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The Khitan people (Chinese: 契丹; pinyin: Qìdān; Persian: ختن, Khitan), or Khitai, Kitan, or Kidan, were a nomadic Mongolic people, originally from Mongolia and Manchuria (the northeastern region of modern day China) from the 4th century. As the Liao Dynasty they dominated a vast area north of, and including parts of, China; but have left few relics that have survived until today. After the fall of Liao in 1125, many Khitans moved further west and established the state of Kara Khitai, which was finally destroyed by the Mongol Empire in 1218.
There is no consensus on the etymology of the name of Khitan. There are basically three speculations. Feng Jiasheng argues that it comes from the Yuwen chieftains' names. Zhao Zhenji thinks that the term originated from Xianbei and means "a place where Xianbei had resided". Japanese scholar Otagi Matuo considers Khitan's original name is "Xidan", which means "the people who are similar to the Xi people" or "the people who inhabit among the Xi people".
Various forms of the word "Khitan" survive in the many languages as the name of China. Examples: Bulgarian and Russian word for China (Китай, Kitay) as well as in the Slovene language (Kitajska) and in archaic English (Cathay), Italian (Catai), Portuguese (Catai), and Spanish (Catay) appellations of the country. It is used in such Turkic languages as Uyghur, though is considered pejorative and disapproved of by the Chinese.
They have different stories about their origin. According to Khitan records (Memorial Tablet of Yelu Yuzhi and the Liaoshi), their early ancestor was Qishou Khagan, a descendent of Tanshihuai Khan of the Xianbei state. Qishou Khagan was a divine man riding a white horse who floated down the Laoha River and met Kedun, a heavenly maiden riding a cart drawn by a grey ox who had floated down the Xar Moron River. At the intersection of the two rivers, at the foot of the holy Muye Mountain, they met and mated, giving birth to eight sons, the ancestors of the ancient eight tribes of the Khitan. A temple with portraits of Khitan ancestors was built on Mount Muye their holiest mountain. This story is somewhat similar to that of the origin of Genghis Khan, which speaks of 'Heaven-born Blue Wolf' and 'Fair Doe' crossing the sea (Tengis) and mating at the source of the Onon River, at the foot of Mount Burkhan Khaldun, which became the holiest mountain of the Borjigin Mongols. The Qidan Guozhi (Records of the Khitan State, completed in 1247) records a Khitan legend in its preface:
There was a chief called Naihe. This chief was nothing but a skull hidden under a rug in a round felt tent (yurt), so that he was invisible. Only when something serious had happened in his state, a white horse and a gray ox were sacrificed to him, then he took on a human figure, and came out to deal with the affairs. After the affairs had been settled, he returned to the tent and became a skull again. He disappeared, for his countrymen peeped at him. Then there was another chief called Waihe who was also living in a round felt tent. He wore a boar's head and was clad in pigskin. When there was an action he came out, then he retired and hid himself again. Later it happened that his wife stole his pigskin; he abandoned her and nobody knew where he went. Then there was another one called Zhouli Hunhe. He had raised twenty sheep. Each day he ate nineteen and had only one left, but in the following day there were twenty again. These three chiefs were well known for their abilities in running their state.
From Xianbei origins, they were part of the Kumo Xi tribe until 388, when the Kumo Xi-Khitan tribal grouping was roundly defeated by the newly established Northern Wei, allowing the Khitan to resume their own tribe and entity, and beginning the Khitan written history.
From the 5th to the 8th centuries, they were dominated by the steppe power to their West (Turks, then the Uyghurs, during the 8th and 9th centuries) and the Chinese to their south (Northern dynasties or Tang, respectively during the 5th and 6th, and 7th to 10th centuries). Under this triple domination and oppression, the Khitan started to show growing power and independence. This rise was, compared to other cases, slow. Slow because it was frequently crushed by its neighbouring powers, each using the Khitan warriors when needed, but each ready to crush them when the Khitan rose too much and became powerful, close to becoming an independent fourth regional power. The 696-697 Li-Shun Rebellion is really instructive on this "2 adults and 1 teenager" game : the Khitan were encouraged by the Turks to take all the risks and revolt against the Tang, which they successfully accomplished, before being attacked at their rear by the Turks, to the great advantage of the newly-reborn Turkish empire (2d, 682-745).
