The Upstart King: Jingzong of Xia

By Elizabeth Smithrosser

Jingzong (1003–1048) was King of the State of Western Xia in northern China from 1032 to 1048. The headstrong and ambitious ruler of an underdog state, Jingzong’s bold military and civil policies reached into almost every aspect of Xia life.

For several hundred years of medieval history, a large portion of what we now know as China was composed of three states. In the north was the powerful Liao, ruled by the Khitan, while the rich Song with its Han Chinese emperors lay to the south. And wedged between these two huge, populous states was the State of Xia, with a Tangut ruling line.


Xia was overshadowed by its two neighbors in terms of size, might and prestige, and consequently finds itself sidelined in histories of the region. But the fact remains that for no less than 245 years, Xia was a functionally independent state of considerable geopolitical significance. From its beginnings in 982, it endured through to 1227, when it was engulfed by the Mongols, a fate which would befall most of Northeast Asia.

This happened to be the last assault of Genghis Khan’s lifetime. It was a particularly bloody one which left few Xia subjects able to tell their own history. This, plus the destruction of its state institutions and their physical records meant that the story of Xia largely fell to pre-modern Chinese history writers.

China in the year 1111. Image by Douglasfrankfort / Wikimedia Commons

Newly excavated texts and a better understanding of the Tangut script have provided new insights, but for the most part the history of Xia remains as told in Chinese anecdotal writings and imperial histories. Relations between Song and Xia had often been hostile, and had formed part of a precarious three-way power balance with Liao.


And while the histories were written in later periods, their narrative is often the Song version of events, both in terms of what has been woven in and left out, as well as in what manner that information is recounted.

Even “Xia,” the name by which the state is now nearly unanimously known is the Chinese word, not “Mi-nya” as used in the Tangut language of its rulers and a large proportion of its multiethnic subjects. On top of this, readers may have encountered “Xi Xia,” or “Western Xia.” This prefix was a later addition for the sake of disambiguation: to avoid confusion with the mythologized Chinese Xia dynasty (traditionally dated 1989–1558 BCE).

In the eyes of the imperial history writers, the importance of this ancient Chinese state greatly outweighed that of the State of Xia. A simple solution was found: to stick “Western” in front. Thus, the State of Xia was, and continues to be, defined not on its own terms but according to its location relative to Song and Liao.


Simply put, this defeated, illegitimate state was not a priority for later history writers, and we consequently know much less about Xia than other regions at the time. This is frustrating for history fans, from whom many fascinating stories have been withheld.

One of those stories is that of the Xia king, Jingzong. Piece by piece, the snapshots we have of him reveal a headstrong and risk-taking, yet innovative and ambitious ruler, whose sixteen-year reign transformed his state and seriously shook up geopolitical relations.

Equally at home on the battlefield and at court, Jingzong kept works of statecraft and law on his desk for ready consultation. He was supposedly tall for the era, with a round face and high-bridged nose. Jingzong was also a talented painter, could speak both Tangut and Chinese, and possessed a deep understanding of Buddhist teachings.


Prince on the Battlefields

Jingzong came of age during a volatile era in which his state was mostly at peace with the Song to the south, but faced various threats at other borders from Liao in the east and the Tibetans in the west. As the eldest son of the King, as a young man Jingzong was sent off to fight various battles.

A Xia painting of Vaiśravaṇa, a Buddhist deity

The prince’s relationship with his father could be rocky, especially when it came to interstate relations and trade. There are several policy disagreements on record, and the following clash with his father is relayed by the History of Song with particular relish:

Jingzong remonstrated with his father several times against his servitude to the Song. Each time, his father would warn him off the idea, saying “I led armies for a long time, and I’m all worn out. Our clan has been clad in brocade and silk for thirty years, which is all down to the favor of the Song. We cannot forsake it now.”

Jingzong replied, “Clad in skins and furs, herding our livestock: that is what comes naturally to a steppe nomad. And for a man of daring and valor, nothing matters but the calling to rule as overlord. What use are brocade and silk for that?”


Such disagreements did not deter his father from granting Jingzong succession rights. On the contrary, Jingzong was named crown prince in explicit recognition of his bold military successes and expansion of the Xia borders. Simply being the eldest male child was no guarantee according to the practice of the times: a prince had first to prove himself.

Jingzong was officially named heir at around twenty-five years of age.

Ruling a Tangut state

And merely four years later, he was King. Jingzong ascended to the throne in 1032 upon the death of his father, and immediately set about rolling out his vision.

One symbolic move was to change the imperial surname to “Ngwemi” in the Tangut language. The Song took this as a slight, since it implied a rejection of not one, but two, Chinese imperial surnames which had been bestowed upon Jingzong’s ancestors for their loyalty and passed down to him.

More obvious on the ground were Jingzong’s widespread cultural policies. A national dress code was decreed, as well as an order which enforced specific haircuts for all male subjects. The top of the head had to be shaved from near the front, with the bangs and the sides left to grow long.

These policies were one the one hand intended as a unifying cultural policy, and on the other made Xia subjects immediately distinguishable from those of other states. Of course, they also functioned as a test and demonstration of the reach of imperial orders. The haircut decree was on pain of death, and it is said that in just three days’ time, all males in the realm had cut their hair accordingly.

Jingzong had grown up on the battlefield, and as king he kept a strong grip on military matters. He set about bolstering the strength of the Xia army, whose numbers rose to somewhere between 150,000 and 300,000 under his watch. The “silver tablet” system of conscripted recruitment meant that all able-bodied Xia males could be called upon to fight if circumstances so required. Special attention was paid to the cavalry and Jingzong traveled with a personal mounted guard of 5000 men.

