top of page

Emperor Qinzong of Song — The Fatuous Monarch Who Ended the Empire in Its Prime

Zhao Huan (1100 — 1156), respected as Emperor Qinzong of Song, was an incapable and cowardly monarch who ended the Northern Song Dynasty (960 — 1127).

After reluctantly ascending to the throne, Emperor Qinzong of Song made a series of wrong decisions, lost a war (The Incident of Jingkang) that no one expected he would, and brought his empire to an end while it was still in its prime.

Since then, he and his father, Emperor Zhao Ji, spent the rest of their lives in shame as humiliated prisoners.

Portrait of Zhao Huan the Emperor Qinzong of Song, By Court Artist of the Song Dynasty

Portrait of Zhao Huan the Emperor Qinzong of Song, By Court Artist of the Song Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum

Reluctant Enthronement

Zhao Huan was the first son of Zhao Ji, the Emperor Huizong of Song. Hence, Zhao Huan was nominated as the crown prince when he was 15.

About ten years later, the Jurchen Jin Dynasty in the north invaded the Song Empire and kept marching toward the capital city. 

Emperor Zhao Ji got scared and abdicated the throne. 

He didn’t want to take the throne during such a crisis, but his father forced him to get enthroned. 

Zhao Huan reluctantly ascended to the throne when his father quickly escaped to another city.

Zhao Huan, now Emperor Qinzong of Song, first abolished his father’s incapable, artistic prime ministers and nominated some talented ones.

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

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

Marshal Li Gang's Excellent Command

Seeing that his father had fled and Jin’s army was getting close, Emperor Zhao Huan, with the support of many officials, wanted to move the entire government to a safer city.

But Li Gang (1083 — 1140), a courageous and talented official, tried several times to persuade Emperor Zhao Huan to stay and fight back.

Zhao Huan even tried to flee secretly but was found out by Li Gang. 

Li Gang insisted that giving up the prosperous capital city that Song’s ancestors built would encourage the enemy while showing weakness.

Besides, most royal army soldiers had a strong will to fight since this was the city where their families lived; no one wanted to abandon their homes without dignity. 

Hence, Emperor Zhao Huan agreed to stay and nominated Li Gang as the chief commander of Song’s army to protect the capital city.

Part of the Painting (Qingming Shang He Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival of the Song Dynasty
Part of the Painting (Qingming Shang He Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival by Artist Zhang Zeduan of the Song Dynasty
Part of the Genre Painting of the Capital City (Bianjing or Kaifeng) of the Song Dynasty by Artist Zhang Zeduan

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

Li Gang, a civil minister who had achieved an excellent score in the Imperial Examination, a great litterateur who left many masterpieces, now picked up the sword and started to take responsibility for protecting his weak emperor and his country.

It turned out that Li Gang was also a great general; he led the royal army, fought several battles with Jin’s aggressive troops, and won several times. 

Song’s soldiers and civilians were all highly inspired. 

The Weak and Timid Emperor Qinzong of Song

Jurchen Jin couldn’t win as expected, so they sent people to negotiate a truce. 

Emperor Qinzong of Song Zhao Huan was super happy and immediately agreed.

Li Gang also agreed to negotiate because the Song Empire only had the royal army in the capital at that time, while other reinforcements were still on their way. Hence, he needed time to wait for those troops to arrive.

Li Gang volunteered to negotiate with Jin’s Lord, but the emperor disagreed because the army needed Li Gang to manage. 


Besides, Zhao Huan also worried that Li Gang might displease the lord and sabotage the negotiation. 

Blue Glass Turtle Shaped Decoration of the Song Dynasty

Blue Glass Turtle Shaped Decoration of the Song Dynasty — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Hence, he sent a mild, timid official who brought back a series of unfair treaties.

General Li Gang only wanted to buy them some time through negotiation, so he was intensely against the greedy pacts that included ceding large territories, paying Jin a great deal of money that the Song Empire couldn’t afford, and sending a prince as a hostage.

Emperor Qinzong of Song, however, truly wanted to stop the war as soon as possible.


So he agreed with everything in this treaty, dismissed Li Gang, and immediately started to collect money from civilians.

