Yelü Dashi

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Yelü Dashi
Emperor of Qara Khitai
SuccessorXiao Tabuyan
ConsortXiao Tabuyan
Era dates
  • Yanqing 延庆 (1132–1133)
  • Kangguo 康国 (1134–1143)
Posthumous name
Tianyouwuliedi (天祐武烈帝 Tiānyòuwǔlièdì)
Temple name
Dezong (德宗 Dézōng)

Yelü Dashi (Chinese: 耶律大石; pinyin: Yēlǜ Dàshí; Wade–Giles: Yeh-Lü Ta-Shih; alternatively 耶律達實 Yēlǜ Dáshí), also known by his temple name Emperor Dezong of Liao (Chinese: 遼德宗), was the founder of the Qara Khitai, also known as the Western Liao dynasty.[1] He initially ruled as king from 1124 to 1132, then as emperor from 1132 to 1143. He was also known in Muslim sources as Nūshī Taifū, Qushqin Taifū or Qushqīn, son of Baighū.[2] He fled the Liao dynasty in northern China as it was on the verge of destruction by the Jurchen Jin dynasty and moved westward into Central Asia where he established a new empire in what is now eastern Kazakhstan.


There are various theories regarding his name. According to Sugiyama Masaaki Dashi (大石) might be a borrowing from Chinese title taishi (太師).[3] Qidan Guo Zhi suggests was just a nickname.[4]

Early life[edit]

Yelü Dashi was a minor member of the Liao dynasty's royal Yelü clan and an eighth generation descendant of Emperor Taizu of Liao. His date of birth is not entirely clear but may have been in either 1087 or 1094, according to accounts of the History of Liao.

The History of Liao describes him as "well-versed in Khitan and Chinese scripts, excelled in riding and archery, and had passed the highest imperial examination in the fifth year of the Tianqing era" (1115 AD).[5]

In the twilight of the dynasty he held increasingly important administrative and military posts.[6]He held posts of governorship of Taizhou (泰州, in modern Tailai County, Heilongjiang) and Xiangzhou (祥州, in modern Wanjinta Township, Nong'an County).[5]

Jurchen invasion and end of the Liao Dynasty[edit]

The Jurchens, a Tungus people who lived north of Liao in Manchuria, established the Jin dynasty in 1115 and began to dominate Manchuria. The Jurchens formed an alliance with the Song dynasty Chinese to attack the Liao, and by 1122 the Jurchens had captured a large part of Liao, including its supreme capital of Chifeng. The Liao emperor Tianzuo fled west, and his uncle Prince Yelü Chun then formed the short-lived Northern Liao in its southern capital of Liao Nanjing (now Beijing). The Song forces under the command of Tong Guan attacked Northern Liao from the south, but under the command of Dashi and Xiao Gan, the Khitan army was able to repel the Song attacks. However, the Jurchens continued to advance from the north, and eventually captured the southern capital in 1123. Just before the Jurchen takeover, Dashi slipped away with 7000 of his troops to join the Emperor Tianzuo.[7]

Dashi was later captured by the Jurchens, but escaped five months later to rejoin the emperor. However, the emperor signalled his intention to attack the Jurchens. Dashi thought this was folly, as the Jurchens were in a strong position. Unable to convince the emperor, in 1124 Dashi led a band of his fellow Khitans northwest to the Liao garrison town of Kedun. Emperor Tianzuo was captured by the Jurchens in 1125 and the Liao dynasty ended.

Move to the west[edit]

He started out with 10,000 horses, a small force assuming at least 2 horses for every man.[8] His new base of Kedun was about 1500 km northwest of Beijing, probably along the Orkhon River in Bulgan Province. It was an old Liao garrison with 20,000 tribal horsemen, good pasture, and protected by desert to the east and south. He probably planned to build up his forces and attack the Jurchens when an opportunity arose, which it never did. He took control of the imperial horse herds and gained some power over the local tribes. Alliances with the Western Xia to the south or the Song dynasty to the southeast never developed. As the Jurchens grew stronger the disorganized lands to the west became increasingly attractive. There had already been significant tribal movements westward, including some Khitans. On March 13, 1130 he headed west with less than 20,000 men. After some minor fighting with the Yenisei Kyrgyz [9] he established a new base on the Emil River just east of the current Chinese border about 1500 km west of Kedun. At about the same time, he was welcomed by the ruler of the Kingdom of Qocho (about 500 km southeast of Emil near Turfan) who became his ally or vassal. In the summer of 1131 he attacked Kashgar (over 1000 km east of Qocho), was soundly defeated and withdrew to Qocho. The Jurchens sent an army after him, but this failed because of the distance.

Kara-Kitay established[edit]

Jetysu region: Balasaghun was west of Almaty. Emil was near the lower left corner of the inset. Almaliq was near Yining in the upper Ili valley

In 1131 or 1132, he was proclaimed Gurkhan by his followers, the new Central Asian title implying that he was adapting to his new homeland.[10] He established his authority over Almaliq and Qayaliq (near Taldıqorğan). To the west was the disorganized Kara-Khanid Khanate. The Karakanid ruler of Balasaghun, Ibrāhīm II b. Ahmad, asked for help against the Karluks and Kankalis. In 1134 Dashi dethroned him,[11] made Balasaghun his new capital and took over 16,000 Khitans that had served the old ruler. He spread his power over Jetysu (eastern Kazakhstan). He sent two armies east to attack the Jurchens, which failed. He gained control over what is now Xinjiang. In May 1137 he defeated a Karakhanid ruler at Khujand and then spent several years consolidating his power in the Ferghana valley and Tashkent, thereby expanding his empire to the west and south.

