TRAC­ING THE TANGUT

西夏王朝之谜

The World of Chinese - - Contents - BY TANG RONGYAO (唐荣尧)

Leg­end says that Genghis Khan's dy­ing wish was to ex­ter­mi­nate the Tangut Em­pire in China's north­west. To­day, the lost em­pire presents his­to­ri­ans a unique chal­lenge in try­ing to re­con­struct its his­tory, lan­guage, and the mys­tery of its to­tal an­ni­hi­la­tion

In the Li­u­pan moun­tains, at the bor­der be­tween present-day Gansu and Ningxia, a thick for­est blot­ted out the fad­ing light of dusk. It was spring, 1227, and stone-faced Mon­go­lian sol­diers stood guard over the moun­tain pass.

In­side the Mon­go­lian camp, the moun­tain wind was stir­ring the flaps of the largest yurt, sur­rounded by a thicket of guards. The shad­owy fig­ures of gen­er­als crouched over the waver­ing light of the can­dles in the yurt, look­ing help­lessly upon the dy­ing man in their midst.

The man was Genghis Khan. His forces had con­quered more ter­ri­tory than any sin­gle army in his­tory, ex­pand­ing the Mon­go­lian em­pire from the Pa­cific Ocean to the Black Sea. Just a month be­fore, how­ever, as his armies had pushed south, Genghis Khan had been shot with a highly poi­sonous ar­row by the soldier of a mys­te­ri­ous dy­nasty; now, the cold, wet air of the Li­u­pan range was has­ten­ing him to­ward death.

The flick­er­ing can­dles were al­most out; as the life of the great in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal con­queror also burned to its last em­bers, the Khan de­liv­ered his last tes­ta­ment to the sons and sub­or­di­nates who knelt be­fore him:

As for the Tanguts, wipe them out. Ex­tir­pate them. Ex­ter­mi­nate them.

As Genghis Khan took his last breath, a se­cret or­der was sent out from the depths of the Li­u­pan range to all the gen­er­als’ camps across the vast Eurasian con­ti­nent. Even as the troops mourned, they chanted their Khan’s last wishes like a curse be­fore ev­ery bat­tle; the “Tangut” were not only the ob­ject of the Khan’s ev­er­last­ing ha­tred and re­gret, but would soon be­come the tar­get of his re­venge from the grave.

Thus goes the story of Genghis Khan’s last mo­ments, as told in The Trav­els of Marco Polo. But just who were these “Tangut” that Genghis Khan spoke of ? Was he re­fer­ring to the race of peo­ple who killed him? In the his­tory of China’s eth­nic­i­ties, there was no group of that name. Could it be a pow­er­ful an­cient em­pire? Read­ing the Twenty-four His­to­ries, a chron­i­cle of China’s rulers from the pre­his­toric Yel­low Em­peror to the Ming dy­nasty, there is no men­tion of the name. Why did the Tangut dis­ap­pear? Were they re­ally wiped out by Mon­go­lian troops? And what kind of his­tor­i­cal traces did they leave be­hind?

The next men­tion of the Tangut ap­peared 50 years after the Khan’s death. In 1277, Vene­tian mer­chant Marco Polo crossed the fron­tier into mod­ern-day China con­trolled by the Mon­gol Yuan dy­nasty (1206 – 1368). His ob­jec­tive was to find the city that Genghis Khan’s grand­son, Kublai Khan, had built upon the grass­land— Shangdu. When he en­tered the ter­ri­tory of Qu­mul (Hami) in what is now Xin­jiang, he ob­served: “Qu­mul is a county within the Tangut prov­ince, part of the Khanate. There are many cities and fortresses within; the main city is known as Qu­mul.”

When he en­tered the Tur­pan area, he once again re­ferred to the Tangut: “Next to Qu­mul is Taras [now Tur­pan]. To its north are waste­lands; the en­tire tra­ver­sal took 16 days. After I left Qu­mul, I went east and north­east for 10 days, pass­ing through a sparsely pop­u­lated area with noth­ing of note. I ar­rived at a place called Suzhou [now the city of Ji­uquan in Gansu prov­ince]. There were a num­ber of cities and fortresses within, with the main city called Suzhou…to­gether, the three ter­ri­to­ries de­scribed are called Tangut.”

