The origins of the Tanguts are to be found in the 7th century AD in todays provinces of Gansu and Ningxia, at the Great Wall south to the Ordos Plateau (steppe and desert area in todays Inner Mongolia). At this time, this area was dominated by the Tibetans who in 680 AD still ruled the region in permanent rivalry with the Tang Chinese. One century later, in 786 AD there was still existent a Tibetan invasion. Apart from the Tibetans, they were also surrounded and neighboured by Uighurs, Tuyuhuns, Shatuo and Chinese people. Their dynasty goes back to the people of Tuoba.
Tuoba Sigong ( 895 AD) and the descendents of his brothers. After the Li dynasty under Li Renfu (ruled 909-33 AD) had started its separation from China, who in the year 909 AD even stopped a Shatuo invasion and hence, for reason of personal and national safety, surrendered himself to Liang China, his son Li Yichao (ruled 933-35 AD) was again victorious against a military invasion of the Shatuo, who later on established the Tang dynasty and ruled over northern China from 923-36 AD. Li Yiyin (ruled 935-67 AD) followed his brother; he survived a revolt initiated by his relatives in 943 AD. At this time, selling horses to a China threatened by revolts and rebellions constituted an important basis of affluence. With the rise of the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) in China, the Tanguts were faced by a problem of succession. Li Guangrui`s son (ruled 967-78 AD) was still a child, and his uncle Li Jibeng ruled in his representation. Chinese interference was terminated by a distant cousin, the adventurer Li Jiqian (1004 AD), who just in time fled the Song and later on pushed them back step by step with the help of diverse attacks led by allied clans. It was essential that the Song dynasty further backed trade restrictions (horses, metals, salt) which upset the clans and helped Li Jiqian to attract more and more followers.
In 982 AD the Tanguts founded the empire Xi Xia and the Western Xia, respectively, in the area of todays Chinese provinces of Gansu and Ningxia, with the centre being Yinchuan. It was a multiracial state, uniting Tanguts, Uyghurs, Chinese and Tibetans. The states leading class was formed by the Tanguts, descendants of the Tuoba, and the Tuyuhun. In this multinational state, there were present different forms of living: farmers and horse breeders as well as caravan traders, nomads and semi-nomads. The Tangut language belongs to the group of the Qiang languages, to the Sino-Tibetan language family. Today the Qiang constitute a minority which mainly settles in Sichuan, but which has its roots in Quinghai.
In 994 AD Xiazhou fell to the Song, but in the year 1002 AD the Tanguts were able to recapture the city of Lingzhou (todays Lingwu), which was situated further west in the autonomous area Ningxia; this event led to the Song finally accepting peace. Lingzhou became the new capital (Yinchuan). Li Jiqian is considered the founder of the dynasty, the Taizu (emperor). In the beginning, however, he was still a subordinate of the Liao, to which he surrendered in 986 AD (marriage alliance in 989 AD). In 1003 AD he attempted to conquer the city Liangzhou (todays Wuwei) in the province of Gansu, which at that time was ruled by Pan-lo-chih ( 1004 AD), the then leader of the Tibetan Liu-ku and Che-lung. The Tibetans allied with their partners, and so Li Jiqian lost battle and life in 1004 AD. He was followed by his son Li Deming (ruled 1004-32 AD). This ruler fought against the Uyghurs in Gansu, which he finally succeeded to conquer in 1028 AD after several crusades without any success. The Liangzhou Tibetans expelled his army in 1015 AD, which then occupied Liangzhou for only a short period of time. The Tangut economy started to flourish again, and in 1007 AD the Chinese re-established trading relations. In 1026 AD there was also made provision for private markets in the border provinces. The only thing still restricted in terms of trade was salt. The third leader was Li Yuanhao (ruled 1032-48 AD) who led the Tangut empire up to its climax. The diligent and ambitious Li Demings was able to recapture Liangzhou finally in the year 1032 AD. In 1035/36 AD his warring episodes against the Tibetans (Chin-tang and the Tsung-ko-Tibetans), however, was not crowned by success. In his youth, Li Yuanhao had studied Buddhist texts, which he realized in many reform plans and projects. One of his projects was the development of a script suitable for their language, the Xixia script., by the scholar Yeli Renrong about 1036 AD. The Tangut or Xi Xia script was modelled on the Chinese and Khitan scripts. He furthermore structured the rather decentralized army organization. And, finally, he attacked Song China, by demanding equal status in the diplomatic relations and establishing his own Xia dynasty in 1038 AD. The Tanguts were victorious in the war from 1039-44 AD in three bigger battles, but they gradually lost strength, as they in addition had to fight Liao. Finally they succumbed to Li Yuanhao in an agreement of the year 1044 AD, which was elaborated in co-operation with a representative of the Song, Fan Zhongyan; he accepted the title of chu, but received relatively high tributes in the form of silk, silver and tea. The Tangut empire Xi Xia had been independent from China due to the weak Song dynasty since the 11th century; it was, however, a satellite of Chinese culture. They dominated trade and smuggling along the Silk Road, with their main trading partner being China. In 1044 AD Song China even had to pay tributes (silk, silver, tea) to the Tanguts. Li Yuanhao was then murdered in the course of family disputes and discords (degradation of the empress of the Yeli family and unresolved succession). He did not have a real successor, and the state stagnated.
- map sketch: Silk Road - topographical map Silk Road - travel routes
The rise of the Jin empire of the Jurchen (predecessors of the Manchu) generated some problems and difficulties for the Tanguts, and they were cut off from the profitable trade with southern China. They did, however, still dominate an important part of the Silk Road and hence constituted a profitable object of interest for the Mongols. After occupation of the capital in 1209/10 AD without any success under the leadership of Li Anquan (ruled 1206-11 AD), they were granted a rather heavy tributary peace with loss of army leadership. The tributary payments apparently were too high, as there was a big lack of camels, which sustainably damaged trade and economy. In the year 1226/27 AD the Tanguts revolted under their long-lasting chancellor Asagambu against the war-tested Mongols. In the year 1226/27 AD, the state of Xi Xia was finally devastated by the Mongols. They were victorious in an open field battle at the ice-covered Yellow River and subsequently conquered all cities and murdered their inhabitants. The last Tangut ruler was then killed after the surrender of the capital.