The Chinese emperor Hui-Tsung (1082-1135) was the eighth Sung emperor, an outstanding painter and calligrapher and a great patron of the arts, whose reign ended in disaster.

Son of Emperor Shen-tsung and a gifted concubine, Lady Ch'en, Hui-tsung came to the throne unexpectedly on the death of the young emperor Che-tsung, largely because he was supported by the empress dowager Hsiang. Initially Hui-tsung tried to reconcile reformers who looked back to Wang An-shih and their conservative opponents, but after the death of the empress dowager in 1101, Huitsung turned to the reform party led by Chief Minister Ts'ai Ching.

Together Hui-tsung and Ts'ai revived many of the reform programs while adding such innovations as the establishment of new charity hospitals and the extension of the educational system, but the Emperor also condoned the proscription of all opponents of the reforms and shared responsibility for the decline in political standards, the depletion of the treasury, and the heavy burden of taxes and exactions which formed part of the essential background of the Fang-la Rebellion (1120-1122). Especially notorious was the collection of rare plants, stones, and novelties which were taken from the people without compensation to grace a large garden Hui-tsung had constructed.

Hui-tsung was devoted to the arts. His delicate paintings of flowers and birds rendered in fine detail and the "slender gold" style of his calligraphy reveal a refined esthetic sensibility. He was responsible for the flourishing painting academy at court and extended his patronage to archeology, music, and poetry. His enthusiasm for art is further indicated by the catalog of the paintings in his collection, which lists 6,396 works by 231 artists. Also in harmony with these interests was his patronage of Taoism, including the building of temples. He has the further distinction of being the most prolific Sung emperor, for he was the father of no less than 63 children.

The worst failure of Hui-tsung's reign was in foreign policy. The eunuch T'ung Kuang, who rose to the command of the Sung armies, was instrumental in the formation of an alliance with the Chin (Jürchen) against the Liao (Khitan) which led to war between the Chin and the Sung, the defeat of the latter, and what proved to be the irreversible loss of the North. On Jan. 18, 1126, with enemy forces threatening the capital, Hui-tsung abdicated in favor of his son Ch'intsung, but in 1127, after the fall of the capital, father and son were captured by the Chin. Hui-tsung ended his life in captivity in northeastern Manchuria, where he died on June 4, 1135.


Further Reading on Hui-Tsung

For Hui-tsung as a painter see Laurence Sickman and Alexander Soper, The Art and Architecture of China (1956), or any other standard history of Chinese art. Charles P. Fitzgerald, China: A Short Cultural History (1935; 3d ed. 1961), contains a short section on Huitsung.