Although Xi Xia, or Western Xia studies is an emerging discipline, records and research on the Xi Xia empire go back a long way. It was not until about one hundred years ago that the study of the dynasty’s formation and development started to be treated as an academic discipline.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Zhang Shu (1776–1847), a specialist in northwestern history and geography, discovered the Gantong Pagoda Stele of the Xi Xia in Liangzhou (modern Wuwei, Gansu province). The stele, which had been sealed inside a pavilion with bricks at the Qingying Temple for many years, was inscribed in Tangut on the front side. Tangut, the language of the Xi Xia, had not been seen for many years. This discovery spurred activity and interest in the study of this new Xi Xia material. In 1908 and 1909, Russian expedition teams led by Pyotr Kuzmich Kozlov (1863–1935) traveled to Heishuicheng (modern Ejina Banner, Inner Mongolia) twice, and discovered thousands of scrolls and a large number of cultural relics. Most of the documents were written in Tangut, but there were also a considerable number written in Chinese and other scripts. The relics and documents were taken back to Russia by the expedition teams. They are now divided between the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
The Xi Xia called their regime Da Xia (Great Xia). Historically it was known as the Western Xia because it was located west of the Song dynasty’s territory. The Xi Xia had ten emperors and lasted 190 years (1038–1227). During its early years, it was often in conflict with the Northern Song (960–1127) and the Liao (916–1125) empires; in its later years, it was part of a tripartite balance of power (the Southern Song and Jin empires were the other two). These “Three States” were in a complicated and delicate situation in medieval China. The main ethnic group of the Xi Xia was the Qiang of Dangxiang (Tanguts). The Dangxiang people had a long history, and the most powerful tribe among them was the Tuoba clan.
In the early Tang dynasty (ca. early seventh century), the Tuoba clan chieftain, Tuoba Chici (631–692), submitted to the Tang, and was made commander-in-chief of Xirong zhou (Western Rong prefecture, modern Huan county, Gansu) and was granted the surname Li (surname of the imperial family of the Tang). In the seventh century, Tubo (Tibet) became increasingly powerful. Oppressed by the Tibetans, the Dangxiang people were forced to move inland during the eighth century. This was the prelude to the great Dangxiang migrations. In 1028, Li Deming (983–1032) ordered his son Li Yuanhao (1003–1048) to lead his troops westward to occupy the entire Gansu corridor. After defeating the Tibetans and Uighurs, the region fell under the control of Li Yuanhao who further established the territorial base of the Xi Xia kingdom. After his ascension to the throne, Li became even more powerful, and the conditions to establish the Great Xia empire became even more favorable. In his efforts to strengthen and improve the regime, he adopted a series of political, military, and cultural measures. As the leader of the third major political power, he could even deal with and stand up to the Song and the Liao. He elevated the status of Xingzhou (Xing prefecture) to Xingqing fu (Xingqing super prefecture, modern Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region) and made it state capital. Li Yuanhao attached importance to culture and education; even before the regime was established he had already given orders that a script be developed for the Tangut language. In 1038, on the eleventh day of the tenth month, Li Yuanhao established his regime, the Da Xia dynasty, and installed himself as emperor. For the Song dynasty, this was an act of betrayal and the Song court naturally refused to recognize Li Yuanhao’s status. At this point, as Xi Xia was a fully established regime and Li Yuanhao had no scruples, the Xi Xia and the Song were on the verge of going to war against one another. After much consideration, the two sides reached an impasse as they knew that each would suffer considerable loss. Finally, in 1044 (the fourth year of the Qingli reign), the Song and the Xi Xia reached an agreement, the “Qingli Peace Alliance.”
After Li Qianshun (1083–1139), the fourth Xi Xia emperor, formerly took the throne, he proposed and married Princess Cheng’an of the Liao dynasty. When the Liao and the Jin fought against each other, Xi Xia’s status as a vassal state put it on the side of the Liao. In 1123, Emperor Tianzuo (r. 1101–1125) of the Liao was defeated by the Jin. Seeing the situation, Li Qianshun decided to make peace with the Jin court. In 1125, the Liao dynasty was overthrown by the Jin. After Li Renxiao, Emperor Renzong (r. 1140–1193), died, the Xi Xia entered a troubled stage when domestic unrest and foreign invasions intensified. Mongolia at this time had emerged in the north of the Gobi Desert, and repeatedly plundered Xi Xia holdings. In early 1227, Chinggis Khaan (aka Genghis Khan, 1162–1227) surrounded Zhongxing fu (southeast of modern Yinchuan, Ningxia), where the last emperor, Li Xian (r. 1226–1227), surrendered without a fight. The Xi Xia court, which had once sat majestically in the northwestern region, finally collapsed. The Mongols also destroyed the Xi Xia imperial mausoleums.
The Xi Xia was a multi-ethnic empire, and its culture had a multinational character: early on there were the Han and their advanced culture, and then the Liao, Northern Song, Jin, and Southern Song dynasties with whom Xi Xia shared a border. Although there had been constant conflict or even wars between the neighbors, Xi Xia was able to have peaceful contact with the other regimes. The cultures of the Dangxiang people of the Xi Xia and the Han people coexisted over an extended period of time without butting against one other. The alternating dominance between Han and Tibetan rites only further enriched the Xi Xia culture. At the same time, the relations among the different ethnic groups were gradually strengthened. Ruist thought also became the state standard by which to judge a person’s conduct; loyalty and filial piety found their ways into the laws. Even when relations with the Song court were tense, Xi Xia envoys used Ruist arguments against the Song.