The Western Xia, also known as the Tangut Empire, was an ancient empire in what is now western China.
The Western Xia occupied the area round the Hexi Corridor, a stretch of the Silk Road, the most important trade route between North China and Central Asia. They made significant achievements in literature, art, music, and architecture, which was characterized as “shining and sparkling”. Their extensive stance among the other empires of the Liao, Song, and Jin was attributable to their effective military organizations that integrated cavalry, chariots, archery, shields, artillery (cannons carried on the back of camels), and amphibious troops for combat on land and water.
The Western Xia existed as an empire from 1038 to 1227 in what is today north western China, in the provinces that are now Ningxia and Gansu.
Their empire was completely destroyed by the Mongol Empire, after infuriating Genghis Khan for not aiding his military campaign against the Khwarezmia in the Middle East. The destruction was violent and absolute, and was considered an early successful example of ethnocide. There were however Tangut communities around China recorded for many centuries afterwards.
The Tangut culture was notable for its military and literary achievements, as well as its incredibly difficult writing script. Whilst looking superficially similar to traditional Chinese script it is in fact a completely different system and not mutually intelligible.
Traveling to see Tangut history is challenging, given that the Mongols were very successful in annihilating this empire and the remaining ruins and literature are few and far between. Their remaining descendants are unfortunately no longer identifiable as Tangut, having been dispersed widely and absorbed into other Chinese, Tibetan and perhaps even Indian ethnic groups.
The Tangut language is extinct, although it is most closely related today to the Northern Qiang language spoken by the Qiang people in Sichuan Province.
The Tanguts originally came from the Tibet-Qinghai region, but migrated eastward in the 650s under pressure from the Tibetans. By the time of the An Lushan Rebellion in the 750s they had become the primary local power in the Ordos region in northern Shaanxi. The Tanguts sometimes fell under direct administration by the Tang dynasty. As a result, the Tanguts often cooperated with external powers such as the Uyghurs in opposing the Tang. The situation lasted until the 840s when the Tanguts rose in open revolt against the Tang, but the rebellion was suppressed. Eventually the Tang court was able to mollify the Tanguts by admonishing their frontier generals and replacing them with more disciplined ones.
In 881 the Tangut general Li Sigong was granted control of the Dingnan Jiedushi, also known as Xiasui, in modern Yulin, Shaanxi for assisting the Tang in suppressing the Huang Chao Rebellion (874–884). Li Sigong died in 886 and was succeeded by his brother Li Sijian. After the fall of Tang in 907, the rulers of Dingnan were granted honorary titles by the Later Liang. Li Sijian died in 908 and was succeeded by his son Li Yichang, who was murdered by his officer Gao Zongyi in 909. Gao Zongyi was himself murdered by soldiers of Dingnan and was replaced by a relative of Li Yichang, Li Renfu. Dingnan was attacked by Qi and Jin in 910, but was able to repel the invaders with the aid of Later Liang. Li Renfu died in 933 and was succeeded by his son Li Yichao. Under Li Yichao Dingnan successfully repelled an invasion by the Later Tang. Li Yichao died in 935 and was succeeded by his brother Li Yixing.
In 944 Li Yixing attacked the Liao dynasty on behalf of the Later Jin. In 948 Li Yixing attacked a neighboring circuit under encouragement from the rebel Li Shouzhen but retreated after Li Shouzhen was defeated. Honorary titles were given out by the Later Han to appease local commanders, including Li Yixing. In 960 Dingnan came under attack by Northern Han and successfully repelled invading forces. In 962 Li Yixing offered tribute to the Song dynasty. Li Yixing died in 967 and was succeeded by his son Li Kerui.
Li Kerui died in 978 and was succeeded by Li Jiyun, who died in 980 and was succeeded by Li Jipeng, who died in 982 and was succeeded by Li Jiqian.
Li Jiqian rebelled against the Song dynasty in 984, after which Dingnan was recognized as the independent state of Xia. Li Jiqian died in battle in 1004 and was succeeded by his son Li Deming.
