Emperor Gaozong of Song — Hard Decision Between Pursuing Peace and Dignity

Zhao Gou (1107 — 1187), respected as Emperor Gaozong of Song, was the tenth monarch of the Song Dynasty

He got the throne after the catastrophic Incident of Jingkang, in which his father and big brother perished the empire and captured by their enemy the Jurchen Jin Dynasty. 

Zhao Gou reestablished the empire in the south with a much smaller territory and brought people wealthy lives.

However, he kept swinging between revenging, recovering Song’s lost land and dignity, and developing the current territory, and enjoying lives.

During this period, he made a series of controversial decisions, which made him long been questioned and criticized in history.

Portrait of Zhao Gou, Emperor Gaozong of Song — Taipei Palace Museum

Brave Prince Who Volunteered to Be A Hostage

Zhao Gou was the ninth son of Zhao Ji (Emperor Huizong of Song). Hence, he spent a carefree, wealthy life when he was young, as a noble, brilliant prince.

When he was 19, the Jurchen Jin Dynasty invaded the Song Empire. 

His father, Emperor Zhao Ji immediately abdicated the throne to his oldest brother Zhao Huan (Emperor Qinzong of Song). 

When Jin’s army besieged Song’s capital city for the first time, Song defended the city quite well, under command of the excellent general Li Gang (1083 — 1140). 

Then, Emperor Zhao Huan signed a pact with Jin, which included the ceding of big cities and send a prince as a hostage. 

Zhao Gou was very brave and volunteered to be a hostage in Jin.

Auspicious Crane (He Rui Tu), Painted By Emperor Huizong of Song — Liaoning Museum

A Prince’s Choice When the Empire Perished

He was cool and fearless when he first arrived at Jin’s army, which made the Lord of Jin doubted if Zhao Gou was a real prince. Hence, Jin’s lord insisted to let Song sent another real prince, and let Zhao Gou go. 

A few months after Song signed the unfair pact with Jin, Jin invaded Song again. 

Zhao Gou was assigned to lead Song’s army and negotiate with Jin again. He set off to Jin immediately and left the capital city where his wife and kids were living in.

However, soon, because of Zhao Huan and Zhao Ji’s series of stupid decisions, Song failed.

Emperor Zhao Huan, Zhao Ji, Song’s entire royal family, and over 100,000 skilled civilians were enslaved northward. 

Song’s capital city was robbed and slaughtered. This was the Incident of Jingkang.

Part of the Painting (Qingming Shang He Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival
Genre Painting of the Capital City (Bianjing or Kaifeng) of the Song Dynasty before the Incident of Jingkang, by Artist Zhang Zeduan (1085 — 1145) — The Palace Museum

Hearing the fall of the Song empire, Zhao Gou, the only free prince of the royal family, didn’t lead the army to fight against Jin and try to save his captured family members, include his parents, pregnant wife, and kids.

He organized Song’s resources and enthroned in another city. 

Then, chased by Jin’s army, Zhao Gou led Song’s army kept escaping southward.  

During that period, some other royal members organized armies and fought bravely against Jin, but Zhao Gou didn’t try and assist them.

The northern part of the Song Empire was given up by this new emperor and soon occupied by the Jurchen Jin.

Hence, Zhao Gou’s new empire with a smaller territory in the south was named the Southern Song Dynasty in the history of China.

Perfume (Xiang Bing) Blended by Emperor Zhao Gou, Carved with Characters of "Recovery and Prosperity" — Changzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Enjoying of Life and Forgetting of Humiliations

At the beginning of Zhao Gou's reign, millions of loyal generals and soldiers wanted to revenge and fight against Jin, and get their lost lands back.

Having their emperors and tens of thousands of people enslaved, and nearly half of the territory occupied, was an unprecedented huge shame for a unified empire in the history of China.

Zhao Gou, now the Emperor Gaozong of Song, was forced to summon back General Li Gang, who had successfully defended the kingdom before, and nominated him as the most powerful prime minister.

But Zhao Gou didn't like Li Gang’s firmness on keeping fight. So Li Gang was expelled a few months later and never had the chance to lead Song’s army and realize his dream of revenging his country again.

Soon, Emperor Gaozong of Song probably got used to the comfortable, luxurious life as a monarch. Hence, he postponed the fight-back plan, though his parents, wife, kids, and siblings were all suffering in Jurchen Jin’s regime up north. 

Fighting Back in Desperate and Achieving of Victory

Sometime later, Jin’s army was marching southward to the city where Emperor Zhao Gou was living; he was terrified and immediately escaped to another place, then kept escaping to different cities to avoid being captured.

Now he realized that he had to fight back; otherwise, he might be living on a boat.

Luckily, there were large numbers of loyal generals, warriors, and volunteer civilians, who never stopped fighting, even though their emperor kept escaping the whole time.  

