The Five Capitals of the Liao
From September to December this year, the Five capitals of the liao exhibition is open to the public at the Capital Museum, showcasing around 270 gold, silver, ceramic, jade and stone artefacts from the Liao Dynasty.
The Khitan people were an ancient nomadic people from northern China who travelled on horseback and lived in yurts. The picturesque border area they once inhabited was witness to their extraordinary history.
The Khitan rule lasted over 300 years, beginning with Yelü Abaoji (reign: 916–926, also known as Emperor Taizu) of the Liao Dynasty (AD 916–1125), who founded the Liao state in 907. In 1125, Yelü Yanxi (reign: 1101–1125, a.k.a Emperor Tianzuo), was captured by troops from the State of Jin. Later, Yelü Dashi (reign: 1134–1143) founded the Western Liao Dynasty (1124–1218), which was toppled by the Mongolians in 1218. In its heyday, the powerful Liao Dynasty had captured the Sixteen Prefectures of Yan and Yun from the Later Jin (936–947), and frustrated the Song (AD 960–1279) several times, during which the Liao's five capitals were established. According to Geography of the History of Liao, the capital cities were established by Emperor Taizong (reign: 927–947), Emperor Shengzong (reign: 982–1031) and Emperor Xingzong (1031–1055).
By looking beyond the majestic palaces and bustling streets of these five cities, we can understand the rise and fall of dynasties, the integration of tribes, and the rites, customs, and religions of the Khitan people. From September to December this year, the Five Capitals of the Liao (Unearthed Relics of Inner Mongolia and Exhibition Honouring the 1080th Anniversary of Nanjing as a Capital) exhibition is open to the public at the Capital Museum.
The exhibition is being hosted by the People's Government of Beijing Municipality and the People's Government of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, co-organised by the Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage and the Cultural Heritage Administration of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and coundertaken by the Capital Museum and Inner Mongolia Museum. A total of 270 exquisite cultural relics are on show.
"In the north, where the vast desert stretches away to meet the azure sky, live the Khitan people, owning countless carriages and robust horses. Spring brings them boundless green interspersed with bright red peonies." Entering the exhibition hall, visitors can appreciate a fascinating picture of the ancient Khitan people.
The Liao Dynasty divided its realm into five “circuits,” each with a capital city: Shangjing (Supreme Capital) in Linhuang, Zhongjing (Central Capital) in Dading, Dongjing (Eastern Capital) in Liaoyang, Nanjing (Southern Capital) in Xijin, and
Xijing ( Western Capital) in Datong. In the History of Liao it is stated that the Supreme Capital was the imperial capital, which was administered by high-ranking officials. The other four capitals were also administered by officials of different ranks as befitted their status. Generally speaking, the Western Capital was mainly governed by border officers, and the Southern and Central Capitals were mainly governed by financial and tax officers. Despite some variations in the records, this reflects the multi-centre development of the five capitals with their different roles. No matter what role a capital may have played however, life there was never less than fascinating.
The first part of the exhibition focuses on Yelü Yuzhi (AD 890–941, a high-ranking official of the Liao), who was involved in the establishment of the Eastern Capital. During the early years of the Liao, Yelü Yuzhi served as a military advisor. When Emperor Taizu stabilised the Bohai State and appointed Yelü Bei as the Prince of Dongdan, Yelü Yuzhi governed Dongdan Kingdom. After Emperor Taizong succeeded to the throne, Yelü Yuzhi presented a memorial and suggested he relocate people from Bohai State to Liangshui. Emperor Taizong accepted the suggestion, and resettled them in Liaoyang and established the Eastern Capital.
In 1992, a large Liao Dynasty tomb in Chifeng City was robbed, with the owner later being identified as Yelü Yuzhi. The tomb was then unearthed so as to protect it. The site was located over 130 kilometres (km) from Tianshan Town to the south, around 30 km from a pastural village.
To the northeast of the village stands Chaoketu Mountain that stretches dozens of kilometres. The tomb of Yelü Yuzhi lies on the sunny, southeast slope of the mountain, surrounded by more mountains on three sides.
The decorated objects which were unearthed allow us to get a glimpse at the aesthetics of the Liao people. The tomb was paved with two layers of tiles. The bottom layer was made of ordinary green and red square tiles, whilst the top layer used green square glazed tiles. Some of these green glazed tiles are on display in the exhibition. Patterns on the tiles include flowers growing freely and nimble insects, adding a sense of vitality to the cool tomb.
Another excavated item is a goldgilt round copper ornament featuring a pattern of a “three-legged bird.” The threelegged bird engraved in the middle of the front side is a divine creature that steers the sun carriage according to the mythology of the Central Plains. On the ornament, the ethereal bird stretches its wings, standing on three legs with its long tail curved upwards. The reverse side of the object is concave, with a mark in the centre where a button was once attached.
A gold makara- shaped earring (also known as a “Makarakundala”) was lucky enough to survive the looting by tomb robbers. On closer inspection, it is possible to see that the earring is composed of parts made through stamping; it has a hollow interior, and its surface is smooth with engraved details. A makara is a mythical Hindu creature with a long nose, sharp teeth, fish head, and fish tail. Makara imagery arrived in China as far back as the 4th century, alongside the spread of Buddhism. During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), makara patterns—with their head of a dragon; body and fins of a fish, long, curved nose; and large, open eyes— became a common design feature in gold and silver wares. The Khitan people also showed great interest in makara patterns. The gold makara- shaped earring from the tomb of Yelü Yuzhi is decorated with a creature featuring two horns, dragon head and a curved fish body, and is inlaid with a turquoise stone.
Among the exhibits, there is an agatecrystal keyūra necklace, a patterned shieldshaped ring, a carved gilt wood seated lion, a gold cup with petal-shaped spout, a silver bowl with makara pattern and golden flowers, and other exquisite artefacts, which show the life of the bygone dynasty.
Also on display are two simple bone brushes excavated in the Supreme Capital which reflect the daily life of the Liao people. In spring 1990, a Liao mural tomb was discovered in a valley around 20 km south of the ruins of the Supreme Capital in Chifeng City. In the mural, a woman is depicted bending over, arranging utensils on a wooden plate which is situated on a low table. The utensils are clearly depicted, and include a long-handled brush, wooden comb and two covered porcelain boxes. Such an arrangement has led to speculation that they are make-up accessories, whilst others argue that they are toothbrushes.
During the Song and the Liao dynasties, there was a kind of toothbrush called a “shuayazi.” Records from the Northern Song (960–1127) state that: “Since toothbrushes are made of horsetail, one should not brush
A gilded headpiece with phoenix carvings