Founder of the Song Dynasty, Zhao Kuang-yin (927-976) ended the practice of frequent military coups, which had exhausted China for more than half a century, and successfully re-established the "civilian empire."
Zhao Kuang-yin, known to history as Song Tai Zu (implying grand progenitor), was the first emperor (960-976) of the Song Dynasty, which was to last over 300 years. During this era of transformation, China became more prosperous than under the rule of any previous dynasty. The population reached 100 million, and the prominent achievements made in economy, technology, and culture placed China in the forefront of the world. At that time, the use of paper money prevailed; both internal and external trade flourished; the civil service system was perfected; and philosophic thinking was permitted to proceed in a relatively free political environment. Zhao Kuang-yin founded the magnificent Song dynasty, which oversaw these years of institutional and cultural growth.
Before becoming emperor, Zhao was a chief-general in the service of the preceding dynasty, Hou Zhuo. As had most of the dynasty founders before him, he usurped the throne by military force; however, unlike those who'd come before him, Zhao was neither an aristocrat nor a minority leader. He was, rather, from an army officer's family and was himself a professional army man. Interestingly, his usurpation in 960 would prove the last in Chinese history.
Zhao Kuang-yin was born in Lo-yang in central China. It was said that when his mother gave birth to him the whole house suddenly filled with golden light and the smell of incense. He grew into a tall teenager and valiant fighter. Fighting in the north and south with his father and brothers, he was no stranger to military accomplishments and excelled in martial skills.
In his youth, Zhao Kuang-yin watched the country suffer painful disunity and tangled warfare. The Chinese world had relapsed into anarchy for half a century (called the Five Dynasties period), and, taking advantage of the civil war, army commanders became founders of several isolated regimes. The imperial domain was reduced to merely some provinces in the north, whereas nine provincial kingdoms appeared in south China and another in the northwest. During 53 years, 14 monarchies from eight royal families were replaced successively, forming five short-lived dynasties in central China. Zhao Kuang-yin was trusted by the astute Emperor Shi Zong of Hou Zhou, the last dynasty, and was appointed the chief commander of the capital armies.
In 959, Shi Zong died, leaving a seven-year-old son as his heir. Both the officials and the masses were duly alarmed by the turbulent situation, and it seemed necessary for a strong man to take power. Thus, Zhao Kuang-yin prepared to take over the empire with the assistance of his brothers, friends, and consultants.
In the beginning of 960, it was rumored that the Khitan, a northern minority regime, was going to invade Hou Zhou. Hastily, the chief chancellors of Hou Zhou assigned Zhao Kuang-yin to direct the counterattack. Commanding crack troops, Zhao Kuang-yin then left the capital for the frontier border; by evening, when the troops stopped at a place called Chen Qiao Yi, about ten miles away from the capital, the plan behind Zhao Kuang-yin's usurpation was in full swing. The next morning at dawn, the troops were stirred. Instigated by Zhao Kuang-yin's brother Zhao Kuang-yi and his secretary Zhao Pu, hundreds of soldiers surrounded Zhao Kuang-yin's tent. Shouting and cheering, they dressed him in an imperial yellow robe and declared him their emperor.
In the middle of his troops, Zhao Kuang-yin addressed the soldiers: "Don't do harm to the empress dowager and the little emperor. Don't bully the ministers and other officials. And don't loot inside or outside the capital… . If you obey me, you will get a handsome reward; but if you fail me, I shall not spare you." Bowing submissively, the soldiers promised to obey his orders.
The troops then marched in perfect order back toward Kai Feng, the capital. Zhao's friends inside the city opened the city gate, and Zhao Kuang-yin went to the palace where he forced the boy emperor from the throne while assuring him that he and his mother would be safe. Thus, Zhao Kuang-yin ascended to the throne without bloodshed. As China's new emperor was previously a regional commander at the Song prefecture, he named his new dynasty "Song."
Immediately upon the establishment of the Song administration, Zhao Kuang-yin faced two urgent problems: how to unify the disintegrated country and how to strengthen the centralization of authority to eliminate the chance of future usurpation. Addressing the problem as to how to unify China, Zhao Kuang-yin repeatedly consulted with his ministers and generals. Evidently, on a snowy night, he went out with his brother Kuang-yi to his adviser Zhao Pu's house. Surprised by the unexpected visit, Zhao Pu asked if there was an urgent matter to be discussed. "I simply cannot fall asleep," the Emperor replied, "I feel that there are so many other people sleeping soundly around my bed… . Our territory is too small…. It is time to reunite China." Military operations were carefully discussed until Zhao Kuang-yin finally designed a strategy to subjugate the various kingdoms one by one, beginning in the south, which was rich in production but weak in forces.
