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Emperor Zhenzong of Song Zhao Heng — Innovator of Trading Peace with Money and A Professional of Self Glorification

Emperor Zhenzong of Song (968 — 1022), named Zhao Heng, was the third emperor of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279).


He was a polite, talented monarch that brought people a stable reign, also the first one that traded peace using money. 

He was also quite famous for glorifying himself through mythical ways, and for his unusually eternal love for his queen.

Portrait of Zhao Heng the Emperor Zhenzong of Song, by Court Artist

Portrait of Zhao Heng the Emperor Zhenzong of Song, by Court Artist — Taipei Palace Museum

From A Talented Crown Prince to A Capable Emperor

Zhao Heng was a graceful crown prince who was excellent at poetry and calligraphy.

When he was young, his favorite game was pretending to be a commander and leading his “army” to fight, which gained his father’s appreciation.

As his father's third son, Zhang Heng was nominated as the crown prince, after his two older brothers passed away.

After his father passed away, the current empress dowager allied with a powerful eunuch and initiated a coup, trying to support another prince, who was easier to manipulate, as the new emperor. 

Luckily, the prime minister found out and defeated them, and then supported Zhao Heng in ascending the throne. 

Unearthed Gold Cup Carved with Flower Patterns of the Song Dynasty

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

Afterward, Zhao Heng started to reign the empire, which turned out to be quite capable.

He established a comprehensive and efficient system to manage officials’ files and to measure and examine their political performances; corruption was highly suppressed within his system, and lots of talented people were selected through the Imperial Examination.

This excellent management system with an explicit reward and punishment policy made great contributions to developing culture, economy, and agriculture.

During Emperor Zhenzong of Song's reign, the empire continued to flourish.

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 (1082 — 1135) of the Song Dynasty, Presenting the Feast of Intelligent Scholars — Taipei Palace Museum

Joining the Expedition and Gaining Victory

However, military threats on the northern border of Song never stopped.  

Liao Dynasty (907 — 1125), a powerful nomadic region in the north had been fighting against Song for decades.

A few years after Zhao Heng's enthronement, the empress dowager and emperor of Liao led 200,000 soldiers to invade Song.

Some officials of Song suggested that Zhao Heng goes to another safer city in the south, while the prime minister named Kou Zhun (961 — 1023) threatened that everyone that wants to surrender should be executed. 

Kou also suggested Emperor Zhenzong of Song be the chief commander and come to the battlefield, to encourage Song’s soldiers and protect the empire.

Ceremonial Jade Weapon (Gu Duo) of the Kingdom Liao

Ceremonial Jade Weapon (Gu Duo) of the Liao Dynasty — Aohan Prehistory Museum in Inner Mongolia (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Though Zhao Heng liked to act as a commander when he was young, he didn’t want to be involved in a real war that was full of blood and dead bodies. 

Then Kou Zhun threatened and encouraged Emperor Zhao Heng for a long time, using lots of strategies and tricks, until he finally agreed to join the war.

Emperor Zhao Heng then nominated his crown prince to reign the country after he left, came to the battlefront, and gave his warriors some inspiring speeches.

As expected, Song’s soldiers were highly encouraged, they fought much braver.

At the same time, Kou Zhun, a genius politician and militarist, commanded the army very well.  

The Song Empire kept winning.

The Controversial "Treaty of Chanyuan"

Then, the Liao sent some messengers, trying to pursue peace; the Emperor Zhenzong of Song was happy and immediately agreed.

After negotiation, Song and Liao signed the "Treaty of Chanyuan", which includes Liao should respect Song as the big brother and establishing a trade market on the borders, while Song would provide an annual tribute to Liao. 

This behavior was frequently criticized in the history of China, for being weak and using money in exchange for peace, and having signed an unprecedented treaty when Song was winning.

In the past, unified empires either made the enemy comply and pay tribute, or fought; emperors were either the monarch or enemy of the nearby nomadic regimes.

Gilding Crown Decoration of the Liao Dynasty

Gilding Crown Decoration of the Liao Dynasty — Lingyuan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

On the other hand, some people supported and praised this behavior, because it made people live in peace and promoted positive communications among different regimes.

Moreover, the money that Song gave Liao each year was far less than they would have spent if they kept fighting and training more soldiers; Song also earned even more money from the trade market on the borders. 

Anyway, at that time, the consequences were obvious, including decades of peace, and developments in agriculture, economy, and trade business.  

However, the combat ability of Song's army decreased as well. 

Till the end of the Song Dynasty, the aggressive nomad regimes were always there, but not the brilliant officials and generals like Kou Zhun.

Unearthed Glass Crossguard (Jian Ge) of the Song Dynasty

Glass Crossguard (Jian Ge) of the Song Dynasty — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Pursuing Dignity and Honor

After having signed this pact, some people considered this a shame of an empire and frequently criticized Emperor Zhenzong of Song.

