I often wish that historians highlight the beauty of events – even if they are sad. Some stories just lend themselves to poetry. The true story of the Lady Yang Guifei and the Emperor Xuanzong of China is one of the great love stories and tragedies of all times, lending inspirations to some of the greatest poets in ancient China, including Li Bo, who wrote “A Song of Pure Happiness”, and Bo Yuji, with his poem “A Song of Unending Sorrow”. Therefore, in retelling them, it is often better that I step back and let the verses tell the story because, really, how would I even compete with great writers in the ancient world? However, if you prefer the less-romantic retelling of this story, I have written about Yang Guifei as one of the Four Great Beauties of China which you can access here.
“Appreciating feminine charms,
The Han emperor sought a great beauty.
Throughout his empire he searched
For many years without success.
Then a daughter of the Yang family
Matured to womanhood.
Since she was secluded in her chamber,
None outside had seen her.”
Yang Yuhuan, later to become Yang Guifei (713-756 CE), was the daughter of Yang Xuanyan, a census official in Sichuan. An only child who lost her father early in life, Yang Yuhuan was raised in the household of her uncle, Yang Xuangui. She grew up to be one of the few women whose beauty has caused the downfall of monarchs and nations.
“Yet with such beauty bestowed by fate,
How could she remain unknown!
One day she was chosen
To attend to the emperor.
Glancing back and smiling,
She revealed a hundred charms.
All the powdered ladies of the six palaces
At once seemed dull and colourless.
One cold spring day she was ordered
To bathe in the Huaqing Palace baths.
The warm water slipped down
Her glistening jade-like body.
When her maids helped her rise,
She looked so frail and lovely,
Immediately winning the emperor’s favour.”
In the twenty-second year of the Kaiyuan reign, Yang Yuhuan was chosen to enter the imperial harem. In the twenty-eighth year, the Tang Emperor Xuanzong summoned her to the Huaqing Palace where she first rose to imperial favour.
Her robe is a cloud, her face a flower; Her balcony, glimmering with the bright spring dew, Is either the tip of earth’s Jade Mountain Or a moon-edged roof of paradise. There’s a perfume stealing moist from a shaft of red blossom, And a mist, through the heart, from the magical Hill of Wu– The palaces of China have never known such beauty– Not even Flying Swallow with all her glittering garments. Lovely now together, his lady and his flowers Lighten for ever the Emperor’s eye, As he listens to the sighing of the far spring wind Where she leans on a railing in the Aloe Pavilion.
Emperor Xuanzong of China had many concubines, but surpassing them all was Lady Yang. “If she but turned her head and smiled, there were cast a hundred spells.” He became absorbed in her to the exclusion of all others, and of affairs of state. “The cloud of her hair, petal of her cheek, gold ripples of her crown when she moved, were sheltered on spring evenings by warm hibiscus-curtains.”
Her two lovely sisters Guo Guo and Qin Guo were brought to the court and ennobled, her cousin Yang Guozhong was appointed prime minister; her elder brother, Yangxian became an official of the second rank while her younger brother, Yangqi was given an imperial consort as his wife.
Constantly she amused and feasted with him,
Accompanying him on his spring outings,
Spending all the nights with him.
Though many beauties were in the palace,
More than three thousand of them,
All his favours were centered on her.”
There was a general named An Lushan, whom Lady Yang adopted as her son. But in 756 the exiled An Lushan led a revolt against Emperor Xuanzong, driving him from the Tang capital Chang’an.
Emperor Xuanzong fled towards the south- west, taking Yang Guifei with him.
“The emperor’s green-canopied carriage
Was forced to halt,
Having left the west city gate
More than a hundred li.
There was nothing the emperor could do,
At the army’s refusal to proceed.
They had not gone far from the capital when the soldiers refused to go on, demanding the death of Yang Guifei.
The Emperor could not save her, he could only cover his face. And later when he turned to look, the place of blood and tears Was hidden in a yellow dust blown by a cold wind.
Emperor Xuanzong had no choice but to watch Yang Guifei kill herself at the slopes of Mawei village.
“On the seventh day of the Seventh-month, in the Palace of Long Life,
We told each other secretly in the quiet midnight world
That we wished to fly in heaven, two birds with the wings of one,
And to grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree.”
Earth endures, heaven endures; some time both shall end,
While this unending sorrow goes on and on for ever.