Yang Gui Fei — Beautiful and Outstanding Musician in History of China and Her Tragic Ending

Yang Yuhuan (719 — 756), respected as Yang Gui Fei or Lady Yang, Taoist Name as Tai Zhen, was one of the Four Beauties in the history of China. 

No one knows her real intention, but she had married to 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 war, the An-Shi Rebellion (755 — 763).

This huge political failure, however, had been frequently blamed on Yang Gui Fei, a gorgeous and intelligent woman. 

Her attractive appearance and exceptional talent brought her admiration, honorable status, countless treasure, and extremely luxurious life. However, she couldn’t control her fate and was forced to sacrifice for other people’s mistakes in the end. 

Beautiful Highborn Girl and Her Happy Marriage with Prince

Yang Yuhuan was born into a noble family, 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 Xuanzong of Tang, his mother was the emperor’s favorite consort, the Lady Wu. 

Lady Wu, the grandniece of Empress Wu Zetian, was very smart and beautiful. She framed up the current crown prince and other two princes, allied with the current prime minister, and had been trying 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, under the blessing of his parents, he married beautiful Yang Yuhuan. 

A ravishing girl, marrying a young man that fell in love with her at first sight, who was also the potential crown prince of the empire, that is supposed to be a sweet love story.

Silver Hairpin (Chai) of the Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Yang’s Separating with the Prince

A few years later, the emperor’s favorite consort Lady Wu passed away. The emperor, who had a few dozen of beautiful imperial concubines, with over 60 kids documented, felt very sad and found no one around was attractive enough for him.

During that period, the emperor saw Yang Yuhuan in a royal family banquet; the moment he laid eyes on her, he lost himself. 

Soon, the emperor commanded Yang to leave her husband and to practice Taoism at an imperial temple. Since then, she was given her Taoist name Tai Zhen.   

Later, the emperor assigned another noble girl to Prince Li Mao and commanded them to get married soon. Meanwhile, he nominated another son as the new crown prince.

During a few years, prince Li Mao lost his mother, his beloved wife, as well as his father’s love and trust. 

Since then, he had lived as a normal prince, married the woman that was assigned by his father, had a few kids, and then, passed away old and sick. 

Cyan Glaze Porcelain Bottle with Love Poem of the Tang Dynasty — Changsha Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Yang Gui Fei the Favorite Consort of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang

After Li Mao got married, Emperor Li Longji soon awarded Yang as his consort, and they lived together since then. Now, she became the most honored woman of the empire, the Yang Gui Fei.

He treated her very well. Except for the queen’s title, he gave almost everything he could to her.

Li Longji and Yang Gui Fei were all excellent musicians; together they created many masterpieces that were very influential in Chinese musical history. 

Yang, however, seemed to not treat him as just an emperor. She still would be jealous, even argue with him sometimes, which was quite rare in a feudal empire in the history of China. 

Hence, she had been sent out of the royal palace twice, for being disrespectful to the emperor. But every time, Li Longji would miss her very much, 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 empress. 

Restoration Picture of the Royal Daming Palace of the Tang Dynasty

The Powerful and Incapable Clan of Yang Gui Fei

Soon, Yang Gui Fei’s three sisters were rewarded honorable titles and plenty of treasures and money. They obtained more and more power; during that period, most imperial consorts and honorable princesses had to show them respect and compliance. 

Despite their arrogance and disrespect to royal members, and had done many things that crossed the line, the emperor never blamed them. As long as Yang Gui Fei was happy, there’s nothing to complain about. 

Yang’s cousin named Yang Guozhong was originally an incapable officer. It’s not clear that if Yang Gui Fei required the emperor to promote her brother, but Yang Guozhong did gain lots of chances to get close and to please the emperor. 

Soon, Yang Guozhong got promoted to the prime minister of Tang. 

Unlike Queen Wei Zifu of the Han Dynasty, whose family made great contributions to their country but remained modest, Yang Gui Fei and her relatives only knew how to live a life of luxury and arrogance. 

Moreover, her brother Yang Guozhong frequently abused his power, and caused a huge loss to the empire. He kept promoting officials that were close to him, insisted to initiate two failed wars against the Nanzhao Kingdom (738 — 902) that weakened Tang’s military strength. 

At the same time, however, the emperor was enjoying lives with Yang Gui Fei.

Yang Gui Fei'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

The Destructive An-Shi Rebellion 

In the year 755, two strong warlords garrisoning in 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 Chinese history, the An-Shi Rebellion. 

Ironically, the leader warlord An Lushan had been one of the emperor’s favorite generals and had been respecting Yang Gui Fei as his adoptive mother.

Emperor Li Longji had been a brave and brilliant monarch when he was younger, who nominated the most intelligent people to be prime ministers, 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 was able to make the right decisions; however, soon, he listened to Yang Guozhong’s stupid suggestions and caused a huge failure to Tang’s army.

Besides those brave generals that were framed up and executed by Yang Guozhong, tens of thousands of Tang’s soldiers sacrificed on the battlefield, and millions of civilians lost their homes.

A few months later, the rebellion army marched toward the Tang's capital city Changan. 

Before they arrive, the emperor took Yang Gui Fei and some close royal family members, and officials, under the protection of his royal guards, escaped toward the southwest of China.

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

Controversial Mutiny Against the Yang Clan

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 were extremely lacking in resources, and suffering 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 honored imperial guards of the most prosperous empire; out of a sudden, they were forced to leave their home, lost contact with their family, suffered from danger and starvation, had been kept running with few dignities and 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, as well as Yang Gui Fei’s sisters and other family members. 

Then, they threatened the emperor to kill Yang Gui Fei; otherwise, they would leave the emperor and stop protecting him.

One reason was that they blamed her to be the reason for changing the super prosperous empire into the one filled with wars and chaos. 

Another important reason was that they worry Yang Gui Fei may search for vengeance for her family later; based on their emperor's affection to her, she was quite able to do that in the future, if she’s still alive. 

Yang Gui Fei’s Sacrificing Because Of Other Men's Faults

The emperor chose to protect himself.  

Then, Yang died. 

The place and time of her death were clear, but the actual way was still unknown.

Some said she committed suicide, or was strangled, or had swallowed gold, or hacked by many people out of chaos. 

But it was clear that this was completed under the emperor’s command.

Afterward, those imperial guards continued protecting the emperor to a safe city.

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 Changan, 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 Changan City of Tang

There was no evidence to show that Yang Gui Fei 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, 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 huge decline and destruction that her husband and brother had caused, at the expense of her own life.

Afterward, she was frequently mentioned in literature and poems, but mostly with sympathy. 

Some of them eulogized about her beauty, talent, and her love story with emperor Li Longji; others, however, wondered if the emperor ever loved her. 

Exquisite Silver Sachet that Was Popular Among Noble Women of the Tang Dynasty — Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

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