Tangut people

A painting of the Buddhist manjusri, from the Yulin Caves of Gansu, China, from the Tangut-led Western Xia dynasty
Tangut people
Regions with significant populations
Western Xia
Tangut language
Buddhism, Root West/Shamanism
Related ethnic groups
Qiang (historical people)

The Tangut, identified with the state of Western Xia, were Tibeto-Burman-speaking people[1] who moved to Northwest China sometime before the 10th century. The Tanguts had only one state in their history, the Western Xia or Tangut Empire (1038–1227).


The Tangut is typically regarded by Chinese scholars to represent the Qiang or Dangxiang (党項; Dǎngxiàng). Historically, "Qiang" was a collective term for the multiple ethnic groups who lived on the west of China. The name Tangut first appears in the Orkhon inscriptions of 735. In their own language, the Tangut language, the Tanguts called themselves Mi-niah. "The Hsi-hsia ('Western Hsia') Dynasty, based in the Ordos, owed its founding to the descendants of Tibeto-Burman-speaking Tangut (Miñak) people there, most of whom had migrated from their homeland in West China under pressure from the expanding Tibetan Empire."[2]


The Tanguts divided themselves into two classes: the "Red Faced" and the "Black Headed". The Red Faced Tanguts comprised the commonality while the Black Headed Tanguts were the elite priestly caste. Although Buddhism was extremely popular among the Tangut people, many Tangut herdsmen continued to practice shamanism, known as Root West. The black caps worn by Root West shamans gave the Black Headed caste its name. According to Tangut myth, the ancestor of the Black Headed Tanguts was a heavenly white crane, while the ancestor of the Red Faced Tanguts was a monkey. Ancient sources describe Tanguts as being short, stocky, dark-skinned, and thick-lipped. They wore their hair in the Tufa style, shaved bald except for a long fringe of bangs that framed the face.[3] Tangut kings went by the title of Wuzu.


Tomb No. 3 of the Western Xia imperial tombs in Ningxia

The founder of the Tangut was a noted prince of the Tuyuhun (284–670). In 881, at the end of the Tang dynasty, the Tanguts brought troops to suppress the Huang Chao rebellion on behalf of the Tang court and took control of the Xia state in northern Shaanxi. "By the time of the An Lu-shan Rebellion, the Tanguts were the dominant local power in the region. Late in the T'ang, their chief T'o-pa Ssu-kung (r. 991- ca. 895), head of the traditional leading clan of the Tangut, drove the rebel Huang Ch'ao from the capital, Ch'ang-an and, as a reward was appointed military governor of the three prefectures of Hsia, Sui, and Yin."[2]

After the Tang fell in 907, the formally declared resistance against the expanding Song dynasty in 982 by Li Deming and proclaimed independence, enthroning his son Li Yuanhao as Emperor Jingzong of Western Xia in 1038.

According to Tangut-language sources, the Tangut state known now as the Western Xia was named 𗴂𗹭𘜶𗴲𗂧 translated as "Great State of White and Lofty" (phôn¹ mbın² lhi̯ə tha²).[4] Although the Chinese translation of this name (Chinese: 白高大國; pinyin: Báigāo Dàguó) was occasionally used in Tangut sources,[5] the state was most commonly referred to as the "Great Xia" (大夏) in Chinese-language sources of the Tangut or as the "Xia State" (Chinese: 夏國) to the Song.[6] In later historiography and in modern Chinese the Tangut state is referred to as the "Western Xia" (Xī Xià 西夏). The Mongols and other steppe tribes referred to the Tangut kingdom as "Qashi" or "Qashin", which was derived from the Middle Chinese name for the region the Tanguts controlled (Chinese: 河西).

Since the Tangut's founder, Li Deming, was not a particularly conservative ruler, the Tangut people began to absorb the Chinese culture that surrounded them, but never lost their actual identity, as is proven by the vast amount of literature which survived the Tangut state itself.

