The Favored Imperial Concubine

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Yang Yuhuan ( 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.

Historically, 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.

Normally, 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.

The poem 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:

Yang Guifei in the Rainbow and Feather Garment Dance.

Illustration is courtesy of Journeyeast

Her 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."

The emperor’s 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.

Xuanzong Emperor 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.

In the 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 powers.

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.

The Emperor 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 scarf. 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.

The rebellion 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 her eyebrows.

The emperor 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 is made.”

On each 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.”

Alas, "heaven 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

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