British Journal of Chinese Studies

dragon mural beijing 2018 copyright Gerda Wielander
Vol 13 No 1 (2023)

Courting Capitals: Imperial Itinerance and Urban Ambivalence in the Kitan Liao Dynasty (916-1125)

Lance Pursey
Waseda University
Published January 28, 2023
How to Cite
Pursey, L. (2023). Courting Capitals. British Journal of Chinese Studies, 13(1), 63-83.


The simultaneous existence of five urban centres labelled as ‘capitals’ in the Liao dynasty by the late eleventh century has perplexed scholars who presume that the Liao court must have resided in one of these capitals as the courts of most conventional ‘Chinese’ empires did. However, the Liao court never permanently resided in any one of these capitals; the court practised ‘imperial itinerance’, wherein they moved around according to an often loosely seasonal pattern but primarily from political expedience. This paper argues that the primary-auxiliary model of capitals does not apply to the Liao and therefore that neither Shangjing, the Upper Capital, nor Zhongjing, the Central Capital, can be considered to have been primary capitals. Rather, the Liao court exercised ‘urban ambivalence’, defined here as a selective attitude to the role of capitals in statecraft. This is done by first examining the frequency and purpose of imperial visits to the capitals, and then exploring the semantics of the capital names Upper and Central. This reassessment of Liao capitals invites us to eschew normative frameworks concerning capitals derived from Chinese empires, and highlights the explanatory potential of agency over adherence to ideological models to understand the Liao court attitude to capitals.

  • Liao dynasty,
  • Kitan,
  • capital cities,
  • conquest dynasties,
  • moving court
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