Under Li Deming, the Xia state defeated the Ganzhou Uyghur Kingdom in 1028 and forced the ruler of the Guiyi Circuit to surrender. Li Deming died in 1032 and was succeeded by his son Li Yuanhao.
In 1036 the Xia annexed the Guiyi and Ganzhou Uyghur states. 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 Emperor Jingzong of Western Xia died in 1048, his son Li Liangzuo became Emperor Yizong of Western Xia at the age of two and his mother became the regent. In 1049 the Liao dynasty launched an invasion of Western Xia and vassalized it. Yizong died in 1067 and his son Li Bingchang became Emperor Huizong of Western Xia at the age of six.
Huizong’s mother became regent and she invaded the Song dynasty. The invasion ended in failure, and Huizong took back power from his mother. However he died soon after in 1086 and was succeeded by his son Li Qianshun who became Emperor Chongzong of Western Xia at the age of two.
After Chongzong became emperor, his grandmother (Huizong’s mother) became regent again and launched invasions of the Liao dynasty and the Song dynasty. Both campaigns ended in defeat and Chongzong took direct control of Western Xia. He ended wars with both Liao and Song and focused on domestic reform.
In 1115, the Jürchen Jin dynasty defeated the Liao. The Liao emperor fled to Western Xia in 1123. Chongzong 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 died in 1139 and was succeeded by his son Li Renxiao who became Emperor Renzong of Western Xia. Immediately following Renzong’s coronation, many natural disasters occurred and Renzong worked to stabilize the economy.
Destruction by the Mongols
Renzong died in 1193 and his son Li Chunyou became Emperor Huanzong of Western Xia.
In the late 1190s and early 1200s, Temujin, soon to be 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. In 1207, Genghis led another raid into Western Xia, invading the Ordos Loop and sacking Wulahai, the main garrison along the Yellow River, before withdrawing in 1208.
In 1209 Genghis undertook a larger campaign to secure the submission of Western Xia. After defeating a force led by Gao Lianghui outside Wulahai, Genghis captured the city and pushed up along the Yellow River, defeated several cities, and besieged the capital, Yinchuan, which held a well-fortified garrison of 150,000. The Mongols attempted to flood the city by diverting the Yellow River, but the dike they built to accomplish this broke and flooded the Mongol camp. Nevertheless, Xiangzong agreed to submit to Mongol rule, and demonstrated his loyalty by giving a daughter, Chaka, in marriage to Genghis and paying a tribute of camels, falcons, and textiles.
After their defeat in 1210, Western Xia attacked the Jin dynasty in response to their refusal to aid them against the Mongols. The following year, the Mongols joined Western Xia and began a 23-year-long campaign against Jin. In the same year Xiangzong’s nephew Li Zunxu seized power in a coup and became Emperor Shenzong of Western Xia. Xiangzong died a month later.
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 prepared his armies to punish Western Xia for their betrayal. Meanwhile, Shenzong abdicated in 1223 in favor of his son Li Dewang, who became Emperor Xianzong of Western Xia. In 1225, Genghis attacked with a force of approximately 180,000. After taking Khara-Khoto, the Mongols began a steady advance southward. Asha, commander of the Western Xia troops, could not afford to meet the Mongols as it would involve an exhausting westward march from the capital Yinchuan through 500 kilometers of desert, and so the Mongols steadily advanced from city to city. Enraged by Western Xia’s fierce resistance, Genghis ordered his generals to systematically destroy cities and garrisons as they went. Genghis divided his army and sent general Subutai to take care of the westernmost cities, while the main force under Genghis moved east into the heart of the Western Xia and took Gan Prefecture, which was spared destruction upon its capture due to it being the hometown of Genghis’s commander Chagaan.
In August 1226, Mongol troops approached Wuwei, the second-largest city of the Western Xia empire, which surrendered without resistance in order to escape destruction. At this point, Emperor Xianzong died, leaving his relative Emperor Mozhu of Western Xia to deal with the Mongol invasion. In Autumn 1226, Genghis took Liang Prefecture, crossed the Helan Mountains, and in November lay siege to Lingwu, a mere 30 kilometers from Yinchuan. Here, at the Battle of the Yellow River, the Mongols destroyed a force of 300,000 Western Xia that launched a counter-attack against them.
