Emperor Huizong by Patricia Buckley Ebrey - review by Jonathan Mirsky

Jonathan Mirsky

Song of Exile

Emperor Huizong


Harvard University Press 661pp £30

I can’t decide which lines from Richard II best reflect the melancholy story of the Song Dynasty Emperor Huizong (1082–1135): ‘And tell sad stories of the death of kings’ or ‘my large kingdom for a little grave,/A little little grave, an obscure grave’. The University of Washington’s Patricia Ebrey, a master historian of this period with an acute sense of the poignant and tragic, shows us, in this first English-language biography of Huizong, one of the most brilliantly cultured monarchs ever to have lived, and recounts his miserable end.

Although condemned, as Huizong was, by later historians as self-indulgent, vain and careless about state affairs, most emperors of the Song dynasty (960–1279) were as sophisticated as any European rulers and notable as poets, painters, builders and connoisseurs of court life. Ebrey observes that ‘few monarchs in world history can

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