10 November 2006

Part II, The Lost Empire of Western Xia — Culture


It is considered AD 1036 was the year Tanguts created their own distinctive characters for their language. The characters are a square ideogram adopted from Chinese. The complex ideograms consist of a series of repetitive but neat strokes. Modern scholars have found about 6,000 characters of this script and understand their meanings. The characters are formed by two or more single basic characters. According to ancient records, the invention of the script was attributable to Emperor Li Yuanhao, his father and a minister called Ye-li-ren-rong. The usage of this new script became popular under the encouragement by Li Yuanhao. Many classical books and Buddhist scriptures were translated from Chinese and Tibetan to Tangut language. Tanguts now also wrote novels in the new script.

XiXia  Copper Badge After the fall of the Western Xia, Mongols allowed the usage of Tangut throughout 13th and 14th centuries. In 1345, Yuan Emperor Shundi erected a six-language monument a the Juyongguan Pass. Tangut was one of the six languages. A Tangut administrator and a Tangut monk had also participated in this monument erection. Thus, the tribes settled around the pass might have continued to use the Tangut script. Plaques with Tangut scripture dated to the 14th-16th centuries were discovered.

Copper badge with Tangut script

In the end of 19th and the beginning of 20th centuries, a large number of manuscripts in Tangut were founded by Russian, British, French and Hungarian explorers in the old domain of Western Xia Empire. Many international scholars and researchers gained an interest in this strange language and the culture of this lost kingdom. According to linguists, the speech of Tangut is similar to the dialect used by an ethnic group in Yunnan Province of southwestern China.


The Gansu corridor was in the main route of traffic from Central Asia to China and so was in the path of Buddhism from India to China. Western Xia was the first destination of Buddhism monks from India. Naturally, the monks spread Buddhism first to the peoples of Western Xia. As Buddhism became widespread in the Tufan (Tibetan) and Tang dynasty, this religion had already established the roots in Western Xia and the rulers of Tanguts became firm believers. In 1031, Emperor Li Yuanhao sent 70 horses to the Song emperor to ask for a Buddhist scripture brought by travelling monks. In 1159, another Tangut emperor invited Tibetan monks to preach in Western Xia. Many Tibetan scriptures were translated and published into Tangut and Chinese. These publications are the most important legacy of Western Xia that has passed to modern civilisation and are used for researches in the study of Buddhism.

Man-made Structures

XiXia Tombs

The Tangut emperors had built magnificent palaces with a series of scenic buildings and lakeshore sights. Besides these, they had also built cities and citadels with fortified wall of bricks and stones. In the beginning of Mongol invasion, these cities could repulse front attacks and stand off month-sieges, though they all fell when the Mongols brought in their siege engineers and the cannons they had employed in conquering Central Asia.

Imperial Mausoleums
The mausoleums and tombs of the Kingdom of Western Xia should be the most important structures that survived. There are nine mausoleums of the Western Xia emperors and over 200 tombs of high officials, generals and aristocrats in the historical site on the east side of the Helan Mountain adjacent to the city of Yinchuan in Ningxia Autonomous Region. The site covers about 50 square kilometres, measuring 4 km from east to west and 10 km from north to south. The mausoleums are enormous, structurally unique, and positioned close together with pagodas at end of alignment line. The pagodas are 22 metres high and octagonal in shape with 12m-wide sides. The companion tombs are in cylindrical, truncated cones, vaulted and other designs. One mausoleum was excavated in 1972 and has a 49 m underground passage leading to a square burial chamber. The unearthed items included gold ornaments, gilded or silver jewellery, bamboo carvings, copper armour-plates, pearls, broken porcelains etc.

The octagonal Western Pagoda (Chengtiansi Pagoda) is 64.5-meter high and has 11 wooden floor  in the Chengtian Temple at the southwestern corner of Yinchuan. The pagoda and the temple were built by the mother of Emperor Yuanhao to devote to the longevity of his predecessor in 1050. Tens of thousands of soldiers were assigned to the construction for five to six years. She was reported to bury the bones of Sakyamuni in a coffin of gold and silver under the pagoda.


A good number of the Tangut people led a nomadic lifestyle, herding and raising livestock - cattle, sheep and horses. On the other hand, many Han Chinese in Western Xia chose to live by farming - wheat and barley. The salt mining was the other important industry. In the cities, there were various occupations of city-dwellers. A few were traders, who exported horses, camels, cattle, salt and other goods to the other countries and imported tea, silks, medicines, incense, etc.


The early Tanguts principally used leather and fur for making clothes. In later periods, they used cotton and silk after they had more contacts with the Han Chinese; their style of clothing generally copied those of Han Chinese. After the establishment of Western Xia dynasty, the styles did not change, except for the soldiers and officers.