Genghis reached Yinchuan in 1227, laid siege to the city, and launched several offensives into Jin to prevent them from sending reinforcements to Western Xia, with one force reaching as a far as Kaifeng, the Jin capital. Yinchuan lay besieged for about six months, after which Genghis opened up peace negotiations while secretly intending to kill the emperor. During the peace negotiations, Genghis continued his military operations around the Liupan mountains near Guyuan, rejected a peace offer from the Jin, and prepared to invade them near their border with the Song. However, in August 1227, Genghis died of a historically uncertain cause, and, in order not to jeopardize the ongoing campaign, his death was kept a secret. In September 1227, 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.
The destruction of Western Xia during the second campaign was near total. According to John Man, Western Xia is little known to anyone other than experts in the field precisely because of Genghis Khan’s policy calling for their complete eradication. He states that “There is a case to be made that this was the first ever recorded example of attempted genocide. It was certainly very successful ethnocide.” However, some members of the Western Xia royal clan emigrated to western Sichuan, northern Tibet, even possibly Northeast India, in some instances becoming local rulers. A small Western Xia state was established in Tibet along the upper reaches of the Yalong River while other Western Xia populations settled in what are now the modern provinces of Henan and Hebei. In China, remnants of the Western Xia persisted into the middle of the Ming dynasty.
The kingdom developed a Tangut script to write its own Tangut language, a now extinct Tibeto-Burman language.
Tibetans, Uyghurs, Han Chinese, and Tanguts served as officials in Western Xia.
The practice of Tantric Buddhism in Western Xia led to the spread of some sexually related customs. Before they could get married to men of their own ethnicity when they reached 30 years old, Uighur women in Shaanxi in the 12th century had children after having relations with multiple Han Chinese men, with her desirability as a wife enhancing if she had been with a large number of men.
|Temple Name||Posthumous Name||Personal Name||Reign Dates|
|Jǐngzōng 景宗||Wǔlièdì 武烈帝||Lǐ Yuánhào 李元昊||1038–1048|
|Yìzōng 毅宗||Zhāoyīngdì 昭英帝||Lǐ Liàngzuò 李諒祚||1048–1067|
|Huìzōng 惠宗||Kāngjìngdì 康靖帝||Lǐ Bǐngcháng 李秉常||1067–1086|
|Chóngzōng 崇宗||Shèngwéndì 聖文帝||Lǐ Qiánshùn 李乾順||1086–1139|
|Rénzōng 仁宗||Shèngdédì 聖德帝||Lǐ Rénxiào 李仁孝||1139–1193|
|Huánzōng 桓宗||Zhāojiǎndì 昭簡帝||Lǐ Chúnyòu 李純佑||1193–1206|
|Xiāngzōng 襄宗||Jìngmùdì 敬慕帝||Lǐ Ānquán 李安全||1206–1211|
|Shénzōng 神宗||Yīngwéndì 英文帝||Lǐ Zūnxū 李遵頊||1211–1223|
|Xiànzōng 獻宗||none||Lǐ Déwàng 李德旺||1223–1226|
|Mòdì 末帝||none||Lǐ Xiàn 李晛||1226–1227|
Dunhuang has many Buddhist grottos that preserve artwork from the Tanguts
Khara-Khoto is a deserted Tangut fortress town mentioned in Marco Polo’s Travels
Xixia Wangling National Park has a collection of royal tombs from the Western Xia era
Yinchuan is the former capital of the Western Xia. Ningxia Museum has a number of artefacts from the era.
Zhangye (known as Ganzhou) was an important Western Xia city that mostly escaped destruction by the Mongols
The Yulin Caves in Gansu province contain Buddhist temples with significant art work from the Western Xia and other Chinese kingdoms
The resulting diaspora of the Western Xia can be seen in the eastern Chinese city of Baoding, that has interesting dharani pillars written in Tangut by a senior official of Tangut origin in the 16th century (300 hundred years after the destruction of the Tangut empire)
The Cloud Platform at Juyong Pass in Beijing’s Changping district has many different scripts, including Tangut