Li Deming's more conservative son, Li Yuanhao, enthroned as Emperor Jingzong, sought to restore and strengthen the Tangut identity by ordering the creation of an official Tangut script and by instituting laws that reinforced traditional cultural customs. One of the laws he mandated called for citizens to wear traditional ethnic apparel and another required men to wear their hair short or shaved as opposed to the Chinese custom of wearing hair long and knotted. Rejecting the common Chinese surname of "Li" given to the Tuoba by the Tang court and that of "Zhao" given by the Song court, he adopted a Tangut surname that is rendered as "Weiming" (Chinese: 嵬名). He made Xingqing (Chinese: 興慶, modern Yinchuan) his capital city.

Beckwith describes the Tangut as a people that primarily lived in the Ordos Loop in the Yellow River.[2] Under Tuoba Sigong they conquered Chang'an between 881 and 895 and expanded their reign southward and westward until they reached their original homeland in Tibet and Central Asia.[7]

In the thirteenth century, Genghis Khan unified the northern grasslands of Mongolia and led his troops in six rounds of attacks against the Western Xia over a period of twenty-two years (1205, 1207, 1209–10, 1211–13, 1214–19, 1225–27). During the last spate of the Mongol attacks, Genghis died in Western Xia territory. The official Mongol history attributes his death to illness, whereas legends claim that he died from a wound inflicted in these battles.

In 1227, the capital of Western Xia was overrun by the Mongols, who devastated its buildings and written records: all was burnt to the ground except its monastery. The last emperor was killed and tens of thousands of civilians massacred. However, many Tangut families joined the Mongol Empire. Some of them led Mongol armies, e.g. Cha'an, into the conquest of China. After the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) was established, the Tangut troops were incorporated into the Mongol army in their subsequent military conquests in central and southern China. The Tangut were considered Semu under the Yuan class system, thus separating them from the North Chinese. As late as the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), there was evidence of small Tangut communities in Anhui and Henan provinces. The people including members of the royal clan emigrated to western Sichuan, northern Tibet, even possibly northeast India, in some instances becoming local rulers. [8][9][10][11] The Tangut people living in Central China preserved their language until at least the 16th century.


A clay head of the Buddha, Western Xia dynasty, 12th century
A winged kalavinka made of grey pottery, Western Xia dynasty
Statue head of a Buddhist arhat, Western Xia dynasty, from Hongfo Pagoda, Helan County, Ningxia

The main religion of the Tangut state was Buddhism, which played a very important role in Tangut society. The entire Chinese Buddhist canon was translated into the Tangut language over a span of 50 years and published around 1090 in about 3700 juan—a remarkable feat, compared to the time it took the Chinese to accomplish the same task. The Buddhism in the Tangut state is generally believed to be an amalgamation of Tibetan and Chinese traditions, among which the Huayan-Chan tradition of Guifeng Zongmi (Chinese: 圭峰宗密, 780–841) and his master Huayan Chengguan was the most influential.

Another characteristic feature of Tangut Buddhism was similar to the Buddhist beliefs in the Khitan kingdom of the Liao dynasty: a number of texts previously believed to be of native Tangut origin turned out to be translations of Khitan source texts. The degree of Tibetan impact on the formation of Tangut Buddhism still remains unexplored, especially in the light of new discoveries showing that Tangut Buddhism owed more to the local culture in North China than to pure Tibetan or Han Chinese influences. Texts belonging to the Tibetan Mahamudra tradition demonstrate that Tangut Buddhism initially evolved along the Karma Kagyu rather than Sakya lines of Buddhist transmission.

A number of Tangut Buddhist institutions, such as "Imperial Preceptor" survived the Tangut State itself and are to be found during the Yuan dynasty. One of the more definite sources of Tangut Buddhism was Mount Wutai, where both Huayan and Tangmi flourished from the late Tang period up to the time of the Mongol invasion.

