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Emperor Huizong’s Art and Calligraphy

    In the Analects, Confucius states:

    Ponder over [government] untiringly. Carry it out loyally.

    – Analects, 12.14

    The 8th Song dynasty emperor Huizong (r. 1100 – 1125 AD), did not abide by this principle in government. 

    But he did so in art…

    The result was great for artistic culture during his reign, and even after. But it was a disaster for his dynasty.

    Early life

    Huizong of Song (宋徽宗 [Sōng Huìzōng]) (1082 – 1135 AD), whose original name was Zhao Ji and was also known as the Prince of Duan, was born in the Southern Song capital of Kaifeng, Henan Province.

    He was the 11th son of the Shenzong Emperor (r. 1067 – 1085 AD). And the half-brother Zhezong (r. 1085 – 1100 AD). So, early on, it was deemed highly unlikely that he would ever be a ruler.

    Unlike young royals being prepared to rule, he wasn’t educated or given suitable experience in politics. He was free to pursue the arts and Daoism.

    But when Zhezong died aged twenty-three, his widow helped Huizong become emperor. At the time, a chief councillor warned: 

    “Prince Duan [Huizong] is careless and frivolous, and not cut out for ruling all under Heaven.”

    The court ignored this warning. A decision many of them would later come to regret…

    Why was he called Huizong?

    Huizong’s real name was Zhao Ji. The Zhao family were the Song imperial family. They had originally taken over China in 960 AD, after half a century of civil war and disunity following the collapse of the Tang dynasty (518 – 618 AD)

    Zhao Ji was originally given the title of Prince Duan before becoming the 8th Song emperor. 

    In Chinese, emperors were called 皇帝 () – which can be translated as ‘celestial magnificence’. And they claimed to have a ‘mandate of heaven’ – that is, to rule all under heaven.

    So, they gave themselves new names when they ascended the throne, to add a reverence and to their authority. Huizong is made up of two characters: 

    • 徽 (huì) means ‘fine’ or ‘glorious’
    • 宗 (zōng) means ‘linage’ or ‘ancestor’, it was a common second character for emperor’s titles 

    Huizong’s reign names

    Chinese emperors often divided their reigns up into different periods. Taizong’s entire reign (r. 1101 – 1125 AD) was made up of the following periods: 

    • 1101: 建中靖国 (Jiànzhōng jìngguó) (‘Building a stable country’)
    • 1102 – 1106: 宗宁Zongning era
    • 1107 – 1110: 大观 Daguan era
    • 1111 – 1118 (October): 政和Zhenghe era
    • 1118 (November) – 1119 (February): 重和 Zhonghe era
    • 1119 (December) – 1125: 宣和 Xuanhe era 

    The cultured court and cultured emperor 

    Huizong was extremely cultured and quite talented in painting, calligraphy, and poetry (what later would get termed ‘the three perfections’ of Chinese art).

    His work is even the first known example of artists placing their calligraphy on their paintings. This remained a defining feature of Chinese art for centuries afterwards.

    He was not the first Song emperor to be artistic. Or indeed the first Chinese emperor to be. The Tang dynasty emperor Taizong (r. 626 – 649 AD), for example, had famously been an avid calligrapher and promoter of calligraphy.

    And Huizong’s father, the Shenzong (r. 1067 – 1085), was also a cultured ruler. He had chosen two famous painters as sons-in-law: Li Wei and Wang Shen. These two uncles to Huizong tutored him in painting.

    When Huizong came to power, he appears to have focused on artistic matters above all else. This had positive and negative consequences (see below).

    In the meantime, he delegated political matters to ministers who many believe to have been corrupt and incompetent.

    Positive example of Huizong’s artistic promotion: Patronage

    Huizong patronised the arts, reformed the education artists at the Academy of Painting received, and raised their status of artists within the official government apparatus.

    He essentially formalised the roles that court painters had played before and guided their education to include a deeper understanding of the classics.

    Calligraphers still enjoyed a slightly higher status than painters. This is largely due to the prestige of their art and the education needed for it. 

    However, during the Zhenghe era (1111 – 1118 AD), both Academy of Calligraphy and Academy of Painting members were allowed:

    • To wear fish pendants (like officials)
    • Only be dismissed by an offical imperial decree
    • Receive salaries
    • Be exempt from physical punishment

    Huizong built on ideas first articulated by the great artist and art theorist, Su Shi (1037 – 1101 AD). 

