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Emperor of Liao Dynasty
Reign February 27, 907 – September 6, 926
Successor Taizong
Spouse Empress Shulü Ping
Era dates
Shence (神册): 916–922
Tianzan (天赞):922–926
Tianxian (天显): 926
Posthumous name
Dasheng Daming Shenlie Tian Emperor (大聖大明神烈天皇帝)
Temple name
Born 872
Died September 6, 926 (aged 54)

Abaoji (Chinese: 阿保機; Wade–Giles: A-pao-chi; Mongolian: Ambagyan), posthumously known as Liao Taizu (Chinese: 遼太祖; pinyin: Liáo Tàizŭ; Wade–Giles: Liao T'ai Tsu)[1] was a Khitan leader and founder of what would become the Liao Dynasty (907–926).[2] Abaoji also took the Chinese name Yi (億); some sources suggest that the surname Yelü (耶律) was adopted during his lifetime,[2] though there is no unanimity on this point.

Abaoji was born on 872 in Southern Mongolia and had a turbulent childhood. His grandfather was killed in a conflict between tribes, and his father and uncles fled. Yelü Abaoji was hidden by his grandmother for his safety. He was enthroned as emperor on February 29, 907 and died on September 6, 926.[3] He was responsible for the conquering and unification of all of Inner Mongolia, Northern China, and Southern Manchuria.[2]

Legends surrounding Abaoji's birth[edit]

Later generations of Chinese historians record a variety of legends that surrounded the birth of Abaoji. According to the legends, his mother dreamed that the sun fell from the sky and into her bosom, from which pregnancy followed. When she gave birth, the room is said to have become filled with a mysterious light and extraordinary fragrance. As a newborn, his body was that of a three-year-old, and the legends go on to say that he was walking at the age of three months. He is even recorded as being able to see events before they passed.[4]

Rise to power[edit]

Statues in Huairen County, Shanxi, China, commemorating Abaoji and Li Keyong's meeting in 907

An important point to be made was the location of the Khitan (Chinese: Qidan) in relation to the other neighboring tribes. The Khitan resided on the east slope of the Greater Khingan Mountains (Xing'an). West of the mountains were other nomadic pastoral tribes such as the Shiwei, and the Xi, along with the Turkic Uighur tribe. These other tribes had inter-married with the Khitan. Further west were the Tatars, a warlike tribe on the steppes of Mongolia. East and northeast lay the Jurchen tribe all the way to the Amur river. They were a peaceful people that resided in small villages and subsisted by hunting and fishing. Across the Liao River to the east and southeast until one reached the Yalu River lay the Bohai people, the majority of which were a settled agricultural society.

The Yaolian clan had dominated the leadership of the Khitan[4] tribes since the 750s. They maintained good relations with the Tang Dynasty of China to the south. However, by the end of the ninth century, leaders of the powerful Yila Tribe were expressing dissatisfaction with the Yaolian khans. Abaoji's father had been the elected chieftain of the Yila Tribe. As surnames were considered a marker of Chinese culture, they were not used by the Khitan people outside of the Yaolian imperial clan.

Abaoji became chieftain of the Yila tribe in 901 and in 903, was named the Yuyue, Commander of all Khitan military forces. This had the effect of making him second only to the great khan in the hierarchy of the Khitan nation. He started making a name for himself in 905, when he led 70,000 cavalry into Shanxi to create a brotherhood with Li Keyong. Not only did he offer "brotherood" but he pledged support against Zhu Wen.[5] This showed that he was willing to be more aggressive than the Great Khan. In 907, he appeared at the triennial council and demanded to be named the khaghan, the Khan of khans. His successes against the Chinese in the north, who he had been raiding since 901, led to receiving the support of seven tribal chiefs and even the acquiescence of the last Yaolian Great Khan himself.[6]

From 907 until 916 Abaoji was beset by constant uprisings and rebellions, most instigated by his own family members (cousins and brothers). He eventually won them over by showing first how successful they could become as a dynasty. Second, with the walled city showing off the tribes wealth and power, and finally he would appoint all the usurpers to amenable positions to placate them. The skillful manipulation of his enemies allowed him to increase his and his tribe's power.[7]


Main article: Liao Dynasty

Abaoji's success was in his ability to introduce innovations to Khitan society. Arguably the most important was the introduction of a dual administrative system in which nomadic steppe peoples would be governed by steppe traditions and sedentary populations in conquered Bohai and north China would be governed by a civil bureaucracy drawn largely on Chinese methods. While this did not receive universal support from tribal leaders due to the erosion of their own powers, this became the model that later steppe peoples would use to govern their diverse empires.[8]

Two more important innovations were introduced in 916. He adopted Chinese court formalities in which he declared himself Celestial Emperor in the Chinese-style and adopted a reign name, also in the Chinese manner of ruling. The second was to name his son, Prince Bei, heir apparent, also a first in Khitan society and something that directly contrasted with Khitan notions of rule by merit. This second innovation did not take hold so easily as few of his successors experienced simple successions.[9][10]

He also organized his followers into warrior units known as ord, (ord) and then by joining 12 ordos, he would form an administrative district.[1]

In 918, Abaoji had a new walled city built. A Chinese city (漢城) was built adjacent to this city in which artisan's shops, commercial shops, and warehouses were constructed. Later, five capital cities would be built, including a Supreme Capital (上京), that served as the base of Khitan administration.[9]