Enjoying the departure of Uyghur people for West, and the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in early 10th, they established the Liao Dynasty in 907. The Liao Dynasty proved to be a significant power north of the Chinese plain, continuously moving south and West, gaining control over former Chinese and Turk-Uyghur's territories. They eventually fell to the Jin Dynasty of the Jurchen in 1125, who submit and absorb Khitans to their military benefit.
Following the fall of the Liao Dynasty, a number of the Khitan nobility escaped the area westwards towards Western Regions, establishing the short-lived Kara-Khitan or Western Liao dynasty, and after its fall, a small part under Buraq Hajib established a local dynasty in the southern Persian province of Kirman. These Khitans were absorbed by the local Turkic and Iranic populations, islamized and left no influence of themselves. As the Khitan language is still almost completely illegible, it is difficult to create a detailed history of their movements.
There is no clear evidence of there being any descendant ethnic groups of the Khitai in modern-day Northeast China, but some recent genetic studies and family genealogy researches have substantiated the hypothesis that the Daur ethnic group of Inner Mongolia are possible descendants of the ancient Khitans. and the Yunnan Han Chinese clans of A, Mang, Jiang, plus dozens of other clans who self-identified as Yelu descents and were called Ben People by other Yunnan ethnic groups claim to be descendants of the Khitai. Furthermore, the Liu clan in a few dozen villages with the name Yelu Zhuang also claim descent from the Yelu clan of the Khitans. During the Liao period, ethnic Khitans were divided into two clans, Yelu and Xiao; Yelu was later sinicized. The Daur language is classified as Mongolic.
The Khitan language (also known as Liao, Kitan [ISO 639-3]) is a now-extinct language once spoken by the Khitan people. Khitan is believed to be genetically related to Proto-Mongolic.
There were two writing systems for the Khitan language, known as the large script and the small script. These were functionally independent and appear to have been used simultaneously in the Liao Empire. They were in use for some time after the fall of that dynasty. Examples of the scripts appeared most often on epitaphs and monuments, although other fragments sometimes surface.
Although there are several clues to its origins, which might point in different directions, the Khitan language is most likely a descendant of Pre-Proto-Mongolic (and thus related to the Mongolic languages). The Memorial for Yelü Yanning (dated 986 CE) is one of the earliest inscriptions in Khitan large script.
As nomadic people, the Khitans originally engaged in stockbreeding, fishing, and hunting. Looting southern Chinese villages and towns, as well as neighbour tribes, was also a helpful source of slaves, Chinese handcraft, and food, especially in famine times. Under the influence of the neighbouring China, and following the administrative need for a sedentary administration, the Khitans began to engage in farming, crop cultivation and the building of cities. Different from the Chinese and Balhae farmers, who cultivated wheat and sorghum millet, the Khitan farmers especially cultivated panicled millet. The ruling class of the Liao Dynasty still undertook hunting campaigns in late summer in the tradition of their ancestors. After the fall of the Liao dynasty, the Khitans returned to a more nomadic life.
The Khitans' original religion was a veneration of numerous natural phenomena that were thought to be divine, above all the sun. Thus, the Liao emperor faced the east, where the sun rises, rather than the south as Chinese emperors did. Because the Khitan gave ritual priority to the left, the north was given priority to the south.
Though the founding emperor Abaoji ordered the construction of Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist temples, successive emperors embraced Buddhism. A noticeable increase in devotion to Buddhism can be traced to the reign of Emperor Shengzong. Within a century, local government offices report that there 360,000 monks and nuns in 1078, representing about ten percent of the population. Even if exaggerated, it is clear that Buddhism was an integral part of Liao life.
Very few relics of Khitan poems and literature are preserved, and much less texts or fragments in Khitan language. Because the Khitan language is not fully reconstructable, there are still many difficulties in understanding Khitan language documents.
Although Khitan scripts were invented, the use of them was limited. Khitans, like ancient Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese people, also adopted Chinese characters as their writing system. They wrote a large part of the literature in Chinese, especially political documents. The Chinese official history book for the Liao Dynasty, Liao Shi, compiled in the Yuan Dynasty, is based upon some earlier "veritable records" (shilu 實錄) compiled during the Liao period.