Imperial Consort Yang Guifei: The tragic love story that inspired The Tale of Genji

Yang Guifei was known as one of the four most beautiful women in Ancient China. She is famous for being the subject of the famous poem of the Tang Dynasty, “Song of Everlasting Sorrow.” Her love story with Emperor Xuanzong also served as the basis for The Tale of Genji. She was once the wife of Emperor Xuanzong’s son, Li Mao. However, the emperor became smitten with her and eventually took her for himself. As Emperor Xuanzong’s imperial consort, she enjoyed a life of extravagance. However, she eventually became a victim of courtly intrigue and was forced to commit suicide. Her legendary romance with Emperor Xuanzong would inspire many writers to tell her story that would last for centuries.

Yang Guifei was originally named Yang Yuhuan. Yang Yuhuan’s birthplace is still up to debate among historians. Some say she was born in Yongle, Puzhou (modern-day Ruicheng in Shanxi province).[1] Others say she was born in Shu.[2] Whatever the case of her birth, she grew up in Yongle. At an early age, her father died, and she was left in the care of her uncle, Yang Xuangi.[3]

In 736, Yang Yuhuan married the sixteen-year-old Li Mao, the Prince of Shu.[4] Li Mao was the eighteenth son of Emperor Xuanzong. Because Li Mao’s mother falsely accused Emperor Xuanzong’s three sons of treason, his father neglected him and did not make him the heir apparent.[5] 

It was when Yang Yuhuan was nineteen that she met the fifty-three-year-old Emperor Xuanzong. The emperor became smitten with her and decided to have her for himself.[6] Because there would be outrage in the court for taking his son’s wife, Emperor Xuanzong made his son give her up and made her a Daoist nun.[7] This was to buy him some time as he planned to make Yang Yuhuan his concubine without upsetting the court. Yang Yuhuan resided in the Daoist Temple which was on palace grounds. Under this disguise, she would make nightly visits to the Emperor’s bedchamber which she would do over the period of seven years.[8]

In 745, after Li Mao had taken a new wife. Yang Yuhuan was transferred into Emperor Xuanzong’s harem. She was appointed to the rank of Guifei, which meant honoured imperial consort.[9] As Yang Guifei became the emperor’s favourite, she started to promote her family. Her parents were honoured posthumously, and her three elder sisters were given a title.[10] Her cousin was made prime minister. Tang historians place the blame on Yang Guifei’s cousin because his role as prime minister is what would lead to imperial decline and rebellion.[11] Thus, the Yang family became a clique and enjoyed a life of privilege and luxury.[12] 

Now that Yang Guifei received all the attention from the emperor and had no rivals, Yang Guifei lived a life of extravagance and indulgence. She had seven hundred silk weavers and embroidery workers that were specifically assigned to make her garments.[13] Every time she rode a horse, the most powerful eunuch in the palace would hold the bridle for himself. Yang Guifei also loved lychees. Emperor Xuanzong would send imperial edicts to officials in both Lingnan and Chuan-dong (two cities known for their lychees and hundreds of miles away from the capital of Chang’an) to deliver the lychees by rapid horses so that they would be fresh by the time they were served to Yang Guifei.[14] The rapid haste of the journey made the officials extremely fatigued.[15] Yang Guifei also received lavish gifts from the emperor, one of them was an exotic white bird.[16]

Yang Guifei also shared Emperor Xuanzong’s love for the arts. The emperor wrote musical compositions. Yang Guifei was an excellent pipa player and dancer.[17] While Yang Guifei was not known for her poetry, she is attributed to have composed, “Ode to Zhang Yunrong Dancing”.[18] The poem goes:

“Silken sleeves stirring with incessant fragrance,

Red lotus lilies waving to and fro in the autumn mist.

A sudden breeze disperses the gentle clouds resting above the mountains,

Delicate willows brush the water by the pool’s edge.”[19] 

Even though Yang Guifei was the emperor’s favourite, this does not mean that Yang Guifei’s relationship with the emperor was all rosy. There were at least two occasions that the emperor showed displeasure with her and banished her from the palace.[20] The reason for her first banishment was because she showed jealousy when the emperor took an interest in one of the palace ladies.[21] She was sent to live with her cousin.[22] However, her banishment didn’t last long when she was recalled back because the emperor realised he could not live without her.[23] The second reason Yang Guifei was banished was that she overstepped a boundary. She played a jade flute that belonged to a relative of Emperor Xuanzong.[24] Her banishment from the palace was also brief. She sent a lock of her hair to the emperor. The emperor feared that she would harm herself and immediately recalled her back to the palace.[25] The shortness of her banishments shows Yang Guifei’s lasting influence on the emperor and her hold on him.