    These ideas emphasised the similarities and relationship between calligraphy, painting and poetry. This ultimately elevated the status of professional court painting (i.e., officially commissioned painting) close to calligraphy and poetry. 

    Negative example of Huizong’s artistic promotion: Monumental wastage

    Huizong has long been criticised for wasting time on art and aesthetics. He also wasted resources on it. 

    One famous example is his Genyue Park (also known as Genyue Pleasure Park or Sacred Peaks of Longevity). This was an enormous manmade ‘garden’ in Kaifeng based on a natural hill in Hangzhou (Phoenix Hill).

    Construction began in January 1118 and was completed in January 1123. It measured 3.47 miles (5.59 km) in circumference and included a variety of stone peaks, ridges, pavilions, books, waterfalls, and thousands of different types of trees. 

    Its highest peak was about 453 feet (138 meters) high. It was, quite simply, meant to be a kind of paradise for the elite to meet and hold banquets and gatherings in.

    To build it, a ‘Flower and Rock Network’ was created. In short, this was an organization that forced men to labour on the garden and transport plants, rocks, and other materials across the country to it.

    The Flower and Rock Network was widely hated. It was even shut down temporarily when the Song rulers feared it would ignite rebellion. However, once it was sensed the threat of rebellion was reduced, Huizong ordered it restarted. 

    Huizong and the Song elite only got to enjoy Genyue Park for four years. In 1127, Jurchen troops sieged the city and captured Huizong.

    Huizong’s later life and death

    In 1127, Huizong – and tens of millions of Chinese still living in northern China – were now under Jurchen control. 

    He had already abdicated the throne in 1126, after banishing his chief counsellors (including the hated prime minister and calligrapher Cai Jing). His eldest son, the Qinzong Emperor, had ruled for just two months before abdicating.

    Huizong, Qinzong, and an entourage (including other elites, artists, and craftsmen) of about 3,000 people were marched north-eastwards to Jin capital of Wuguo City (near today’s Harbin, Heilongjiang Province).

    Both former emperors were reduced to the status of commoners and humiliated by the Jin rulers, who dubbed Huizong the ‘Marquis of Muddled Virtue’ and Qinzong ‘Maquis Doubly Muddled’.

    Some Song officials and Qinzong’s empress committed suicide. And some artists followed the convoy. Huizong died in 1135.


    Nine generations in, the great enterprise ceases.
    It was insane not to listen to upright officials’ advice.
    I travel over 3,000 miles as a willing captive, 
    Remembering how I used to feel grieved by the autumn cooling of the jade halls.

    – ‘Inscribed on a Wall at Swallow Monastery’ by Zhao Ji (Huizong Emperor)

    From Northern Song to Southern Song

    Many historians have ultimately blamed Huizong, his weak leadership and his preference for the arts over ruling, for the loss of half of the China in 1127. 

    The Song dynasty itself lasted from 960 – 1279. However, it is generally divided into two parts:

    • The Northern Song (960 – 1127 AD), when most of today’s China was ruled by the Song imperial rulers. Its primary capital city was Kaifeng, Henan Province (where Huizong was born).
    • The Southern Song (1127 – 1279 AD), when the dynasty only ruled the southern half of China. Its capital was in today’s Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.

    The labels ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ Song only appeared centuries later. At the time, the Song state simply moved southwards after the Jurchen-ruled Jin dynasty (1115 – 1234 AD) took over Northern China.

    Huizong’s artistic interests


    Huizong was an accomplished and (naturally considering his position) influential painter. He particularly liked painting birds, flowers and animals. But he was also a keen on landscapes. 

    Huizong emphasised three main aspects for painting:

    • Realism. One of the regulations given (likely by him) to the Academy of Painting was: ‘Painters are not to imitate their predecessors, but are to depict objects as they exist, true to form and colour.’
    • Learning from past masters. Though he didn’t want painters to imitate painters from the past, Huizong still wanted painters to learn from them.
    • Attain ‘poetic ideas’ (诗意 [shīyyī]). This is the ability to be imaginative and express poetic concepts (scenes, suggestions, emotions) in painting in the same vein poems do.

    Huizong’s own painting appears to have lived up to these ideals well. 