In the meantime, one of Zhao Huan’s younger brothers, a prince named Zhao Gou, volunteered to be the hostage and set off right away. 

The Signing of an Unjust Treaty Despite Victory

However, all of Song's soldiers and civilians strongly disagreed with the dismissal of Li Gang. They held demonstrations to show their anger, and Emperor Qinzong of Song had to empower Li Gang again.

This also made the emperor feel threatened by Li Gang's exceptional reputation and influence among Song's people, especially compared to himself and those doves in his government.  

Soon, Song's reinforcements arrived, and with Li Gang's excellent commands, Song had a bright opportunity to win. 

However, Zhao Huan, Emperor Qinzong of Song, still didn't want to fight, so he gave Jurchen Jin three important big cities, a large amount of money, and his younger brother as the hostage, and nicely asked Jin's army to leave.

Then, Li Gang was relocated to work in very distant cities because of Li Gang's huge influence among Song's people and had frequently offended and opposed the powerful doves, including the emperor.  

After Jin's army left and everything was settled, the former Emperor Zhao Ji returned to the capital city.

Part of Painting (Wen Hui Tu) by Emperor Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135) of the Song Dynasty, Presenting the Feast of Intelligent Scholars

Part of Painting (Wen Hui Tu) by Emperor Zhao Ji, Presenting the Feast of Intelligent Scholars — Taipei Palace Museum

Second Invasion and Desperate Counterstrike

Pursuing peace was a good choice, but there was always a line.

A stable and wealthy life requires a precondition: a dignified, strong authority that can protect its people.

Sometimes, a treaty signifies a steady life and an opportunity for progress, but it may also bring further threats, a lack of vigilance, and reveal weakness.

A few months after they signed the unfair treaty, Jurchen Jin's army initiated another war against the Song, right after they heard that excellent commander Li Gang had been demoted far away and the reinforcement armies had left Song's capital.

Jin's army soon marched outside the Song's capital and besieged this city again so fast that these two cowed emperors didn't have enough time to escape.

Emperor Qinzong of Song tried his best to encourage his soldiers and share his food with them.


But now, they didn't have a good commander, enough food, and clothes, and many soldiers couldn't hold their weapons firmly in the cold winter.

After many intense, brutal battles, desperation filled the city. 

Cruel War of the Incident of Jingkang

Signing Another Unfair Pact and Collecting Money for Enemy


Then Jin required the former emperor Zhao Ji to be the negotiator, but he was too afraid and refused to go.

So Zhao Huan, Emperor Qinzong of Song, went to Jin’s commander’s tent, trying to make another deal.

Jin made this emperor kneel on the ground, humiliated him, had him sign another greedy pact, and then sent him back to collect money.

After Zhao Huan came back, he immediately started to ask his officials to collect, or rob, money, treasures, horses, and large numbers of women from civilians; even his queen’s family was forced to donate a significant amount.

Then, he summoned Li Gang back, now working in a faraway city. 

Under this circumstance, Song’s soldiers and civilians still fought bravely despite their countless sacrifices.

Unearthed Gold Cup Carved with Flower Patterns of the Song Dynasty

Gold Cups Carved with Flower Patterns of the Song Dynasty — Shanxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Placing Trust in Theurgy and Suffering a Huge Loss of Fine Soldiers

When Song and Jurchen Jin’s army were still in a tie after a series of intense battles, a soldier of Song named Guo Jing came into the public’s eyes.

He claimed to be a man with magical powers who could cast spells and make warriors unbreakable.

Many officials were quite suspicious and strongly disagreed. Still, Zhao Huan’s father, the former emperor Zhao Ji, trusted this witch and tried his best to persuade Zhao Huan and others to believe. 

In the end, Guo Jing, the so-called magical witch, was nominated as the general.

He cast some “spells” on around 7000 of the Song’s soldiers and asked the rest of the Song’s warriors to step back. Then, Guo led his “magical” warriors to attack Jin.

Undoubtedly, these unarmed warriors were slaughtered cruelly by Jin’s well-trained cavalrymen. 

Guo escaped and got killed in another city, but this stupid battle caused the Song Empire huge losses of fine soldiers.  