Those talented generals and loyal soldiers defeated Jin and other uprising armies within Zhao Gou’s territory, and then he finally decided to fight back and to seek vengeance and regain his lost dignity.

Among those warriors, there was an extraordinary marshal named Yue Fei, whose army defeated Jin’s troops several times and kept winning. Their achievements gave Song’s people huge hope to win back. 

Emperor Zhao Gou's Imperial Edict Wrote to Yue Fei, Appraising His Loyalty and Exceptional Achievement — Taipei Palace Museum

Signing of Shameful Treaty and Murdering of Great Marshal

When Song’s armies achieved great successes and had won back lots of cities, when they kept marching northward and Jin’s army kept losing and withdrawing, when this good news was inspiring every one of the Song, Emperor Gaozong of Song, however, summoned all the armies to retreat and signed another unfair treaty with Jin.  

In this unfair treaty, Song Empire respected Jin as sovereign, gave back all the cities that Marshal Yue Fei and other generals had won back, ceded more territories to Jin, and promised to tribute a great deal of money to Jin every year. 

Jin, as a reward, will send Zhao Gou’s birth mother back, as well as his father Zhao Ji’s coffin.

Then Emperor Gaozong of Song forced Yue Fei to give up the control over the army that he recruited and trained by himself, and soon imprisoned Yue Fei. 

A few months later, the extraordinary general Yue Fei was poisoned to death, by evil prime minister Qin Hui, as Jurchen Jin required. 

Some people said the Emperor Gaozong of Song was threatened by Yue Fei's achievement and reputation; others inferred that he didn’t want his father and brothers, who may threaten his throne, to come back to his empire.

Anyhow, Zhao Gou lived a comfortable life in the south, after having executed or expelled officials that wanted to fight back against Jin. 

Exquisite Jade Comb of Qin Hui's Wife — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Development and Prosperity of the Southern Song Dynasty

Since then, southern China was well developed and cultivated, where agriculture, economy, culture, and business were all prosperously increased.

The Southern Song Dynasty, though with a much smaller territory, was one of the richest periods when people were living in wealth and stability.

People that escaped from the north could get loans from the government to buy farmland and houses, and they didn’t need to pay taxes for 30 years.

Emperor Gaozong of Song was also forced to develop shipbuilding technology and international trade to earn money because the years of wars had cost a large number of resources.

Recovery Model of Unearthed Civil Use Trade Ship of the Southern Song Dynasty — National Museum of China 

Childless Emperor Zhao Gou and His Careful Chosen of Heir


Emperor Gaozong of Song had one son and five daughters when he was young. But his only son died at a very young age (3 years old), and his daughters were captured and died in the Jurchen Jin. 

Afterward, even he had many women in the royal palace and tried hard, he had no kids. 

Hence, Zhao Gou had to adopt a son to inherit the empire.

However, most of his close relatives were captured by Jin, and the other eligible kids were from the clans that obtained much power, who might liquidate Zhao Gou or manipulate politics in the future.

Hence, Zhao Gou chose and adopt a polite, smart boy named Zhao Shen, who was an offspring of Emperor Zhao Kuangyin (927 — 976), the founder of the Song dynasty. Most importantly, Zhao Shen’s father was a low-rank official with little power. 

Phoenix Shaped Crystal Pendant Decoration of the Southern Song Dynasty — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Abdication of Throne and Interfering of Politics

When Zhao Gou was 54, the Jurchen Jin invaded Song again. Song’s people fought bravely and won, later, Jin retreated. 

In the next year, Zhao Gou insisted to abdicate the throne to his adoptive son Zhao Shen, Emperor Xiaozong of Song (1127 — 1194).

But whenever Emperor Zhao Shen wanted to revenge on Jin and take lost lands back, Zhao Gou would try his best to interfere.

Besides that, Zhao Gou spent 25 retirement years enjoying life and practicing art. He was quite excellent at calligraphy, painting, music, and poetry. 

Part of Zhao Gou's Calligraphy "Luo Shen Fu", Wrote During His Retirement Time — Liaoning Museum

The Controversy of Emperor Gaozong of Song

Zhao Gou, the Emperor Gaozong of Song, was a controversial monarch in the history of China.

Some criticized that he was weak, for only enjoying life in southern China, having killed great generals, and lost the best opportunity to take back lost lands and dignity, as well as having seeking truces with little honor.

Others, however, believed that under these harsh circumstances, he brought southern civilians decades of peace and development, where agriculture, economy, art, business, and science were further progressed.

Besides, he continued to use Song as the new dynasty’s name and gave back the throne to Zhao Kuangyin’s offspring, so he at least tried to preserve his ancestor’s empire. 

Unearthed Cyan Glaze Tea Cup with A Tray (Zhan Tuo) — Southern Song Dynasty Government Kiln Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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