But according to Emperor Zhao Kuangyin, the founder of the Song Dynasty, those talented officials should be respected, and no one should be punished because of their sayings.

Therefore, Emperor Zhenzong of Song, Zhao Heng, was quite unhappy with those sayings but could do nothing to stop them. 

Until someone suggested he hold a great Feng Shan ceremony, just like those extraordinary emperors did before. 

Zhao Heng was quite happy with this suggestion. 

Sacred, Grand Ceremony Feng Shan in Chinese Culture

Feng Chan on Mount Tai was the most honorable, grandest worship ceremony in Chinese culture. 

This was to inform heaven about exceptional accomplishments that the monarch achieved, and had very strict standards to hold, including a unified empire, a prosperous economy, a peaceful society, etc. 

Throughout history, only a few emperors with great achievements held Feng Shan on Mount Tai: Emperor Qin Shi Huang, Emperor Wu of Han, Emperor Guangwu of Han, Emperor Gaozong of Tang, and Emperor Xuanzong of Tang.

Obviously, Zhao Heng was not qualified to hold this grand ceremony.

Mount Tai in Shandong Province

Mount Tai in Shandong Province

Self Glorification and Auspicious Omens

Hence, Zhao Heng stepped into a path of self-glorification, by asking people to “find” lucky omens “unconsciously”, and telling people that he had some magical dreams that deities told him to do something to worship heaven, etc.

Gradually, more auspicious omens "appeared" in the empire.

Then Emperor Zhenzong of Song, after having gained most of his officials' consent, finally led a large group of people and held the Feng Shan ceremony on Mount Tai. 

He was also the last emperor who held this ceremony in the history of China.


After Zhao Heng, there are some accomplished emperors that were actually qualified to hold Feng Shan, but none of them did it again.

Jade Book that Emperor Zhenzong of Song Wrote for this Feng Shan Ceremony

Jade Book (Yu Ce) that Emperor Zhenzong of Song Wrote for this Feng Shan Ceremony — Taipei Palace Museum

An important reason was that many of the following emperors believed Zhao Heng was not qualified to hold the ceremony on Mount Tai, and his incapability made the most honorable worship ceremony not sacred anymore. 

Afterward, Zhao Heng organized some other worship events years later, which cost lots of money.

From his perspective, he also could be a great monarch by connecting with heaven and mysterious forces, rather than gaining triumphs on battlefields and recovering the vast territory of the former Tang Dynasty (618 — 907). 

Legendary Love Story of Emperor Zhenzong

When Zhao Heng was a prince, his butler bought him a beautiful concubine named Liu, who was sold by her poverty husband.

Zhao Heng liked her a lot, though she never gave him a baby.

Zhao Heng's parents didn't like this lowborn woman who used to make a living as a performer, so they married him a noble girl and asked him to send Liu away.

But Zhao Heng didn't. He hid Liu in one of his follower's houses and visited her there regularly.

After he ascended to the throne, he finally took Liu to the royal palace, and they could be together freely.

Peacock Shaped Jade Decoration of the Song Dynasty

Peacock Shaped Jade Decoration of the Song Dynasty — Capital Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

A few years later, Zhao Heng's first queen, the highborn girl that his parents made him marry, passed away.

Then, he wanted to nominate Liu as his new queen, but lots of officials strongly disagreed because of her history.

This time, Emperor Zhenzong of Song insisted and gave the crown to his beloved woman. Her ex-husband was even given a good position in the government, and then got promoted.

Once, Emperor Zhenzong of Song slept with one of Liu’s maids and made her pregnant. After this maid gave birth to a baby boy, Liu immediately took this baby away and raised him as her own.

This maid was soon expelled and died years later, many people suspected that Liu was responsible for her death.

Zhao Heng acquiesced in all of these.

Dragon Shaped Golden Pendant of the Song Dynasty

Dragon Shaped Golden Pendant of the Song Dynasty — Anhui Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Departure of Zhao Heng and Reign of Empress Liu

Later, Zhao Heng nominated Liu's adoptive boy as the crown prince. 

This boy Zhao Zhen, the Emperor Renzong of Song, didn't know that Liu wasn't his birth mother until Liu passed away.  

Liu was a very smart person, who assisted Zhao Heng for a long time in political decisions, especially when Zhao Heng was pursuing mysterious forces in his late years. 

After Zhao Heng passed away, Liu was in actual charge of the Song Empire.

Some people suggested she take the throne, and be a female emperor, like Wu Zetian in the Tang Dynasty, and Liu refused. But she did wear the emperor's imperial robe to important worship ceremonies. 

Liu was an excellent monarch and reigned the empire well. The first paper currency Jiaozi was published during her ruling period. 

After she passed away, she was respected as Empress Zhang Xian Ming Su, who gave her adoptive son Zhao Zhen a wealthy, stable kingdom. 

Paper Currency of the Song Dynasty

Paper Currency (Jiao Zi) of the Song Dynasty

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