.  Moreover, the religious scholarship, the Ulama, retained freedom of practice.

The only real symbol of authority was the placing of a silver tablet of authority which would hang in their subject palaces.

The ulama retained both political authority and social prestige, even in one of the hearts of the Hanafi School of Islamic jurisprudence, Bukhara.

The Gurkhan eventually made the Ulama the sole collectors of taxes in the area too.  All these things even helped raise the prestige of these Ulama in the rest of the Muslim world.

 Multi-religious state?  How?

As we mentioned earlier, the Turkic/Persian peoples in Central Asia had a relatively positive view of Chinese culture and Yelu Dashi used that to his advantage.

Moreover, the Chinese-Liao tradition that the Qara Khitai followed fixed the same needs that Islam provided to the nomads of Central Asia.

What were these needs?

  1. Communal identity
  2. a way of running a state
  3. and having some sort of legitimization for their nation

That, along with the fact that Qara Khitai did not last very long as a nation (were eventually attacked by the Khwarizmi shah and then Genghis Khan) left a very small level of acculturation between Muslims and the Khitan peoples.  The empire also remained multi-religious too.

What was the Liao government like?

So it begs to question, how did they govern their nation with this diversity?

Well, many of the same concepts that the Khitan used to govern the original Liao dynasty were applied to their new place of living.

Going back to that original Liao dynasty (before being kicked out by the Jurchen), it’s important to note that the Khitan were always a minority group, having occupied an original empire that consisted of 2/3 Han Chinese.

The original Liao society that Yelu Dashi came from was already a multi-ethnic place, combining Khitan, Han Chinese, and Bohai people.

In this government, the original Liao dynasty had a split circuit of northern and southern means of governing.

The south, which consisted many ethnic Han Chinese was governed in the manner of the Tang bureaucracy while the north was governed by customs of the nomadic Khitan.

The administration itself was multi-ethnic combining the then ethnicity of Han Chinese, Khitan, and Bohai people.

Just as well, the relationship between the emperor and the administration was a lot more personal; usually military based, and was based upon loyalty.

Now, having moved into their new digs in Central Asia, the Liao drew governorship over an even more diverse set of peoples and with that, diversity came a more flexible arm of government.

You can already say that form a training point of view, people went back to the bare basics:  retention of sovereignty by vassal states and use of liaisons of similar background as the specific population of the empire.

nomads western liao
A painting by Malik Kutlu, an Afghan Kyrgyz, shows nomads from the Pamir Mountains in Afghanistan going to Kabul to sell livestock. Unlike the Kyrgyz who remained in the Soviet Union and who were forced to adopt settled residences, those who were based in Afghanistan were able to continue their nomadic way of life.

It’s like when things become too un-predictable with your physical training and all you can hope for is trying to stick to the broad goal for the time and not some incredibly structured program that is meant for people who have the luxury to train without stress.

You could make a similar example with the way that Ancient Rome ran its military:  a combination of global stability with the appropriate amount of local mobility.

Back to the point, due to the greater diversity, the Liao government had several situations where autonomous kingdoms continued to prosper as long as they paid tribute to the Liao.

These kingdoms and vassals aside, there were still a number of nomadic Turks and Persians who still resided directly in the new Qara Khitai administration.

The Liao City of Tents

With its capital in the Chu Valley in the city of Balasaghun, the Qara Khitai’s Dashis ran their administration.  Balasaghun was a testament to the preservation of nomadic life, with hundreds of tents making up its settlements.  For that reason, it was justly called, the City of Tents.

western liao qarakhanid tower
The Burana Tower is the last remain of the city of Balasaghun.

Now this central territory has been debated but Michal Biran calls upon the set boundary of hte central government as reaching in the northwest to Talas (the famous cite of battle between Tang Chinese and Abbasid Muslims), in the southwest to Kasan and Uzgand, in the south at least to Barskhan but probably up to the outskirts of Kashgar and Almaliq, and in the northeast to Qayajiq.

Biran speculates that at present, the northern border of the nation cannot be defined.