    Listening to the Qin (Ca. 1102) by Huizong

    Listening to the Qin by Huizong
    Listening to the Qin (ca. 1102) by the Emperor Huizong, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. 147.2 x 51.3cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Listening to the Qin by Huizong is an elegant depiction of a tranquil scene. It depicts Huizong playing the Qin (a classical musical instrument) to an audience of two ministers and a servant. 

    In the foreground there is a garden rock, and in the background a pine tree surrounded by bamboo shoots. Alongside the seats, these elements suggest the location being outside. This enables the painting to contain both nature and culture (the qin).

    The perspective and spacing between the painting’s figures and objects gives it a sense of tranquillity, like the music of a qin itself should.

    It is easy to see that this is the kind of self-image Huizong wanted to project: a cultured, sage-like presence at harmony with nature and culture.

    The piece also includes a piece of calligraphy by the unpopular Cai Jing (who is also the seated figure in the red).

    Auspicious Cranes (1112) by Huizong

    Auspicious Cranes (1112) by Huizong Emperor
    Auspicious Cranes (1112 AD) by Huizong Emperor, section of a handscroll, ink and colour on silk, 51 x 138.2 cm. Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Auspicious Cranes (瑞鹤图 [Ruì Hè Tú]) depicts a striking scene of 20 cranes (18 in flight and two perched) on and above a cloud-surrounded rooftop.

    In Chinese mythology, cranes symbolised longevity. Placing them above what look like the palace gives a clear indication that they symbolise the abundance and longevity Huizong envisioned for his dynasty.

    A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains (1113) by Wang Ximeng

    Detail from A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains by Wang Ximeng
    Detail from A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains (1113 AD) by Wang Ximeng, section of a handscroll, ink and colour on silk, 51.5 x 1191.5 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Wang Ximeng (1196 – 1119) was a protégé of Huizong from at the Academy of Painting who died at the age of just twenty-three.

    Unfortunately, A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains (千里江山图 [Qiānlǐ jiāngshān tú]) is his only surviving work. The original features a colophon (a note) by Cai Jing. 

    Wang’s work demonstrates well the type of landscape painting Huizong encouraged. Its striking use of blue and green paint hint at a kind of paradise scene (much like the Genyue Park).

    The Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings

    The Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings (宣和画谱 [Xuānhé Huàpǔ]) is a catalogue of Huizong’s painting collection compiled in the years leading up to its completion 1120 AD.

    It contains 6,396 paintings by 231 painters. This work is divided into ten categories, including: Landscapes, flowers and birds, domestic and wild animals, etc.

    It is believed the prime minister Cai Jing and his brother Cai Bian compiled the catalogue. However, it is credited to Huizong, and no doubt strongly represents his artistic preferences.

    Comments throughout the catalogue give insight into Huizong’s artistic philosophy. For example, a comment on a painting in the ‘fruits and vegetables’ section reads:


    The poet often recognised the nature of plants, trees, insects and fishes. And when a painter seizes creation with his brush and penetrates the subtle mysteries of things with his mind, it is also the act of a poet. 

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings


    Huizong was a skilled and innovative calligrapher. 

    He excelled at the standard script, or more specifically, his version of it: ‘the slender gold style.’ 

    Detail showing Huizong's 'slender gold style'
    Detail showing Huizong’s ‘slender gold style’ of standard script. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    The best example of this is his surviving copy of the Thousand Character Classic. This is an ancient poem where the same character is never repeated. It has been replicated many times by some of China’s greatest calligraphers in different styles.

    detail from Thousand Character Classic by Huizong
    Detail from Thousand Character Classic (1104 AD) by Huizong, standard script, ink on paper, 30.9 x 322.1 cm. Shanghai Museum. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Huizong’s standard script version features hints of running script, but largely stays within the boundaries it begins with.

    Its characters feature thin, long strokes that suggest a rapid but organised hand. Overall, the rows of characters stay neatly within the much larger scheme of the work.

    Detail from Thousand Character Classic in Cursive Script
    Detail from Thousand Character Classic in Cursive Script by Huizong. (Image Source: Wikipedia Commons)

    And his cursive style, whilst not always first-rate, was still skilled and occasionally reached a high level. One of his best pieces was a 16-character inscription on a fan.