Emperor Taizu of Song

Emperor Taizu of Song

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Emperor Taizu (960-976 CE), formerly known as Zhao Kuangyin, was the founder of the Song (aka Sung) dynasty which ruled China from 960 to 1279 CE. Taizu settled for a territorially smaller but more unified and prosperous China than was seen in previous dynasties, and he made particular efforts to curb the powers of the military and bolster those of the scholar-officials within the state bureaucracy. Taizu's careful governance would ensure that his successors had the foundation upon which they could build one of the most successful dynasties in China's history.

Rise to Power

The Tang dynasty had ruled China from 618 CE with great success, but their collapse in 907 CE resulted in a sustained period of political upheaval. The once unified Chinese state was broken up into many competing political entities and so the era from 907 to 960 CE is often referred to as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (Wudai shiguo) period. One man would rise above all other military rulers in these turbulent times, the Later Zhou dynasty general-warlord Zhao Kuangyin (also spelt Guangyin).

The Zhou army endorsed Zhao Kuangyin as their new leader & confidently proclaimed him the emperor of all China in 960 CE.

Born in 927 CE in Luoyang, Henan province, Zhao Kuangyin was the second son of an important military commander called Zhao Hongyin. The younger Zhao turned out to be a fine archer and horseman. At age 20, Zhao Kuangyin was already a commander in his own right, fighting for the Later Zhou dynasty (951-960 CE). Extending their control over much of southern China, Zhao became the foremost commander in the Zhou army. At the same time, the ruler of the Zhou died, and his son took the title but he was still a child. Consequently, in 960 CE the Zhou army endorsed Zhao as their new leader, dressed him in yellow imperial robes and confidently proclaimed him the emperor of all China.

The Emperor's Domestic Policies

Zhao Kuangyin took the reign title Taizu, meaning 'Grand Progenitor'. The emperor's first priority was to ensure he kept his own position as the most powerful man in China. To that end, Taizu introduced a rotation system for his top generals, gave many former commanders only minor positions in the new regime, and reduced the powers of those commanders in the country's 15 newly created administrative regions or circuits. Consequently, Taizu ensured that no single military leader ever became powerful enough to usurp him. As a further check on the army's power, some generals were encouraged to retire on a handsome pension, others were given gifts to gain their loyalty, and still others were simply replaced by civilian officials whenever they retired or died. The government was centralised around the court at Kaifeng and the powers of the civil service were increased as was its status compared to the military professions. Further, the civil service was tasked with overseeing the army, acting as its supervisory body. The emperor was creating a much less militaristic regime and focusing instead on a more efficient administration than had been seen in China throughout the 10th century CE.

Taizu attempted to reduce corruption and the power of the eunuchs in the imperial court and was known for his tight hold on the state purse strings. To ensure the scholar-officials did not abuse their new-found power, Taizu revived the tried and tested civil service examination system. These entry tests to the civil service ensured that at least a healthy majority of officials were selected on merit rather than their family connections or outright bribery. Finally, the emperor introduced a new law code in 962 CE with harsh penalties and punishments, especially for government malpractice. After 963 CE, to further strengthen his meritocratic system, senior officials were prohibited from making appointments based only on recommendations. All of these measures would allow the Song to get off to a good start and form the solid foundation of state management that Taizu's successors would build upon with great success.

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Kaifeng, located on the Wei river in northern-central China at a strategically useful meeting point of various waterways, had already been a capital in earlier dynasties and it was selected by Taizu as his capital, too. The old Tang capital at Changan had, in any case, been utterly destroyed during the fall of that dynasty. The imperial heart of Kaifeng was laid out on a precise grid pattern, an intentional design meant to reflect harmony and good governance, as noted by the emperor himself when addressing his officials:

My heart is as straightforward as all this, and as little twisted. Be ye likewise. (quoted in Dawson, 62)

Kaifeng prospered and became one of the great metropolises of the world under the Song. With a population of around one million, the city would benefit from industrialisation and was well supplied by nearby mines producing coal and iron. A major trade centre, Kaifeng was especially famous for its printing, paper, textile, and porcelain industries, the products of which were exported far and wide along the Silk Roads.

Foreign Policy

In terms of foreign policy, Taizu had his hands full defending his northern borders against the Khitan Liao dynasty (907-1125 CE) who, significantly, remained in control of the Great Wall of China. The Khitan were great horsemen and they launched so many raids into Song China that Taizu and his successors were compelled to pay their neighbours annual tribute in the form of silver and silk. Tribute was cheaper than warfare, though, and much of the silver came back again as the two cultures remained committed trading partners. In any case, Taizu was content to consolidate his grip over central and southern China, a big enough task considering the recent fragmented history of the country. In addition, officials considered that the fall of the Tang had been mostly due to their over-ambitious foreign policy. The Song would settle for a smaller but more unified and prosperous state.