Originally, Tanguts had unkempt hairstyles like an ancient nomad, until when Emperor Li Yuanhao decreed a hair code to reform his empire. In the decree, all his male subjects were to shave the top and back of the head and to leave only fringes of hair over the forehead and the ears. They were allowed a grace period of three days to comply at the pain of death. The Tanguts traditionally cremated the deceased and their funerals was mixed with Buddhist rituals.

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N.Zhou Pottery Soldiers

1. There are some debates about the origin of this Turkic-Mongolian tribe of Xianbei 鮮卑. There are a few historical pictures of Xianbei which show the features of mongoloid and Nordic European. An ancient tomb f this high-ranked nomad was recovered near the border of Mongolia and Siberia in 2002. Evidences from the tomb hinted the culture of the horse-riding Iranian-Indo Scythians, who disappeared from Asia and emerged in Eastern Europe. However, the migration of ancient nomads are now believed more complicated than previously thought. For examples, peoples might have travelled to and fro between Asia and North America between the ice age periods, and they might also have navigated between islands in the oceans much earlier. Anyway, this writer thinks that the Xianbei nomads might have migrated originally from the west of the Central Asia or from the north of Siberia, or might have mixed with other tribes.

Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-781)
Celadon Pottery of Soldiers (probably Xianbei)

Wei Asian Arts 2006, Chinese & Southeast Work of Art Belgium
Photo by N, Blomstrand

Li ShiMin Post Stamp

2. The emperors of short-lived Sui dynasty and the early emperors of Tang dynasty all had a link to the Tuoba clan. They had parentage of Xianbei and had wives of Tuoba princesses. Li Yuan, who founded the Tang dynasty, and his son, Li Shimin, were both reported to be very accustomed to the culture of Xianbei.

Tang Emperor Taizong (Li Shimin)

3. The other name of Tanguts 黨項 are: Dangxiang, Tangwu 唐兀, Tangwushang 唐兀愓, or Tanggu 唐古. These names were used by the historians of the Tang dynasty on these northern nomads, probably based on how the sound of the names were spoken. It is almost impossible to determine how the meaning of these names. Some suggested the word of Tangut might have the similar sound of the phrase of “wide prairie” in Tibetan. Uygurs and Mongolians both have a claim to the heritage of Western Xia. For the sake of curiosity, an ethnicity called Dongxiang has now lived in an autonomous area in Gansu; however, they are Islamic and are not Buddhist. The name of Qiang still survives as one of the oldest nationalities in China. A distinct group called Qiang live in south western China and practice the Buddhism.

4. The Black River City is also called Khara-Khoto in Mongolian and is located at the border of the Gobi Desert. Its landscape is covered by sands; the trees and vegetation had died by the erosion of sandstorms. In the early 20th century, the buried city was discovered by a Russian explorer, Piotr Kozlov. From old tales, the Tanguts had killed their wives and buried tens of wagons of treasures in the city before they tried to break out the siege of the Mongols. The Russian exploration party had not found any treasures but had found thousands of drawings and manuscripts. Some of the paintings are now exhibited in the State Hermitage Museum, Russia. Right now, the Chinese researchers have begun to collaborate with their Russian colleagues to translate the Tangut manuscripts in a project funded by the Chinese government.

5. Based on the chapter of Genghis Khan written by Yuan historians in “The Twenty-Five Books of History,” Genghis Khan made a death-bed announcement of his pray after the five-star conjunction sign and of his belated decree an end to all massacres.

6. In 1994, a Li Peiye living in China claimed to be the 25th generation direct descendent of one of the Tangut emperors. The family genealogy book was handed over to the Chinese government. The book claimed that some Tanguts had fled to Muya area of Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province and had established a settlement; in the Ming dynasty, the Tanguts assisted the Ming emperor Zhu to fight the Yue zhen.


[1] “The Axe and War Horse (金戈鐵馬的匯) — Liao, Xixia and Jin Empires,” Editing Committee, Jinlin Publishing Corporation, Changchun, Jinlin Province, China, 2006.
[2] “Coup d’oeil sur la Chine antique (2),” Edited by the La Chine en construction, Beijing, China, 1988
[3] 徐興業, “The Ancient History of China, I and II,” The Shanghai Education Press, Shanghai, China, 1964.
[4] “China Atlas,” Chinese Atlas Press Beijing, China.
[5] “The Twenty-Five Books of History (二十五史),” Jinlin Photocopying Press.
[6] “Pictorial History — Liao, Xixia and Jin,” Jinlin Publishing Corporation, 2007.


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