Plump, vivacious Yang Guifei is one of the Four Great Beauties of Ancient China. Who was she, and why was she so hated during her time and only to be pitied by generations to come? Today we explore this woman who is blamed for bringing down a nation and the man who loved her.
Helen of Troy's face launched a thousand ships, and Yang Guifei's brought down the greatest dynasty of Imperial China. In this episode of "Chinese History: Legendary Figure Painting," I share the juicy backstory of Yang Guifei, the subject of my recent painting, A World without Flowers.
Again, if you enjoy learning about this kind of stuff, do let me know so I'll be sure to keep it up. And if you have any suggestions or ideas, I'd love to hear them as well. Thanks and enjoy.
Hi everyone, you're watching an episode of Chinese History: Legendary Figure Painting, where I share the juicy back story of Yang Guifei, the subject of one of my recent paintings. The vast majority of images shown in this video are by Tang artists, though some are also by modern day illustrators. Please check out their incredible work in the reference links below. So in one of my paintings, I painted Yang Guifei, floating in a lotus pond. She is known as one of the Four Great Beauties of Ancient China, with a face so fair she puts flowers to shame. Her story is one of love that reached great heights only to end in tragedy.
Yang Guifei was born as Yang Yuhuan in 719. She was the youngest of four daughters to a regional census official serving in what is now modern-day Sichuan. Her father died when she was relatively young, so Yang was actually raised by her uncle's family.
At this time, the Tang emperor was already well into height of his 44-year reign. With the help and influence of well-appointed and capable chancellors, the Tang Dynasty was reaching the climax as what historians would now call the golden age of imperial China. The Tang held a quarter of the world population at likely 80 million people, with Chang'an, its capital, as the most populous city in the world. It not only enjoyed a highly diverse and cosmopolitan culture, but also secured a strong military to protect its border relationships and lucrative trade routes like the Silk Road.
Religious and technological advancement went hand in hand as the introduction of wood-block printing allowed religious texts and sutras to be created and distributed more cheaply. The prominence of education and civil service through imperial examinations was also accompanied by an explosion of literature, poetry, and philosophy.
Leisure activities, sports, art, and music were all well appreciated by the upper classes of civil and aristocratic elites. Even women benefited from more liberal-minded social policies. All in all, this was a time of political stability, economic prosperity, and significant advances in education, religion, and arts and culture.
Yang thrived in this environment, and when she was only 14 years old, she was married to the imperial prince Li Mao. He was the oldest son of the emperor and Consort Wu. At the time, Consort Wu – Yang's now mother-in-law – was the most important woman in the emperor's eyes. Though she lobbied heavily to have Li Mao named crown prince, she did not succeed, having died not long after her son's marriage.
Her death drove Xuanzong into deep depression. Already, he had begun to weary of his affairs of state and increasingly indulged in the kind of pleasure-seeking and lavish lifestyle that the most powerful empire in the world could offer him. However, despite all the worldly pleasures and the responsibility of governing an empire before him, Xuanzong could not be roused into action. He was a man of deep feeling, and Consort Wu's death left him completely at sea.
Meanwhile, Yang was living in the palace not far from her father-in-law, completely unaware of how her life would be completely changed by this man. Legend has it that one day, while walking in the gardens, Yang came across the flowers of a mimosa. As she leaned close to smell its fragrance, the mimosa found itself completely eclipsed by Yang's beauty and retracted its blossoms at her touch. From then on, word of her lovely appearance spread through the court like wildfire. She had a face that put flowers to shame, a plump and pleasing figure, and incredibly fair skin. Finally, the emperor took notice, and for the first time since Consort Wu's death, Xuanzong found a reason to live again. He was 54 years old and madly in love with his 19-year-old daughter-in-law.
Looking back in history, I try to keep an open mind about what's considered socially acceptable behavior. I could have easily believed that the Tang emperor was so powerful, that he could have taken his son's wife at will and no one would have cared. But apparently, that was not the case in 8th century China. Even the all powerful emperor Xuanzong could not marry Yang.
By all accounts, she was considered his daughter now, and Confucian customs – which held the relationship between father and child sacred above all else – denied even the emperor the object of his love. She was forbidden fruit, and perhaps all the more enticing because of it.
So, what kind of a woman was Yang? Beyond being extraordinarily beautiful, what do we really know about her? I couldn't find any account on Yang beyond what is in imperial record and passed down in legend. Like many underrepresented groups in history, we gather what we know about based on history recorded through the eyes of others. So, much of what I infer about this woman is a reflection of her time, and also the man who fell so deeply in love with her, as a mirror into her person. So let's get to know Xuanzong better.
Xuanzong's ascension to the throne was preceded by all the sinister political intrigue, bloody family backstabbing, and imperial upheaval that any Hollywood director could wish for. He was the grandson of the only officially recognized empress regnant in Chinese history who had coopted the throne from her much weaker sons.
