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Tangut Tango: Exploring the Wuwei Xixia Museum in Gansu, China

The Wuwei Western Xia Museum just after it had shut its doors. Photo by the author

Deep in the heart of Inner Asia, from frosty mountaintop to dry and dusty desert, a duke called Li Yuanhao had not only inherited an imperial surname given by the Chinese emperor, but also lordship over a people descended from the Qiang ethnic group from Tibet. For generations, they had fought, negotiated, and prospered by navigating power between the Tibetan Empire and the Tang dynasty. They also served as accomplished mercenary troops for succeeding Chinese dynasties until the Song (960–1279). In 1038, after defeating his brother in an internal power struggle, Li did away with his ducal title altogether and declared himself the first emperor of the Tangut Empire, the Xixia (Western Xia in English), a rival imperium to his former benefactors of the Song and the Khitan Liao (916–1125).  

With this decision by Li, who was a Sinicized non-Han leader, the Xixia did something that not even past “barbarian” confederations or nomadic leaders had done. The Chinese state of Song was forced to recognize, in the arena of international diplomacy, the theoretical ideal of equal nations. In the past, such as in the Han and Tang dynasties, even weak or bullied emperors could theoretically bribe or appease nomadic rivals to the north while still conferring on them officialdoms, noble titles, and imperial surnames like an overlord—which the nomads accepted in name. Li went above and beyond and forced the Song to recognize him as a peer. His new continental empire spanned the desert of Inner Asia, controlling for some time the famed Hexi Corridor that connected past Chinese empires to westward regions.

Tangut Buddhist script. Photo by the author

It was almost exactly a decade ago in 2014 that I began to pay attention to this frustratingly complicated entity of history. There are so few written records or epigraphic material about or by the Tanguts, since the entire state was destroyed by the Mongols in 1227. Researchers from China, Japan, Russia, and beyond have done immensely good work to further our understanding of the Tanguts, but the sheer paucity of materials is such that one is forced to rely on art history, since the Tanguts left behind a decent enough legacy of artistic influence to at least understand parts of their Buddhist religion and spiritual (tantric) priorities.

During last month’s visit to religious and historical sites along the Chinese Buddhist Silk Road, I was able to visit the Wuwei Western Xia Museum (武威西夏博物館 wuwei xixia bowu guan). The Wuwei Western Xia Museum is a quiet building that we managed to squeeze a session in despite arriving nearly at closing time at five thirty. Nowadays, the shiny, brand-new Wuwei City Museum has far superior staffing, better facilities, and more temporary and permanent exhibits. It would seem that this museum has been designated as an up-and-coming attraction for tourists, while the older Western Xia Museum seems neglected. Nevertheless, the latter was a much more enjoyable and exhilarating experience—and not just because it was going to close.

Western Xia territorial expansion. From

Located in the north of Gansu province, Wuwei is considered by historians to be one of the Chinese termini of the overland silk routes. When Wuwei and the broader district of modern-day Liangzhou came under the dominion of the Tanguts, the Xixia made Liangzhou into “Xiliang Prefecture,” apparently because the region was ideal for animal husbandry. The strategic value of Xiliang Prefecture was clear. If one looks at a map of the Tangut Empire transposed onto modern China, Khara-khoto with its ruined city walls and ghostly stupas is in the northern region of Xixia (Inner Mongolia), while Liangzhou (Xiliang) would have formed the southern spearhead of the Tangut military project, with Xining—most famous for Kumbum Monastery, Gelug founder Tsongkhapa’s birthplace—and Lanzhou further to the south, pressing downward on the Song. The famous Yulin Grottoes, far to the empire’s west in Guazhou, functioned not only as a site of tantric rituals and consecrations—especially Cave 3 and 4, among others—but was also a prestigious monument to the Tanguts’ control over the Hexi Corridor, which meant that the Corridor itself saw a propagation of Vajrayana.