Again Michal Biran points that there were signs that showed that the dual administration enjoyed in the original Liao Dynasty possibly continued in the Qara Khitai world, however, he says there is no hard evidence proving it.

At best, it’s assumed that some sort of balancing different types of peoples was apparent with the type of title that the rule took (both emperor and head-khan).

However, unlike the north and south split of the sedentary Han and Bohai versus the more nomadic Khitan, Biran says that the dispersion of the more sedentary populations was put in the individual governorship of the subject territories (kingdoms/vassals).

By doing so, the Dashi-administration continued the mantra of governance that was original to the Liao, “Ruling according to what is common [in each region] brings best results” (yin su er zhi, dei qi yi yi).

This subjugation of the vassals was symbolic (the tablets that we mentioned earlier and was reminiscent of the Chinese tradition ).

When it came to the mobile, nomadic, subject tribes, the Gurkhan had ultimate authority, being able to order the mobilization of thousands of tribesmen for combat, even having the ability to alter pasturing places.

Central Asian Nomads of the modern day practising for the Nomad Games, a sporting event of Nomad culture.

In the more sedentary, subject kingdoms, the Dashi usually either left them as they were or replaced an antagonistic ruler with one who was more accepting of the new rule.

Even more interesting is that the subject kingdoms were allowed to keep their armies but had to have a separate contingent that the Dashi would be able to call upon for service to the greater state.

The subject kingdoms were governed in a less centralized way, with the government only asking for financial tribute.

Moreover, when it came to the ethnic and religious makeup for the government, you’ll find a great deal of diversity in echoing the sentiments of the people being governed over.

Now, the core group of the central territory was directly appointed by the Gurkhan and was more or less all Khitan.  However, it was possible for non-Khitans to reach very high levels of office in the overall administration.  Some examples include:

  1. Li Shichang, Chinese (or Bohai) assistant to the prime minister
  2. Vizier Mam~ud Tai, a Muslim merchant
  3. the Muslim judge Shams aI-DIn Man~iir b. Ma~mucl al-Uzgandi, the high court doctor
  4. Hala Yihachi Beilu (*Qara Jighach Buiruq) the Uighur tutor of the Gurkhan’s children

Moreover, at the provincial and local level, the commissioners of the areas were usually drawn from the local population.  These individuals in turn would be representatives of the dominant religious sect of the area.  Pretty awesome!

To sum it up, the Qara Khitai were a short-lived society.  It’s interesting to know how much of the Mongols and them shared similarities.

It’s even more interesting to know the level of relative prosperity that occurred within an empire that chose not to push even further in conquest (contrary to how the Mongols approached things).

Who knows, there may have been a rise in intolerance if they lived long enough? At the same time, we can really appreciate the diffusion of culture across the board from the original Khitan home in Northern China to their westward movement.  .

NOTEMost of the information gathered for this piece is from the scholarly works of Michal Biran from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  If you’d like to learn more about Yelu Dashi, the Khitan peoples, or the primary sources that Biran draws his analyses from, definitely check out the papers down below.  He cites some of the leading historians/chroniclers of that time period (Ibn Athir and Juzjani to name some).


  1. From the War to Diplomatic Parity in Eleventh-Century China by General Editor Kelly Devries Loyola College Founding Editors theresa vann paul chevedden VOLUME 33  Sung’s Foreign Relations with Kitan LiaoBY DAVID CURTIS WRIGHT
  2. The Empire of the Qara Khitai in Eurasian History – Between China and the Islamic World by Michal Biran
  3. Mongols, Turks, and Others Eurasian Nomads and the Sedentary World Edited by Reuven Amitai and Michal Biran
  4. The Cambridge History of Inner Asia: The Chinggisid Age Edited by Nicola Di Cosmo, Allen J. Frank and Peter B. Golden
  5. Qarakhanid Studies A View from the Qara Khitai Edge by Michal Biran
  6. The Mongol Transformation: From the Steppe to Eurasian Empire by Michal BiranE
  7. Women of the Conquest Dynasties: Gender and Identity in Liao and Jin China by Linda Cooke Johnson