In order to request tolerance and recognition, the wealthy states in the south sent priceless treasures to the Song Court. Zhao Kuang-yin responded to such efforts with both hard and soft tactics. For instance, when the king of the Wu Yue state came to the capital to pay respects to Zhao Kuang-yin, most of the Song officials asked permission to arrest him so that he would surrender his territory. Zhao Kuang-yin, however, ignored their suggestions and let the king return to his land with a small present—a brocade bag. Opening the bag on his way back, the king found the requests submitted by the Song officials, asking for his arrest. Impressed by the emperor's largesse, the king soon pledged his allegiance.
Nan Tang, another small state, hurried to prepare a defensive war against Song. Simultaneously, the king of Nan Tang sent an envoy to Kai Feng, imploring the emperor to show mercy. Drawing his sword, Zhao Kuang-yin replied in a stern voice: "The whole China should be integrated. It is unbearable for me that somebody else acts as ruler nearby!"
Song's troops went from victory to victory in the south. During the 16 years of his reign, Zhao Kuang-yin eliminated all the challenges to Song authority and brought the south back into the imperial domain. Most notably, the majority of these conquests were accompanied by no violence towards the civilian population. From then on, the rich south became more prosperous, contributing to the national economy.
In addition to his interest in unifying China, Zhao Kuang-yin took steps to ensure that never again would someone claim power as he had, ascending to the throne by coup d'etat. Taking a series of measures to centralize authority, he established bureaucracy loyal to the Song house and formed a national army directly controlled by the emperor. After decades of political and military chaos, it was unimaginable how difficult recentralization would be; yet, through some flexible and pragmatic policies, Zhao Kuang-yin showed his wisdom in coping with the oncoming problems.
His former comrades did not know what the emperor had in mind when he invited them to a palace banquet. The high-ranking generals had a bit to drink before Zhao Kuang-yin let the attendants go and poured out his feelings: "It is too hard," he said, "to be an emperor… . I would rather be a governor." His chief officers did not understand. "In this world," Zhao Kuang-yin continued, "everybody wants to be an emperor." Shocked, the generals paled. "Your Majesty," they cried, going down on their knees, "you are the only son of the heaven. Who dares raise an objection?" Zhao Kuang-yin went on: "Though you do not want to challenge the throne, how about your subjects? They might put the imperial yellow robe on you!" Seized with terror, the chiefs could say no more. Zhao Kuang-yin then persuaded them to renounce their military positions and return to their hometowns and enjoy their lives. In exchange, he promised to reward them with lands and riches.
The next day, all the leading generals asked for sick leave and returned to their homes. From then on, the army was directly controlled by the emperor's hand, while the local governors lost military power. In this way, Zhao Kuang-yin assured the central government's control over military power and eliminated the warlordism that had splintered China for more than half a century.
Under Zhao Kuang-yin, the administration of the whole empire was more thoroughly centralized than ever before in Chinese history. He strove for a more workable administrative structure and set up a series of organs over which he had direct, personal control. The chief-councilor's power was limited by the appointment of a vice-councilor, military commissioners, and finance commissioners, all of whom were responsible directly to the emperor. He developed the supervisory system and assigned well-behaved officials as executive censors whose power included the ability to criticize and impeach officials, including high-ranking ones. Further, he encouraged officers, and even the masses, to expose the abuse of power. When an officer disclosed information regarding some illegal acts committed by his adviser Zhao Pu, for example, Zhao Kuang-yin immediately dismissed Zhao Pu in rage.
Though Zhao Kuang-yin was not a scholar, he held intellectuals in high esteem, telling his court that "the councilor should be a scholar." In order to choose eligible civil officials, he presided over the "palace examination" in person. As a result, all the civil servants who passed the examination felt directly grateful to the emperor.
Unlike other emperors in Chinese history, who often lived secluded lives, Zhao Kuang-yin ventured from his palace as a common man, without the imperial robe. It was said that the curtains in his house were never made of silk and satins but only grey cotton. He once turned down a suggestion to decorate his sedan with gold, replying: "I can even inlay my palace with gold. But of course I cannot squander money in that way, simply because I am managing the economic life of the whole country." He often exhorted the empresses and princesses to keep away from luxury and had the reputation of usually treating his subjects with kindness and sincerity, while punishing corrupt officials severely.
The measures employed by Zhao Kuang-yin for centralization solidified the Song Dynasty and primarily put an end to the previous situation of separatist rules that had lasted for 200 years. To his successors in the Song Dynasty, his reign was considered a model. Against the historical background of his time, Zhao Kuang-yin worked to guard against internal disorder and strife, exerting a deep influence on the history of both the Song Dynasty and of China.
Further Reading on Zhao Kuang-yin
Guang-ming, Deng, ed. History of Liao, Song, Xia, and Jin. Chinese Encyclopedia Press, 1988: pp. 292-293.
Tuo, Tuo, ed. The Song History. Vol. 1-3. Zhong Hua Publishing House, 1963: pp. 1-51.
Jia-ju, Zhang. Biography of Zhao Kuang-yin. Jian Su: People's Publishing House, 1959.
Tang, Li. Song Tai Zu. Tai Bei: He Luo Press, 1978.