Emperor Xiaozong of Song — A Determined, Ambitious Monarch and His Huge Restrictions

Emperor Xiaozong of Song (1127 — 1194), named Zhao Shen, was the most exceptional, promising monarch of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 — 1279). 

He had the strong will to recover 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

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 the year 1127, nomadic Jurchen Jin captured Song's emperor and almost all royals, a large number of officials, and skillful civilians.

After this catastrophic war, Song lost vast territory in the north and large numbers of 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 his five daughters were captured by the Jurchen Jin army.

After he reestablished the Southern Song, he was unable to give birth to another child.

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

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 out of a sudden and had his throne occupied by his younger brother.

Later, two kids that born and raised in the civilian world and had no political resources nor strong clans, were selected.

The 5-year-old, smart, and polite Zhao Shen was one of them. 

Zhao Gou then raised them in the royal palace, while hoping he might have a son of his own someday.  

After 28 years' observation, Zhao Gou finally decided to adopt Zhao Shen as his royal prince, the other kid as his nephew.

Gilding Silver Cup of the Song Dynasty

Gilding Silver Cup of the Song Dynasty — Zhenjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Ascending to the Throne in Crisis

One year after this decision, the Jurchen Jin invaded the Song Empire again, despite they already signed a very profitable, unfair treaty before.

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 quite determined on fighting back bravely.

The second month after ascending to the throne, he summoned back brave, capable generals that wanted to fight and recover the lost lands.

Soon, he cleaned great general Yue Fei’s name, and welcomed all of Yue Fei’s expelled family members back, and set them free.

Unearthed Glass Crossguard (Jian Ge) of the Song Dynasty

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 in the beginning, but they later failed, because those commanders of Song didn’t trust each other and disunited.

Then, the overlord Zhao Gou and his doves strongly disagreed to 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 that Jin wanted, Emperor Xiaozong of Song denied the shameful treaty and started to prepare for another war.

After several rounds of fights and difficult negotiations, as well as 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

Copper Dragon of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty — Heilongjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Efforts and Disappointments of the Emperor Xiaozong

Afterward, Emperor Xiaozong of Song dedicated himself to developing agriculture and economy in the empire, when he still kept 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 that was capable to lead 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 that could support him to realize his revenge dreams. 

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, 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, all of which achieved huge 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, nor a luxury lifestyle. As an emperor of a rich empire, he always wore old clothes and never constructed fancy architecture.

Unearthed Cyan Glaze Tea Cup with A Tray (Zhan Tuo)

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, soon he abdicated the throne to his crown prince.

Unfortunately, during his five years of retirement life, his beloved son, the new emperor, gradually became more and more indifferent. 

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 out of sick and didn't have the chance to see his beloved son for the last time. 

As a monarch who had been restrained by his adoptive father, the doves inside his government, and incapable commanders, Emperor Xiaozong of Song did a good job.

He tried his best and won some dignity back, brought people of his empire with comfortable and wealthy lives, and led his country to develop into a prosperous stage.

Part of Exquisite Embroidery Clothes of the Southern Song Dynasty

Part of Embroidery Clothes of the Southern Song Dynasty — Fujian Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Tragedy of the Song Dynasty

Emperor Xiaozong of Song was an exceptional monarch with remarkable management ability, a kind personality, and strong wills to recover his ancestor’s realm, but 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, as well as to the Song Dynasty. 

Most of Zhao Shen’s descendants had a strong will and tried several times to fight back against the Jurchen Jin, but they all failed for different reasons. 

Undoubtedly, there were still large numbers of brave and loyal people in the Song Dynasty, but reunification was not possible anymore. 

Celadon Glaze Plate of the Song Dynasty

Celadon Glaze Plate of the Song Dynasty — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)