Thursday, September 4, 2008

Chinese Tangut

The Tangut , identified with the state of Western Xia, were a Qiangic-Tibetan people who moved to sometime before the 10th century AD. They spoke the Tangut language, a now-extinct Qiangic language , which is distantly related to Chinese. They are presently classified as belonging to the Qiang ethnic Group.


Tangut is most regarded as a Qiang tribe, but recent archeological findings shows the link of Li Yuanhao lineage with Tuoba Xianbei tribes.


A nomadic tribe, the Tangut moved from place to place and eventually settled in northwestern China . From the moment they entered this region they underwent a process of sinicization, a term meaning the adoption of Chinese cultural characteristics. Eventually the Tangut state was founded in the year by Li Deming . Known in the Chinese language as "Xi-Xia" , the Tangut people called their state "phiow¹-bjij²-lhjij-lhjij²", which translates to "The Great State of White and Lofty." The early origins of the Tangut people were much debated in the 1930s, when a number of contradicting suggestions concerning the ethnic origin of the Tangut had been made. The discussion mostly involved the disputations concerning the meaning of the words "black headed" and "red faced" which were believed to represent two major ethnic groups within the Tangut tribes. The two words were also believed to imply two social strata or other social divisions within the Tangut society. The actual meaning of the name of the Tangut State "The Great State of White and Lofty" is now generally attributed to the common mythology,which the Tangut shared with the Tibetans. Suggestions, implying religious meaning of the state name were also made, but they are extremely hard to prove.

Since the Tangut's founding father, Li Deming, was not a very conservative ruler, the Tangut people began to absorb more and more of 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, , sought to restore and strengthen the Tangut people's 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 wearing hair short or shaving the head, as opposed to the Chinese custom at the time of wearing hair long and knotted. Rejecting the common Chinese surname of "Li" and "Zhao" he adopted the Tangut surname "Weiming" . He made "Xingqing" his capital city.

At times, the Tangut kingdom found themselves in the shadow of the Chinese to the East. Several times, the Chinese were able to mobilize Tibetan tribes against the Tangut state. In 1038, Li Yuanhao petitioned the Emperor of China to recognize him as the Emperor of the Tangut state. Although the Song Emperor refused this request, and would only bestow upon him the rank of "governor," Li nevertheless claimed the title of emperor for himself. The Tangut state would continue to exist until it was destroyed by Genghis Khan in the year .

The ancient Tangut capital, Khara-Khoto, was eventually rediscovered by Pyotr Kuzmich Kozlov in 1907.


The main religion of the Tangut state was Buddhism, which played a very important role in Tangut society. Influence from Tibet is shown, as it is believed that Tangut emperors were viewed as partially spiritual beings. This is reflected by the fact that some sources indicate emperors were referred to as bodhisattvas. The entire 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 Xixia is generally believed to be an amalgamation of Tibetan and Chinese traditions, among which Huayan Chan was the most influential. Another characteristic feature of Tangut Buddhism was its close relationship to the Buddhist beliefs widespread in the Khitan kingdom of Liao: 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 Northern China than to pure Tibetan or Chinese influences. Texts belonging to the Tibetan Mahamudra tradition demonstrate that Tangut Buddhism initially evolved along the Karma-Kagyu rather than Sakya lines of transmission. A number of Tangut Buddhist institutions, such as "Imperial Preceptor" survived the Tangut State itself and are to be found during Yuan dynasty. One of the more definite sources of Tangut Buddhism was Wutaishan, where both Huayan and Esoteric Buddhism flourished since the late Tang period up to the time of Mongol invasion.

Solonin links Tangut, Ch'an, Helanshan, Sichuan, and Bao-tang Wu-zhu:

The origins of the Tangut Chan can be also traced deeper, than it was 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.

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 cults. 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 Confucian Classics is hardly available in Tangut translations.

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 monk required government approval, and anyone found to have taken the vows of a monk without such government oversight faced severe punishment.

Remarkable for the time, women played a role in Tangut religious practices by serving as Buddhist nuns, a position that could only be held by a woman who had been widowed or who was an unmarried virgin.

Suchan traces the influence of the first several Karmapas upon the Yuan and Ming courts as well as the Tangut Western Xia Kingdom, and mentions Desum Khyenpa:

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..."

1 comment: