Zhao Tianyao (1040-1100): A Philanthropist Merchant in Song China

Zhao TianyaoThe Song dynasty, a time when “China was arguably the richest country in the world”[1], has left mountains of stories for the descendent to admire. And this paragraph this the biography of an outstanding silk merchant, lay Buddhist, non-typical Confucian scholar, and poet of the bold, unstrained school: Zhao Tianyao

Though he had the surname of “Zhao”, Tianyao’s family actually has no relation with the royal family. Tianyao’s father, Zhao Zhan, was the son of a common raw silk merchant who lived and worked in the modern Hubei province. But when he was young, there happened to be a Japanese travelling merchant living a few years as his neighbor. For a child during the age of curiosity, he went to “examine” the “Wo Ren” (refers to Japanese at that time) a lot, and also learned some basic Japanese from that merchant. As he reached the year of 20, he started to participate in silk trading. But not a long time later, he heard that the silk trading with foreigners in Hangzhou, especially with the Japanese, was promisingly profitable. Thinking that he could take advantage of his knowledge of speaking Japanese, he made up his mind to move to Hangzhou and to get involved in international trade. Tianyao’s grandfather, though not willing to move as a old man for himself, approved of his son, and supported him with as large of a budget as he could. Then Zhao Zhan set off to Hangzhou. It was difficult at first to start business in a new place and somehow in a new field (the trading in Hangzhou was fine silk, not raw ones), Tianyao’s father managed to build a stable relationship with some local and Japanese traders, and became successful after spending 6 years in Hangzhou. The same year he married a girl from the local Bai family, whose family was a reliable partner in his business. And after 2 years, in 1040 A.D., Tianyao was born.

Tianyao started to surprise his parents as soon as he came into the world — he did not sleep like other newborn babies during the first day, and just gazed at his surroundings. Later, though he started to sleep like usual babies, he seemed not to “speak” at all, no matter how his parents tried to lure him say “mom” or “papa”. About 10 months later, just when his parent started to worry that he is dumb, or stupid, he spoke for the first time in his life one evening: “lit the candle”— in a very clear pronunciation, unlike the blurred murmur of a child who is just learning to speak. His parents were really surprised and excited to know their boy is actually talented. And soon their friend received the news that the Zhao family had a “wonder child”.

Seeing his talent, his father decided to send him to a local famous scholar and study for the future civil exam. Because “…during Song, civil service examination (Ke Ju) became the primary means of recruiting officials”[2], and his father, though being a successful merchant, always wanted to have an official emerge in the family’s linage. So little Tianyao started to study the ancient literatures at a scholar’s house at around 5. But soon he found that the rigid pattern of the civil exam was too boring and useless, instead, he preferred to indulge in the fantasy world of poems. Of course, his father never approved this idea. But little Tianyao started to show a strong-minded personality at that age. Though never openly arguing with his father about his depiction of civil exams, he never truly spent any effort learning it, and this really frustrated his father.

At the age of 15 (1055A.D.), Tianyao had an intense argument with his father, because his father was trying to throw away some of his treasured poetry books. This was the first time Tianyao stated openly to his father that he had no interest in the civil exam at all. As you may imagine, his father made the decision to lock him up and force him to study in a rage. But Tianyao is not the kind of person who “sit and wait for a sentence”. He made a bold action: sneaking out of his home, and hiding in an unremarkable temple in the county near Hangzhou province. The reason for him to choose a temple was his mother: His mother was a lay Buddhist and took him to lot of temples and Buddhist affairs when he was a toddler. So he is quite familiar with the practice of Buddhism. To disguise himself better, he cut off his hair, and started life as a monk, and even received the dharma name “Zhen Cheng”.

Then 5 years passed (1060 A.D.). One day, when he was during morning course in the hall, he saw a visitor come with a worried facial impression. Surprised to see someone come at such an early time, he paid attention and listened to him. After kneeling down and chanting for a few seconds, the visitor mentioned his purpose: begging for his father for recovering from sickness. Hearing the visitor’s words, Tianyao suddenly remembered his parents, and started to feel guilty for failing to fulfill the responsibility as a son by escaping. After hesitating for a few days, he finally decided to return.

