Abaoji (872 – 6 September 926), posthumously known by his temple name as the Emperor Taizu of Liao,[1] was a Khitan leader and the founding emperor of the Liao dynasty of China, ruling from 916 to 926.[2] He had a sinicised name, Yelü Yi; some sources suggest that Abaoji's family name, Yelü, was adopted during his lifetime,[2] although there is no unanimity on this point.

Emperor Taizu of Liao
1st Emperor of Liao Dynasty
PredecessorDynasty established
SuccessorEmperor Taizong
BornAbaoji (Khitan name)
Yelü Yi (sinicised name)
Died(926-09-06)6 September 926 (aged 54)
SpouseEmpress Shulü Ping
Era dates
Shence (神冊; 916–922)
Tianzan (天贊; 922–926)
Tianxian (天顯; 926)
Regnal name
Emperor Dasheng Daming Tian (大聖大明天皇帝)
Posthumous name
Emperor Dasheng Daming Shenlie Tian (Chinese: 大聖大明神烈天皇帝; pinyin: Dàshèng Dàmíng Shénliè Tiān Huángdí), shortly Emperor Tian (Chinese: 天皇帝; pinyin: Tiān Huángdì) or Tian Di (Chinese: 天帝; pinyin: Tiān Dì)
Temple name
Taizu (太祖)
FatherYelü Saladi
MotherXiao Yanmujin
Traditional Chinese阿保機
Simplified Chinese阿保机
Emperor Taizu of Liao
Traditional Chinese遼太祖
Simplified Chinese辽太祖
Yelü Yi (sinicised name)

Abaoji was born in 872 in Southern Mongolia and had a turbulent childhood. His grandfather was killed in a conflict between tribes, and his father and uncles fled. He was hidden by his grandmother for his safety. He became khagan of the Khitans on 27 February 907,[3] and was subsequently enthroned as emperor in 916, proclaiming his own era name.[4] He died on 6 September 926.[3] He was responsible for the conquest and unification of all of Inner Mongolia, northern China and southern Manchuria.[2] Once the Khitan Empire became the Liao dynasty in 942, he was posthumously considered a Liao emperor.

Legends surrounding Abaoji's birthEdit

Later generations of Chinese historians record a variety of legends that surrounded the birth of Abaoji. According to the legends, his mother Xiao Yanmujin dreamt that the sun fell from the sky and into her bosom, from which pregnancy followed. When she gave birth, the room was 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 was even recorded as being able to see events before they occurred.[5]

Rise to powerEdit

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

The location of the Khitans in relation to the other neighbouring tribes is of importance. The Khitans resided on the east slope of the Greater Khingan Mountains. 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 Khitans. Further west were the Tatars, a warlike tribe on the steppes of Mongolia. East and northeast lay the Jurchens 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 as far as the Yalu River lay the Balhae people, the majority of whom comprised a settled agricultural society.

The Yaolian clan had dominated the leadership of the Khitan[5] tribes since the 750s. They maintained good relations with the Chinese Tang dynasty 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, he was named the Yuyue, commander of all of the 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 "brotherhood" but he pledged support against Zhu Wen.[6] 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 khagan, the Khan of khans. His successes against the Chinese in the north, against whom he had been raiding since 901, led to him receiving the support of seven tribal chiefs and even the acquiescence of the last Yaolian Great Khan.[7]

From 907 until 916, Abaoji was beset by constant uprisings and rebellions, mostly instigated by his own family members (cousins and brothers). He eventually won them over by persuading them that they could become more successful as a dynasty. With his walled city showing off the tribe's wealth and power, he appointed all the usurpers to positions of influence which placated them. Abaoji's skilful manipulation of his enemies allowed him to increase his own and his tribe's power.[8]


Abaoji's ongoing success was due to 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 while sedentary populations in conquered Balhae and north China would be governed by a civil bureaucracy based 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.[9]

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 an era name, also in the Chinese manner of ruling. The second was to name his son, Yelü Bei, as his 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 easily as only a few of his successors experienced simple successions.[10][11]

He also organised his followers into warrior units known as orda, and then by joining 12 ordas together, he would form an administrative district.[1]

In 918, Abaoji had a new walled city built. A Chinese city 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.[10]

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 Khitans 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.[12]

By the time he died of typhoid fever at the age of 54, Abaoji had captured the entire Balhae state,[13] 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. By the time of his death, he had not acted on his plan to move south.[14]

Relationship with the Later TangEdit

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 Li Cunxu's 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.[15]

Yao KunEdit

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 and 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 reason for Abaoji to invade China. Yao Kun stated that this demand was not in his authority to grant. This response landed him in prison, where he still was when Abaoji died from illness on September 6, 926.[3][16]


Though Yelü 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.[17]


  • Shulü Ping, the Empress Chunqin of the Xiao clan (879–953) (述律平 淳欽皇后 萧氏)
    • 1st daughter Yelü Zhigu (耶律质古; ?–911)
    • 1st son Yelü Bei, the Prince of Renhuang (899–937) (耶律倍 人皇王), posthumously as Yizong of Liao (遼義宗)
    • 2nd son Yelü Deguang (902–947) (耶律德光), become Taizong of Liao (遼太宗)
    • 3rd son Yelü Lihu (911–960) (耶律李胡), posthumously as Emperor Zhangsu (章肃皇帝)
  • Palace lady Xiao (宮人 萧氏)
    • 4th son Yelü Yaliguo (耶律牙里果)


Yelü Noulisi
Yelü Salade
Yelü Yundeshi
Yelü Saladi
Yelü Abaoji (872–926)
Yaonian Tila
Xiao Yanmujin (d. 933)

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Hoiberg 2010, p. 1
  2. ^ a b c Dupuy & Dupuy 1986, p. 276
  3. ^ a b c Wittfogel & Fêng 1949, p. 600
  4. ^ Twitchett & Tietze 1994, pp. 60, 62
  5. ^ a b Mote 2003, p. 31
  6. ^ Roberts 2011, pp. 80–81
  7. ^ Mote 2003, pp. 37–39
  8. ^ Mote 2003, pp. 40–41
  9. ^ Mote 2003, pp. 39–40
  10. ^ a b Mote 2003, p. 41
  11. ^ Ebrey 1996, p. 166
  12. ^ Mote 2003, pp. 42–43
  13. ^ Tanner 2009, p. 203
  14. ^ Mote 2003, p. 47
  15. ^ Mote 2003, p. 44
  16. ^ Mote 2003, pp. 44–47
  17. ^ 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". Encyclopædia Britannica. I: A-Ak – Bayes (15th ed.). Chicago, Illinois: Encyclopædia 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 Macmillan. 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.
  • Twitchett, Denis; Tietze, Klaus-Peter (1994). "The Liao". In Franke, Herbert; Twitchett, Denis C. (eds.). The Cambridge History of China. 6: Alien Regimes and Border States, 907–1368. Cambridge University Press. pp. 43–153.
  • 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 Khitan
Succeeded by
Preceded by Emperor of China (Eastern Inner Mongolia)