TitleKeynote Lecture 2014: A Forgotten Eurasian Empire: The Liao Dynasty, 907-1125 (Language: English)
Date/TimeTuesday 8 July 2014: 13.00-14.00
SpeakerNaomi Standen, Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages (CeSMA), University of Birmingham
IntroductionFelicitas Schmieder, Historisches Institut, FernUniversität in Hagen
AbstractPremodern Eurasian steppe empires are too often conflated into the Mongol stereotype: short-lived empires of civilisation-destroying, nomadic, horse-riding warriors. A case study of the Liao empire run by Eurasian pastoralists suggests a more complex and nuanced picture. Three centuries before the rise of the Mongols, the Liao was the dominant power of its day, but it did not seek world domination. It ranged from present-day Mongolia south to Beijing, including only a small strip of territory within the line of the Great Wall. Rather than push further into 'China', Liao emperors achieved a century of peaceful coexistence with their southern neighbour. The Liao engaged in a patrimonial political system shared by steppe and sedentary rulers across Northeastern Eurasia; their empire developed administrative structures to cope with multicultural populations of pastoralists and farmers; and it became the leading Buddhist society of the region.

Yet the Liao empire is largely unknown, or ignored. Orthodox Chinese historiography omits the dynasty from the legitimist sequence, and historians have scarcely acknowledged its existence. Archaeologists, by contrast, have excavated dozens of Liao tombs, which reveal the wealth of the elite but little about everyone else. However, the Liao also built cities in the grasslands, which offer fresh insights into the everyday life and society, politics and economics of a steppe-based empire.

The paper will include the first fruits from an investigation of a Liao walled settlement in southeastern Inner Mongolia, working towards a model of a steppe-based empire that offers specific alternatives to the 'Mongol' stereotype. It seeks recognition for the diversity of empires led by pastoralists, and offers pointers towards a history of everyday life in the absence of written evidence.