Solonin (2005: unpaginated) links the Tanguts, the Helan Mountains and the Chan teachings of both Kim Hwasang and Baotang Wuzhu:

The origins of the Tangut Chan can also be traced deeper than previously believed: information on Bao-tang Wu-zhu (保唐无住720~794) travels in North-Western China from the Notes on Transmitting the Dharma Treasure through Generations implies that at the period of 760's some sort of Buddhism was spread in the region of Helanshan, where the Tangut were already residing. Concerning the late 8th century Helanshan Buddhism, little can be said: the doctrines of the lu (律) school and the teaching of Sichuan Chan of Rev. Kim (金和尚) seem to be known there.[12]

Some conflicting sources claim the Tangut religion is rooted in Confucianism. It is also true that the worship of Confucius existed in the Tangut State, but the level of veneration of the Master of Ten Thousand Generations was incomparable with the degree of popularity of various Buddhist sects. That also can be proven true by the extant Tangut literature, which is dominated by the Buddhist scriptures, while the so-called "secular literature", including the Chinese classics, were hardly available in Tangut translation.

The Tangut state enforced strict laws pertaining to the teaching of religious beliefs and rigorously screened potential teachers. Before he was allowed to teach, a newcomer entering the state from Tibet or India first had to seek the approval of local authorities. Doctrines taught and methods used were carefully supervised to ensure there was no possibility that the Tangut people might misunderstand the teachings. Anyone found to be a fortune-teller or charlatan faced immediate persecution. Deeming it contrary to Buddhist ethical beliefs, the Tangut state strictly forbade religious teachers from accepting compensation or reward for their teaching services.

Although the state did not support an official school of Buddhism, it did protect all religious sites and objects within the country's boundaries.

As in China, becoming a Buddhist monk required government approval and anyone found to have taken the vows of a monk without such government oversight faced severe punishment. Remarkably for the time, women played a role in Tangut religious practices by serving as nuns, a position that could only be held by a woman who had been widowed or who was an unmarried virgin.

Suchan (1998) traces the influence of the first several Karmapas upon the Yuan and Ming courts as well as the Western Xia, and mentions Düsum Khyenpa, 1st Karmapa Lama:

The first several Karmapas are distinguished by their important status at the Yuan and Ming courts of China where they served as the spiritual guides to princes and emperors. Their influence also extended to the court of the Tangut Xia Kingdom where a disciple of Dusum Khyenpa was given the title "Supreme Teacher" by a Tangut Xixia King[.][13][14]

See also


  1. van Driem, George (2001). Handbuch Der Orientalistik. BRILL. ISBN 90-04-12062-9.
  2. 1 2 3 Beckwith 2009, p. 171.
  3. Keping, Xenia. "Black Headed and Red Faced Tanguts." Kepping 0th ser. 0.1 (2004). KEPPING.NET. Russian Orthodox Mission In China, 2004. Web. 5 Mar. 2016. <http://kepping.net/pdfs/works/The_Black-headed_and_the_Red-faced.pdf>
  4. Kepping, Ksenia (1994). trans. George van Driem. "The name of the Tangut Empire". T'oung Pao. 2nd. 80 (4–5): 357–376.
  5. Fan Qianfeng 樊前锋. 西夏王陵 [Western Xia Imperial Tombs] (in Chinese). Xinhua News Agency. Retrieved 2012-04-18.
  6. Dunnell, Ruth W. (1996). The Great State of White and High: Buddhism and State Formation in Eleventh-Century Xia. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 9780824817190.
  7. Beckwith 2009, p. 172.
  8. 西夏法制地理—关于契丹、党项与女真遗裔问题(三)
  9. 党益民:党项羌文明与西夏湮灭之谜
  10. 《王族的背影》作者:唐荣尧
  11. eds. Franke, Herbert & Twitchett, Denis (1995). The Cambridge History of China: Vol. VI: Alien Regimes & Border States, 907–1368. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 214.
  12. Solonin, K. J. (2005), Tangut Chan Buddhism and Guifeng Zong-mi, Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal, No. 11, (1998). Taipei: Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies. ISSN 1017-7132
  13. Rhie, Marylin & Thurman, Robert (1991). Wisdom and Compassion. New York: Harry N. Abrams. p. 236.
  14. Suchan, Tom (1998). The Third Karmapa Lama, Rang Jung Dorje (T: Rang 'Byung rDo rJe). Source: (accessed: January 29, 2008)


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