Yang GuiFei — Beautiful Imperial Concubine and Outstanding Musician
Yang Guifei (719 — 756), named Yang Yuhuan, Taoist Name Tai Zhen, respected as Lady Yang, was one of the Four Beauties in the history of China.
No one knows her heart and real intention, but she had married the two most powerful men of that period.
Her second husband, Li Longji (685 — 762), the Emperor Xuanzong of Tang or Tang Ming Huang, was a controversial monarch of the Tang Dynasty who brought his people one of the most prosperous eras and one of the most destructive civil wars, the An-Shi Rebellion (755 — 763).
This huge political failure, however, had been frequently blamed on Yang Guifei, a gorgeous and intelligent woman.
Her attractive appearance and exceptional talent brought her admiration, honorable status, countless treasure, and an extremely luxurious life.
However, she could never control her fate and was forced to sacrifice for other people’s mistakes.
Picture of Yang Guifei or Yang Yuhuan, by Artist Yang Yijun.
Beautiful Highborn Girl and Her Happy Marriage with Prince
Yang Yuhuan was born into a noble family and was beautiful, talented, and well-educated.
After her father passed away, she was raised by her uncle.
One day, when Yang was attending a princess’s wedding, she met a prince that fell in love with her at first sight.
This prince Li Mao was the 18th son of the current emperor, and his mother was the emperor’s favorite woman, Consort Wu or Lady Wu.
Tang Dynasty Painted Figurine of Noble Woman Riding Horse — Art Institute of Chicago (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Consort Wu, the grandniece of Empress Wu Zetian, was brilliant and beautiful.
She framed up the current crown prince and the other two princes, allied with the prime minister, and tried to persuade the emperor to nominate Li Mao as the new crown prince.
Li Mao told his mother about the girl he met and fell in love with. Soon, with his parents' blessing, he married beautiful Yang Yuhuan.
A ravishing girl marrying a young man that fell in love with her at first sight and who was also the potential crown prince of the empire is supposed to be a sweet love story.
Gilding Gourd Shaped Vessels of the Tang Dynasty — Changsha Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Yang’s Separating with the Prince
Unfortunately, a few years later, Consort Wu passed away.
The emperor Li Longji, who had a few dozen beautiful imperial concubines in his palace, with over 60 documented kids, felt very sad and found no one around was attractive enough for him.
Later, when the emperor saw Yang Yuhuan at a royal family banquet, he lost himself when he laid eyes on her.
Soon, the emperor commanded Yang, his daughter-in-law, to leave her husband and practice Taoism at an imperial temple.
Since then, she was given her Taoist name Tai Zhen.
Golden Dragons (Zou Long) that used as Ritual Implements of Taoism Religion Ceremony in the Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Then, the emperor assigned another noble girl to his son, Prince Li Mao, and commanded them to get married soon.
Meanwhile, he nominated another son as the new crown prince.
Within a few years, Prince Li Mao lost his mother, his beloved wife, and his father’s love and trust, probably the potentiality of being the heir.
Since then, he had lived like other princes: married the woman his father assigned, had a few kids, and then passed away old and sick.
Cyan Glaze Porcelain Bottle of the Tang Dynasty, with Chinese Poem about Deplorable Love — Changsha Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Being the Favorite Consort of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang
After Li Mao got married, Emperor Li Longji soon awarded Yang as his consort, and they have lived together since then.
She became the most honored woman in the empire, the Consort Yang or Yang Guifei.
The emperor treated her very well. Except for the queen’s title, he gave almost everything he could to her.
Li Longji and Yang were all excellent musicians; together, they created many masterpieces that were very influential in traditional Chinese Music history.
Traditional Musical Instrument Pipa of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)
Yang, however, seemed not to treat him as just an emperor.
She still would be jealous and even argue with him sometimes, which was quite rare in a feudal empire in history.
Hence, she was sent out of the royal palace twice for disrespecting the emperor.
But every time, Li Longji would miss her and welcome her back soon.
The way Li Longji got Yang was not decent, plus Yang never got pregnant, which made her not qualified to wear the queen’s crown.
But in the royal palace, everyone treated and respected her as the real empress.
Restoration Picture of the Royal Daming Palace of the Tang Dynasty
The Powerful and Incapable House of Yang
Soon, Yang Guifei’s three sisters were rewarded honorable titles and plenty of treasures and money.
They obtained more and more power, and most imperial consorts and honorable princesses had to show them respect and compliance.
Despite their arrogance and disrespect to royal members, and they had done many things that crossed the line, the emperor never blamed them.
As long as beautiful Yang Guifei was happy, there was nothing to complain about.
Yang Guifei's Sister the Lady Guoguo and Her Guards (Guoguo Fu Ren You Chun Tu), Painted by Artist Zhang Xuan of the Tang Dynasty.
This Is the Copied Version by Zhao Ji the Emperor Huizong of Song (1082 — 1135) — Liaoning Museum
Her cousin Yang Guozhong was originally an incapable and ordinary official. It’s unclear whether Yang Guifei required the emperor to promote him, but Yang Guozhong gained many chances to get close to pleasing the emperor.
Soon, Yang Guozhong got promoted to the prime minister of Tang.
Unlike Queen Wei Zifu of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), whose family made significant contributions to their country but remained modest, Yang and her relatives mostly lived a life of luxury and arrogance.