An imperial library was established at Kaifeng which collected together in one place thousands of volumes of literature & histories.


Taizu and his successors had to deal with less tangible problems than court rivalries and foreign threats. The period saw a new political and intellectual climate which questioned imperial authority and sought to explain where it had gone wrong in the final years of the Tang dynasty. A symptom of this new thinking was the revival of the ideals of Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism as it came to be called, which emphasised the improvement of the self within a more rational metaphysical framework. This new approach to Confucianism, with its metaphysical add-on, now allowed for a reversal of the prominence the Tang had given to Buddhism seen by many intellectuals as a non-Chinese religion. Taizu himself was always keen to present himself as the classic Chinese Confucian ruler, that is a wise, benevolent, and indisputable sovereign who presided over a fixed and efficient hierarchy of power.

The Arts

Taizu, perhaps surprisingly considering his military background, was a keen patron of the arts once he had established himself as emperor. It may have been a strategy of his to help reunify China not just militarily, politically, and economically but also culturally. The emperor promoted the idea of 'this culture of ours' (si wen). The printing of books was promoted on all three of the major religions: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. An imperial library was established at Kaifeng which collected together in one place thousands of volumes of literature and histories; Taizu even ordered the collection of important silk scroll paintings and calligraphy specimens, always a highly-valued art form in Chinese culture. These efforts were amongst the first to not only produce great art but also preserve that which had been made by previous generations.

Successors & legacy

Taizu died in 976 CE, and his successor was his younger brother Taizong (r. 976-997 CE). Together, the stability of their four-decade-long rule ensured that the Song got off to the best possible start. The Song dynasty would, in fact, rule China until 1279 CE and see great developments in agriculture, trade, arts and science, although the reign was split into two periods: the Northern Song (960-1125 CE) and Southern Song (1125-1279 CE) following the invasion by the Jin state in the first quarter of the 12th century CE.


The Song dynasty was founded by Zhao Kuangyin (Emperor Taizu) (r. 960–976) in 960, before the Song completely reunified China proper by conquest—excluding only the Sixteen Prefectures. The Song fought a series of wars with the Liao dynasty (1125–1279), ruled by the Khitans, over the possession of the Sixteen Prefectures of northern China. [2] The Liao regime was toppled in 1125 in a joint conquest by Song forces and the Jurchens led by Wuqimai (Emperor Taizong) (r. 1123–1134). However, the Jin quickly turned against the Song and invaded Song's northern territory. [2] In what is known as the Jingkang Incident, [3] Jin forces captured the Song capital, Bianjing (present-day Kaifeng), in 1127, along with Emperor Huizong (r. 1100–1126), then a retired emperor, and his ruling son Emperor Qinzong (r. 1126–1127). [4]

Emperor Gaozong (r. 1127–1162), a son of Emperor Huizong, fled south and reestablished the Song dynasty at what is now Nanjing. [5] He established a temporary capital at Lin'an (present-day Hangzhou) in 1129, yet by 1132 he declared it the official capital of the Song Empire. [6] The Jin made several failed attempts to conquer the Southern Song, but in 1165 Emperor Xiaozong of Song (r. 1162–1189) and Emperor Shizong of Jin (r. 1161–1189) agreed to a peace treaty that resulted in a diplomatic accord being reached between the two empires. [7] The Song continued to rule southern China until 1279, when the Yuan dynasty led by Kublai Khan, the Khagan of the Mongols, [8] invaded and conquered Song. The last ruler was Zhao Bing (r. 1278–1279), who was killed on 19 March 1279 [9] during the naval Battle of Yamen in what is now modern Yamen Town in Xinhui District, Jiangmen City, Guangdong Province. [10] [11]

From the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) until the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), the ruling head of state was known as huangdi, or emperor. [12] In Chinese historical texts, emperors of the Song dynasty, along with the Tang and Yuan dynasties, are referred to by their temple names. [13] Before the Tang dynasty (618–907), emperors were generally referred to in historical texts by their posthumous names. [13] During the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing dynasties, emperors were exclusively referred to in historical texts by their single era name, whereas emperors of previous dynasties, including the Song, usually had multiple era names. [14] The amount of written characters used in posthumous names grew steadily larger from the Han dynasty (202 BC – AD 220) onwards and thus became overly long when referring to sovereigns. [13] For example, the posthumous name of Nurhaci (r. 1616–1626), the founder of the Manchu state which would eventually establish the Qing dynasty, contained 29 written characters. [13] By the Tang dynasty, much shorter temple names were preferred when referring to the emperor, a preference that was carried into the Song dynasty. [13] Each emperor also had a tomb name (陵號 linghao) and various other honorific titles. [15]

