Zhao Kuangyin — A Kung Fu Emperor with A Controversial Ending
Zhao Kuangyin (927 — 976), respected as Emperor Taizu of Song, was the founder of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) in the history of China.
Through his extraordinary military and martial art skills, Zhao Kuangyin ended the chaotic Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907 — 979), when virtue and order were suppressed by war and power when people were living unstable lives.
Moreover, he set a series of good policies that brought people wealthy lives.
The Song Dynasty he built was one of the most flourishing and prosperous periods in the history of China, when the economy, science, and economy were all well developed.
Part of Painting (Qingming Shanghe Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival
Genre Painting of Capital City of Song Dynasty by Artist Zhang Zeduan (1085 — 1145) — Palace Museum
A Brave Swordsman Guided by An Astrologer
Zhao Kuangyin, courtesy name Zhao Yuanlang, was very good at Kung Fu and contributed some important movements to Chinese martial arts.
Born into a military family of the chaotic Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms era, Zhao Kuangyin had witnessed endless wars and the replacement of empires since he was a kid.
When he was older, he left his family and traveled to seek better opportunities. He wanted to serve a talented, ambitious, virtuous monarch among aggressive, greedy kings and warlords.
Once, when Zhao Kuangyin was visiting a temple, the master, who was also a wise astrologer there, suggested he go northward as soon as possible and gave him all his assets as support.
As suggested, Zhao Kuangyin soon met a general named Guo Wei (904 — 954), who highly appreciated his talent. In the next few years, Zhao Kuangyin assisted Guo Wei achieved remarkable military successes.
Unearthed Gold Dragon of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms — Zhejiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Establishing and Expanding of the Later Zhou Dynasty
With Guo Wei obtaining more power and military successes, his newly throned king felt threatened.
After hearing that his king commanded to execute them, Guo Wei rebelled first; soon, his entire family was executed by the king.
Guo Wei won a series of intense fights and established the Later Zhou Dynasty (951 — 960).
When Guo Wei passed away, his adoptive son Chai Rong (921 — 959) ascended to the throne as Emperor Shizong of Later Zhou.
Chai Rong was smart, talented, brave, and ambitious; meanwhile, he was a virtuous king that brought his people better lives.
As the king’s most trusted general, Zhao Kuangyin had been promoted frequently for having saved the king several times on battlefields and significantly contributed to expanding their territory.
Painted Stone Relief of Warriors of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms — National Museum of China
Snatching the Throne From A Child King
A few years later, King Chai Rong passed away suddenly, and his seven-year-old son Chai Zongxun ascended to the throne.
Soon, news from the border reported that the nearby nomadic army was planning to invade his kingdom.
Then, Zhao Kuangyin, the most exceptional general of the Later Zhou Empire, was commanded to lead the army to defend their country.
After they marched out of the capital city, many of his followers put an imperial robe on Zhao Kuangyin, then they respected and announced him as their new emperor.
All soldiers in the army believed that Zhao Kuangyin would be a better monarch than the seven-year-old king and his young mother in the chaotic era of endless wars.
Some believed this idea was from his followers who wanted more power and money, while others indicated that the whole thing was Zhao Kuangyin's scheme.
Either way, wearing an imperial robe was an actual act of rebellion. It's his own will or having been pushed; either way, Zhao Kuangyin decided to take the throne.
Then, he asked the young king to abdicate the throne and take control of the empire.
Magnificent Scene of the Song Dynasty in the Painting "Thousands Miles of Mountains and Rivers" (Qian Li Jiang Shan Tu) (1191.5 cm × 51.5 cm), By Artist Wang Ximeng (1096 — 1119) — The Palace Museum
Expanding of Territory and Establishing of Song Dynasty
Zhao Kuangyin named his new dynasty the Song, which was still only a regime occupying some places in China then.
Unlike other usurpers in history, Zhao Kuangyin treated the former royal family members quite well: he gave them the most honorable titles. He ensured they lived respected and wealthy lives and commanded they could be pardoned from breaking laws.
In an era of endless wars and perishing regimes, obtaining the throne using violence or conspiracy was not unusual.
However, governing and flourishing the kingdom well was a more significant challenge and a more important mission.
Luckily, it turned out that Zhao Kuangyin was precisely the type of monarch who was needed in that chaotic era.
He was a very brave and talented marshal, who led his excellent generals, and soldiers defeated other regimes one by one.
Meanwhile, Zhao Kuangyin was an excellent emperor who brought his people stable and wealthy lives.
Unearthed Gold Cup Carved with Flower Patterns of the Song Dynasty — Shanxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Seizing Authority By Eliminating Possible Warlords
Emperor Zhao Kuangyin tried his best to avoid two main problems responsible for the perishing of the previous Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), the powerful warlords with independent professional armies outside of the central government and the strong eunuch groups that could manipulate politics inside the royal palace.
When the nation was almost unified, Zhao Kuangyin peacefully took military power back from all of his generals with meritorious services. Within years, he kept awarding those generals money, allying with them through marriage, and transferring them to different positions.
In the end, when those generals finally realized that they had lost power and control over their armies, they could do nothing but accept.
Afterward, the emperor Zhao Kuangyin was in absolute control of both royal and regional troops.
