This book on the Qara-Khitays, or Western Liao, is a major work that fills a gap in our knowledge of this important Central Asian dynasty. By the way, it is the first monograph in a western language on this dynasty originating from Northern China. In her introduction, the author tackles the methodological problems that every researcher interested in the Qara-Khitays (and other nomadic dynasties) has to cope with. First and foremost, modern historians dispose of only one indigenous primary source in Chinese language tracing the dynasty’s institutional and political history. All the other sources are external, often fragmentary, and mutually contradictory. M. Biran rapidly introduces (pp. 4-10) the sources (Chinese, Islamic, archaeological) that she has been using, before describing previous studies (11-3), and evoking the historical background of the creation of the empire of the Western Liao (13-6). It must be noticed that before the present book, modern non-Chinese authors had been interested in the Qara-Khitays, though in the framework of publications not only devoted to this dynasty. Already in the nineteenth century, d’Ohsson in his Histoire des Mongols (1834, 1: 163-74) had dealt with the subject, though not directly with the history of the Qara-Khitays. V. V. Barthold, in Turkestan down to the Mongol Invasion (1900 in Russian; 4th English-language edition in London in 1968, pp. 37-8), had only reconstructed the history of the Qara-Khitays and Khwarezmshahs through Islamic sources, and through a limited amount of translated Chinese sources, with no big interest in institutional history. A more significant work was introduced by Wittfogel and Feng Chia-seng in an appendix (pp. 619-74) to their History of Chinese Society: Liao (907-1125) published in 1949. M. Biran herself has published several papers on the Qara-Khitays (see the bibliography p. 249, to which should be added: “True to Their Ways: Why the Qara Khitai Did not Convert to Islam,” in R. Amitai & M. Biran, eds., Mongols, Turks and others. Eurasian Nomads and Sedentary World, Leiden – Boston: Brill, 2005: 175-99).
The book has been divided into two parts: 1. “Political History (19-90)” comprising three chapters on the complex political history of the Qara-Khitays; 2. “Aspects of Cultural and Institutional History (93-201)” which constitutes the most significant part of the work. This part is also divided up into three chapters: “China (93-131),” “Nomads (132-70),” “Islam (171-201).” It is followed by a very concise conclusion (202-11). The text is completed by several very useful appendixes: (1) on the varied forms given to proper names in different sources [215-7]; (2) four maps; (3) a genealogical tree of the Qara-Khitay rulers, followed by a table with these same rulers’ Chinese names, their reign names, their titles and the year they were given to them, taken from the Liao shi ; (4) a table with the names of functionaries belonging to the central administration, with their function and its translation, also from the Liao shi [224-5]; (5) a third table for the functionaries belonging to other administrative centres, whose date come from varied Chinese and Islamic sources ; (6) genealogical tables of dynasties with which the Qara-Khitays were in contact: Qara-Khitays of Kerman, Qarakhanids, Khwarezmshahs, Liao and Jin emperors; (7) a glossary of names and notions in Chinese characters [231-8]. Last come an important bibliography of primary sources and modern studies (239-69) and an index (270-9).
In the first part, M. Biran introduces the history of the Kitans/Khitans, a Mongol people established in Northern China, known under the Chinese dynastic name of Liao. They finally fell under the blows of the Jürchen who in turn founded the Jin dynasty. A part of the Kitan entered the service of the Jin whence another one, the Western Liao (the future Qara-Khirays), under the rule of Yalü Dashi, decided to seek their fortune westwards, toward Altichahr and Transoxiana where around 1142 they created an empire extended from the Amu-Darya River to the Gobi Desert. The end of this empire resulted from the troubles between the Qara-Khitays and the Khwarezmshahs, then from the Mongol pressure—when the leader of the Naymans was crushed down, and his son Güchlüg took refuge beside the last ruler of the dynasty, married his daughter and took the power. In 1205, however, Genghis Khan had become the unquestioned ruler of the steppe.