Bronze statue of Vajravahari, sculpted during the Western Xia. Collected from Wuwei. Photo by the author

The Tangut artifacts and manuscripts at the museum were discovered at the Vajravahari Cave, 15 kilometers south of Wuwei. Some of these finds include texts and material artifacts, including wooden stupas, a sculpture of Vajravahari, and a set of clay tablets used for printing the Vimalakirti Sutra. Aside from classical Mahayana texts, the Tanguts clearly practiced the dharanis of tantric Buddhism and worshipped deities like Vajravahari—undeciphered texts like administrative documents and letters are on display at the museum. The Vajravahari Cave has its own fascinating history, having been one of the richest repositories of Tangut finds unearthed in the 1990s. This region of Gansu, which also has a separate temple with a practicing community and living history, deserves a spotlight of its own.

The Wuwei Western Xia Museum also holds one of the most precious Tangut items unearthed to date. This is the Liangzhou Bilingual Stele, which was erected in 1094 to commemorate the repairs to the Gantong Pagoda at Huguo Temple. While we have little information about the temple itself, a common recount of the stele’s discovery was that in 1804, Qing dynasty scholar Zhang Shu visited Huguo Temple to see his friend, the abbot. When he came across Gantong Pagoda in the temple grounds, Zhang’s curiosity got the better of him and convinced the abbot to let him open the pagoda.

The Liangzhou Bilingual Stele is an awe-inspiring historic presence. Photo by the author

Standing at 2.5 meters high, one side of the stele is in the Tangut script, with a total of 28 lines, each line having 65 characters. On the other side is a corresponding Chinese script, with a total of 26 lines, with 70 words per line. The Tangut language, containing 6,000 logographs containing esoteric meaning, was created by Yeli Renrong at Li Yuanhao’s order in 1036, two years before the founding of Xixia.

The Tanguts referred to themselves as the State of Ten Thousand Secrets: wanbeiguo in Chinese. These secrets were encoded into their script, which was used only by Tangut royalty and aristocrats. Thanks to said government efficiency and centralization, the Tanguts created their own logographic language while simultaneously translating the Buddhist canon into Tangut. This achievement, in my mind, remains unprecedented in world history. To this day, they have only been partially deciphered.  

The Tanguts also went above and beyond when it came to military prowess and technology. Xixia generals marshalled at their command an elite cavalry corps called the Iron Hawks (铁鹞子 tieyaozi). These shock troops were likely heavy mounted horsemen that would have specialized in smashing through infantry formations (Luo et. al. 2018, 17). The Xixia military might possibly have pioneered early cannons in Asia, although it is unknown if they managed to surpass Song artillery. This is based on contextual evidence concerning the Wuwei Bronze Cannon that was discovered in Gansu in 1980. While the cannon on display at the museum does not seem to be the armament in question, the existence of an entire armory is not surprising and at least hints at confirmation of a fairly cutting-edge military for the period.

Tangut copper artillery. Photo by the author

Their impact on Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese history, like their esoteric heritage, needs to be gleaned carefully from different places. Their administrative accomplishments are not as well-known as their cultural and artistic achievements. Khara-khoto actually prospered under the newly ascendant, Mongol-led Yuan dynasty, but was not spared by the Ming Chinese in 1372. Nothing remains in Khara-khoto today except for the city walls, some spires or stupas that might hint at the origins of their empire’s name. Hopefully, new research will uncover more about the enigmatic Tanguts at the pyramid-like royal mausoleums—some of them are open to the public—near the Helan Mountains in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

The Tibetan and Chinese esoteric traditions met at the crossroads of Xixia, while important Tangut institutions like the post of imperial preceptor (di shi) were assimilated by the Mongols into their religious and state apparatus. Their presence today is scattered across Inner Asia, in places like Yulin, the Vajravahari Cave, or the Ten Thousand Cave at the Manjushri Mountain Grottoes. We are fortunate that institutions like the museum we visited are holding and studying what surviving Tangut heritage remains. Their chanting of Vajravahari’s dharani—and the thundering of their Iron Hawks’ horse’s hooves—echo through the sunny desert.


Ksenia Kepping. “The Famous Liangzhou Bilingual Stele: A New Study.” T’oung Pao 84, no. 4/5 (1998): 356–79.

Luo, S.‑S., Shedd, B. A., & Nanetti, A. (2018). “Enhancing the experience of the Western Xia Imperial Tombs heritage site (PRC, Ningxia) through animated installations.” SCIRES‑IT : SCIentific RESearch and Information Technology, 8(1), 1‑32. Doi:

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