Don't call it a spade
The Song Dynasty’s Surrender
So we left as the Jurchens conquer the Song capital of Kaifeng, empty the city of all its valuables, butcher most of the population, taking around 100,000 people as slaves. Among them the whole imperial family, 5,000 people in all, plus all their servants. The wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of the emperor and all the nobility were taken as wives, concubines, or put to work as whores in the Jurchen official brothel. Those who made it alive to the Jurchen homeland, that is. Many died on their way.
Once the Jurchen destroyed the city of Kaifeng, they grabbed one Song minister, Zhang Bangchang, gave him some of the imperial regalia they had grabbed from the Song palace, and put him as emperor of the Great Chu. Zhang was supposed to set a court at Nanjing and rule as the puppet of the Jurchens, who annexed all land north of the Yellow River, but left most Chinese territory to this puppet court. The Jurchens had no intention of ruling China at all. They had invaded to punish the Song court for its treachery and to extract some booty to share between the Jurchen generals. They achieved those goals, and then some. Setting a government in China and finding a way to rule the peasants sounded like a lot of trouble, trouble the Jurchens weren’t interested in taking at all. The destruction of the Song Dynasty had also erased all public order in north China. Gangs of bandits roamed the countryside, killing landlords, public officials, Jurchen detachments and anything they could find. The Jurchen had enough men to destroy any Chinese army but it most certainly didn’t have the manpower to police the whole empire. So they were happy to leave that job to that wimp Song minister, and go back home to enjoy screwing the myriad imperial princesses they had kidnapped from Kaifeng.
Mr. Zhang wasn’t thrilled about this arrangement. Usurping the throne is the worst crime a Chinese minister can commit. It’s tantamount to death by one thousand slices together with one’s whole family. But what could he do? The entire imperial clan, thousands of men, had been taken prisoner by the Jurchens. Or not. There were rumors of a single imperial prince who was free, and had raised an army of 10,000 somewhere in the north. Prince Kang.
Huizong, our artist emperor, had had 143 wives, who had produced 38 sons and 34 daughters. Huizong didn’t know them all. If Dunbar is right he barely even knew most of his women. The thing with polygamy, that some overzealous manosphere bros tend to forget, is that in traditional society sex was only allowed inside marriage. If an emperor wanted to have sex with a woman, he had to made her his concubine and take care of her for life. That means giving her proper status as the woman of that man. You can’t just find her some smelly apartment in a project and give her 500 bucks alimony every month. The concubine of an emperor had to be treated as an imperial princess, and that didn’t come cheap.
Prince Kang was one of the 38 sons of Huizong. In 1127, when the Jurchens invaded, he was 20 years old. He was the only child of his mother, who Huizong apparently slept with once or twice and never bother seeing again. Prince Kang though was a talented kid, tall, strong and good at the classics. But his father never met his mother, meaning his father never got to know him. The only way most Chinese emperors got to know their sons was when imperial concubines gave their pitch after having sex. “You know our son? He can write 100 letters already!” If your mother was out of favor, a prince didn’t really exist. Of course he had his income as an imperial prince, and all the perks that entitled. Prince Kang at 20 years old had 4 wives, 1 son and 5 daughters.
When the Jurchens invaded China, they demanded the Song court sent an imperial prince as an envoy to discuss terms. Huizong discussed among his family, but of course nobody wanted to go. Prince Kang alone volunteered. He made quite an impression with the Jurchen generals; allegedly he was able to shot a bow so straight that the Jurchens thought the Song had tricked them. No way a Song imperial wimp prince could shoot a bow straight, this is a fake prince! Send us a real one! Prince Kang went back home, but later was sent again as an envoy during the second invasion.