Then, he published many administrative policies to enhance centralized power and divide and weaken the authority of influential ministers.
Thanks to him, throughout the entire Song Dynasty, warlords and eunuchs never had the power or opportunity to threaten emperors or manipulate politics.
Preferential Treatment and Privileges of Scholar Officials
Emperor Zhao Kuangyin believed that generals with an independent army and military power would be pretty destructive; they were able to initiate large-scale wars and cause massive damage, such as the An-Shi Rebellion during Emperor Li Longji’s (685 — 762) reign.
Civil officers that were selected from the Imperial Examinations, however, he believed, would be less destructive nor violent.
Hence, Confucianism scholars were highly respected, more academies were built, and more books were collected and well preserved.
Most importantly, he regulated that no civil officials should be executed because of their words, no matter how offensive they have been.
Unearthed Copper Writing Brush Holder (Bi Jia) of the Song Dynasty — Zhuji Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Moreover, under the command of Emperor Zhao Kuangyin, the Imperial Examination system was further refined by sealing participants' names on test papers, using standard handwriting style to transcribe all the essays before grading them, isolating examiners, and retesting people from rich and powerful families to make sure their ability fit their results.
By doing this, the final result could accurately show people's talent, while corruption and cheating were efficiently avoided.
During his ruling period, the economy, agriculture, literature, art, and science were all well-developed.
Part of Exquisite Embroidery Clothes of the Song Dynasty — Fujian Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Controversial Death of Emperor Zhao Kuangyin
One day, Emperor Zhao Kuangyin invited his younger brother Zhao Guangyi to drink wine; after it was getting late, he allowed his brother to stay overnight at his royal palace.
The next morning, Emperor Zhao Kuangyin was found dead, and his brother Zhao Guangyi claimed the throne and became the next emperor of the Song Dynasty.
His brother’s legality as the emperor has long been questioned in the history of China.
Some people suspected his brother might have killed Emperor Zhao Kuangyin to take the throne.
As a strong, healthy man who was quite excellent at martial arts, the death of Emperor Zhao Kuangyin was too sudden. Besides, Zhao Guangyi was nearly a professional toxicologist.
Moreover, Emperor Zhao Kuangyin had two adult sons when he passed away.
Besides, Zhao Guangyi didn’t have any proof to show that his older brother gave the throne to him instead of to his sons, like all the other emperors in the history of China.
Glass Crossguard (Jian Ge) of the Song Dynasty — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Other people, on the contrary, believed that Emperor Zhao Kuangyin died because of sickness, and he did tell his younger brother Zhao Guangyi to take over the empire.
An important reason was that in the chaotic Five Dynasty and Ten Kingdoms period, a young king could easily be overthrown and then lose his empire.
When Emperor Zhao Kuangyin passed away, there were still some strong regimes nearby; his two 20s sons with no military experience were likely to be defeated by those regimes or lose the throne to rebel generals within the nation.
However, Zhao Guangyi contributed to the establishment of the Song Dynasty and had close relationships with Song’s important generals and officials.
His experience, power, age, reputation, and connection were more capable of preserving and developing the Song Empire.
Painting About Emperor Zhao Kuangyin Playing Football "Cu Ju" with Zhao Guangyi and Other Officials, Drawn By Su Hanchen of the Song Dynasty, Copied By Qian Xuan (1239 — 1299) － Shanghai Museum
Shifted Power of the Song Empire
Zhao Guangyi (939 — 997), courtesy name Tingyi, respected as the Emperor Taizong of Song, turned out to be a qualified monarch.
He tried his best to achieve military success and cover for his abnormal enthronement. However, compared to his older brother Emperor Zhao Kuangyin, he was pretty ordinary; most of his military activities failed in the end.
But he preserved and developed the existing land of Song well and promoted more numbers of civil officials selected from the Imperial Examination.
Besides being an ordinary general and monarch, Zhao Guangyi was not quite a good brother, based on things that happened under his reign.
Zhao Kuangyin and Zhao Guangyi’s only younger brother was banished and passed away in a remote place.
Emperor Zhao Kuangyin’s oldest alive son was forced to commit suicide, and his queen and another son all passed away very young because of some unexplained sicknesses.
Unearthed Turtle Shaped Blue Glass Decoration of the Song Dynasty — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Also, complied royal members from previously conquered kingdoms passed away under Zhao Guangyi’s ruling period, most of whom didn’t have a precise cause of death.
A few years later, Emperor Zhao Guangyi passed the throne to his son, not any of Zhao Kuangyin’s descendants.
Afterward, the authority of the Song Empire completely shifted to Zhao Guangyi’s family until over a century later, Emperors Zhao Ji and Zhao Huan lost everything in the Incident of Jingkang, and the throne finally went back to Zhao Shen (1127 — 1194), a descendant of Emperor Zhao Kuangyin.
The truth of Emperor Zhao Kuangyin’s death and to whom he wanted to pass the throne is still an unsolved puzzle.
Stone Statues Guarding In Front of Emperor Zhao Kuangyin's Mausoleum (Yong Chang Ling) — Gongyi, Henan Province (Photo by Zhang Jianjun)
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