The book’s second part is by far the most innovative and captivating. M. Biran has been resituating the relatively short history of the Qara-Khitays (c. 1131-1211, according to the Liao-shi) in the vast framework of the Central Asian nomadic empires, from the cultural as well as from the political viewpoint. Thanks to her command of numerous primary sources in different languages, she convincingly shows how that in the Qara-Khitay Empire the political institutions, administrative practices and cultural traditions were composed of both Chinese and Islamic elements. China inspired a great deal of these institutions, coin minting, calendars, etc. The chapter on the institutions is by far the most interesting since, till now, very few was known of this subject, except through Chinese sources, or modern studies on the Mongol Empire which inherited many of them (cf. P. Buell, “Sino-Khitan Administration in Mongol Bukhara,” Journal of Asian History 13 (1979): 121-51). M. Biran notably shows that in pre-Mongol Central Asia, the political practices of steppe empires did not rely only on nomadic fundaments. Among the Qara-Khitays, one finds the dual administrative system that was later adopted by the Mongols, in particular by Möngke who was to become its main promoter (cf. Th. Allsen, “Guard and Government in the Reign of The Grand Khan Möngke,” Harvard Journal of Asian Studies 46/2 (1986): 495-521). This dual system has its origin in the Chinese system itself (cf. D. Ostrovski, “The Tamma and the Dual-Administrative Structure of the Mongol Empire,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 61/2 (1998): 262-77; D. Aigle, Le Fars sous la domination mongole: Politique et fiscalité (xiiie-xive s.), Paris, 2005: 81-95).
In this second part M. Biran develops ideas that she had first formulated in her paper “‘Like a Mighty Wall’: The Armies of the Qara Khitai (1124-1218),” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 25 (2001): pp. 44-91, in particular on the functioning of the army and on jihad. As far as the former is concerned, an innovation can be found among the Qara-Khitays: The soldiers were paid and the military commandants did not receive land privileges, in other words, one cannot speak in this case of an army functioning on a tribal basis. The paragraphs on the jihad in the chapter on “Islam” were also in embryo in the above-mentioned paper. M. Biran notices that we know very few things on the religion of the Qara-Khitays themselves, and supposes that they have continued to adhere “to the Khitan tribal religion (172)” and to Buddhism. As to the subjects of the Qara-Khitays, religious diversity was very developed among them: a lot of Buddhists, Nestorian Christian communities, Jews, but above all Muslims who already made the majority of the population in Transoxiana. The question of the number of Jewish subjects is a delicate one, since the respective testimonies of the varied sources contradict each other at length: One can welcome with caution the assertions by Benjamin of Tudela, a Jewish pilgrim of the second half of the twelfth century, who numbered some 50,000 Jews in Samarqand, but probably never went to Central Asia [on the figures given in his travelogue, the Sefer ha-massa‘ôt, see M. Tardieu, “Le Tibet de Samarqande et le pays de Kûsh: myths et réalités en Asie Centrale chez Benjamin de Tudèle,” Cahiers d’Asie Centrale 1-2 (1996): 299-310). More critical distance to this source would have provided a better assessment to M. Biran, who exclusively relies on it for her figures on the Jews in the Qara-Khitay empire. Islamic sources are also quoted, which provide more modest estimations: A reflection on the nature of these sources, and their respective backgrounds, would have been very much appropriated.
Moreover, speaking of “religious toleration” about the Qara-Khitays seems anachronous, this term being of a modern use. The same thing is often asserted about Genghis Khan and his successors. It would be more appropriated to speak of “religious indifference.” Contrary to monotheists, the Qara-Khitays and Mongols up to the latter’s conversion to Islam used to consider that everybody is free of practicing the religion of his /her choice, that it is a matter of personal decision, located out of communal duties. It is probably the Qara-Khitays’ indifference towards the other religions that encouraged their Muslim subjects not to embrace the cause of jihad against them. Answering to the question: “Why did the Qara-Khitais not convert to Islam (190-201)?,” M. Biran suggests that cause of their reluctance must be sought in their fidelity to the Liao Chinese traditions. The Qara-Khitay army was powerful, for the reasons that we have evoked. The dynasty had adopted Islamic elements without abandoning Chinese administrative practices. Though of a nomadic origin, they never forgot their Chinese cultural past. To the extent that the Qara-Khitays were the only Central Asian dynasty recognised and considered by the Chinese historiography, in spite of these nomadic origins, as a Chinese legitimate dynasty. In her conclusion, M. Biran writes that she does not agree with the authors who consider that the Qara-Khitays were the precursors of the Mongols. If similarities can be observed between the two empires’ respective administrative practices, it is true that the Qara-Khitay empire has its own specificity, and that it was of a sensitively lesser territorial dimension and longevity. Finally, in several of the khanates that appeared after Genghis Khan’s death, the Mongols were incorporated by prevailing Turkic elements in the regions under Muslim control: Contrary to the Qara-Khitays who preserved their strong links with cultural traditions acquired in China, the Mongols were rapidly islamicised. The author of the present work can only be congratulated for having offered to the scientific community a study that should remain for long a reference work on a dynasty of which only the factual political history was so far more or less known.