En­ter­ing the mid­dle of the Hexi cor­ri­dor, he came to Ganzhou (now Zhangye, Gansu), and wrote that “Ganzhou is the pro­vin­cial seat of Tangut; it is quite large, and con­tains the gov­ern­men­tal units for the whole prov­ince. Upon leav­ing Ganzhou, I trav­eled north for twelve days, to ar­rive at a city called Etz­ina [Ejin Ban­ner, In­ner Mon­go­lia]. It’s lo­cated at the en­trance to the bar­ren desert, within Tangut.”

After leav­ing Ganzhou, Marco Polo walked for five more days, and ar­rived at Liangzhou (Wuwei, Gansu)—yet an­other city “within the bor­ders of Tangut,” along with Alxa (now

In­ner Mon­go­lia), and Yinchuan (now Ningxia). Al­to­gether, these ter­ri­to­ries formed a large L-shape around 500,000 square kilo­me­ters. Was this the ter­ri­tory con­trolled by Genghis Khan’s mor­tal en­e­mies?

Marco Polo fi­nally got the an­swer when he ar­rived at Shangdu, three years after he first left home. There, he sought an au­di­ence with the high­est ruler of the em­pire, and de­scribed with in­ter­est the Tangut ter­ri­tory he had seen. He won­dered about the ori­gins of the Tangut prov­ince and just how vast the area was.

To the Mon­gols, Kublai Khan ex­plained, “Tangut” meant two things: The first was an em­pire that had ceased to ex­ist five decades prior, which stretched over the plains, rivers, and val­leys to the Gobi Desert. Known as the “Grand White Em­pire,” or Xixia (Western Xia) to China’s Song dy­nasty, its ter­ri­tory was even larger than what Marco Polo had seen; at its height, it in­cluded the south­east of mod­ern Xin­jiang, the north­east of Qing­hai prov­ince, the east of Gansu, and the north of Shaanxi.

The se­cond mean­ing of Tangut was the peo­ple who lived within this king­dom, one of whom had shot Genghis Khan with the ar­row that signed his peo­ple’s death war­rant. Not long be­fore Genghis Khan died, he sent a fi­nal im­pe­rial edict to the last em­peror of the Tangut at their cap­i­tal, lo­cated at the base of the He­lan moun­tains in present-day Ningxia, and or­dered him to come to the Li­u­pan moun­tains to sur­ren­der.

Many cen­turies later, I tried to con­struct an out­line of the scene, to ex­plain what the Tanguts were think­ing and do­ing when they re­ceived their death sen­tence from what was then the most lethal army in the world.

In the im­pe­rial palace in the He­lan moun­tains, the last ruler of the Tanguts knew that the em­pire’s fate was sealed. He se­cretly called in his min­is­ters and gen­er­als to for­mu­late a plan that would al­low the im­pe­rial fam­ily, at least, to es­cape: A looka­like of the em­peror would carry the no­tice of sur­ren­der to the Mon­gol camp in the Li­u­pan range, and pay re­spects to Genghis Khan. Mean­while, a few gen­er­als, along with palace staff, crafts­men, and guards, would flee the cap­i­tal with the real em­peror un­der the cover of night. The fact that this plan suc­ceeded—that their es­cape wasn’t dis­cov­ered by the Mon­gol troops, which had fully en­cir­cled the Tangut ter­ri­tory by that time—is a source of mys­tery even to­day.

With the sur­ren­der in hand, the Mon­gol army pro­ceeded to their check­mate. Rid­ing into the He­lan moun­tains, they laid waste to the cap­i­tal in ac­cor­dance with the Khan’s in­struc­tions. Sol­diers were slaugh­tered, civil­ians fled, and ev­ery ar­ti­fact was looted from the im­pe­rial tombs. The once-de­fi­ant king­dom was pushed into the re­cesses of time; “Xixia” be­came a mys­te­ri­ous foot­note in Chi­nese his­tory.

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