In theory, the emperor's political power was absolute, but even during the Han dynasty, he shared executive powers with civilian officials and normally based his decisions on the advice and formal consensus of his ministers. [17] During the Song dynasty, a national examination system (Civil Service Exam) managed by scholar-bureaucrats was used to recruit officials those who passed the palace examination – the highest-level examination in the empire – were appointed directly by the emperor to the highest central government positions. [18] Like commoners, these senior officials had to obey his edicts as law or be punished. [1] However, senior officials not only challenged the emperor over policy, but restrained him by invoking the ideal Confucian mores and values of the literati gentry class from which they came. [19]

During the preceding Tang dynasty, the civil service examinations did not yet produce the high number of officials as they would during the Song dynasty [20] a hereditary aristocracy remained dependent on the court for attaining rank and holding office. [21] Song rulers, particularly Emperor Huizong, encountered a great deal of political opposition despite attempts to attain the ideals of the sage kings of antiquity. The inability of the sovereign to monopolize political authority was linked to the rise of a new class of gentry and scholar-official who filled the bureaucracy. [22]

When the Song dynasty was founded, the political elites consisted of officials (and their sons) who had served in the Five Dynasties era, as well as those who came from prominent families which boasted an aristocratic ancestry and had provided officials for generations. [23] Since the first Song emperors wished to avoid domination of government by military strongmen such as the jiedushi of the previous era, they limited the power of military officers and focused on building a powerful civilian establishment. [24] During the 11th century, the expansion of schools and local academies nurtured a nationwide gentry class which provided most if not all officials. [25] By the late 11th century, the elite marriage strategies of prominent families eroded due to the intense partisan politics surrounding the New Policies (新法 xin fa) of Chancellor Wang Anshi (1021–1086). These great families were replaced by officials representing diverse local gentry lineages throughout the country. [26]

Peter K. Bol asserts that the supporters of Wang Anshi's expansionist, activist central government in his New Policies were convinced that he understood the dao which brought utopia to Western Zhou (c. 1050 BC – 771 BC) antiquity and were determined to conform society according to his vision. The marginalised emperor – the last remaining aristocrat with any true political power – embraced the fiction that he was like the sage kings of old who brought society into a state of total harmony with court rituals and policy reforms. [22] Yet after the reign of Emperor Huizong, Song rulers and officials alike disregarded the New Policies and focused instead on reforming society through a local, bottom-up approach. [22] For example, Emperor Huizong attempted from 1107 to 1120 to bar anyone who had not attended a government school from serving in public office. He thus rejected anyone who did not acknowledge his brand of Confucian ideology as orthodoxy. [27] However, the government-run school system during the Southern Song eventually lost prominence to private academies, which had outnumbered government schools during the early Northern Song. [28] Even before Emperor Huizong's reign, Sima Guang (1019–1086), a prominent chancellor and political rival to Wang Anshi, had little to say about the emperor's role in shaping major reforms and public policy, mentioning only that the emperor made major appointments when necessary. [29]

Emperors could choose whether to supervise the policy bureaucracy or to pursue scholarship, cults, hobbies, or women instead. However, Frederick W. Mote argues that most Song emperors – who spent much of their childhood confined and isolated within a luxurious palace – were aloof conformists detached from the world of normal affairs and thus relied on officialdom to administer the government. [30] While the mainstream view is that the Song court exercised the highest degree of restraint and courtesy towards civil officials, the new protocol of enhanced deferential treatment by officials towards the emperor during conferences and meetings further eroded the emperor's close contact with his ministers. [31]

Founding of the Song Dynasty

The Later Zhou was the last of the Five Dynasties that had controlled northern China after the fall of the Tang dynasty in 907. Zhao Kuangyin, later known as Emperor Taizu (r. 960–976), usurped the throne from the Zhou with the support of military commanders in 960, initiating the Song dynasty. Upon taking the throne, his first goal was the reunification of China after half a century of political division. This included the conquests of Nanping, Wu-Yue, Southern Han, Later Shu, and Southern Tang in the south as well as the Northern Han and the Sixteen Prefectures in the north. With capable military officers such as Yang Ye (d. 986), Liu Tingrang (929–987), Cao Bin (931–999) and Huyan Zan (d. 1000), the early Song military became the dominant force in China. Innovative military tactics, such as defending supply lines across floating pontoon bridges, led to success in battle. One such success was the Song assault against the Southern Tang state while crossing the Yangtze River in 974. Using a mass of arrow fire from crossbowmen, Song forces were able to defeat the renowned war elephant corps of the Southern Han on January 23, 971, thus forcing the submission of Southern Han and terminating the first and last elephant corps to make up a regular division within a Chinese army.

