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Zhao Heng the Emperor Zhenzong of Song — Pioneer of Trading Peace with Money and a Master 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 gracious and talented monarch who brought stability to the people and pioneered the concept of trading peace with money.

He was also renowned for his penchant for self-glorification through mythical means and his enduring 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 known for his excellence in 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 died.

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, supporting 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 ascended to the throne and demonstrated remarkable capability in ruling the empire.

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

This excellent management system with an explicit reward and punishment policy significantly contributed to the 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 Achieving Victory

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

The 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 relocate to a safer city in the south. However, the prime minister, Kou Zhun (961 — 1023), issued a stern warning, threatening execution for anyone advocating surrender.

Kou also proposed that Emperor Zhenzong of Song assume the role of chief commander and personally join the battlefield to boost the morale of Song's soldiers and safeguard 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 enjoyed assuming the role of a commander in his youth, he was averse to the idea of being directly involved in a battlefield saturated with blood and corpses.

Then Kou Zhun threatened and encouraged Emperor Zhao Heng for a long time, using many 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 and 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 included Liao respecting Song as the big brother, establishing a trade market on the borders, and Song providing an annual tribute to Liao. 

This behavior has been frequently criticized in Chinese history for being perceived as weak, resorting to using money in exchange for peace, and signing an unprecedented treaty while Song was in a position of strength.

In the past, unified empires typically either compelled their enemies to comply and pay tribute or engaged in warfare; emperors often served as monarchs or adversaries to 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 peacefully and promoted positive communication among different regimes.

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

Regardless, the consequences were evident at the time, with decades of peace leading to advancements in agriculture, the economy, and trade.

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)

Pursuit of Dignity and Honor

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

However, according to Emperor Zhao Kuangyin, the founder of the Song Dynasty, those talented officials should be respected, and no one should be punished for 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 holding a grand Feng Shan ceremony, just like those extraordinary emperors did. 

Zhao Heng was quite happy with this suggestion. 

Sacred and Grand Feng Shan Ceremony in Chinese Culture

Feng Shan on Mount Tai was Chinese culture's most honorable, grandest worship ceremony. 

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

Throughout history, only a few emperors with outstanding 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 Propitious Signs

Hence, Zhao Heng embarked on a path of self-glorification, prompting people to "discover" auspicious omens "unintentionally" and claiming to have received divine instructions in his dreams to perform acts of worship to heaven, and so on.

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

Then Emperor Zhenzong of Song, having secured the consent of most of his officials, proceeded to lead a large procession to Mount Tai, where the Feng Shan ceremony was held.

He was also the last emperor in Chinese history to preside over this ceremony.


After Zhao Heng, some accomplished emperors were qualified to hold Feng Shan, but none 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.


His incapacity rendered the once venerable worship ceremony devoid of its sanctity.

Afterward, Zhao Heng organized 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, Liu, sold by her poor husband.

Though she never bore him a child, Zhao Heng held great affection for her.

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 followers' houses and regularly visited her there.

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 his parents made him marry, passed away.

Then, he wanted to nominate Liu as his new queen, but many 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 got 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, and many people suspected that Liu was responsible for her death.

Zhao Heng consented to 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 the 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 brilliant person who assisted Zhao Heng for a long time in political decisions, especially when Zhao Heng was pursuing mysterious forces in his later years. 

After Zhao Heng passed away, Liu took 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.


However, 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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