( A.D. 713 — A.D. 756) is known as one of the four ancient Chinese beauties. Like
the other three, Yuhuan was a historical as well as a legendary figure.
Yang Yuhuan was the wife of Prince Shou, the son of Xuanzong Emperor of
the Tang dynasty. Coveting her beauty, Xuanzong Emperor wanted to have
her as his concubine. As he could not openly marry his daughter-in-law,
he did it in a devious way. He first made Yang Yuhuan a Taoist nun. Then
he gave her the title of Yang the Supreme Truth, which entitled her to
become a member of his court. Soon, in A.D. 745, Xuanzong Emperor conferred
the title of Guifei (First Lady) to Yuhuan, making her his most favorite
woman in the court to the dismay of hundreds of his other concubines.
an emperor would not care about a serious love affair for a concubine.
Emperor Xuanzong's affection for Guifei Yang , however, was exceptional.
Guifei Yang , too, was very much in love with Emperor Xuangzong, and the
two became inseparable. Their romance earned admiration from generations to come,
but at the time incurred strong disapproval from the emperor's subordinates.
Consequently, as the pair fled from a rebel army, Guifei Yang was forced
to hang herself. The love affair, culminated with its tragic end, has since become a legend. Among many
of the legends, the poem “Lament of Endless Grief”
written by Bai Juyi, one of the greatest Tang poets, was the most popular.
began with the lascivious Xuanzong Emperor searching for a beautiful woman
to add to the cohort of his concubines. Finally Yang Yuhuan caught his
attention. The poet thus described what happened next:
Guifei in the Rainbow and Feather Garment Dance.
Illustration is courtesy of Journeyeast
hair like a cloud, her face like a flower,
A gold hair-pin adorning her tresses.
Behind the warm lotus-flower curtain,
They took their pleasures in the spring night.
Regretting only the spring nights were too short;
Rising only when the sun was high;
He stopped attending court sessions
In the early morning.
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 favors were centered upon her."
favors also extended to her relatives: her cousin Yang Guozhong, in particular,
was appointed prime minister. A wicked person, he made many an enemy in
and outside the court.
and Guifei Yang were both artistically minded, the former well
versed in musical instruments; the latter, in singing and dancing. Together
they often performed the then famous Rainbow Feather Garment Dance. However, good times did not last. Xuanzong Emperor was indulging himself
in the infatuation with Guifei Yang when civil war broke out on the frontiers.
first decade of the sixth century, the Tang government established many
fortresses, known as fan towns, in the northern frontiers to enforce their
defense and conferred the title of jiedushi (military governor) to their top
leaders, who were thus entitled to tremendous military, civil and financial
In A.D. 755,
a jiedushi named An Lushan became so powerful that he began to challenge
the sovereignty of Xuanzong Emperor. He led a rebellion under the banner
of ending the corrupt government of Prime Minister Yang Guozhong,
Guifei Yang’s cousin. When the rebel army marched towards Chang'an, the
capital, Xuanzong Emperor had to flee with his courtiers, escorted by an army. When
they reached a village called Mawei
Slope, a little more than a hundred li from the capital, the soldiers and their officers refused to
move on. They demanded that the Prime Minister Yang Guozhong and his cousin Yang Guifei be eliminated, blaming them for the problems
that had beset the dynasty.
Xuanzong had but to give in to their demand, even though he loved Guifei Yang dearly
and knew that she was made the scapegoat for the Prime Minister's
misdeeds. After all, his life and, by its extension, the fate of the dynasty
was more important than that of a woman. Guifei
Yang was also aware of what had happened. Grief and sorrow almost overtook
her. She did not grudge her life as much as amorous relations she had with
her regal lover. With much reluctance, she hanged herself with a white
Almighty and affectionate as he was, the emperor could not prevent the tragedy. Covering his face with his hands, he allowed
his tears to run unchecked.
was finally crushed and Xuanzong Emperor returned to his palace. Now that
Guifei Yang had gone forever, he had nothing on his mind but her memory.
Everything he saw and touched would remind him of their moments together.
The lotus roots of the lake resembled her fair skin and the willow branches
became listless and sleepless. Even though he was able to fall asleep,
the absence of his beloved guifei in his dream gave him more misery
than insomnia. Seeing that the emperor suffered so much from the death
of Guifei Yang, a Taoist priest offered to help; he claimed that he could communicate
with the deceased. He began to search for the spirit of Guifei
Yang in heaven and the underworld. Eventually, they traced her to a divine
island, upon which there stood pavilions after pavilions populated with
nymphs and fairies.Guifei Yang was the most beautiful of them all. At
the arrival of her royal lover’s envoy, she hastened out of her
chamber without much hairdo. Still she was as beautiful as when she had done the Rainbow and Feather Garment Dance. With tears, she expressed
her thanks to the envoy for bringing her the love from the emperor. “Please
tell his majesty. Though life is short in the mortal world, it is timeless
on this divine island. Give this half of my hairpin to my beloved and
let him know of my love for him: it is as firm as the gold of which it
seventh day of the seventh month, Xuanzong Emperor would visit the Longevity
Temple, where he could communicate quietly with his First Lady. He would
pray, “May we be twin birds flying side by side in heaven and twin
trees intertwined on the earth.”
and earth may not last for ever, but this sorrow is eternal," lamented
Bai Juyi at the end of his poem.
Text and translation
by Haiwang Yuan, © copyright 2003
Last update: March 15, 2006