While on the road to his diplomatic mission, a regional official told Prince Kang that the Jurchens weren’t joking his time, and persuaded him to abandon his mission and take refuge in the countryside. He did, but then a huge mob of local peasants came up to see what was going on. While doing so they found it was Prince Kang, alongside the Minister of War. The Minister of War yelled at them, telling them they were an imperial envoy. People found out who that guy was. They remembered it was him who had ordered to use scorched-earth tactics against the Jurchens. This guy had burnt their homes and harvests. Now he was here as a diplomatic envoy? What, he’s going to sell us out to the Jurchens? The peasant mob grabbed the Minister of War of the Song Dynasty and beat him to death right there. Prince Kang, 20 years old, barely escaped with his life.
Eventually Prince Kang raised a small army, and went around avoiding the Jurchens who had just conquered the capital and taken the whole imperial clan with them; including his mother, his infant daughters and most of his wives. He only had his son and the mother of his son with him. Some time later an envoy arrives from Zhang Bangchang, the puppet minister, who wanted out of that gig and offered him the crown. So Prince Kang went over to Zhang Bangchang’s fake court, and was enthroned as new emperor of the Song Dynasty, Gaozong. First order of business was to execute Zhang. He usurped the throne! Gaozong was nice and let him kill himself, and didn’t punish his family.
The Jurchens, sometime after or during the wild orgies they were having with the imperial princesses up in Harbin, heard that their puppet emperor had abdicated, and that one imperial prince had escaped capture and had been enthroned as new emperor of the Song Dynasty. They were furious. They had destroyed the Song Dynasty. They had no right to start again. The Jurchens again amassed their armies and sent a massive punitive expedition, codename “Search the top of the mountains and the bottom of the sea to capture Zhao Gou (the personal name of Gaozong)”. Using someone’s personal name in old China is tantamount to call him a smelly bastard.
Gaozong could only flee. Flee south. He fled to the Yangtze, stayed a while in Nanjing. The Jurchen armies rushed to catch him, and he had to flee further south, to Hangzhou. I guess I might as well put a map again.
During this time there was a military coup on his side, which lasted only short while, but in the process his only son, 2 years old, died. Soon afterwards the Jurchen armies crossed the Yangtze, captured Nanjing, and were soon to get to Gaozong’s court at Hangzhou. He had to get on a ship and flee south by sea. He spent weeks at sea avoiding the Jurchen armies, fleeing for his life. The whole escape was so sudden and traumatic that Gaozong had daily panic attacks. Apparently he became infertile. Traditional accounts say the Jurchen attack on Hangzhou scared him so much he became importent for life. He never produced an heir.
So it’s 1130 now, 3 years after the fall of Kaifeng. Eventually a Song army beat the overextended Jurchen armies, who retreated north of the Yangtze, and Gaozong returned to Hangzhou for good. He established his court there, and rebuilt the Song state apparatus in the south. Some great generals such Wu Jie, Han Shizhong and Yue Fei built strong armies who were soon able to beat the Jurchens in open battle. The Jurchens responded by retreating and setting a new puppet state in north China, headed by an old Song minister who had surrendered, Liu Yu. This guy actually liked the job, and put some effort into raising armies to fight the Song. Meanwhile the Jurchens focused on fighting in the West. China has always been unified the same way: a northern army invading Sichuan from the Xi’An area, and from there sailing down the Yangtze. The Jurchens tried hard but the Song armies held fast and blocked the Jurchen advance.
Meanwhile the Song armies were beating the puppet Chinese armies to the north. General Yue Fei was especially strong. His armies had found a way to counter the massive charges f the Jurchen heavy cavalry. He put his Chinese infantry in a sort of phalanx, with very long pikes, and had them cut the feet of the Jurchen horses as they run towards them. Now I’m simplifying a lot, but by 1140 Yue Fei was recovering more and more territory, and was close to recovering Kaifeng itself. But then his emperor Gaozong told him to stop it right there.
Gaozong had put a minister called Qin Hui as prime minister. Qin Hui had been captured by the Jurchens, and spent some time in the north. Nobody else ever escaped from capture, so there were always rumors that the Jurchens had sent him back on purpose as a spy. At any rate Gaozong was fond of the guy. Qin Hui’s position was that the war was hopeless. The Song had to reach an agreement with the Jurchens and make peace as fast as possible. The Jurchen emperor had just die, and the new guy was favorable to a peace agreement. Qin Hui would make it happen as long as Gaozong gave the order.
