When Emperor Huizong ruled during China’s Song Dynasty from 1100 to 1126 CE, he was always drawn toward the arts, and undertook a range of ambitious cultural initiatives and grand-scale projects during his time as ruler. Yet his story was also one of tragedy. A faulty alliance with the Jurchens resulted in the siege of the Song capital and the emperor’s fall into captivity.
For centuries historians have viewed Huizong negatively, as it was under his rule that the Song Dynasty lost Northern China. In her new book “Emperor Huizong,” UW history professor Patricia Ebrey challenges this dominant viewpoint and instead provides a more human side to the emperor’s story.
“He ended up a captive, and since his reign came to a bad end it was assumed he must have been a bad emperor,” Ebrey said. “But a lot of interesting things are going on there. I see him as someone who is trying to make the court magnificent, which isn’t something Confucian historiography treats as a positive.”
Ebrey started doing research for “Emperor Huizong” in 1995. The book was created as a biography of Huizong’s life and is organized into four parts.
The first part of the book focuses on his childhood, accession to the throne at age 17, and adjustment to life as emperor.
In the second part of the book, Huizong’s cultural initiatives are brought to light. For example, he sponsored reform of court music, was interested in architecture and medicine, and Ebrey included a chapter on how he created an image of himself as a gifted poet, painter, and calligrapher.
“This book is taking a figure who has been largely seen as negative compared to other emperors, and having a reassessment to force historians to view the emperor, and view his times with more nuance than they’ve had so far,” said Peyton Canary, a Ph.D. student who worked with Ebrey on editing the manuscript and footnotes.
Huizong also became a follower of Daoism, and was especially interested in auspicious signs from this faith. Canary said Huizong was a very strong believer.
“When conducting a ceremony, Huizong claimed to see gods from the Daoist pantheons, and the emperor and officials all see it,” Canary said. “It really puts in perspective whether they all as a group are really seeing it or are just humoring the emperor. I found it striking, his devotion to imagining himself interacting with the deities of Daoism in such a personal way.”
Xiaolin Duan, a Ph.D. student in the department of history, also assisted Ebrey with the project in 2010.
“As the last emperor of the Northern Song dynasty, Huizong was living in a crucial historical time,” Duan said. “He created his own calligraphy and really promoted the status of printing as an art form. He also started a patronage relationship between the emperor and artists that continued throughout the dynasty and was revived in the Qing dynasty.”
The third part of the book explores some of the projects that Huizong undertook during his reign, such as the establishment of palaces, temples, and gardens. This section also includes a chapter about Huizong’s struggle over whether or not to break treaty relations with the state of Liao and side with the Jurchens, Liao’s enemies.
“He was still in an optimistic mood at this time,” Ebrey said.
Huizong’s decision to ally with the Jurchens, and the fatal consequences which resulted from this decision, make up the final part of the book.
“It traces the disaster as it starts to unfold and sees Huizong removed from being the most powerful man, probably on earth, to being a captive in Manchuria,” Canary said. “The psychological dimension, where everything he had grown up with [is] flying to pieces, is I think very poignant.”
For Ebrey, her fascination with Chinese history was sparked during her undergraduate years, when she decided to sign up for Chinese and never looked back. Emperor Huizong will always be an important figure for her.
“It’s a good story,” Ebrey said. “There is a real story in the book.”
Patricia Ebrey -
Professor Patricia Ebrey just released a new book about Chinese history and culture.
Reach reporter Nicole Einbinder at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @NicoleEinbinder