The Sixteen Prefectures are a region in northern China stretching from present-day Beijing westward to Datong. In most areas, it is approximately seventy to one hundred miles in width. It covers a strategic area of modern Hebei and Shanxi that became the focus of contention between the Khitan Liao Dynasty to the north and the Shatuo Turk Later Tang Dynasty, Later Jin Dynasty and Later Han Dynasty, along with the Han Chinese Later Zhou Dynasty and the Song Dynasty.
The Sixteen Prefectures were in reality nineteen prefectures. They stretched from the coast of the Bo Sea to Yan (modern-day Beijing) westward to Datong in Shanxi. The area is mountainous with numerous strategic passes vital to guarding the Chinese heartland from the steppe tribes to the north. It also runs along the northern edge of what were in the tenth century the remnants of the original wall system that separated traditional Chinese lands from those of the steppes to the north.
- Main gallery: Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period.
At the same time the Tang Dynasty fell in 907, a new power was rising to the north of China. Known as the Khitan, they had just crowned a new tribal leader by the name of Abaoji, the first from the Yila tribe after some two centuries of leadership by the Yaolian clan. As Abaoji was building up his power in the north among the peoples of the steppe, northern China was facing instability and turmoil.
The first of the Five Dynasties was the Later Liang Dynasty, which was founded in 907 and lasted until 923. During this period of time, the Sixteen Prefectures were still under Chinese control and the greatest threat to Later Liang security was not the Khitan, but an assimilated people known as the Shatuo Turks who held onto their power base in Shanxi.
The Shatuo Turks gained in strength through the 910s until finally in 923, they were able to overcome the Later Liang Dynasty with Khitan assistance to found The Later Tang Dynasty. The Later Tang were also able to hold onto the Sixteen Prefectures. Not only that, they were able to make inroads into the south. It would be the largest of the Five Dynasties. However, it was not long before relations with the Khitan, who were by now becoming a significant force to the north, had soured.
- Main gallery: Liao Dynasty.
The Khitan supported a rebellion against the Later Tang Dynasty which resulted in the founding of the Later Jin Dynasty. By this time, the Khitan were powerful enough to control the fate of much of northern China, and used their role in the formation of the dynasty to demand the Sixteen Prefectures be ceded to them, which they were.
Under Khitan rule, the Sixteen Prefectures were divided into two of the five divisions of the Liao Dynasty, with the Southern Capital being at the site of modern-day Beijing, and the Western Capital being at Datong. Both sections were part of the Southern Chancellery, one of two broader divisions the Liao Dynasty had been divided into.
The Sixteen Prefectures had become the springboard from which the Liao Dynasty would exert its influence on northern China. Khitan pressure exerted from the Southern Capital resulted in the fall of the Later Jin Dynasty in 946. The Liao would actually push further into northern China and reached as far south as the Yellow River. However, Emperor Taizong became disillusioned with the notion of governing so many sedentary people and decided to retreat back to his Southern Capital. However, heavy Chinese resistance on the retreat route and Taizong’s death in 947 provoked a succession crisis in the Liao government, and an opportunity for a new dynasty in northern China.
Still, the territory remained in Liao hand. However, by 960, the Song Dynasty had ended the turmoil that northern China had endured since 907, and by 979, they had essentially unified the kingdom, with the exception of the Sixteen Prefectures.
Liao-Song and the Sixteen PrefecturesEditar
The Liao and Song were actually developing reasonably amicable relations in the 960s into the mid-970s. Of course, the Song Dynasty was still focusing on the south where it was attempting to reunite the bulk of the Chinese realm. However, despite the exchange of embassies in 974 and the growth of profitable trade between the two, there were still two fatal flaws to the relationship. One concerned continued support for the remnant Shatuo Turk Northern Han state. The other was the Song Dynasty’s refusal to accept continued Liao possession of the Sixteen Prefectures.
When the Song were successful in finally incorporating the Northern Han in 979, the emperor decided to launch an offensive against the Liao in the Sixteen Prefectures. Emperor Taizong led his weary and ill-supplied troops from toward the Liao Southern Capital (present-day Beijing.) The Liao boundary was reached in May and they initially encountered little resistance. By July 20, they had attacked the Southern Capital. Ten days later, the first contingent of Liao cavalry arrived. The ensuing Battle of the Gaoliang River on August 1 near the Southern Capital resulted in a complete rout of Song forces, who had to retreat back to Kaifeng. The Sixteen Prefectures would remain in Liao hands.
The Song once again tried to attack in 986, four years after an eleven-year-old boy had assumed the Liao throne. They sent forces against the territory on three fronts, but the Liao scored decisive victories over all three Song forces. The fifteen-year-old Emperor Shengzong personally led the Liao’s decisive victory at the Battle of Qigou Pass.
Through the 990s, relations between the Song and Liao steadily worsened. Beginning in 999, the Liao would use the Sixteen Prefectures as the launching pad for victorious, but inconsequential attacks on the Song. Then, in 1004, Liao emperor Shengzong launched another major campaign against the Song. The Shanyuan Treaty signed in early 1005 resulted in annual tribute paid to the Liao Dynasty by the Song Dynasty.
This treaty was the guide by which relations between the two dynasties would progress until the fall of the Liao Dynasty. The Sixteen Prefectures would remain in their possession until that time.