Battle of Qatwan[edit]

Battle of Qatwan in 1141

The Karakhanids were then vassal of the Seljuks, and Mahmud appealed to the Seljuk sultan Ahmad Sanjar for help. In 1141, Dashi, interceding in a conflict between the Karakhanids and Karluk nomads, came into direct conflict with the Seljuks. Sanjar marched his troops to meet the Kara-Khitans. At the Battle of Qatwan, however, Dashi achieved a decisive victory against the Seljuk Turks. The Seljuk army suffered a great death toll, and Sanjar barely escaped with his life, but his wife and some of his best warriors were captured. The power of the Seljuks sharply declined after the battle, and the Seljuk state collapsed into internal rebellion. The Kara-Khitans became the dominant force in Central Asia, and Khwarazm and Karakhanids became vassal states of his empire. Their empire controlled an area roughly equivalent to most of today's Xinjiang, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and southern Kazakhstan.[12]


Yelü Dashi died two years after Qatwan in 1143 as the master of much of Central Asia. At time of his death, the Qara Khitai ruled Transoxiana, Ferghana, Semirechye, the Tarim Basin, and Uyghuria. His empress Xiao Tabuyan succeeded him as regent of the dynasty.


The dynasty Yelü established would last until its usurpation by Kuchlug followed by conquest of its domain by Genghis Khan in 1218.

His victory over the Seljuks and his amicable relations with Nestorian Christianity, which flourished under the Qara Khitai, led to his association with the legend of Prester John, a Christian king in the east who was "destined" to vanquish Islam.[13][14][15] Bishop Otto of Freising first chronicled the story in 1145.[16]


  • Consort: Xiao Tabuyan, Empress Gantian (regent) of (Western) Liao
  • Son: Yelü Yilie, Emperor Renzong of (Western) Liao
  • Daughter: Yelü Pusuwan, Empress Chengtian (regent) of (Western) Liao



  1. ^ Bretschneider, E., Mediaeval Researches from Eastern Asiatic sources, Vol. 1, (Routledge, 2002), p. 224.
  2. ^ Biran 2005, p. 19–20.
  3. ^ Sugiyama, Masaaki (杉山正明); Huang, Meirong (黃美蓉) (2011). 大漠:游牧民族的世界史 (in Chinese) (1st ed.). New Taipei City: Guangchang Publishing (广场出版). p. 238. ISBN 9789868782907. OCLC 792927318.
  4. ^ Qidan Guo Zhi, vol. 19
  5. ^ a b 遼史 Liao Shi, volume 30, biography of Yelü Dashi. Original text: 通遼、漢字,善騎射,登天慶五年進士第
  6. ^ Biran 2005, p. 19-20.
  7. ^ Biran 2005, p. 21–25.
  8. ^ Sinor, D. (1998), "Chapter 11 - The Kitan and the Kara Kitay", in Asimov, M.S.; Bosworth, C.E. (eds.), History of Civilisations of Central Asia, 4 part I, UNESCO Publishing, ISBN 92-3-103467-7
  9. ^ Ata-Malik Juvayni. The History of The World Conqueror. When they reached the country of the Qirqiz they made attacks on the tribes in that area, who in turn harassed the Khitayans. From thence they journeyed on till they came to the Emil, where they built a town of which some traces still remain.
  10. ^ Biran 2005, p. 38.
  11. ^ Ata-Malik Juvayni. The History of The World Conqueror. Hearing of the settlement of the gür-khan and his followers and their great numbers, he sent messengers to him to inform him of his own powerlessness and of the strength and wickedness of the Qanqli and Qarluq and to beg him to advance upon his capital so that he might place the whole of his kingdom under his control and so free him-self from the cares of this world. The gür-khan proceeded to Balasaqun and ascended a throne that had cost him nothing.
  12. ^ Biran, Michal (2001). ""Like a Might Wall:" The armies of the Qara Khitai" (PDF). Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam: 44–91.
  13. ^ Asian and African Studies. Vydavatel̕stvo Slovenskej akadémie vied. 1992. p. 101.
  14. ^ Paul D. Buell (19 March 2003). Historical Dictionary of the Mongol World Empire. Scarecrow Press. pp. 222–. ISBN 978-0-8108-6602-7.
  15. ^ "Chinggis Khan World Conqueror" (PDF). p. 22.
  16. ^ Lev Nikolaevich Gumilev (1987). Searches for an Imaginary Kingdom: The Legend of the Kingdom of Prester John. Cambridge University Press. pp. 4–7. ISBN 978-0-521-32214-0.


  • Biran, Michal (2005). The Empire of the Qara Khitai in Eurasian History: Between China and the Islamic World. Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521842263.
  • Bretschneider, E., Mediaeval Researches from Eastern Asiatic sources, Vol. 1, Routledge, 2002.
  • Grousset, Rene, The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia , Rutgers University Press, 2002.
  • 遼史 History of Liao, Volume 30, biography of Yelü Dashi.
Yelü Dashi
House of Yelü (1124–1143)
Born: 1094 Died: 1143
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Emperor Tianzuo
Emperor of the Liao Dynasty
Succeeded by
Xiao Tabuyan
as Regent of Emperor of the Liao Dynasty
Gurkhan of Qara Khitai
Succeeded by
Xiao Tabuyan