It was hard being a woman in Ancient China. Nor did being beautiful help much either, as there was a Chinese saying, “Beautiful women are often unfortunate/short-lived.” A beautiful woman may be promoted to a higher station by winning the favour of the emperor or a high ranking noble officer. However, such beauty may even earn envy, and even ultimately death. Beautiful concubines often became the scapegoat for an emperor’s foolery and even a nation’s downfall. Perhaps such is the life of Yang Guifei, who, after a life of luxury, was strangled to death in the midst of a rebellion.
This story starts with the death of another woman, Emperor Xuan Zong’s beloved concubine Lady Wu in the year of 737 A.D. The Emperor was deeply saddened, and none of the beautiful court ladies could entice his interest. His favourite attendant Gao Lishi was anxious to please him. He sought beauties from far and wide, but none of them could lift the Emperor’s mood.
Rumours about the extraordinary beauty of a particular lady came to the emperor’s ear. He decided to summon her, and was stunned by her extraordinary beauty. She was so lovely, that the other ladies dulled in comparison. The emperor was smitten. He decided to make her his concubine by hook or by crook.
The aforementioned lady was from the Yang family, with the name of ‘Yu Huan’. (Literally ‘jade bracelet’) She was orphaned at a young age, and was brought up by her uncle who was a minor court officer. She was later listed as one of the ‘Four Greatest Beauties of China’.
However, there was a little glitch. Yu Huan was already married, and that to the emperor’s own son by his late favourite–a prince whose name was Li Mao. It was unthinkable, in ancient China with its strict Confucian ideals of family relations, for a father-in-law to marry his own daughter-in-law. In other words, it was plain incest. But the emperor had a way out of this sticky situation.
He ordered the lady to become a Taoist nun, with the name of ‘Tai Zhen’. His ‘excuse’, was that she had to pray for the departed soul of his late mother. By doing so, she was considered separated from her former husband. After a certain period of time, the emperor ordered his son to marry the daughter of another court officer, and took Yu Huan for himself. She was given the newly-created the title of ‘Guifei’ or ‘Royal Concubine’, the highest rank for a concubine then.
Heavens know how she felt about this transition, of leaving her husband of 5 (some say 10) years. However the emperor’s orders had to be obeyed, and this process of marrying one’s own daughter-in-law was completed smoothly.
The new concubine became the emperor’s favourite. Lady Yang was extremely talented in performing arts. She could dance and play the ‘pipa’ very well. Coincidentally, the emperor was also a great fan of music and dance. The two were more than lovers; they became soul mates. It was said that Lady Yang, upon having a dream about visiting the ‘Moon Palace’, composed a famous tune ‘Dance of Rainbow Gowns and Feathered Costumes’. However other sources claim that it was the emperor himself who composed the tune.
Many legends persist about Lady Yang’s beauty. A story recounts an incident when she was strolling in the palace gardens. She accidentally touched the leaves of a mimosa plant which closed immediately. Her ladies flattered her by saying that even the flowers felt ashamed in her presence. Hence she earned the title of ‘the one who makes the flowers ashamed’.
Along with Lady Yang’s rise to Imperial favour, her family also were bestowed with titles, wealth and fortune. Her cousin Yang Zhao, once a gambler and a wastrel, was given the name ‘Guo Zhong’ (Loyal to the Nation) and was later made the Emperor’s Chancellor. Lady Yang’s three eldest sisters were conferred the title of the ladies of Han, Guo, and Qin respectively. Among the three sisters, Lady Guo was said to be a natural beauty, and unlike the ladies of that time who loved to put on thick makeup, she was so confident with her looks that she went about with hardly any makeup on at all. Two princesses and two noble ladies were married into the Yang clan in total. The Yang family enjoyed such favour to the extent that the people began to think that having a daughter was way better than having a son. (Note: in Ancient China, the birth of a daughter was less welcomed than a son). However, they became so unbearably high and mighty that, despite their many flatterers, they also had many haters in court.
Things were not always bright for Lady Yang. She was actually chased out of the palace twice, for behaving in a jealous manner and evoking the emperor’s displeasure. The first time she was sent away, the emperor moped about the entire day and had no appetite for a meal. He was extremely upset and his servants and attendants got into trouble for little mistakes. His favourite attendant Gao Lishi suggested that he send Lady Yang’s belongings to her, in order to make her comfortable with her new surroundings. The emperor agreed to it, and it is recorded that her belongings were enough to fill up more than hundred carts. The emperor even sent half of his meal to her. As night fell, the emperor missed her so badly that in the end, he decided to invite her back after all.
