Emperor Huizong of Song — A Wonderful Artist, An Incapable Monarch, and A Humiliated Prisoner

Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135), respected as Emperor Hui Zong of Song, was the eighth monarch of the Song Dynasty.

He was a fine politician and took over a prosperous, strong empire. However, he had his kingdom perished, and himself captured and humiliated. 

As an incapable, selfish, coward sovereign that buried his empire and brought people huge disasters and losses. However, Emperor Huizong of Song sometimes could get sympathy and admire, because of his extraordinary achievements and contributions in calligraphy, painting, poem, and tea culture.  

Put aside his emperor’s status, Zhao Ji was still one of the most exceptional artists in Chinese culture.

Portrait of Zhao Ji the Emperor Huizong of Song — Taipei Palace Museum

A Carefree Prince Obtaining the Throne

Born into the royal family of the prosperous Song Dynasty, Zhao Ji lived a carefree, luxurious, and capricious life when he was young. 

His father and big brother were all exceptional monarchs, and the empire kept flourishing during their ruling period. 

His big brother Zhao Xu (1077 — 1100), respected as Emperor Zhezong of Song, was extremely talented and ambitious. He implemented successful reforms that expanded the territory and further developed the empire. Unfortunately, he passed away at a young age, without a son as his heir.  

Hence, Zhao Ji impressed the powerful empress dowager and obtained support from her. After a series of arguments, he finally ascended to the throne as the next emperor when he was 18. 

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

Frivolous Emperor Huizong of Song and His Reign


After Zhao Ji ascended to the throne and took over a prosperous empire from his big brother, he implemented some reforms that flourished the empire. 

He was a qualified politician that obtained power and reigned his empire well.

Soon, he felt he was a great monarch and his empire was a perfect kingdom. 

Afterward, he spent more time pursuing art and women. 

Emperor Huizong of Song had over 140 imperial concubines and over 80 children. 

Outside of his royal palace, many documents and gossips recorded he enjoyed visiting brothels to meet beautiful women, include stunningly gorgeous and literate Li Shishi.

Besides women, another hobby of Emperor Huizong of Song was art.

He demoted capable officials and nominated a political speculator as the prime minister who was an excellent calligrapher but a horrible politician, which caused the economic decline and some uprisings under his ruling period.

Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk (Dao Lian Tu), Painted By Emperor Huizong of Song — Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Extraordinary Artistic Achievements and Contributions

Emperor Huizong of Song was one of the most extraordinary artists in history, who also contributed significantly to Chinese art, using his royal power. 

Besides being a talented painter, he established an imperial painting college, and included painting into the Imperial Examination, during when he assigned topics and served as examiners. 

Many outstanding artists were selected and taught by the emperor himself. 

Part of Painting Thousands Miles of Mountains and Rivers (Qian Li Jiang Shan Tu) (1191.5 cm × 51.5 cm).

By  one of Emperor Zhao Ji’s Student, the Artist Wang Ximeng (1096 — 1119) — The Palace Museum

Emperor Huizong believed in Taoism and had established many Taoist places in China, which also served as local medical institutions. 

He was also a professional at the Tea Ceremonies of Chinese culture, who wrote an influential book regarding tea culture and enjoyed making tea for other people.

Meanwhile, because of his excellent taste and suggestions, the porcelain industry reached a peak during his reign.

Sky Cyan Glaze Bowl of Song Dynasty, The Color was Designed by Emperor Huizong — Henan Antique Archaeology Academe (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Besides, Emperor Huizong was an outstanding calligrapher that created his style and genre (Shou Jin Ti), which is still famous today. 

Many of his masterpieces were widely circulated and highly appreciated.

"Shou Jin Ti" Calligraphy (Mudan Shi) of Emperor Huizong — Taipei Palace Museum

The Rushed Abdication and Hurried Flee 

In the year 1126, the Jurchen Jin Dynasty invaded the Song Empire and soon was marching toward the Song’s capital city.

Emperor Huizong of Song was scared. 

So he quickly abdicated the throne to his 25-year-old crown prince Zhao Huan, and let him worry about this life and death crisis. 

Zhao Ji then escaped to another city to keep enjoying life.

Under the command of exceptional, brave prime minister Li Gang (1083 — 1140), the Song Empire was well defended, and the Jurchen army retreated to their realm. 

Afterward, Overlord Zhao Ji came back to continue his luxurious life.

Hibiscus Golden Pheasant Painting (Fu Rong Jin Ji Tu) Painted By Emperor Huizong of Song — Palace Museum

Cowardice and Failure of Emperor Huizong of Song

Zhao Huan (1100 — 1156), respected as Emperor Qinzong of Song, was another artistic but incapable monarch, who abolished Li Gang, suggested by doves in the government.

Months later, the Jurchen Jin invaded Song again after hearing the exceptional general Li Gang was banished far away.

Song’s soldiers and civilians fought bravely, while other armies kept marching to the capital to assist and fight against Jin. 


During the confront period, the Lord of Jin asked Emperor Huizong to come and negotiate the truce terms, but Zhao Ji was terrified and firmly refused. 

Chinese Silk Tapestry (Ke Si) of Hibiscus Flower Painting, Painted By Emperor Huizong of Song — Liaoning Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Soon, after a series of horribly wrong decisions, Jin's army occupied Song’s capital city, captured Emperors Zhao Ji and Zhao Huan, the whole royal family, and large numbers of officials and civilians. 

They destroyed countless treasures, slaughtered tens of thousands of people, robbed a large amount of money, and captured countless skillful workers from the Song Empire.  

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

Humiliation and Cruel Ending of Zhao Ji

From a talented prince to the emperor of a prosperous country, Zhao Ji always lived a wealthy and happy life.

He probably had never thought about nor seen the dark side of this world, until this shameful incident showed him what a living hell looked like.

Zhao Ji, the former Emperor Huizong of Song, witnessed his beloved women being taken away, insulted, and forced to serve his enemies, his children were humiliated and tortured to death, his valuable paintings and treasures were destroyed and tore into pieces. 

He and his sons, frequently, had to wear the prisoners’ clothes, kneeled on the ground, let alone the poor living conditions that they had to suffer.  

Zhao Ji had been imprisoned in different places, where he left many poems expressing his extreme sadness, misery, and regrets.  

After nine years of shameful, torturous prisoner's life, Zhao Ji passed away and his body was burnt to refine oil by Jin’s monarch, which was extremely indecent and cruel.

Autumn Landscape (Xi Shan Qiu Se Tu) Painted By Emperor Huizong of Song — Taipei Palace Museum

Huge Lose and Consequences of the Incident of Jingkang

Zhao Ji's weakness and irresponsibility failed his people and perished his empire.

When his entire family was captured northward to Jurchen Jin, his ninth son Zhao Gou was in another city.

Zhao Gou (1107 — 1187), as the only free prince of Emperor Huizong of Song, then organized all of the Song’s armies and resources and established another empire in the south. 

This new empire was also named Song, but with a much smaller territory; hence, people usually call it the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 — 1279). 

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

Zhao Gou, now respected as Emperor Gaozong of Song, seemed reluctant to fight against Jin, nor to welcome Zhao Ji back. 

He stayed in the south and enjoyed life being an emperor. 

A few years after Zhao Ji’s death, Zhao Gou signed a pact with Jin. Afterward, Zhao Ji’s coffin was sent back to the Song and buried using an emperor’s ceremony. 

Appreciating Musical Instrument Qin (Ting Qin Tu), Painted By Emperor Huizong of Song — The Palace Museum

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