Emperor Xiaozong of Song — A Determined, Ambitious Monarch and His Huge Restrictions
Emperor Xiaozong of Song (1127 — 1194), Zhao Shen, was the most exceptional, promising monarch of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 — 1279).
He had the strong will to recover the lost lands of the empire, but he had been restrained by his adoptive father, doves inside the government, and incapable generals.
Portrait of Zhao Shen the Emperor Xiaozong of Song, by Court Artist — Taipei Palace Museum
The Reduced Empire and A Childless Emperor
In the Incident of Jingkang in 1127, nomadic Jurchen Jin captured Song's emperor and almost all royals, countless officials, and skillful civilians.
After this catastrophic war, Song lost vast territory in the north and innumerable people.
Zhao Gou was the only free prince left in the current royal clan.
He escaped to the south and, with the assistance of Song's loyal generals and officials, reestablished the Song empire in the south. This empire with a much smaller territory was called the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 — 1279).
Zhao Gou (1107 — 1187), the Emperor Gaozong of Song, only had one son who died young, and the Jurchen Jin army captured his five daughters.
After reestablished the Southern Song, he could not give birth to another child.
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
From A Civilian to Royal Prince
So, Zhao Gou sent people to search for descendants of Emperor Zhang Kuangyin (927 — 976), the founder of the Song Dynasty, who passed away suddenly and had his throne occupied by his younger brother.
Later, two kids born and raised in the civilian world without political resources or strong clans were selected.
The 5-year-old, intelligent, and polite Zhao Shen was one of them.
Zhao Gou then raised them in the royal palace while also hoping he might have a son of his own someday.
After 28 years of observation, Zhao Gou finally adopted Zhao Shen as his royal prince and the other kid as his nephew.
Gilding Silver Cup of the Song Dynasty — Zhenjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Ascending to the Throne in Crisis
One year after this decision, Jurchen Jin invaded the Song Empire again, even though they had already signed a very profitable, unfair treaty.
Then, Emperor Zhao Gou nominated Zhao Shen as the crown prince and abdicated the throne months later.
Unlike his adoptive father, Zhao Shen, now Emperor Xiaozong of Song, was determined to fight back bravely.
The second month after ascending to the throne, he summoned brave, capable generals who wanted to fight and recover the lost lands.
Soon, he cleaned great general Yue Fei’s name, welcomed all of Yue Fei’s expelled family members, and gave back their freedom.
Glass Crossguard (Jian Ge) of the Song Dynasty — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Emperor Xiaozong's Ambition, Failure, and Compromise
Then Emperor Zhao Shen led his country diligently, preparing for the revenge war.
After about a year's preparation, Emperor Xiaozong of Song initiated a north expedition war against Jurchen Jin.
Song's army achieved some successes initially, but they later failed because the commanders of Song didn't trust each other and were disunited.
Then, the overlord Zhao Gou and his doves strongly disagreed with keep fighting, plus that big failure on the battlefield, Zhao Shen agreed to negotiate with Jurchen Jin.
As expected, Jin proposed even greedier and more insulting requirements to Song.
However, unlike those previous emperors who agreed on everything Jin wanted, Emperor Xiaozong of Song denied the shameful treaty and started to prepare for another war.
After several rounds of fights, difficult negotiations, and the pressure of Zhao Gou and his doves, Emperor Xiaozong of Song signed another treaty with Jin, which included way fewer insulting items and less tribute money.
This time, the Song Empire finally stopped respecting Jin as their monarch.
Copper Dragon of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty — Heilongjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Efforts and Disappointments
Afterward, Emperor Xiaozong of Song dedicated himself to developing agriculture and the empire's economy while still recruiting and training his army.
He implemented a series of reforms in Song's army and kept practicing riding and archery himself.
A few years later, his most trusted minister, the one capable of leading the army to fight against Jin, passed away because of overwork.
The ambitious Emperor Xiaozong of Song now realized that there were no commanders like General Yue Fei who could support him in realizing his revenge dreams.
Perfume (Xiang Bing) Blended by Emperor Zhao Gou, Carved with Characters of "Recovery and Prosperity" — Changzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Therefore, he kept working diligently and developing his country while waiting for the miracle to send him an exceptional, capable marshal.
Emperor Xiaozong of Song was an exceptional, diligent monarch who provided a kind environment for agriculture, economy, and culture, which achieved massive progress during his reign.
His civilians lived in peace, and his national treasury was always full of money.
He was never a big fan of beautiful women or a luxury lifestyle. As an emperor of a prosperous empire, he always wore old clothes and never constructed fancy architecture.
Cyan Glaze Tea Cup with A Tray (Zhan Tuo) — Southern Song Dynasty Government Kiln Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Abdication of the Throne and His Desolate Retirement Life
After his adoptive father, Zhao Gou passed away, Emperor Xiaozong of Song was very sad; he knew his dream wouldn't come true anyway, and soon he abdicated the throne to his crown prince.
Unfortunately, his beloved son, the new emperor, gradually became increasingly indifferent during his five years of retirement.
The new emperor's wife, Li, hated Zhao Shen for disapproving of her son as the crown prince, so she kept sabotaging the relationship between the emperor and the overlord Zhao Shen.
Years later, Zhao Shen passed away from sickness and didn't have the chance to see his beloved son for the last time.
As a monarch restrained by his adoptive father, the doves inside his government, and incapable commanders, Emperor Xiaozong of Song did an excellent job.
He tried his best and won some dignity back, brought the people of his empire comfortable and wealthy lives, and led his country to develop into a prosperous stage.
Part of Embroidery Clothes of the Southern Song Dynasty — Fujian Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
The Tragedy of the Song Empire
Emperor Xiaozong of Song was an exceptional monarch with remarkable management ability, a kind personality, and a strong will to recover his ancestor’s realm. Still, he had no brilliant supporters like General Li Gang and Yue Fei who could help him realize his dream.
On the contrary, great ministers and generals like Li Gang and Yue Fei didn’t have a supportive, brave, determined emperor like Zhao Shen.
This was a tragedy for Emperor Xiaozong of Song, those excellent ministers, large numbers of civilians, and the Song Empire.
Most of Zhao Shen’s descendants had a strong will and tried several times to fight back against Jurchen Jin, but they all failed for different reasons.
Undoubtedly, there were still many brave and loyal people in the Song Dynasty, but reunification was not possible anymore.
Celadon Glaze Plate of the Song Dynasty — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
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