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 perish and himself captured and humiliated.
As an incapable, selfish, cowardly sovereign that buried his empire and brought people massive disasters and losses.
Putting 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 exceptional monarchs, and the empire flourished during their reign.
His big brother Zhao Xu (1077 — 1100), respected as Emperor Zhezong of Song, was highly talented and ambitious. He implemented successful reforms that expanded the territory and further developed the empire. Unfortunately, he passed away young 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 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 his royal palace, many documents and gossip recorded that he enjoyed visiting brothels to meet beautiful women, including 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, an excellent calligrapher but a horrible politician who caused the economic decline and some uprisings.
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 in the Imperial Examination, in which he assigned topics and served as the examiner.
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 established many Taoist places in China, which also served as local medical institutions.
He was also a professional in 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 peaked 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 1126, the Jurchen Jin Dynasty invaded the Song Empire and soon marched toward 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
Emperors' Cowardice and Failure
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, Jurchen Jin invaded Song again after hearing that 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 confronting 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 and captured Emperors Zhao Ji and Zhao Huan, other royals, and a large number of officials and civilians.
They destroyed countless treasures, slaughtered tens of thousands of people, robbed a large amount of money, and captured numerous 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, and his valuable paintings and treasures were destroyed and torn into pieces.
He and his sons frequently had to wear the prisoners’ clothes and kneel on the ground, let alone the poor living conditions 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 life, Zhao Ji passed away, and his body was burnt to refine oil by Jin’s monarch, which was extraordinarily 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), 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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