The second time, Lady Yang’s offence seemed worse, as the emperor made no move to call her back after a day. She begged his forgiveness by writing a touching letter along with a lock of her hair as a token of her love. Hair in Ancient China was considered a deeply personal item and no one (except monks and nuns) cut their hair, as it was considered an unfilial act to one’s parents. This move touched the emperor, and he invited Lady Yang back. After this incident, their affection for each other deepened.
Lady Yang was from the south of China, and her favourite fruit were lychees, which was not grown in the north. The emperor decided to transport some for her. However lychees could not be kept for long, and turned bad quickly. There were no refrigerators or canned food back then, so guess what the emperor did? He ordered the lychees to be transported by horseback without stop. Rest stations were set up along the road for changing of horses, and many people and horses were pushed to the brink of extreme weariness， “just to win the smile of the concubine”, as a poem depicted. It wasn’t a matter of concern to the emperor at all. Well, nothing mattered as long as Lady Yang was happy.
To this point, things seem to be going on pretty well for Lady Yang. She eclipsed every one else in the palace, which was no easy feat, since the emperor had 3000 palace ladies at his beck and call. But the emperor had only eyes for her. But things began to go terribly wrong at a point.
There was this guy, An Lushan, who had mixed heritages of Han Chinese and Hu. He was a master at the art of flattery, and won the emperor’s favour almost immediately. Once, when he saw the emperor and Lady Yang, he paid his respect to Lady Yang first before the emperor. When the emperor asked him the reason, he smiled and said, “Our Hu people honour one’s mother very highly. For us, the mother comes before the father.” His words earned the emperor’s and Lady Yang’s pleasure, and he became their ‘adopted son’, despite the fact that he was considerably older than Lady Yang. Things came to a point when Lady Yang had a frolic with him in the palace, by bathing him and swathing him in baby clothes. Was the emperor furious with her for that? No. In fact, he found the scene extremely funny, and rewarded both of them generously.
Remember Lady Yang’s cousin Yang Guozhong? He actually had a part to play in her downfall. He was in bad terms with An Lushan, and the latter retaliated, by stirring up a rebellion with the excuse of punishing Yang Guozhong. The rebellion could not be controlled, and in the end, even the imperial city fell into the hands of the rebellious forces. This rebellion marked the deterioration of the Tang dynasty, and was also caused by the inefficient leadership of the emperor.
The emperor was forced to flee with an entourage. He took Lady Yang and her cousin Yang Guozhong with him. After a long journey, they reached Mawei station. The guards were tired, thirsty and hungry. They demanded Yang Guozhong for food, and then accused him of treason and killed him by shooting arrows at him. His son was killed as well. However, the angry soldiers were still unappeased and they demanded to kill the cause of all the trouble–Lady Yang. The emperor was unwilling to do so, but in the end, he was left with no other choice, as the soldiers refused to disperse.
So, the great beauty was led to the front of a Buddhist shrine, and was strangled to death by Gao Lishi. She was but thirty-eight when she died, at the prime of her life. According to a poem by the poet Bai Juyi, her valuable hair ornaments were scattered all over the floor as she was being strangled, and the emperor covered his face, barely able to watch. When he looked back his face was tear-stained.
It is said that the emperor was deeply saddened by her death and often remembered her in the years to come. When the rebellion was over, he tried to relocate her body for a proper reburial, but it had decomposed, though a fragrance bag buried with her was still fresh. The emperor wept bitter tears at the sight of it.
A poem was written about their love by Bai Juyi, entitled ‘The Song of Everlasting Sorrow’. Its final lines sum up the tragedy of their love story.
“Heaven and earth may have an end, but this sorrow is for eternity.”
Note 1: Yang Guifei was actually overweight, despite the various pictures that portrayed her to be a slim and willowy woman. She was actually the representation of Tang dynasty’s ideal of beauty, which preferred fleshy women to slim women.
Note 2: The name ‘Yang’ (楊）is a common Chinese family name, which also happens to be my surname.
By Xuelin Yeong