Harvard University Press 2014
Patricia Ebrey‘s beautifully written and exhaustively researched new book introduces readers to an emperor of China as artist, collector, father, ruler, scholar, patron, and human being. Emperor Huizong (Harvard University Press, 2014) explores the person and the reign of the eighth emperor of the Song Dynasty, who ascended the Song throne in 1100 (at age 17) and ruled almost 26 years until 1125. Huizong is perhaps best known as a ruler who was so caught up in a sensual life (painting, calligraphy, Daoism, etc.) that he failed to properly govern and left the dynastic door open to invading Jurchen forces. Ebrey offers us a much more complex and even-handed account of this fascinating figure and his world, following the life and rule of Huizong in intricate detail to try to understand the circumstances that ultimately led this man to pretend to have a stroke so that his son could ascend the throne and try to succeed where the father had failed to avert a Jin takeover. (Both were unsuccessful, and as Jurchen forces sacked Kaifeng the remnants of the Song fled southward while Huizong and his son were taken into captivity.) We learn not only about Huizong’s childhood and family life, but also about his negotiation of reforms (political and musical) at court, his faith in and relationship to Daoism, and his practice and patronage of the arts of medicine, architecture, painting, and calligraphy. Ebrey brings a masterful reading of a diverse archive of sources to bear on creating this imperial portrait, which is both an incredible feat of careful scholarship and an absolute pleasure to read.