Then there was a happy and touching family reunion; it’s not able to use words to describe how happy his parents are. What’s more, his father gave up on the thought to force him to attend the civil exam. And as a man at 20, he performed the Adult Rites at home, and got “Zi yuan(子元)” as the secondary personal name. Seeing that he was not going to take the civil exam, his father starting to let him experience the trading business. Being a talented, yet easy-going person, and having the background of his father, Tianyao soon became popular among his father’s business partners. Meanwhile he still participated in Buddhist affairs.

One day in his mid-twenties, Tianyao was wandering on the street and saw two inn servants bullringing a beggar, like a boy who might be begging for food from the inn. He stopped them, and bought a few steamed breads for that little boy. To his surprise, that boy thanked him politely and, though looking like he was starving, he did not take a single bite, and rushed to someplace instead. Tianyao became interested and followed him. And finally he reached a tiny, shattered hut where a few, about 6 or 7 kids lived. They all looked malnourished, and some were even suffering from illness. Tianyao showed up and talked with the boy whom he had just met, and figured out their background: They were trying to move from the northern part of China to here with their family, but unfortunately they were caught by a group of bandits on the way. The adults were all slaughtered, only a few children managed to run away. Yet, they do not have any income, nor were most of them old or experienced enough to find a job. So the boy that Tianyao met, as the oldest among them, went to the street and tried begging for food for all of them. Tianyao was deeply moved by their suffering and struggling. As a person who was affected deeply by Buddhism, he quickly decided to adopt those kids. And actually, he adopted more and more kids, and the kids he adopted did the same thing, finally ending up as a famous orphanage built under his name.

At the year of 30 (1070 A.D.), his father felt he was experienced enough and also feeling himself getting aged, let him take over the silk trading business. Since Tianyao built a nice social network among peers and the officials by his talented but kind and easy-going nature during the past years, he gained renown in the local area by his benevolent deeds, and so he was successful in the business.

One year later (1071A.D.), the great poet Su Shi (Su Dongpo) exited the court and come to Hangzhou because he “was very much at odds with the Wang Anshi regime” and “resigned his court position and requested assignment elsewhere”[3]. Tianyao never gave much attention to the political affairs even when “Wang Anshi and his followers were infatuated with the potential of money… They loved its many advantage” [4], which sounds a lot like having a relationship with merchants — the job basically dealing with money every day. But he became friend with Su Shi soon after they met, in the poetry field. Both of them were talented at a young age, and they also shared the same point of “following no pattern” in poetry. They and other friends often spent time “in long weekends of quiet of quiet in the lovely monasteries in the green valleys around West Lake”, and they always remained in contact by mail after Su Shi left Hangzhou in 1074 A.D.

One day in the 1070’s, seeing some orphans he adopted had grown up, Tianyao felt like it was about time to help them decide their future occupation as the “father of a big family”. Due to his own experience in childhood, he decided to test the kids’ interest and focus. So he gathered five of the oldest kids: Zhao Jin, Zhao Yin, Zhao Yi, Zhao Lin (琳, a girl) and Zhao Lin (麟, a boy). Then he showed them a poem of the great Tang poet Li Bai:

Drinking Alone With Moon:

From a pot of wine among the flowers 

I drank alone. There was no one with me —
Till, raising my cup, I asked the bright moon
To bring me my shadow and make us three.
Alas, the moon was unable to drink
And my shadow tagged me vacantly;
But still for a while I had these friends
To cheer me through the end of spring…
I sang. The moon encouraged me.
I danced. My shadow tumbled after.
As long as I knew, we were boon companions.
And then I was drunk, and we lost one another.
…Shall goodwill ever be secure? 

I watch the long road of the River of Stars.