Consolidation in the south was completed in 978, with the conquest of Wu-Yue. Song military forces then turned north against the Northern Han, which fell to Song forces in 979. However, efforts to take the Sixteen Prefectures were unsuccessful, and they were incorporated into the Liao state based in Manchuria to the immediate north instead. To the far northwest, the Tanguts had been in power over northern Shaanxi since 881, after the earlier Tang court appointed a Tangut chief as a military governor (jiedushi) over the region, a seat that became hereditary (forming the Xi-Xia dynasty). Although the Song state was evenly matched against the Liao dynasty, the Song gained significant military victories against the Western Xia (who would eventually fall to the Mongol conquest of Genghis Khan in 1227).

Emperor Taizu. A court painting of Emperor Taizu of Song (r. 960–976), who founded the Song dynasty and unified 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&rsquos 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 &mdash 1119) &mdash The Palace Museum

The legacy of Taizu

In his 16-year reign, the Taizu emperor laid the foundations for the essential political institutions of a remarkable epoch. The political order of his dynasty combined to a surpassing degree freedom of discussion, innovation in bureaucratic methods, internal reform, peace, and stability. This atmosphere undoubtedly facilitated the pioneering in economic techniques, scientific advances, and achievements in philosophy, art, and literature that distinguished the Song period.

When Taizu died, the construction of the new state was far from finished. The ensuing peace and prosperity would also bring new problems calling for new solutions. Of the succeeding emperors, none quite matched him in stature or in character. But Confucian ancestral piety reinforced the attraction of his proven policies. The traditions of his active concern in administration and of close association with the bureaucracy’s leaders persisted in greater or lesser degree among later Song rulers. Subsequent developments on the whole moved in directions indicated by Taizu. Their benefits were scarcely unadulterated safeguards against the ambitions of military commanders, for example, perhaps hampered Song armies in meeting powerful foreign invaders. Still, the efforts of his successors to further popular welfare, to find and train the best talent for the civil service, and to defend the state’s stability and the unbroken rule of the dynasty for three centuries (though only in South China from 1127) no doubt owe much to Taizu’s concepts of statecraft.

Bling Empire: All About Christine's Husband's Royal Song Family Dynasty

Gabriel Chiu of Bling Empire claims to be of direct royal descent. Here's everything to know about the Song Dynasty and the Chius' relation to it.

Gabriel Chiu of Bling Empire is said to be a direct descendant of dynastic royalty. In the first episode of the new hit Netflix series, Dr. Chiu's wife, Christine, one of the central cast members of the show, states that Gabriel is "24th generation direct descent of the Song Dynasty." Here's what you should know about the history and royal legacy that the Chius may be a part of.

The Song Dynasty was an imperial dynasty of China, dating from 960 AD - 1279 AD. The period began with Emperor Taizu of Song, also known as Zhao Kuangyin, as its leader. This period marked the end of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, which had preceded it. During the Song Dynasty, paper money was introduced to China for the first time, as was gunpowder. In 1279, the dynasty came to an end when the Yuans, a group led by Mongols conquered and unseated the Song/Zhao Imperial Family. Though many of the family died during the takeover, others either remained in the region or escaped to a nearby one.

According to a book written by John W. Chaffee, Branches of Heaven: A History of the Imperial Clan of Sung China, in present-day, there are approximately twenty different branches of the Zhao Imperial Family that remain. Several prominent Chinese leaders through the years have claimed to be descendants of the dynasty themselves, so the Chius are certainly not the only ones out there. In fact, the legacy of the Zhaos is so prolific that the Zhao Family Fort, a former compound where a party of imperials fleeing the Yuans settled covertly in the 13th century, is now a tourist destination. Many of those who make the trip to the fort, located in the Fujian Province of China, are believed to be descendants of the dynastic ruler themselves.

Christine and Gabriel's last name, Chiu, is actually another form of the name Zhao. The Zhaos, of course, being the imperial family that was pushed out by the Mongols in 1279 AD. According to a website about the history of the family name, 'Chiu,' "can be traced back to the Jin Dynasty. when the Chiu/Zhao was one of the seven nations dividing China at the time. But the last name was made famous by Song Dynasty's first Emperor whose last name is Chiu/Zhao."

