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Medieval Army Lists

Khitan Liao (907-1125 AD)
(DBA 114)

As early as the 4th century, the Khitan (Ch'itan) were known to the Chinese as a loose confederation of nomadic tribes dwelling in the grasslands east of Mongolia in the valley of the Hsi Liao river (i.e., modern Manchuria). With the fall of the Chinese Tang Dynasty in 907 AD, the Khitan chieftain A-pao-chi unified the tribes and founded a dynasty which he named Liao after the river. Khitan-Liao armies advanced west into the heart of Mongolia, subdued the Jurchen tribes and in 926 AD overran the quasi-Chinese kingdom of Po-hai (Parhae or Bohai) in eastern Manchuria, which had been established as a buffer state by the later T'ang Chinese. Using forced labor, A-pao-chi (sanctified as the emperor T'ai-tsu) built a great Supreme Capital at Shang-ching surrounded by 10 miles of curtain walls.

Following the death of T'ai-Tsu, the Khitan-Liao allied with Sha-t'o rebels in 936 AD against the Chinese. The Sha-t'o carved out their Later Ch'in state while the Khitans invaded K'ai-feng and seized Peking, which was renamed Nanjing and made their southern capital. The reunification of China under the Sung Dynasty in 960 AD saw Khitan-Liao and Sung China aligned along north-south lines as implacable foes.

In 983 AD, Lung-hsu (Sheng-tsung) inherited the Liao throne as a boy of 11 and ruled for 48 years under the strong and capable guidance of the Empress Dowager Ch'eng-t'ien, who is one of the most extraordinary but little known women of history. A talented politician, administrator and military commander, who controlled her own ordo of 10,000 cavalry, Ch'eng-t'ien introduced Chinese-style culture and institutions among the Liao. During her regency in 986 AD, the Sung launched the first of what would become an almost continual series of campaigns agains the Liao, who were largely successful in holding their territory.

During the same period, Khitan-Liao conducted a series of military campaigns (993-1018 AD) against Koryo (Korea), penetrating deeply enough to burn their capital in 993. Koryo lapsed into civil war. With their eastern frontier temporarily secure, the Liao made peace with the Tanguts to the west and then launched a series of new campaigns against the Sung in 998-1000 AD and again in 1002-1003 AD.

Initial gains were cursory, but a third invasion launched in 1004 AD drove over 200 miles southward before the Khitan army halted at Shan-yan (near the Yellow River approximately 60 miles from the Sung capital). There they confronted the Sung army in a strong position. Neither side was willing to risk battle and a complex treaty was negotiated in which Sung China agreed to pay an annual tribute, disguised as a face-saving "contribution to military expenses" of 2.8 tons of silver and 200,000 bolts of silk. This treaty was honored for over a century to the benefit of both Sung and Liao. The Liao used the wealth to urbanize their empire, expand their borders westward across the Gobi Desert to the Altai mountains, and to live lives of luxury.

With their southern border secure, Khitan renewed military operations against Koryo, burning their capital for a second time in 1010 AD. Despite military successes, the Khitans were not able to consolidate their gains. In 1018 AD, a Khitan invading force of 100,000 men was decimated in a series of ambushes, with fewer than 10,000 survivors. The Koryu quickly expanded to annex Khitan lands north to the Yalu River. Eventually Khitan-Liao and Koryo negotiated a definitive peace in 1022 AD in which Koryo recognized Khitan-Liao suzerainty and severed relations with the Sung Chinese in order to consolidate their territorial gains.

The Khitan-Liao tribesmen of the 10th-11th centuries were noted archers who competed at a game called "Shooting the Willow," in which lines of willow branches were set in the ground. Each competitor marked a branch with a piece of cloth and was allowed to whittle away the bark a few inches above the ground to reveal the white wood as a target. The riders then approached the line of branches at a gallop, attempting to shoot a special unfletched arrow with a horizontal blade for an arrowhead at their designated willow stick. The winner was able to sever his stick with his arrow and then bend down to retrieve the stick by the cut end while still galloping.