Then he asked: “What’s the first idea showing up in your mind when you finished reading it? — I am not asking for your understanding of the poem, just tell me what you are thinking. And,” he turned his face to Zhao Jin “you go first since you are the oldest.” Zhao Jin, the same orphan Tianyao met on the street on that day, spoke up: “In the literature field, that was a really nice and fancy poem. But as a capable adult man, shouldn’t he try to do a more meaningful, creative thing, rather than get himself drunk alone?”
“Oh come on, brother, don’t be that strict and boring. Why don’t you try to enjoy the romantic feeling laid in the words for once?” said Zhao Yin, who also has talent in poem, but often got scolded for idling around by his responsible brother, Jin. “How could you call wasting time as ro…”
—“Alright, enough, you two,” Tianyao stopped their argument, “let the others speak first. So, Yi?”
“well, I just somehow feel …sympathy. It’s sounds so lonely that you cannot find anyone to have fun with you”, said Zhao Yi, in his usual gentle and soft tune. “How about you, Lin(琳)?”
“I am a little worried about his health.”
“Health?” “Yes, getting drunk on a cold night could let the ‘evil wind’ enter your body, and this will cause… So in order to prevent getting ill, he should eat some…”
— “I should ask the doctors if they take female attendants” Tianyao thought. Then he turned his head to the youngest boy, Lin(麟), “You look lost in thought, what is on your mind?”
“Eh, I was calculating…”
— “what?”
“Well, Li Bai is famous for both his poem and his favor in liquor. I wonder how profitable it would be if someone sells some good liquor with a story relating to Li Bai…” And that test ended in laughter.

In the year of 1079 A.D., bad news reached his ear. His friend Su Shi got involved in the so-called “Wutai poem case”, and was imprisoned. Unfortunately, “the legal structure was so stacked with his enemies”[5] so Su Shi was really in danger — he could be sentenced to death. Worrying about his friend, Tianyao took as much effort as he could trying to save Su Shi. Fortunately with a lot of people’s help— even Wang Anshi himself — Su Shi wasn’t executed at last. Yet he was sent to some poor place, Huangzhou, and not allowed to leave until the death of the current emperor, Shenzong in 1085.

In the year of 1089, the West Lake had a severe flood problem. Though Tianyao and other local people supported the officials with budget and labor, little effort was made. Then the court sent Su Shi back to Hangzhou to deal with the flood. Having little time to celebrate their reunion, Su Shi lead the local people and started the hard work. He “relieve[d] the plight of refugees displaced from nearby areas by floods”[6], built the well-known “Su Dam”, and succeed to “bring the complicated West Lake water system under control”[6] Meanwhile, Tianyao took a lot of effort to help those homeless people who suffered from the flood, and as you can imagine, he had more kids in the orphanage. He became known as the “great philanthropist Zhao” in the local area, some families even have a memorial tablet for him. Then Su Shi lived here until summoned by the court in 1091 A.D.

In the year of 1096, feeling bored and tired for engaging in business, Tianyao passed his business to one of his children (adopted orphan) Zhao Lin (麟), who was the one thinking of making money by Li Bai’s fame. And he started to travel around.

In the year of 1097, Tianyao decided to visit the so-call south edge of China, Danzhou (儋州) in modern Hainan province, though that place is described as nothing but a barren land. On his way to Danzhou, he heard the news that his friend Su Shi was banished again, and this time Su Shi’s orientation was also Danzhou. So Tianyao waited for his old friend in Danzhou for a few weeks, and successfully surprised him. He supported Su Shi with a budget after hearing Su Shi’s plan of building a school and teaching there. Seeing his friend still being optimistic, Tianyao left Danzhou and headed back home.

On the way home, Tianyao caught a disease. Though it has been cured at last, the disease imposed a severe damage to his health for man at that age (near 58). So he spent most of his remaining life in bed after returning home.

In 1100 A.D., Tianyao’s health started to get really bad. And on one day in April, he passed away peacefully having his “sons” and “daughters” surround him.


  1. Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York; W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2000. Print. Page 237.
  2. Hansen, 243
  3. Wills, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton; Princeton University Press, 1994. Print. Page 160.
  4. Hansen, 245
  5. Wills, 163
  6. Wills, 165

Thumbnail: Tianyao Zhao

TIANYAO ZHAO is a Chinese undergraduate student majors in BME in the University of Rochester.  He likes to play bamboo flute in spare times. More by Tianyao