Moreover, Yang Guozhong frequently abused his power and caused a massive loss to the empire.
He kept promoting officials close to him and insisted on initiating two failed wars against the Nanzhao Kingdom (738 — 902), which weakened Tang’s military strength.
At the same time, however, the emperor was enjoying life with Yang.
Gilding Silver Wine Cup (Yu Shang), One of Valuable Treasures that Were Buried By A Noble of Tang In A Hurry Before They Were Forced to Escape — Shaanxi History Museum
The Destructive An-Shi Rebellion
In the year 755, two strong warlords garrisoning the borders initiated a rebellion in the name of eliminating Yang Guozhong’s treacherous, unjust governance.
This was one of the most destructive wars in ancient China, the An-Shi Rebellion.
Ironically, the leader warlord An Lushan had been one of the emperor’s favorite generals and had been respecting Yang Guifei as his adoptive mother.
Emperor Li Longji was a brave and brilliant monarch when he was younger, who nominated many intelligent officials and led his empire to reach one of the most prosperous eras in the history of China.
When this war erupted, he was already 70 years old. In the beginning, he still could make the right decisions; however, he soon listened to Yang Guozhong’s stupid suggestions and caused a massive failure for Tang’s army.
Besides those brave generals framed and executed by Yang Guozhong, tens of thousands of Tang soldiers were sacrificed on the battlefield, and millions of civilians lost their homes and lives.
A few months later, the rebellion army marched toward the Tang's capital, Chang'an.
Before they arrived, the emperor took Yang Guifei, some close royal family members and officials, under the protection of his royal guards and escaped toward the southwest.
Golden-Blue Landscape Painting or Jinbi Shanshui "Minghuang Xingshu Tu" by Li Zhaodao (675 — 758), About Emperor Xuanzong of Tang Fled to Sichuan during An-Shi Rebellion. This is the copied version by people of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), preserved in the Taipei Palace Museum.
Controversial Mutiny Against the House of Yang
When other forces of Tang kept fighting against the rebel army, the emperor and his imperial guards arrived at a place named Ma Wei Po.
They lacked resources and suffered from anger, shame, and sadness.
Because the emperor decided to escape in a hurry, most of those soldiers' families were left behind in the capital city, which was now under the control of the rebel army.
A few months earlier, they were still honorable imperial guards of the most prosperous empire; out of a sudden, they were forced to leave their homes, lost contact with their families, suffered from danger and starvation, kept running with few dignities, while witnessing those homeless refugees along the road.
The Draft to Memorize Heroically Sacrificed Yan Jiming (Ji Zhi Wen Gao) that Recorded Brave Soldiers of Tang and the Intense Fights in the An-Shi Rebellion, Written By Great General and Extraordinary Calligrapher Yan Zhenqing — Taipei Museum
Hence, they killed Yang Guozhong and Yang's sisters and other family members.
Then, they threatened the emperor to kill Yang Guifei; otherwise, they would leave the emperor and stop protecting him.
One reason was that they blamed her for being the reason for changing the super-prosperous empire into one filled with wars and chaos.
Another important reason was that they worried Yang Guifei might search for vengeance for her family later.
Based on their emperor's affection for her, she was quite able to do that in the future if she's still alive.
Sacrificing Because of Other Men's Faults
The emperor chose to protect himself.
Then, Yang Guifei died.
The place and time of her death were clear, but the actual way was still unknown.
Some said she committed suicide, swallowed gold, was strangled, or hacked by many people out of chaos.
But it was clear that this was completed under the emperor's command.
Inlaying Gold Ruler of Tang — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Afterward, those imperial guards continued protecting the emperor and arrived at a safe city in the southwest.
The crown prince Li Heng (711 — 762) didn't want to keep escaping.
He decided to lead Tang's army and fight, so he left the emperor and marched northward to the battlefield.
Eight years later, the Tang's army finally won and took back their lost lands and capital city Chang'an under the commands of the crown prince and exceptional generals such as Guo Ziyi, Yan Zhenqing, and Zhang Xun.
Restored Picture of Part of the Chang'an City of Tang
There was no evidence that Yang Guifei had ever intervened in political decisions or participated in any factional political struggles.
Besides her jealousy sometimes, she was a kind person and a sweet consort.
She was beautiful enough to let a prince and an emperor fall in love with her at first sight and talented enough to be respected as one of the most excellent musicians and dancers in the history of China.
However, she did take the blame for the colossal decline and destruction that her husband and brother had caused at the expense of her own life.
Exquisite Silver Sachet that Was Popular Among Noble Women of the Tang Dynasty — Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Afterward, she was frequently mentioned in poems and literature, but mostly with sympathy.
Some of them eulogized her beauty, talent, and her love story with emperor Li Longji; the most famous one is "Song of Everlasting Sorrow" or "Chang Hen Ge" by great poet Bai Juyi (772 — 846).
Others, however, wondered if the emperor ever truly loved her.
Inscriptions on Mount Tai, Written by Emperor Xuanzong of Tang to Memorize the Grand Fengshan (the most significant and honorable sacrificial rite in ancient Chinese history) Ceremony (the Gold Characters on the Right).
Next Story: Great Poet and Mysterious Swordsman — Li Bai
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