In a series of power struggles far too complicated for me to do them justice here, let's just say that the throne would pass among various hands of emperors, empresses, and regents alike for nearly 20 years, but Xuanzong ultimately outmaneuvered them all through multiple coups, and he became emperor in 712.
Now, for someone to succeed in this highly toxic environment, you might think that Xuanzong was some ruthless, power-hungry mastermind, but he was in fact a man of many talents. He was not only handsome and musical, he practiced calligraphy and wrote poetry as well. His interests also tended towards the outdoors; as a young man, he was a great hunter. And aristocratic families were all wild about archery, hawking, polo, and of course, horses. Prancing horses would often be seen entertaining in court, even concluding their performance by taking a cup of wine in their mouths and drinking it down in one gulp as shown in this sculpture. He had a lover's soul and an immense appreciation for the arts both domestic and exotic, a cosmopolitan interest in world affairs, and a deep desire for an open debate of ideas and philosophies in his court. Xuanzong also made it a habit of collecting thousands upon thousands of concubines – more than most other Tang emperors. He hoarded them in such a way that some of these women were not even granted their freedom until after they were 60 years old. With these women, he fathered 59 formally recognized children, about 50-50 sons and daughters. However, we know that he especially favored only a small number of women in his life: his wife Empress Wang, Consort Wu who we met before, and Yang.
Empress Wang was kind of like the woman in the story who marries a man years before he makes it. She's there for him, helping him from the beginning, but then of course gets cast aside as soon as he hits the big time. Wang supported Xuanzong in his bid for the throne and participated in her husband's coup to overthrow his grandmother. As empress, Wang was known to have talked with her husband here and there about policy, represented the imperial household in symbolic ceremonies that supported farming and the like, and was known to have been kind to her servants as well. But of course, in this world, no good woman goes unpunished, and Empress Wang eventually fell out of favor with her husband because of her age and fading beauty, and because she never had a son. Desperate to keep her husband, she ended up alienating him further by bickering with him more and more often, driving him into the arms of another woman. Wang was deposed, reduced to commoner status, and died shortly afterwards. Upon her death, Xuanzong did regret his ill treatment of her, but it was too little too late, and he seemed to console himself quite well with woman #2: Consort Wu.
Consort Wu was already the apple of the emperor's eye well before the empress was deposed. She was actually his cousin, they shared the same infamous grandmother who reigned as empress regnant before being overthrown by Xuanzong. For this reason, Consort Wu was never officially made empress, though Xuanzong definitely wanted to. People were still traumatized by the previous Empress Wu that they really weren't feeling up to having a second one. Nonetheless, her rank was elevated to the highest level for a consort at the time, and as we covered before, she was the de facto lady of the imperial house for the rest of her life. Consort Wu was known to have been ambitious, political, and conniving, especially when it came to promoting her son, Li Mao to be named crown prince – including hatching an evil plot to kill three of his rivals that led to their eventual executions. Apparently she was continuously haunted by visions of the three dead princes thereafter.
Finally, we arrive at the woman of the hour, Yang Yuhuan – Xuanzong's daughter-in-law, who where we last left off, finally made life worth living again for the middle-aged emperor after Consort Wu died. But, how do we get through the moral quandary that is his son's marriage? Let's just be clear here, that we're in a time when “free love was absolutely banned in ancient China and was widely condemned as an offence to public decency according to the traditional Confucian ethic codes ... Not only was the arranged marriage formally favored by society, but it was also politically supported and enhanced by law.”
Marriage was the cornerstone to order in Confucian society, and everyone had to follow specific codes and patterns when it came to getting married, as determined by one's parents, official matchmakers, and the rule of law. Men and women did not see even each other before their wedding day, resulting in many unequal and loveless marriages over time. The odds of marrying your soulmate were ridiculously tiny, so upper-class men instead often visited brothels and engaged in lively, intelligent conversation and enjoyed the company of talented, educated, and musical courtesans.
The emperor could, of course, do so with his many concubines, but he could not make Yang his concubine with his son's marriage standing in the way. Forcing a divorce and taking Yang as his consort would have drawn the stark disapproval of his court, so instead, the emperor made Yang leave her marriage by becoming a Taoist nun. For seven years, Yang lived as a nun by day but by night was secretly escorted to the emperor's quarters. After a respectable amount of time in which, Li Mao was appointed a new bride and remarried, was Yang then reintroduced to the court, given a newly created title for the highest consort, and made Yang Guifei in 745. Pretty shady.
