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The (Nearly) Lost Dynasty of the Xi Xia

After Genghis Khan died in 1227 near the Xi Xia (Western Xia) capital of Zhongxing Fu (present-day Yinchuan), his corpse was carried in an ox-drawn chariot -- the centerpiece of a grand procession that led back to the Mongolian steppe. En route, any person or beast in the procession's path was slaughtered -- in offering to the Khan's spirit and to keep news of his death from spreading. As dour as it must have been, the escorting soldiers might have smiled to themselves in the knowledge they were returning home victorious -- having once and for all defeated the Xi Xia (Western Xia) dynasty (1038-1227), which had lasted almost 200 years.

Today the Xi Xia is somewhat of a mystery. Until recently it wasn't recognized as a legitimate dynasty by the Chinese, so there is no official history of the empire or its people, the Tangut; and Xi Xia documents -- written in a system fashioned after but different from Chinese -- have been difficult to decipher. It's known that the ancient Tangut nomads came from what is now Sichuan, Qinghai, and Tibet. By the Tang dynasty (618-907), they had a leader and were one of the major players (along with the Khitan and Jurchen) in the ongoing struggle for territory. By the early 11th century they had defeated the Song imperial army, declared an independent empire, and extracted an annual tribute of tea, cloth, silk, and silver from the Song empire. Almost a century later, the Xia's alliance with the Jin (the Jurchen state) ignited the wrath of Genghis Khan, who personally led his troops south to destroy the "Great Xia," as they called themselves. At its height, the Xi Xia Empire controlled much of what is now Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia, and Inner Mongolia. This obscure Buddhist state left behind imperial mausoleums, religious monuments, its own written language, and cultural relics that reveal a passion for Buddhist art, fine pottery, sculpture, and exquisite gold and silver artifacts. Much of what remains can be seen at the new Ningxia Museum.

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