Emperor Huizong (Emperor Hui-tsung; 7 June 1082 – 4 June 1135) was the eighth and one of the most famous emperors of the Song Dynasty of China, with a personal life spent amidst luxury, sophistication and art but ending in tragedy. It was during his reign that the Jurchens of the Jin Dynasty invaded, beginning the Jin–Song wars. He was captured by the Jurchens and taken to Manchuria in the Jingkang Incident.
Born Zhao Ji, he was the 11th son of Emperor Shenzong. In February 1100 his older half-brother Emperor Zhezong (哲宗) died without a surviving son, and Huizong succeeded him the next day as emperor. He reigned from 1100 to 1126.
Huizong was famed for his promotion of Taoism. He was also a skilled poet, painter, calligrapher, and musician. He sponsored numerous artists at his court, and the catalogue of his imperial painting collection lists over 6,000 known paintings.
Emperor Huizong of Song, besides his partaking in state affairs that favored the Reformist party (refer to section on reformers and conservatives in Song Dynasty), was a cultured leader who spent much of his time admiring the arts. He was a collector of paintings, calligraphies, and antiques of previous Chinese eras, building huge collections of each for his amusement. He wrote poems of his own, was known as an avid painter, created his own calligraphy style, had interests in architecture and garden design, and even wrote treatises on medicine and Daoism. He assembled an entourage of court painters that were first pre-screened in an examination to enter as official artists of the court, and made reforms to court music. Like many learned men of his age, he was quite a polymath personality. However, his reign would be forever scarred by the decisions made (by counsel he received) on handling foreign policy, as the end of his reign marked a period of disaster for Song China.
Huizong, Wade-Giles romanization Hui-tsung, also called Song Huizong, personal name (xingming) Zhao Ji (born 1082, China—died 1135, Yilan [now in Heilongjiang province]), temple name (miaohao) of the eighth and penultimate emperor (reigned 1100–1125/26) of the Bei (Northern) Song dynasty (960–1127). He is best remembered both as a patron of the arts and as a painter and calligrapher. The Huizong emperor sought escape from affairs of state through the pleasures of arts and letters. He urged painters in his academy of painting to depict objects that were “true to colour and form,” inviting an extreme literalness of representation; his own paintings of birds and flowers were detailed, accurately coloured, and perfectly composed. He is also known as a calligrapher who excelled in an elegantly mannered style known as “slender gold.” Huizong sponsored the compilation of a major catalog of artists’ biographies and paintings from the 3rd century to his time, known as the Xuanhe huapu (“Catalog of Paintings of the Xuanhe Emperor”).
Politically, the Huizong emperor’s reign was fatal to the Bei Song dynasty. He promoted Daoism at the court and sought comfort and amusement in the arts, in amorous affairs, and in the construction of an extravagant new palace garden. He busied himself with requisitioning colourful stones, rare plants, and exotic pets for this garden, while leaving the administration of the state to others. Political disputes between conservatives and reformers went unresolved, and the emperor’s favourite eunuchs gained unprecedented power in the government.
Threatened by the expanding Liao empire in the north, the Huizong emperor formed an alliance with the Juchen (Chinese: Nüzhen, or Ruzhen) tribes of Manchuria (now the Northeast region of China). The resulting victory over the Liao was wholly illusory, since it was the Juchen who turned out to be the real menace. In mounting crisis, Huizong abdicated in 1125/26 in favour of his son, Zhao Huan (the Qinzong emperor), who reigned for less than two years. In 1127 the invading Juchen ended the Bei Song dynasty and sacked the Song capital (Kaifeng). Both Huizong and his son were captured and lived in exile in Manchuria under miserable conditions until their deaths.
China was the most advanced country in the world when Huizong ascended the throne in 1100 CE. In his eventful twenty-six year reign, the artistically-gifted emperor guided the Song Dynasty toward cultural greatness. Yet Huizong would be known to posterity as a political failure who lost the throne to Jurchen invaders and died their prisoner. The first comprehensive English-language biography of this important monarch, Emperor Huizong is a nuanced portrait that corrects the prevailing view of Huizong as decadent and negligent. Patricia Ebrey recasts him as a ruler genuinely ambitious—if too much so—in pursuing glory for his flourishing realm.
After a rocky start trying to overcome political animosities at court, Huizong turned his attention to the good he could do. He greatly expanded the court’s charitable ventures, founding schools, hospitals, orphanages, and paupers’ cemeteries. An accomplished artist, he surrounded himself with outstanding poets, painters, and musicians and built palaces, temples, and gardens of unsurpassed splendor. What is often overlooked, Ebrey points out, is the importance of religious Daoism in Huizong’s understanding of his role. He treated Daoist spiritual masters with great deference, wrote scriptural commentaries, and urged his subjects to adopt his beliefs and practices. This devotion to the Daoist vision of sacred kingship eventually alienated the Confucian mainstream and compromised his ability to govern.