Shady as this all was, by all accounts Xuanzong and Yang were in fact very happy together. Skeptics might say that a beautiful woman and her all powerful sugar daddy had no reason not to be happy, but their relationship was likely more than that. We know that Xuanzong was an educated and talented man, and to hold his interest, Yang must have been more than just a pretty face. She was known to be a skilled musician, singer, and a lover of poetry herself. She was vivacious, a truly inspired singer and dancer, and a devoted horsewoman. She and the emperor would spend hours talking late into the night while bathing in the hot springs of the famous Hua Qing Palace. They must have been – simply put – soulmates who found each other in spite of the rigorous barriers set by their social customs at the time.
Now, well before Yang came into the picture, the emperor himself was getting a little old and probably tired of his official duties and state responsibilities. His chancellors were having trouble keeping his eye on the ball, and it only got worse with someone like Yang acting as a distraction. Blinded by his happiness, the emperor wanted nothing more than to retire and do as he pleased. Chancellors who tried to be honest and reign in his actions for the benefit of the country were replaced by those who flattered his whims and desires, as an absent emperor was a benefit for ambitious scholar-politicians to amass greater power and wealth behind his back.
Yang and her family were particularly spoiled rotten during this time. They received all kinds of favors, titles, and positions of power from the emperor, and everyone tried to curry favor with them, knowing that they had the greatest influence on the throne. One of Yang's cousins managed to attain a position as the emperor's chancellor, but despite his successes, he was jealous and fearful of his rivals – particularly, a military fellow named An who due to flattery and maneuverings of his own, increasingly gained more and more power in the North and eventually got a huge chunk of the Chinese army under his command.
In 755, at the height of the Tang Dynasty when it seemed impossible to imagine that any outside attack could succeed against, it was ultimately an internal rebellion that brought about the Tang's downward spiral. Commander An marched with his seasoned, rebel army on Luoyang, capturing the second largest city, and caused Xuanzong's court to flee the capital of Changan until they could regroup. Along the way, the imperial soldiers grew so angry at the state of affairs, and even though there was enough blame to go around from the emperor on down, it was the Yang family that got ALL it all. The soldiers executed the chancellor and killed many of the Yang family before the emperor stepped in to stop the slaughter. The soldiers grew only angrier and demanded that Yang Guifei herself be sentenced to death as well. The Yang family fortunes had really turned. They went from being the most rich and powerful to being the most hated family of all, and the soldiers could not be satisfied unless the weed of corruption had been torn from its roots, truly believing that the root of all their problems boiled down to one woman, Yang Guifei.
The emperor initially refused to give up his beloved consort, but in the end, he had to comply with the soldiers' demands. Both the emperor and Yang knew that though it wasn't necessarily fair, when it came down to the emperor choosing between the love of one woman and the love of one's country, his country did come first. In the end, rather than lose the loyalty of his followers and protectors of the Tang Dynasty, the emperor sacrificed his personal happiness. Yang Guifei was strangled to death by the emperor's most trusted eunuch using a length of silk, in a Buddhist shrine and was buried unceremoniously in nothing but a perfumed bag.
The emperor abdicated the throne to one of his sons shortly afterwards and served as a retired emperor. Xuanzong would fade away into history, and join his love five years after her death. Though he lived to see the capital recaptured and the Tang Dynasty reestablished, it was no longer the same empire it once was. In the intervening years, regional military governorships that had already started to proliferate years ago, took greater hold, further weakening the central government's authority in state matters. These military governors phased out civil service offices in favor of hereditary appointments and lines of succession, setting the stage for the end of the Tang and plunging China into war and political upheaval between more than a dozen concurrent states.
And that's the story of the doomed love of Yang Guifei and Emperor Xuanzong. There are alternate endings floating around – some say Xuanzong himself strangled her, some say she escaped to Japan. Whether you consider Yang Guifei to be just a selfish temptress who got her just deserts, or a tragic Helen of Troy kind of character whose only mistake was to fall in love, it's really anyone's guess. Personally, I like think that she was probably a little of both. But if any lesson is to be learned from this story, it's probably that gem of a line from The Amazing Spider-Man: With great power comes great responsibility.
A normal man of a normal social status might have been able to indulge in his relationship, blind to the world around him, without too many negative consequences, but not when you're an emperor. The political and economic stability of Xuanzong's country and consequently the prosperity of his people depended on his unfailing leadership and that of those he appointed to positions of power. It was a delicate balance that required constant attention, and he neglected his duty as emperor for his own personal bliss. Not to say that Xuanzong made the wrong choice... I don't know that many of us could have withstood the pressure of being a head of state for so long so successfully without making one fatal mistake or another eventually, but history does go down putting a woman at the center of the conflict: Yang Guifei, a woman so beautiful as the popular Chinese saying now goes, she put flowers to shame.
That's another episode of Chinese History: Legendary Figure Painting. Again, if you have any comments, corrections or suggestions for future topics, please do let me know by leaving a message below. I'll catch you next time, thanks for watching.