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 bought people wealthy lives. The Song Dynasty that he built was one of the most flourishing and prosperous periods in the history of China, when the economy, science, economy 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 as Zhao Yuanlang, was very good at Kung Fu and had 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 been witnessing endless wars and replacement of empires since he was a kid. 

When he was older, he left his family and started to travel around, trying to seek better opportunities. Among those aggressive, greedy kings and warlords, he wanted to serve a talented, ambitious, and virtuous monarch. 

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 of his assets as support.

As suggested, soon, Zhao Kuangyin 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 obtained 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. 

After a series of intense fights, Guo Wei won and established the Later Zhou Dynasty (951 — 960). 

After 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 in battlefields, and made great contributions 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 out of a sudden, after when his seven-year-old son  Chai Zongxun ascended to the throne.

Soon, news from the border saying 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 with endless wars.

Some people believed that this idea was from his followers who wanted more power and money, others indicated that the whole thing was Zhao Kuangyin’s scheme. 

Either way, wearing an imperial robe was a real act of rebellion. His own will or having been pushed, Zhao Kuangyin decided to take the throne.

Then, he asked the young king to abdicate the throne and took 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 at that time.

Unlike other usurpers in history, Zhao Kuangyin treated the former royal family members quite well: he gave them the most honorable titles and made sure they lived respected and wealthy lives and commanded that they could be pardoned from breaking laws. 

In an era of endless wars and perishing regimes, having obtained the throne using violence or conspiracy was not unusual.

However, governing and flourishing the kingdom well was a bigger challenge and a more important mission. 

Luckily, it turned out that Zhao Kuangyin was exactly 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. 

In the 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 that were 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 took military power back from all of his generals with meritorious services, peacefully. 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 administration policies to enhance the centralized power and to divide and weaken the authority of important ministers. 

Thanks to him, throughout the entire Song Dynasty, warlords and eunuchs never had the power or opportunity to threaten emperors nor manipulate politics.

Painting (Xue Ye Fang Pu Tu) About Emperor Zhao Kuangyin Visiting His Trusted Minister Zhao Pu (922 - 992) at A Snowy Night, Drawn By Artist Liu Jun of the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) - Palace Museum

Preferential Treatment and Privileges of Civil Officers

 

Emperor Zhao Kuangyin believed that generals with an independent army and military power would be quite destructive, they were able to initiate large scale wars and cause huge 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 officers should be executed because of their words, no matter how offensive they have been.  

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 papers 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 real talent, while corruption and cheating were efficiently avoided.

During his ruling period, the economy, agriculture, literature, art, and science all well developed. 

Unearthed Copper Writing Brush Holder (Bi Jia) of the Song Dynasty — Zhuji Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Controversial, Abnormal Death of Emperor Zhao Kuangyin

One day, Emperor Zhao Kuangyin invited his younger brother Zhao Guangyi to drink wine with him; after it’s 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 that 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 has 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 normal 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 was very easy to be overthrown and then lose his empire. 

When Emperor Zhao Kuangyin passed away, there were still some strong regimes nearby; and his two 20s sons with no military experiences were quite likely to be defeated by those regimes, or lose the throne to rebel generals within the nation.  

Zhao Guangyi, however, was contributing to the establishment of the Song Dynasty and had close relationships with Song’s important generals and officials.

 

His experience, power, age, reputation, connection, was 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 Dynasty

Zhao Guangyi (939 — 997), courtesy name as Tingyi, respected as the Emperor Taizong of Song, turned out to be a qualified monarch. 

He tried his best to achieve military successes, to cover for his abnormal enthronement. However, compared to Emperor Zhao Kuangyin, he was quite ordinary; most of his military activities were failed in the end.  

But he preserved and developed the existing land of Song well, and promoted more numbers of civil officers selected from the Imperial Examination. 

Besides being an ordinary general and monarch, Zhao Guangyi was not quite a good brother either, 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, his queen and another son all passed away very young, because of some vague sicknesses. 

Unearthed Turtle Shaped Blue Glass Decoration of the Song Dynasty — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Also, complied royal members from previously conquered kingdoms were all passed away under Zhao Guangyi’s ruling period, most of whom didn’t have an explicit 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, the throne finally went back to Zhao Shen (1127 — 1194), a descendant of Emperor Zhao Kuangyin. 

As for the truth of Emperor Zhao Kuangyin’s death, and to whom he wanted to pass the throne, it 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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