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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Cities of Nomads in Premodern Northeast Asia
1: Urban Life in Liao, on the Eve of the Jurchen Conquest
Thursday, March 25, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
University of Birmingham, University of Aberdeen, United Kingdom
While it is well established that the Liao dynasty (907-1125) governed a combination of urban populations, farmers and mobile pastoralists, the unprecedented expansion of agricultural activity and urbanization into the Liaoxi river basin under the leadership of the Kitan, a nomadic aristocracy, is often viewed as anomalous and in need of explanation. Furthermore, the drastic decline of these urban sites and the marginalization of this region in later Eastern Eurasian history following the Jurchen conquests of the 1120s have led scholars to argue that Liao urban practices were ecologically and economically unsustainable – Liao cities willfully existed as exploitative monuments to the Kitan rulers.
However, I argue that while this region witnessed pronounced decline in the Jurchen-led Jin (1115-1234) and Mongol Yuan (1234-1368) periods, it was still active. The issue was that geopolitical priorities had shifted to other regions and the Liao cultural legacy was gradually sidelined. These factors however do invalidate the viability of Liao urban sites up until and beyond the Jurchen conquests.
In fact, epigraphic sources from these city sites reveal a vibrant intellectual and material culture mostly lost to history. Urbanisation in the Liaoxi basin, though originally initiated as a political project in the early 10th century, had grown over two hundred years into a burgeoning society and culture; one that diminished through conquest and shifting geopolitical alignments, and not one that was bound for collapse.