Though there has been some debate among fans as to whether Christine's claim is strictly factual, the history behind the Song Dynasty and the Chiu family name seems to back her assertion up. However, Christine's claim that "if dynasties were still in existence in China, my husband’s father would be an emperor, and he would be next in line" may not be quite as provable. Given that the Song Dynasty ended eight centuries ago and was followed by many other entirely different groups' ruling, it's difficult to say who would be in power today if the imperial system was still in place.

Emperor Taizu of Song - History

Zhu Yuanzhang was born into a poor family in 1328. When he was young, both his parents died. Zhu Yuanzhang used to be a peasant, a beggar and a Buddhist monk but was able to get followers to fight the Mongols. In 1352, he joined the Red Kerchief Army against the declining Yuan (Mongols) Dynasty (1271-1368) and soon became a peasant revolt leader. He began by conquering Southern China and pushing the Mongols North.

In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang established the Ming Dynasty and set up his capital in the city of Nanjing in Southern China. Over half a year, he solved all obstacles and finally reunited China. He named his dynasty the Ming, meaning "brilliant". After becoming the emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang changed his name to Hong-Wu. "Hong" means huge and "Wu" means force.

After becoming the emperor of Ming, he abolished the post of prime minister, and worked out the Great Ming's laws which helped to strengthen centralization. He again adopted the government system that was supported by a large class of Confucian literati selected through civil service examinations.

Zhu Yuanzhang founded one of the longest dynasties in China history, but the peasant-born emperor did so by killing thousands of followers, old friends and adversaries. He was very careful to develop and maintain his power. For example, when he heard that his Prime Minister was plotting against him , Zhu Yuanzhang became scared that he was going to lose the Mandate of Heaven, so he killed the Prime Minister and about 40,000 of his followers.

He rebuilt the Chinese economy in many ways. He built rice terraces, introduced crop rotation, and planted over a billion trees. He created a hereditary military caste of soldiers who sustained themselves by farming.

Unlike all the other emperors, Zhu Yuanzhang worked very hard. Zhu Yuanzhang was a good emperor who carried out positive economic policies, created foundations for the prosperity in the early Ming Dynasty. But China under Ming's rule developed an autocratic government. Zhu Yuanzhang's cruelty also got adopted by his descendents.

4. Kangxi (1654- 1722 AD)

A portrait of Chinese Emperor Kangxi
Source: Wikimedia Common

Emperor Kangxi’s reign (1661 to 1722 AD) led to a long peace and prosperity in China regarding the economy and culture. He rebuilt the country, defeated revolts, consolidated imperial rule over minority areas, and expanded the Chinese territory into Siberia and Central Asia.

He then conquered Taiwan, established a treaty with Vietnam, and gained control of Russia’s Amur River region.

Kangxi also impacted the Chinese culture by bringing in Jesuit missionaries from the west who worked as translators, introduced new technologies and ran the imperial observatory.[7]

He made a new dictionary of Chinese characters, named it the Kangxi Dictionary, and compiled Tang poetry, Quan Tangshi.

Song Taizu

Before becoming emperor, Song Taizu, the founder of the Song Dynasty, was a general-in-chief in the service of the preceding dynasty.

Similar to most of the dynastic founders who’d preceded him, Taizu then seized the throne through military mutiny. But unlike those who’d come before him, he was not an aristocrat but from an army officer’s family.

When Taizu came to power, he realised that he needed to secure his authority by controlling the military. So he held a celebration dinner for all of his generals. After several drinks had been downed, Taizu suddenly began to weep bitterly. Taken aback, his generals asked him why he was crying. The emperor responded that he could not bear the thought that his own military comrades might one day rebel against him.

Each of the others present then protested that this would never happen and sought to console Taizu, who was still depressed. Eventually, they agreed that to cheer his spirits they would formally turn their military authority over to him. Unlike his generals, Taizu wasn’t drunk and quickly took them up on the offer. So in one momentous toast he curtailed their military autonomy – starting an era of great prosperity. The story is often called the “exchange of military authority for a cup of wine” and later became a Chinese idiom. One lesson: drink less than your associates at business dinners.

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Watch the video: Emperor Taizong and the Rise of the Tang Dynasty DOCUMENTARY (July 2022).


  1. Hammad

    Just a great thought came to you

  2. Axton

    I confirm. I agree with all of the above-said.

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