Security and wealth, however, gradually diminished the warlike prowess of the Khitan Liao, who were deposed by their aggressive Jurchen vassals. The Jurchen rebellions (1114-1125 AD) were prompted by the Sung Chinese in an effort to regain Beijing. The Jurchens exhausted and overwhelmed the Khitan state, but then refused to turn over former Sung lands (i.e. Beijing) to Chinese dismay. A contingent of Khitan tribesmen, dubbed the Kara-Khitan (Qara-Kitai or the Black Khitan), fled west across the central steppes to settle south of Lake Balkhash, where they controlled the silk road and lived somewhat tenuously on the edge of expanding Islam until crushed and absorbed by Ghenghis Khan's Mongols.

Finally, as a bit of historical trivia, it is interesting to note that "Khitan" is purportedly the origin of the European "Cathay" as popularized by Marco Polo and which eventually became synonymous with "China."


The DBA 1.1 Khitan-Liao list is:

1 x 3Kn Khitan commander and picked ordo regiment(s).
2 x 3Cv Combination of Khitan ordo troops and their "foragers", Khitan tribal nobles and retainers, Jurchid horse, and occasionally Chinese mercenaries/allies.
2 x 2Lh Khitan ordo "orderlies" and tribal horse.
3 x 3/4Bd Chinese swordsmen
3 x 3/4Cb Chinese crossbowmen
1 x 2Ps Tribal archers

A note of caution...the Khitan-Liao list is expected to change significantly in the DBA 2.0 rules, with the Chinese blades and crossbow reduced in number and made optional along with the addition of Hordes. The 2.0 list also adds more Khitan Knights, Cavalry, and Light Horse, making this a much more mobile army. DBA 2.0 will provide new lists for pre-Dynastic Khitan and for Qara-Kitan

"Ordo" (related to Mongolian "orda" and source of the European word "hordes") were regular armies comprised of quickly mobilized regiments of Khitan troops, who were required to provide their own arms and equipment, which by regulation consisted of four bows, a long and short spear, a halberd, an armoured horse, and two mounted retainers to act as a forager and as an orderly. Weapons were typically distributed among the three men, so that the typical "ordo" cavalryman is shown armed with a lance, bow, sword and mace. Historically, the Khitan ordo cavalry could/would dismount to fight as bow or blade armed troops as need dictated, although this capability is not reflected in the DBA 1.1 list.

In addition to the options listed above, the Khitan-Liao made use of Chinese militia (for pioneer work) and unarmed civilians (who were often employed during siege operations to shield the Khitan army from missiles), who would be classified as hordes under DBA 2.0 One Khitan-Liao army was said to have numbered over 700,000 due largely to these militia contingents. The Khitan Liao also employed Chinese-style artillery (bolt shooters and stone-throwers).


Chinese Border Nomads (#62), Koreans (#78), T'ang & Five Dynasties Chinese (#95), Tibetan (#97), Sung Chinese (#116).


Essex offers a 15mm Khitan-Liao range with eight packs including command, light, heavy and extra heavy cavalry, spearmen, bowmen and crossbowmen. The Khitan general is depicted with a falcon on his wrist.

Naismith also offers Khitan-Liao as part of its 15mm Far Eastern range, including six packs (i.e., EHC, HC, C, spear, crossbow and bow).

Other than Essex and Naismith, you'll have to make do with figures from other ranges to create your Khitan-Liao army. Irregular's 15mm Mongol and Sung miniatures can be employed for Khitan tribesmen and Chinese foot respectively, and you can find suitable Chinese militia and other figures in Outpost's Sui and Tang Chinese range. You can also scavenge figures from other manufacturer's Asiatic Horse, Korean, Chinese and Mongol ranges.

Other Resources

Imperial Chinese Armies: 590-1260 AD by Chris Speers, (Oprey Men-at-Arms 295), contains a chapter on the Liao.

Karl H. Ranitzsch's "The Army of Tang China" by Montvert Publications provides some references to early Khitan-Liao during the later Tang period.

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Comments, questions or suggested additions to this page can be sent to Chris Brantley, IamFanaticus@gmail.com.

Last Updated: Jan 2, 2001