The great dramas of dynastic transition have often seemed remote when viewed from the Pearl River Delta. Dynasties rose and fell in the great valleys of the Yellow River basin, the lush battlefields of the Yangtze region, or in the walled passes and plains surrounding Beijing. But the Song Dynasty, which ruled China from 960 to 1279, played out its final act just off the coast of Guangdong. Memorials to the last Song emperors — and the stout defenders who supported them against their archenemies the Mongols — can still be found throughout the region.
By the middle of the 13th century, the Song court was in deep trouble. The armies of Genghis Khan, his sons, and grandsons, had overrun most of their territory and by 1274 were in a position to take the Song capital Lin’an, today’s Hangzhou.
The last adult emperor to rule the Song, Zhao Mengqi, who reigned as the Emperor Duanzong, was a drunk and a notorious lech, prone to orgies with dozens of participants. While he was a horrible emperor, his death in 1274 was still a major blow to the Song resistance against the Mongols. His son and successor, Zhao Xian, was only four, and the fate of Chinese civilization was in his sticky little hands. The borders were crumbling, old allies were turning against the court, and he still had to keep up with potty training. The boy’s mother and grandmother did what they could to rally the people to the Song cause while at the same time sending signals to the Mongols that they would be willing to surrender if they could get guarantees for their safety.
In 1276, the Mongols accepted their terms of surrender, taking the boy emperor as a prize and bargaining chip. The armies of Mongol leader Kublai Khan packed Zhao Xian — and most of his family — to the capital at Dadu (present-day Beijing) and enfeoffed the deposed child monarch as a duke in their newly proclaimed Yuan Dynasty.
Turns out he was the luckiest of the sons of Zhao Mengqi.
Once Zhao Xian was carted off to Kublai’s capital, Zhao Xian’s older brother — Zhao Shi, age eight — was named the new Song Emperor. Without a capital, the court took to the road, perpetually on the run from the Mongol armies and their allies. The Song court fled south by boat for Guangdong. Along the way, they somehow managed to drop Zhao Shi in the ocean. Fortunately, the Song imperial guards were able to fish the young emperor out of the water, but the dunking left him ill and he died a short time later on what is today Lantau Island, Hong Kong.
The last brother was even less lucky. With the death of Zhao Shi, his younger brother, Zhao Bing, became last toddler standing. With nowhere left to run on land, the Song resistance turned and face the Mongolian invaders in an epic sea battle fought in 1279 off the coast of Guangdong.
During the Battle of Yamen, a thousand Song ships were chained together and slathered with mud (to protect them from attacks by Mongolian fire ships). Outnumbered and unable to break the line, the Mongol navy blockaded the Song fleet, preventing the Song ships from resupplying with food and fresh water. Soon the Song troops were weakened by a lack of food and many resorted to drinking sea water to slake their thirst.
On March 18, 1279, the Mongol navy began their assault. The Mongolian ships moved in close to the chained Song vessels and wave after wave of wave of troops swarmed the ships, firing arrows and using firebombs to create a deadly and chaotic floating battlefield. The Song troops, already ill and weak from the effects of the blockade, were easily overwhelmed. Their ships, chained in a line, could not easily be maneuvered for defense, reinforcements, or retreat.
As ships sank and the sea off the coast of Guangdong filled with corpses, the Mongol ships approached the vessel carrying Zhao Shi and his court. According to legend, rather than hand the boy over to the enemy, Lu Xiufu, a prime minister in Zhao Shi’s court, grabbed the young ruler and jumped into the sea drowning them both. Other members of the court followed them into the water depriving the Mongols of their royal prisoners. The Song Dynasty had come to a watery end.
A version of this post originally published in Here! Dongguan on December 15, 2019