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Jin workmen building Marco Polo Bridge

Lugou Qiao - Marco Polo Bridge
The Liao Dynasty

Early Background:

The North versus the South

To understand the history of the Marco Polo Bridge (Lugou Qiao 卢沟桥) it's helpful to understand that Beijing and the territory around it was not always in China. The Chinese borders changed over time as the Han people who developed their tribes in the Yellow River basin spread their culture. They weren't alone. Other cultures were developing in the north, south and west. In the north and west the Great Wall was built to defend China against other peoples. It was an insecure defense, since it was often in foreign hands. The possession of the territories around the wall moved back and forth as the borders of "China" expanded and contracted.

Of particular interest to our story, are several peoples who lived in the north. They are the Uyghers, Khitans, Jurchens, Mongolians, and Manchus. They developed different languages, systems of writing, and tribal organization. They were largely nomadic, while the Chinese were agrarian. The Chinese viewed them, viewed all people who were not of their culture, as barbarians and as inferior. They were different. They had different religious beliefs, government organizations, art, and science. They were also advanced militarily. Territorial expansion was an economic necessity for peoples dependent upon limited grazing and water resources. They competed among themselves and preyed upon more settled, agricultural cultures to meet their needs. They established sophisticated governments with division of labor, delegation of responsibility, and position based on merit. The governments would fall when another tribe would amass sufficient might to oust them. Since the base of government was the tribal unit and identity, often the defeated group would move to a new location en masse, leaving only those who had become tied to the area economically through business or farming interests.

Among the nomadic peoples, leadership was based on merit. The leaders were chosen for their warrior, administrative, and political abilities. A people on the move in a harsh environment could not afford an incompetent leader. The individual leaders of groups would elect a grand leader from among their ranks. This contrasts sharply with the inherited leadership of the Chinese dynastic system that depended on the belief that the emperor was chosen by god and was a god himself. This traditional Chinese belief is called the "Mandate of Heaven."

The pattern of Chinese history was one of expansion and contraction. A great dynasty would be founded, reforms would be implemented, and great civic projects would be completed at the beginning; gradually corruption, over-taxation, and disorganization would make the dynasty fall. One or two incompetent emperors could devastate the country. Either a rebellion would overthrow the emperor and a new imperial family would be installed, or local kings and warlords would each cut off their own piece of territory, some quite successfully, and rule their own kingdom or dynasty. That is, until one would overcome the others and establish a unified kingdom again. The process could take hundreds of years.

In 907 AD, one of the great dynasties of China, the Tang Dynasty 唐朝 (Táng Cháo, 618 – 907), imploded. In 873, the reign of Xi Zong 僖宗 (Xī Zōng) began the downfall of the Tang. He had no interest in ruling, only in his own pleasure. He spent money only on his own elaborate entertainment and undermined the efforts of those who tried to maintain services to the country. By 888, when he died, the fate of the Tang was certain. Rebellions erupted all over the country and by 907, the last of the Tang emperors was deposed.

From 907 until the takeover in the south by the Song Dynasty in 960, China was divided into Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. Essentially, anyone who could muster an army and defend a piece of territory could have a kingdom. These kingdoms were weakened by constant border wars and grabs for territory.

The Liao Dynasty (辽朝 Liáo Cháo) in northern China, parts of Mongolia, and much of Manchuria was one of the dynasties founded at the dissolution of the Tang Dynasty. The people of the Liao were Khitan (契丹 Qìdān), a nomadic tribe from Manchuria and Mongolia. The Khitan were interesting because they managed to not only be a warrior people but succeeded in becoming a successful economy by establishing trading and diplomatic relations with far off lands. Connections with Korea to the east and Europe to the west brought them great wealth and would serve as a model for future rulers of the area. In Europe, the name Cathay, the old name for China, referred to the Khitan. It was used as a general reference to all China, and is still used as a romantic reference.

The Liao territory included peoples who spoke Khitan, Uygher, Mongolian, and Chinese. Half of the populace was nomadic and half town-agrarian. To provide administration appropriate to the needs of each segment of their empire, the Liao set up several capitals. The southern capital was in what is now Beijing. They had different administrative governments for the nomadic and town based peoples under their rule. In the north, they continued the traditional Khitan tribal councils and elections. In the south, they adopted the Chinese system of central power under the emperor with appointed administrators in regions. Local administrators were given some autonomy as long as they collected taxes and provided a militia. The attraction of an inherited power is obvious, as is the belief of the people in a god-like ruler. The Khitan rulers took titles as emperors and claimed the Mandate of Heaven to ensure their control over the populace. This is a process called sinicization - the adoption of Chinese methods and culture.

The Liao Dynasty of the Khitan lasted from 907 until 1125, when they were pushed to flee west to the north of what is now Xinjiang. They were supplanted by the invasion of the Jurchen tribes who established the Jin Dynasty 金朝 (Jīn Cháo). The Khitan then established the Western Liao Dynasty or Kara-Khitan Khanate which lasted from 1125-1220. They continued to use a mix of Khitan and Chinese methods both in government and in society. They used the Chinese calendar, but used their own language. They used an imperial system, but allowed local rule within the multitude of tribal peoples included within their territory. Their rule might have lasted much longer, but Genghis Khan swept through and absorbed them in 1125.

While the north was ruled by the Khitan, Xia, and other northern peoples, the south was undergoing a transformation. In 960 Taizu (太祖 Tàizǔ), was able to conquer most of the south of China and establish the Northern Song 北宋 Dynasty (960-1126), with himself as the first emperor. He failed to conquer the Liao, the Western Xia 西夏, and Northern Han in the north. In 978 the Northern Han would finally fall to the Song. While most histories place the Song Dynasty in the forefront, the Liao forced the Song to pay them tribute. The payment of tribute is one of the arguments the Chinese use for ownership of territories. In those days, it was a form of protection money. They paid the Liao to not attack them and incidentally to protect them from other northern peoples. Emperor Taizu established the Song capital in what is now known as Kaifeng.

That brings us to 1125, when the governance of what is now Beijing would be assumed by the Jurchen Jin Dynasty. This may seem complicated, but since the topic is Beijing, here it is in a nutshell. Beijing was under Tang (Chinese) control until 907. Then it was ruled by the Khitan people under the Liao Dynasty until 1125. They moved out and the Jurchen moved in.

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Last update: October 2009
© Marilyn Shea, 2009