Abaoji ordered the development of a Khitan large script in 920. This script looks superficially like Chinese writing, however, it bears little resemblance to Chinese writing, and the two were mutually unintelligible. Five years later, the arrival of a Uyghur delegation led Abaoji to order his younger brother Yelü Diela to develop a new script on more syllabic principles. Unlike the Japanese and Koreans, the Khitan managed to adopt the cultural and administrative tool of writing without the baggage of Chinese culture and grammar that came with the wholesale adoption of Chinese characters.[11]

By the time he died of typhoid fever, at the age of 54, he had captured the entire Bohai state,[12] keeping their ruling family as nobility ruling his new fiefdom. His eastern boundaries were the Yalu River and the Ussuri River. His westward progression had gone far onto the Mongolian Plateau. He had not acted on his desires to move south.[9]

Relationship with the Later Tang[edit]

Li Cunxu, the son of Li Keyong who had formed a bond with Abaoji back in 905, founded the Later Tang on the ashes of the Later Liang in 923. On his death, though relations between the two had soured, the proper forms were followed and an emissary was sent to the Khitan capital. The souring of relations occurred probably due to the aggressiveness of Abaoji as in 922 and 923 he had pressed deep into Hebei, looting and taking prisoners all the way. This was in essence Later Tang territory.[13]

Yao Kun[edit]

Yao Kun was sent by the Later Tang court to meet with Abaoji in 926. He caught up with the Khitan ruler in Manchuria while he was on campaign against the Balhae kingdom while he was encamped at Fuyu in present-day Jilin Province. Abaoji demanded that the Later Tang surrender the Sixteen Prefectures. If they were given up, there would be no more cause for invading China. Yao Kun stated that this was not in his authority. This response landed him in prison, where he still was when Abaoji died from illness on September 6, 926.[3][14]


Though Prince Bei was designated heir apparent in 916, the empress dowager Shulü Ping did not consider him to be worthy and managed to have her second son Deguang succeed to the throne. Deguang became known to history as Emperor Taizong and he reigned from 926 to 947.[15]

See also[edit]

Personal information[edit]

  • Father
    • Yelü Saladi (耶律薩剌的), Khitan chieftain, posthumously honored Emperor Dezu
  • Mother
  • Wife
    • Empress Shulü Ping (879–953), initially posthumously honored Empress Zhenlie, later honored Empress Chunqin (changed 1052), mother of Princess Bei, Deguang, and Lihu
  • Concubine
    • Lady Xiao, mother of Prince Yaliguo
  • Children
    • Yelü Bei (耶律倍) (b. 900), King of Dongdan, name later changed to Dongdan Zanhua (東丹慕華) then to Li Zanhua (李贊華) (killed by Li Congke 937), posthumously initially honored King Wenwuyuan, then as Emperor Rangguo, then as Emperor Wenxian, then as Emperor Wenxian Qinyi with the temple name Yizong
    • Yelü Deguang (耶律德光), later Emperor Taizong of Liao
    • Yelü Lihu (耶律李胡), posthumously honored Emperor Qinshun, then as Emperor Zhangsu, then as Emperor Hejing
    • Yelü Yali (耶律牙里果)
    • Yelü Zhigu (耶律質古), wife of Xiao Han (蕭翰), also known as Xiao Shilu (蕭室魯)


  1. ^ a b Hoiberg 2010, p. 1
  2. ^ a b c Dupuy & Dupuy 1986, p. 276
  3. ^ a b Wittfogel & Fêng 1949, p. 600
  4. ^ a b Mote 2003, p. 31
  5. ^ Roberts 2011, pp. 80–81
  6. ^ Mote 2003, pp. 37–39
  7. ^ Mote 2003, pp. 40–41
  8. ^ Mote 2003, pp. 39–40
  9. ^ a b c Mote 2003, p. 41
  10. ^ Ebrey 1996, p. 166
  11. ^ Mote 2003, pp. 42–43
  12. ^ Tanner 2009, p. 203
  13. ^ Mote 2003, p. 44
  14. ^ Mote 2003, pp. 44–47
  15. ^ Mote 2003, pp. 49–51


  • Dupuy, R. Ernest; Dupuy, Trevor N. (1986). The Encyclopedia of Military History from 3500 B.C. to the Present (2nd Revised ed.). New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers. ISBN 0-06-011139-9. 
  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley (1996). Thompson, Damian, ed. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-66991-X. 
  • Hoiberg, Dale H., ed. (2010). "A-pao-chi". Encyclopedia Britannica. I: A-Ak - Bayes (15th ed.). Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. ISBN 978-1-59339-837-8. 
  • Mote, F. W. (2003). Imperial China: 900–1800. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674012127. 
  • Roberts, J. A. G. (2011) [1999]. A History of China. Palgrave Essential Histories (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Palgrave McMillan. ISBN 978-0-230-24984-4. 
  • Tanner, Harold M. (2009). China: A History. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. pp. 202–205. ISBN 978-0-87220-915-2. 
  • Wittfogel, Karl August; Fêng, Chia-shêng (1949). History of Chinese Society: Liao, 907-1125. American Philosophical Society. 
House of Yelü (916–1125)
Born: 872 Died: 926
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Dynasty Created
Emperor of the Liao Dynasty
Succeeded by
Emperor Taizong of Liao
Preceded by
Emperor Ai of Tang
Emperor of China (Eastern Inner Mongolia)