So Yue Fei was there with his ever victorious army at the feet of Kaifeng, ready to march, when a special convoy comes directly from the court with orders to retreat, immediately. Yue Fei couldn’t believe it. The work of 10 years lost in an instant! He argued once and again that they couldn’t retreat, victory was at hand! But the emperor wouldn’t have it. Yue Fei could only obey and resign his post.
Yue Fei is perhaps the most famous hero in Chinese history. He was the perfect man. Strong in arms, yet well educated. He was courteous, frugal, loyal and focused on his mission. He famously had a huge tattoo in his back with the letters 精忠報國, “utmost loyalty in service of the country”. Mandarins from the court sent him gold, women, presents of all kind, yet he never accepted any. He had a single wife, which is unheard of in important men in China. He disciplined his army sternly and without failure, making it by far the best army in China. But he was just too perfect. In China the way to make friends with the elite is by grabbing each other’s handle, sharing money, secrets, women, bad things. That way you know they will be loyal to each other; else they have something to use against you. Nobody had anything to use against Yue Fei. He was the perfect man.
That didn’t save him, though. While on an audience with the emperor, Yue Fei had the nerve to ask the emperor to choose an heir. Gaozong was predisposed against the army. A military coup had killed his only son. He then became sterile, so he couldn’t produce children. That indeed was a problem; what if he were to die? Yue Fei had good reason to ask him to resolve that problem. The whole imperial clan had been captured by the Jurchens, Gaozong should look for some other farther imperial relatives and create a new imperial clan. He eventually did, but that was no business of Yue Fei to ask. He was a damn general, and generals had no status in the Song Dynasty. Gaozong never forgot that slight.
Yue Fei also had the habit of saying he was fighting to expel the Jurchens from sacred Chinese territory, and push into their homeland to recover the two captured emperors. Well Gaozong wasn’t very eager to recover the two captured emperors. His father made him the favor of dying in 1135, but his brother and lawful emperor was still around. The Jurchens used to threat that if the Song didn’t stop winning battles, that they’d send the captured emperor on a boat straight to the new Song capital. How awkward would that be?
After Gaozong ordered Yue Fei to retreat in order to negotiate the peace treaty with the Jurchens, Qin Hui eventually trumped up charges of rebellion against Yue Fei, put him in jail and poisoned him. Other generals were furious against Qin Hui. One famously asked him:
Yue Fei was about to rebel? Nonsense! Is there any proof?!
To which Qin Hui laconically responded:
莫須有 (There doesn’t need to be)
So Yue Fei, most talented, loyal and virtuous man in the empire, was killed on trumped up charges. And the Song and the Jurchen signed the peace treaty. The treaty was beyond horrible. It was the most shameful thing any Chinese dynasty had ever signed. It stipulated that the Song emperor was to refer to himself as “your servant”. The Song emperor’s title was to be “granted” by the Jurchens, not self-declared. The border established was also a disaster. The Song had control over much of the central plains. They could have pushed to retain the Wei river valley (the Xi’An area) and much of the central plains. But Gaozong didn’t care. The border was set over the Huai river, a bit further north from the Yangtze, and that was that.
Millions of peasants who had been aiding the Song war effort were sold out and left in Jurchen territory. Many left all they had and rushed to escape into Song territory. Many didn’t make it. The Jurchens didn’t take it lightly.
Many wondered why the Song emperor hadn’t pushed further and tried to get a better deal. In 1141 everybody understood why. The Jurchen’s sent a carriage to the Song border. There was Gaozong’s mother, empress Wei. While Gaozong (then prince Kang) had evaded capture, his mother, wives and daughters were taken by the Jurchens to their homeland. Gaozong’s mother was 38 at the time. She was put in the Laundry House state brothel, where allegedly she was made to serve dozens of Jurchen soldiers every day. Allegedly she bore two children in the north. Gaozong had the records change to make her 10 years older, so that she would have been 48 at the time of her capture, thus officially unable of making Jurchen children. She died in 1159, officially 90 years old. Which isn’t very likely. Still, living to 80 years old was quite a feat given the time, and what she had been through.
