As the Tang (T’ang) dynasty (618–907) was crumbling, several regional states came into being that occupied outlying areas of the once great empire. One of them was called Xixia or Western Xia (982–1127). Although it included several ethnic groups, among them many Han Chinese, the ruling dynasty and dominant ethnic group of Xixia was called Tangut, who were related to Tibetans.
The Tangut first entered Chinese history during the Tang dynasty when they were invited to settle in frontier regions in present day Sichuan (Szechwan), Qinghai (Ch’inghai), and Gansu (Kansu) Provinces as a bulwark against Tibetan tribes. The most important prefecture they settled in was Xia (Hsia), the name of China’s first dynasty and a hallowed name to the Chinese. In 893 the Tang court appointed a Tangut chief military governor of the region, gave him the title duke of Xia, and also conferred on him the surname Li of the Tang imperial house. His descendants continued to use it after the Tang fell. This is the origin of the name Xixia for the Tangut state. Later the Song (Sung) dynasty also conferred its ruler’s surname, Zhao (Chao), on the Xixia rulers and gave them the title king of Xia, but they continued to use Li as their surname until the 11th century.
A written script for Tangut was created in 1037 under a ruler named Li Yuanhao (Li Yuen-hao). It had about 6,000 characters and was based on the Chinese script, possibly because like Chinese, Tangut was monosyllabic and tonal, but the two are not mutually intelligible. During the next two centuries written Tangut was widely used, much more so than Khitan was used by the Liao dynasty, or Jurchen was by the Jin (Chin) dynasty. This was so despite the fact that many Tangut officials of Xixia were bilingual and fluent in written Chinese. Li Yuanhao’s order to invent a Tangut script is interpreted as an assertion of his native culture as opposed to the Chinese. (He also dropped his Chinese surname Li and substituted it with a Tangut one.) However Xixia was so thoroughly destroyed by the Mongol forces of Genghis Khan that the language became forgotten until scholars in the mid-20th century began to study it from dual language (Chinese and Tangut) inscriptions on surviving stones and from documents recently excavated.
There was no Xixia history written by its own people. Later when the rulers of the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) in China ordered dynastic histories for its immediate predecessors compiled, the board entrusted to do so acknowledged the Song, Liao, and Jin dynasties as legitimate ruling houses of China and wrote extensive and detailed histories of each. However they did not acknowledge Xixia as a dynasty. Therefore there is no Chinese dynastic history of Xixia, only chapters about them in other historical works.
In 1038 Yuanhao proclaimed himself emperor of a new dynasty called Da Xia (Ta Hsia), meaning “Great Xia.” It is reminiscent of the Khitan’s creation of an imperial state in 916 with Chinese trappings. At its maximum extent at the end of the 11th century Xixia measured over 800 miles from east to west and over 500 miles from north to south. It bordered the Gobi Desert in the north and included the Gansu Corridor in the west, which was important because that was the route of trans-Eurasian trade from which it received much revenue. The core of the state was the Xia area, which contained extensive irrigation works originating from the Han dynasty (202 b.c.e.–200 c.e.) that sustained a mixed agricultural and pastoral economy. Beyond the agricultural core much of the land was desert. Xixia had two capital cities, Xiping (Hsi-p’ing) on the east side of the Yellow River and Xingqing (Hsing-ching) on the west side near present-day Ningxia (Ning-hsia); a royal cemetery was located nearby with tombs built on the Song model. At the height of its power under Yuanhao, Xixia defeated the Song and under a peace signed between the two states, Song gave large annual gifts of silk and silver to Xixia.
As with the Song, Xixia adopted Confucianism as state ideology, shrines were built in the capital to honor Confucius, schools were established in cities to teach the Confucian Classics, and a national academy was established to train advisers to the rulers. As the dynasty progressed, the trend toward Sinicization in philosophy, arts, ritual, and even fashion grew. Several among the nine Xixia rulers had Chinese mothers and wives. To the Xixia elite Chinese things represented sophistication, and they became more assimilated to Chinese values than their contemporary Khitan nobles in the Liao dynasty were. This trend also produced tension and division because some Tangut continued to honor their traditional tribal values; these conflicts were never resolved. Although Daoism (Taoism) was patronized and Nestorian Christianity and Manicheanism had adherents, most Tangut followed the Tibetan model of Buddhism, deviating from the Chinese. Many Buddhist texts were translated to Tangut and printed from carved wood blocks.
Xixia existed internationally in complex relationships with the Song, Liao, and Jin dynasties in shifting alliances, war, and peace, until the rise of the Mongols. The first Mongol attack occurred in 1205; Temujin, who became Genghis Khan one year later, led it. A request for aid from Jin (who would later be a Mongol victim also) was refused. Xixia sued for peace and became a subject ally of the Mongols under very oppressive terms. When Xixia revolted later, their doom was sealed. In 1226
Genghis Khan personally led an army to destroy Xixia, which they did systematically and continued even after Genghis died in 1227. When the capital surrendered every inhabitant was killed and the royal cemetery was plundered. The state and dynasty, which had produced nine rulers, disappeared. It is unclear what happened to the survivors. There is evidence that some of the ruling clan members and followers fled to the upper reaches of the Yarlung River in present day western Sichuan province. Other small groups fled to northeastern China, where fragments of their culture survived for some time.
- Dunnell, Ruth W. The Great State of White and High, Buddhism and State Formation in Eleventh Century Xia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996;
Franke, Herbert, and Denis Sinor, eds. The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 6, Alien Regimes and Border States 907–1368. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994
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