Zhao Zhen the Emperor Renzong of Song — An Benevolent Monarch and An Excellent Artist

Zhao Zhen (1010 — 1063), also named as Zhao Shouyi, respected as Emperor Renzong of Song, was an extremely kind and thoughtful person, and one of the most benevolent and open-minded emperors in the history of China.

As the monarch with the longest reign period (41 years) of the Song Dynasty, his empire reached great prosperity, when population and revenue all dramatically increased, art, science, and literature were flourished.

Emperor Zhao Zhen provided a light environment for brilliant people that left the world countless extraordinary masterpieces. Besides, he was a great calligrapher and poet in Chinese culture as well.  

Calligraphy Tablet of Emperor Zhao Zhen "Lan Ting Xu" — Lan Ting, Zhejiang Province

Powerful Empress Liu and Secret Birth Mother of Zhao Zhen

Zhao Zhen was the son of Emperor Zhao Heng, whose favorite imperial concubine Liu didn’t have any child. 

Sometime later, Liu’s imperial maid Li was pregnant, and then gave birth to a baby boy, named Zhao Zhen. 

Liu announced this baby was her son and raised him carefully. 

In some gossips, Liu stole this baby after a series of schemes and lies, while others believed that the emperor and Li both approved her to be this boy’s mother. 

Anyway, after having a baby boy, Liu was promoted as the Queen. 

Li, the birth mother of Zhao Zhen, was given some royal titles, but required to keep a distance from her son. She could see Zhao Zhen on important occasions, but could barely talk to him. After she passed away, she was promoted as a high-rank Imperial Concubine and buried using a queen’s etiquette.  

Zhao Zhen knew nothing about his birth mother until Li and Liu passed away.

Portrait of Zhao Zhen the Emperor Renzong of Song, by Court Artist of the Song Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum

Conflicting between Empress Dowager Liu and Zhao Zhen

After Emperor Zhao Heng departed, Zhao Zhen ascended to the throne when he was only 12 years old. 

Hence, Liu, respected as the Empress Zhangxian Mingsu (968 — 1033), started to reign the empire as the most powerful regent. 

Liu raised Zhao Zhen quite well, though she had been extremely strict. 

With Zhao Zhen grew up, more disagreements and conflicts between him and the Empress dowager appeared.  

However, Liu was a strong, firm, and excellent politician. She had been suppressing the young emperor on almost everything until she passed away about a decade later. 

Emperor Zhao Zhen, on the contrary, had been considered as a kind, talented, but immature monarch, and even couldn’t make decisions for his love life.

Part of Ceremonial Guard of Emperor Zhao Zhen in "Da Jia Lu Bu Tu Shu", Painted Around 1053 to 1065 — National Museum of China

Unwanted Queens of Emperor Zhao Zhen

When Zhao Zhen was young, he fell in love with a beautiful girl, who was disliked by Empress Dowager Liu. Hence, Liu assigned her ex-husband’s son to marry this girl.

Then Liu commanded Zhao Zhen to marry a highborn girl named Guo as his queen,  though, Guo was very arrogant and impolite.

Once, when Guo was arguing with another imperial concubine, she accidentally hurt Emperor Zhao Zhen that was trying to stop the quarrel.

At that time, Empress Dowager Liu already passed away. Hence, Zhao Zhen used this as an opportunity to take the queen’s title back.

Under strong suggestions of his officials, Zhao Zhen nominated Cao as his new queen, another noble girl that they believed to be qualified as the queen of the Song Empire. 

As expected, Empress Cao (1016 — 1079) was decent and smart and had been respected by everyone.

Portrait of Empress Cao (Or Empress Ci Sheng Guang Xian), by Court Artist of the Song Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum

However, Emperor Zhao Zhen had been in love with another girl named Zhang.

 

He considered Zhang as the love of his life, and had been planning to abolish Empress Cao, and nominate her as the new queen.  

Most officials strongly disagreed, because Zhang wasn’t from a noble family. 

Until Lady Zhang passed away, despite all the disagreements, Emperor Zhao Zhen insisted on giving her a queen’s crown, and buried her using a queen’s ceremony.

 

Zhao Zhen, though honorable and powerful as an emperor, never could award the queen's crown to his truly beloved women. 

Flourishing Reign of Emperor Zhao Zhen

When it came to political issues, Emperor Renzong of Song was not very strong-willed either. 

Emperor Zhao Zhen once tried to implement a new reform that jeopardized many nobles’ interests. Under strong opponents of those nobles, this reform lasted less than two years.  

He didn’t apply those reformative policies as he wished, however, Emperor Zhao Zhen brought his civilians almost half a century’s peace and prosperity. 

Economy, science, art, and literature all developed well, and the paper currency was firstly implemented in the history of China. 

Part of Painting "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" (Qingming Shang He Tu), Genre Painting of the Capital City of the Song Dynasty, by Artist Zhang Zeduan (1085 — 1145) — Palace Museum

Genuine Benevolence to Everyone

As a powerful emperor of a strong kingdom, Zhao Zhen’s benevolence was extraordinary and unique. His kind, respectable, and thoughtful behaviors were documented in historic records. 

His imperial censors always surrounded and gave him unpleasant suggestions or criticisms, sometimes their saliva even sprayed onto his face, but he always politely negotiated with or listened to them, and never got angry. 

 

Moreover, he never blamed or retaliated anyone for their offensive sayings. 

Besides being kind to his officials, Emperor Zhao Zhen was even quite thoughtful for his servants.

When he was hungry at night or felt thirsty during a walk, he never asked the servants to offer whatever he needed.

From his perspective, waking up people at night or asking them to get water from the far place would make people tired, and bring them lots of troubles.

Hence, he was the first emperor in the history of China that got the posthumous title as benevolence (Ren), the most respected, honorable virtue of Confucianism

Jade Decoration with Dragon Patterns of the Song Dynasty — Tianjin Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Legacy of Zhao Zhen the Emperor Renzong of Song

Throughout history, Emperor Zhao Zhen was sometimes criticized for being too soft to have the ability to implement his right reformative policies completely, even though he could modestly listen to suggestions and critical ideas.

Others, however, believed that Zhao Zhen was an excellent emperor, who was extremely kind, polite, frugal, talented, and brought his people peaceful and wealthy lives.

According to documented history, after Zhao Zhen the Emperor Renzong of Song passed away, large numbers of people, even those living in remote areas, cried and voluntarily held many memorial ceremonies for him.

King of the Liao Empire (907 — 1125), Song’s former enemy, even was quite sad and wept for Zhao Zhen's departure; he then established a memorial palace for Zhao Zhen, to show his grief and respect.

Indeed, Emperor Zhao Zhen was not famous for expanding territory or implementing influential reforms, but he was truly a kind monarch with a great heart, and was loved by almost everyone.   

Lotus Shaped Azure Glaze Censer of the Song Dynasty — Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Heritage and Archeology (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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