Song Dynasty Emperor Puts the People First Amid the Plague

Emperor Renzong reveres Heaven and cherishes his subjects much more than his prized possessions
May 13, 2020 Updated: May 16, 2020

The rhinoceros horn was an imperial treasure, yet it might just be exactly the ingredient needed to cure the plague. So, amid the fearful disease raging across the capital city, Emperor Renzong didn’t give a second thought to ordering that his prized possession be crushed and made into medicine in hopes of saving his people.

This event occurred about 1,000 years ago in the Song Dynasty (960–1279) in ancient China. In the middle of the 11th century, the country was hit by epidemics one after another over a period of many years. 

Emperor Renzong, known for his benevolence and generosity, put his highest priority on caring for the people whenever an outbreak occurred.

The People Are More Important

The year 1054 saw the capital not only struck by deadly disease but also hit by frigid cold. Many people died either from infection or from the freezing chill. 

Renzong ordered the imperial doctors to develop a prescription that could counter the plague. He also commanded that precious medicinal materials be taken from imperial storage to be used in preparing the medication that was so badly needed. 

Two exotic rhinoceros horns were among the materials that were brought out. A court official noticed that one of them was the rare Tongtian rhino horn that had been treasured for generations in the imperial court. It was a gift from a foreign envoy passed down from a Song Dynasty era. 

The official quickly informed Renzong and advised him to keep it for his own use. However, Renzong had a different priority.

“How can I cherish an object, however rare, more than I cherish my own people?” he said.

He promptly ordered that the Tongtian rhino horn be donated for use in making medicine for the afflicted.

Renzong also ordered the imperial doctors to look for people proficient at pulse diagnosis, an important traditional Chinese medicine technique for identifying certain disorders in the body. He then sent these people to clinics established at local government offices to provide free consultation and medicine for the poor.

Emperor Renzong of Song - Court
Artwork by Chen Shiguan, Qing Dynasty, in the volume titled “Song Renzong 1” in the publication “Benevolent Records of Holy Emperors and Wise Kings (Covering the Song, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties).” Emperor Renzong of the Song Dynasty cherished the people like they were his own children. When the country suffered from disasters and epidemics, he always sincerely reflected upon himself in order to find the cause. (Public Domain)

Mandate of Heaven

Renzong’s decision to put his people first was in keeping with his character and his record as an emperor who followed the examples of the ancient sage kings of China.

Like those virtuous monarchs before him, Renzong revered Heaven and believed that his right to rule was a divine right granted to him as the Son of Heaven, and that his mandate was to cherish the people and protect them from harm. Whenever a natural disaster struck, Renzong saw it as a warning from above that he had deviated from the Way of Heaven, or the Dao, and was not fulfilling his solemn responsibility.

Renzong always looked first at himself to try and find faults and wrongdoings that might have led to the calamity befalling the country.

While sincerely reflecting on his own thoughts and behavior, he would temporarily not wear his dragon robe or receive greetings from officials in the imperial hall. He would also cut back on his meals and delicacies and cancel all entertainment. 

At the same time, Renzong provided other kinds of help to support his people. 

His various charitable measures included buying medicine for the poor, purchasing coffins for the deceased of needy families, and exempting people from taxes or waiving rent for a period of time. He also took care of the family members of soldiers who had sacrificed their lives while working in plague areas. 

The Magic Cure

Emperor Renzong’s biography is found in a historical text on the Song Dynasty called “History of Song,” or “Song Shi.” “Song Shi” in turn is one book in a set of official Chinese historical texts known as the “Twenty-Four Histories,” which covers the period from about 3,000 B.C. to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

The Ming Dynasty literary classic “Water Margin,” also translated as “Outlaws of the Marsh,” tells a story of how Emperor Renzong quelled a great plague during his reign. 

He ordered benevolent measures that included remitting prison sentences and abolishing taxes. He also ordered that the proper rites be performed in prayer to the gods for relief from disaster. 

The fictional account closely reflects the actions of wise emperors throughout Chinese history in the face of natural calamities. They regarded these catastrophes as rebukes from Heaven that were not to be ignored, or else stronger warnings would follow and they might even be overthrown, having lost the Mandate of Heaven. 

By praying to the gods with a pure heart, they hoped to be granted a second chance to improve themselves and rectify their mistakes. 

Things changed for the better once they sincerely admitted their wrongs and led the people in turning their hearts toward goodness. This was their magic cure.