Copper coin of Jingzong – © The Trustees of the British Museum

A new script for the Tangut language

Tangut was the language of the ruling dynasty and acted as one of the lingua francas among its multiethnic population. The problem was that the spoken language had no written form. In its correspondence, record-keeping and administration, Xia had been reliant on other languages, chiefly Sinitic (Chinese). Rather than borrow a script from a neighboring alphabet like Tibetan or Uighur, the decision was made to construct a new one. This new Tangut script was unveiled in 1037.

The script contained 6000+ characters. Structurally, the script is similar to Sinitic, in that it is composed largely of phonetic components rather than being alphabetic, as was the case for other scripts used in the locale. Nevertheless, it was, and remains, completely unintelligible to readers of Sinitic.

An example of the Tangut script – Wikimedia Commons

The script itself had been underway for decades, but the task of promulgating and promoting it fell to Jingzong. His dissemination of the script was a huge educational undertaking, which involved a new state printing bureau, the carving of steles for public places, bilingual dictionaries and massive (re-)translation projects. All official documentation and correspondence was thereafter recorded in Tangut, in addition to the previous official languages.

Imperial Ambitions

As mentioned, Xia had functioned as an independent state since around 982. However, to this day, 1038 is the generally accepted date for the start of the royal dynasty. This was Jingzong’s doing, and despite having inherited the state, he is usually treated as the “founding emperor” in that respect.

As may be inferred from his military reform, Jingzong was not content with being the underdog in the region and had busied himself fighting with the Tibetans and Uighurs on its western borders. But in the east, Xia was still (realistically speaking) far from being on a par with the eastern states of Liao and Song. At least in a symbolic sense, though, he could attempt to equal the playing field.

And so the thirty-year-old Jingzong gave his “State of Xia” an ambitious name upgrade to the “Great Xia.” This was a provocative move in the eyes of the “Great Song” and “Great Liao” next door. With regard to himself, a corresponding name upgrade was in order. He had himself formally enthroned as head of the imperial dynasty, by the means of a Tangut term which was interpreted by Song and Liao as a claim to equivalence to their own “emperors”.

It is important here that in the East Asian context, the word which is translated as “emperor” typically does not imply the occupation of foreign territories. Put simply, it is a superior term to “king” in the conceptualized hierarchy of rulers.

A special embassy from Xia marched to the Song court with a letter from Jingzong announcing this fact, to hand back the Song ritualistic paraphernalia which had for decades been kept at the Xia court to represent the state’s submission to its Song superiors. This was probably the most daring move of Jingzong’s career in terms of geopolitical relations, and was most definitely the point when Xia went rogue in the eyes of his southern neighbors.

A Xia painting of Vaiśravaṇa, a Buddhist deity – Wikimedia Commons

The consternation this caused at the Song court is recounted in the History of Song:

When he arrogated the title of “emperor,” all the congregated ministers said, “Yuanhao (Jingzong) is a contemptible brat! He must be exterminated immediately!”

Thus the overwhelming response from Song China was one of outrage, and a punitive expedition was launched to put Xia back in its rightful place.

Only one Song minister, Wu Yu (1004–1058) felt greater caution was in order, and proposed a temporary policy of appeasement. By this point, the discord had dragged on for several years and Song forces had been repelled several times at the Xia borders. The Song emperor consented.

The absence of censure itself was implicit assent. In their own records, they struck a compromise by using a term that fell somewhere between “king” and “emperor.” The year was 1042.

Over on the Xia side, Jingzong observed Song desist with none of the relief or reverential gratefulness towards his southern superiors that the Song side had hoped for. Rather, he was spurred on: the waters had been tested and his provocative move had not been met with retaliation.

The Upstart King

But the end of Jingzong’s sixteen-year reign was sudden and gruesome. In 1048, an assassin made it close enough to take a swipe at Jingzong with a sword, but managed only to remove his nose. And a few days later, what had at first seemed to have been a failed attempt found success, when the monarch succumbed to the resulting infection aged around 45.

Jingzong had been an ambitious and hands-on, yet overbearing, ruler. So perhaps it was inevitable that his sudden departure plunged the state into a power vacuum.

The imperial Xia tombs – photo by Edescas2 / Wikimedia Commons

So how to conclude this article? After all, there is not much natural catharsis to offer when a life lived in crescendo abruptly sputters out.

The History of Song introduces Jingzong as a “man of grand plans.” Indeed, there is a sense that he was only just getting started with these “grand plans,” which when put together do seem to point to a vision of Genghis-sized proportions.

Or perhaps that is just how the history writers wished to present him. It is hard to say.

What can be said for sure is that in the Chinese imperial histories, written long after the fact, there still lingers a (Song) sense of astonishment at the utter audacity of this upstart king. And as audacity often does, it left them irritated, sometimes outraged, but (however reluctantly) a little bit impressed. Their anecdotes about Jingzong, which outnumber those of all other Xia monarchs, are permeated with a sincere captivation which the general veneer of disdain is unable to fully mask.

Next month’s China column will continue the story of the Xia kings by delving into the lives of Jingzong’s infant son and grandson.

Elizabeth Smithrosser is a PhD Student in Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. Click here to view her university page.

Click here to read more articles by Elizabeth Smithrosser

Top Image: Stone stele base of a carved warrior, on display at the Ningxia Museum in Yinchuan. Excavated in 1974 from the Western Xia Mausoleum No. 7, believed to be the tomb of Emperor Renzong (r. 1139–1193). Photo by BabelStone / Wikimedia Commons


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