- Emperor Huizong by Patricia Buckley Ebrey
Emperor Huizong 徽宗 (1082–1135) epitomizes the “bad last emperor” trope in which scholars blame the loss of a dynasty on a ruler’s moral weakness and poor judgment of both policy and men. Ebrey’s historical biography revises this trope, showing Huizong as a more complex and politically engaged figure than historians have previously pictured him. Eighteen years of studying the man, his style of governance, his contributions, and the disastrous end of his reign have made Patricia Ebrey uniquely qualified to present a more balanced, nuanced interpretation [End Page 169] of Huizong’s dramatic life. Ebrey preceded this study with numerous articles, a symposium volume, and her equally masterful book, Accumulating Culture: The Collections of Emperor Huizong.1 This study of Emperor Huizong, who reigned from 1100 to 1125, is authoritative, comprehensive, and highly readable.
Ebrey divides the book’s quantity of historical detail and analysis into seventeen topical chapters in four chronological sections. The first section, “Learning to Rule, 1082–1108,” begins with the future Huizong growing up with no expectation of ever becoming emperor. His home was a sprawling palace compound that served as government offices as well as the imperial family residence, only slightly smaller than Beijing’s Ming–Qing palace, the Forbidden City. It was staffed with several thousand functionaries and clerks, more than 2,000 soldiers, and at one point 1,069 cooks and kitchen helpers. Following his brother’s untimely death, Huizong was enthroned at age seventeen. The factional divide between Reformers and Conservatives (anti-reformers)—which began with the introduction of the New Policies in the 1070s under Huizong’s father, Shenzong 神宗 (r. 1067–1085)—persisted throughout Huizong’s long reign. During the first year of his rule, Huizong—despite his youth—appears to have taken a firm hand; he brought members of the Conservative faction back to court, with guidance from senior councilor Zeng Bu 曾布 (1035–1107) but with very little input from Empress Xiang 向皇后 (1046–1101), the regent whom historians have traditionally credited with trying to restore Conservative influence. Huizong quickly adapted to his new role and during his second year on the throne worked to get Reformers and Conservatives to cooperate with each other. Throughout that year, Huizong was bombarded with condemnations of his grand councilor Zeng Bu (which he dealt with by firing the critics), petty complaints (critics chastised him for indulging in hunting in the Rear Garden [Hou Yuan 後苑]), and implausible omenology (court astronomers interpreted a red vapor in the sky as evidence of nefarious plots in the women’s quarters). Huizong instead found satisfaction in his first large construction project, the expansion of the Daoist Temple of Spectacular [End Page 170] Numina (Jingling Gong 景靈宮). He personally helped redesign the major sacrifice to heaven at the Suburban Altar (Jiao Tan 郊壇) with an honor guard of more than 21,000 people. Were these projects too costly? Because the state compensated income and outlays in material goods as well as in cash, it is difficult to determine how much was actually in the coffers. Furthermore, the fact that the government and the Privy Purse separately administered treasuries complicated finances.
In 1102, exasperated with factional squabbling, Huizong opted for the Reformers. Ebrey argues that he became more motivated by the optimistic vision of Cai Jing 蔡京 (1047–1126) than by the negative evaluations of Chen Guan 陳瓘 (1060–1124). Having chosen the Reformers, Huizong worked with his top officials, primarily Cai Jing, to ensure political support. To eliminate criticism, from 1102 to 1104 Huizong labeled hundreds of Conservatives as Yuanyou 元祐, “heterodox” officials, and sent them to remote posts; blacklisted others (including some already deceased) along with their younger brothers, sons, and grandsons; and made possession of their literary works a crime. Other measures taken to build ideological conformity included expanding government schools around the realm and establishing government welfare programs—such as poorhouses and paupers’ cemeteries—for the indigent, disabled, and ill. Huizong issued imperial edicts in his distinctive calligraphy in the belief that his directives would thereby carry greater authority. Nevertheless...