Qin Hui had secured her release by the Jurchens, in exchange of which Gaozong gave away half his empire, the best army he had, and his reputation for all posterity. Gaozong is today regarded as a despicable traitor, a coward that shamed China for centuries. Yue Fei was made a folk idol, the patron saint of all Chinese armies since. Qin Hui was made into an iron statue along his wife, which became a tourist attraction. It is customary for people to visit and spit on it.
Gaozong also lived to old age. He died in 1187, 80 years old. To choose an heir he had to find a commoner which was a descendant of the founder of the dynasty. Remember that guy? The palace commander who rebelled, and then made sure his generals didn’t rebel against him? His younger brother murdered him some time later. Henceforth the imperial throne was transmitted through this brother’s line. Some people said that the first Jurchen emperor was the first Song emperor reincarnated, taking revenge on the descendants of his brother for murdering him. He certainly extinguished the whole line.
Gaozong’s successor, Xiaozong tried to fix all the damage his adoptive father had done. He killed Qin Hui, repealed the peace treaty, raised armies, and tried to get back the lost territory. It didn’t work. It never worked. The Jurchen ruled north China until 1234, when Genghis Khan destroyed the Jurchen state. When the Mongols started attacking north China, guess what, the Song made an alliance with them! And guess what, the Song breached the terms of the alliance, and the Mongols took that excuse to invade and destroy the Song. This time for good. To their credit the Song Dynasty held until 1279, until Genghis’ grandson, Khubilai, managed to conquer them. The Mongols ruled all China for 90 years.
And that’s the story of how the Song Dynasty fell and how it came back to life in the South, mostly because the emperor put more value on his mother than on 20 million of his subjects. When people like Hoppe say that Monarchs tend to govern well because they have a stake in their property, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Not everyone places much value on their property besides the minimum to keep their personal status. There’s an old saying, which I’ve heard in China and Europe too: “wealth lasts but 3 generations”. What the grandfather builds, the grandsons brings to the ground. Honestly I’d probably change 20 million people for my mother, too. And I’d be glad to have a sociopath like Qin Hui to help on that. Although personally I would have done something to save my wives and daughters too. Gaozong never asked for them. 2 of his daughters survived and were married off to Jurchen men. But Chinese culture was about filial piety, children were an afterthought.
As a bonus, let me finish by telling the story of Yelu Dashi. You may have noticed that there’s a light green blob in the map, way to the West of China, around what’s today Xinjiang and most of Kazakhstan. You know who that is? The Khitans! The Khitan commander who held Beijing against the Song invasion, Yelu Dashi, was eventually captured by the Jurchen once they came south to help the Song out.
Yelu Dashi was not only a great general, he was a very cultivated man. He spoke Khitan and Chinese, had studied the Confucian classics, and was in charge of the administration of the Chinese areas of the Khitan empire. Shortly after he fell to the Jurchen army, Yelu Dashi escaped with his retinue. He rode fast, evading the Jurchen pursuers, and reached what’s today northern Mongolia, which the Jurchen never controlled, and the Khitan had old ties of vassalage. This Khitan noblemen then raised a big army and rode to the West, conquered the Dzungar steppe, the Tarim Basin, went further West and built a huge empire that reached the Aral Sea! This new empire of Yelu ashi controlled for decades most of Central Asia, exerting its influence well into Persia. Imagine the life of this guy. He tried to raise armies to ride back east and attack the Jurchens, but it never worked out. He eventually learned to enjoy his new empire.
This new Khitan empire, called by historians the Qara-Khitai, is regarded by Chinese historians as a Chinese dynasty, the Western Liao. That’s why it’s painted in full color in the map. While it was a steppe empire ruled by Khitans, they kept the old Chinese-inspired administration, taught the Confucian classics, and kept many Han Chinese in the state bureaucracy. The Qara Khitai ruled Central Asia until… yes, Genghis Khan.