The Tanguts

The Tanguts (Xia) were a people of Tibetan origin, whose home originally was in the highlands of western Sichuan. By the middle of the ninth century, like the Uighurs, they were important enough to earn the gratitude of the Tang Dynasty for helping suppress the An Lu-shan rebellion. In 1006 they were able to take advantage of the political rivalry between the Qidan (Liao) ruling in the north and the Song dynasty to gain de facto independence, and in 1020 they moved their capital across the Yellow River to Xingzhou. This put them in a position to assert their control over the Hexi Corridor, the key section of the Silk Road leading west from central China. The Tangut ruler proclaimed his equality with the Song emperor and presided over a major project to translate Buddhist scriptures and have them published in the Tangut language. By the 1040s, the Song were sending the Tanguts a huge annual tribute of silk, silver and tea.

Tangut control extended to Dunhuang in the 1070s. There one can see donor images of the Tangut ruler and his consort, in which he is dressed in elegant silk embroidered with a dragon design. Evidence of Tangut promotion of Tibetan esoteric Buddhism can be seen in the paintings of the Yulin caves near Dunhuang.

Perhaps the most striking material about the culture of the Tanguts has been excavated at their important city of Kara Khoto. Now buried in the sands of a largely uninhabited region of the Gobi, the city flourished from the time the Tanguts took control of it in 1035. It was re-discovered in 1908 by a Russian expedition led by Captain Pyotr Kozlov. Kozlov found a treasure trove of Buddhist sculpture, scriptures and painted silk banners in the base of a large stupa, all of which is now in the collection of the Hermitage Museum (some of it displayed on the Hermitage website). Additional evidence attests to Kara Khoto's important trade connections with the West, in which it appears Muslim merchants played a key role. The ruins of a mosque still stand outside the walls of the abandoned city.

The Tanguts made the mistake of resisting the Mongols when they began to extend their control over the Hexi Corridor in the first decade of the thirteenth century. Right at the end of his life in 1226-1227, Chingis Khan's armies destroyed the Tangut state. Kara Khoto struggled on, important enough for Marco Polo to mention it. "The inhabitants are idolaters [i.e., Buddhists]," he wrote. "They have camels and cattle in plenty. The country breeds lanner and saker falcons and very good ones. The people live by agriculture and stock-rearing; they are not traders" [Latham trans.]. As its river dried up, Kara Khoto was finally abandoned in the late fourteenth century.

--Daniel C. Waugh


Y. I. Kychanov, "The Tangut Hsi Hsia kingdom (982-1227)," Ch. 9 (pp. 206-214) in History of civilizations of Central Asia, Vol. IV. The age of achievement: A.D. 750 to the end of the fifteenth century. Part One. The historical, social and economic setting, M.S. Asimov and C. E. Bosworth, eds. (Paris: UNESCO, 1998).

Ruth W. Dunnell, The Great State of White and High: Buddhism and State Formation in Eleventh-Century Xia (Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai'i Pr., 1996).

Mikhail Piotrovsky, ed., Lost Empire of the Silk Road: Buddhist Art from Khara Khoto (X-XIIIth century) (Milan: Electa and Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation, 1993).