Transforming the Prosperous Capital City into a Living Hell

When Li Gang, many loyal generals, and the armies of Song were hurrying to the capital, the Lord of Jin asked Emperor Zhao Huan to come and negotiate. They threatened to rush into the city and rob things if the emperor didn't come.

Then Emperor Zhao Huan went there for the second time.

However, this time, Jin did not let him go; on the contrary, Jin used him as a hostage to ask for more money. 

Civilians in the capital were forced to donate again; plus the cold weather, starvation, and plague, large numbers of people suffered and lost their lives.

After seeing Song couldn't give them more money, Jin's army rushed into the capital, captured the royal family and officials, robbed and destroyed countless treasures, and burnt innumerable houses. 

Then they enslaved over 100,000 of Song's skilled people and left. 

This was the Incident of Jingkang.

Intense Wars Between Song and Jin

Reestablishment of A Smaller Song Empire

After hearing that Jin had the emperors as hostages, Song’s army was constrained and had to change its strategy.

Zhao Gou, the prince who volunteered as the hostage before, was the only royal member not in the capital when that disaster happened.

So he could escape to a safe place and organize all the Song’s armies. He used these resources and established another government in southern China named Song, but with a much smaller territory. 

His new empire was named Southern Song Dynasty (1127 — 1279) in history.

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

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)

Humiliations and Tragedies of Enslaved People

Emperor Qinzong of Song, his father, their entire family, and innumerable Song people were humiliated and dragged northward to the Jurchen Jin regime.

Emperor Zhao Huan's queen committed suicide because she couldn't stand the humiliation; many loyal and honorable officials ended up suicide as well.

His imperial concubines, sisters, daughters, other royal ladies, and maids died during the marching or were humiliated and enslaved in different places.

But Zhao Huan, the former Emperor Qinzong of Song, was quite a tolerant person with high adaptivity.


He passed away in his 50s from sickness after decades of captive life and countless humiliations. 

Portrait of Empress Renhuai, Zhu Lian (? — 1127), the Queen of Emperor Qinzong of Song.

Portrait of Empress Renhuai, Zhu Lian (? — 1127), the Queen of Emperor Qinzong of Song. 

Zhao Huan’s Fatuity and Prerequisite for Pursuing Peace

If an emperor gave up fighting because he had insufficient support and power, as seen with the last emperors of the Han Dynasty (Liu Xie) and the Tang Dynasty (Li Ye), that would be understandable. 

If a monarch failed after bravely combating, that was still honorable. 

If an emperor was renounced because most of his people disliked his reign, like the last emperor of the Sui Dynasty (Yang Guang), that was still respectable. 

However, Emperors Zhao Ji and Zhao Huan gave up so quickly, despite their people's enduring suffering and their deep love for the Song Empire.


This occurred even when substantial reinforcing armies were on the way, and all of their generals, soldiers, and civilians displayed unwavering loyalty and a strong will to fight and sacrifice.

Firelock of the Song Dynasty
Huge Crossbow of the Song Dynasty
Gunpowder of the Song Dynasty

Huge Crossbow, Gunpowder, and Firelock of the Song Dynasty

This shameful, destructive incident that ended the empire and took away so many lives was caused by two emperors’ horrible commands under the suggestions of some incapable officials. 

It wasn’t because Song’s people were not loyal, nor were their warriors not brave.

The flourishing empire ended in its prime, not because of powerful eunuch groups, manipulative clans, disloyal warlords, unsatisfied uprising armies, natural disasters, or poverty.

It was only because of the ruling class’ weakness and fatuousness.

This shameful incident and previous treaties signed with nomadic regimes made the Song Dynasty long criticized in the history of China. 

Cosmetic Porcelains (Fen He) of the Song Dynasty

Cosmetic Porcelains (Fen He) of the Song Dynasty — Philadelphia Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Zhao Huan, the Emperor Qinzong of Song, and his artistic father, Zhao Ji, have long been criticized for their stupidity and timidness. 

As emperors, husbands, and fathers, they couldn't protect their people, women, and children.

Maybe they were true worshippers of peace, but they didn't realize that peace always comes with a prerequisite.

People need to search for peace through their dignity and courage by being capable of protecting their own families and country. 

Meanwhile, never try to find peace from the enemy's kindness or mercy, which barely exists.

bottom of page