Because of Yang Guifei’s influence on the emperor, many officials tried to win her support in order to get high positions within in the court.[26] One of these officials was An Lushan, a general and military governor of the frontier districts.[27] Yang Guifei promoted him, thinking that he was harmless and amiable.[28] However, An Lushan desired the imperial throne for himself. He began to recruit men to enlarge his army.[29] After a series of natural disasters, in the winter of 755 A.D., An Lushan launched a rebellion in order to “rid the court of evil ministers.”[30] His rebel army took over the capital city of Chang’an and An Lushan proclaimed himself emperor. Emperor Xuanzong, Yang Guifei, and the prime minister fled the palace to Sichuan. When the army caught up with them, they killed the prime minister and demanded to kill Yang Guifei. Fearing for his life, the scared emperor was forced in humiliation to consent to Yang Guifei’s death.[31] Yang Guifei bade the emperor farewell and hung herself.[32] She was only thirty-eight.

After her death, she was buried at the side of a post road. In the same year, Emperor Xuanzong abdicated in favour of one of his sons. The new Tang Emperor brought back Yang Guifei’s body and reburied her in Chang’an.[33] He also asked his artisan-painters to create a portrait of Yang Guifei and hang it in the palace. He would stare at the portrait of Yang Guifei every day of his life.[34]

Yang Guifei has been portrayed in Chinese culture as the woman who brought down the Tang dynasty.[35] The reason is that after the An Lushan rebellion, the dynasty slowly decayed until it fell in 907 A.D.[36] However, she is also seen as a victim of courtly intrigues.[37] The Tang poet, Bai Juyi wrote about her in his poem, “Song of Everlasting Sorrow.”[38] The poem became very popular in Japan. The Japanese know her as Yokihi. She is also the inspiration for The Tale of Genji, which begins with the doomed love between an emperor and his consort.[39]

Sources:

Clements, Jonathan. “The Tragedy of Yang Guifei.” A History of the Silk Road, Armchair

        Traveller, 2017.

Peterson, Barbara Bennett, editor. “Yang Guifei.” Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to

         the Early Twentieth Century, Routledge, 2015.

“Yang Guifei (719—56).” Princeton University, Princeton University,

          www.princeton.edu/~caddeau/A21/YangGuifei.html.

Robin, Sally A. (Rubenstein). “Yang, Honored Consort of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang.”

           Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming, 618-1644, edited by Lily

           Xiao Hong Lee and Sue Wiles, M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2014, pp. 536–540.


[1] Peterson, “Yuan Guifei.” para. 1

[2] Robin, p. 536

[3] Peterson, “Yuan Guifei”, para. 1

[4] Clements, “The Tragedy of Yang Guifei” para. 2

[5] Robin, p. 536

[6] Robin, p. 536-537

[7] Robin, p. 537

[8] Robin, p. 537

[9] Robin, p. 537

[10]Peterson, “Yuan Guifei”, para. 3

[11] Robin, p. 537

[12]Peterson, “Yuan Guifei”, para. 3

[13]Peterson, “Yuan Guifei”, para. 3

[14] Peterson, “Yuan Guifei”, para. 3

[15] Peterson, “Yuan Guifei”, para. 3

[16] Robin, p. 538

[17] Robin, p. 538

[18] Robin, p. 538

[19] Robin, p. 538

[20] Robin, p. 538

[21] Robin, p. 538

[22] Robin, p. 538

[23]Robin, p. 538

[24] Robin, p. 538

[25]  Robin, p. 538

[26]  Peterson, “Yuan Guifei”, para. 3

[27]  Peterson, “Yuan Guifei”, para. 4

[28]  Peterson, “Yuan Guifei”, para. 4

[29]  Peterson, “Yuan Guifei”, para. 4

[30] Peterson, “Yuan Guifei”, para. 5

[31] Peterson, “Yuan Guifei”, para. 5

[32] Peterson, “Yuan Guifei”, para. 5

[33] Peterson, “Yuan Guifei”, para. 5

[34]Peterson, “Yuan Guifei”, para. 5

[35] Robin, p. 540

[36] Peterson, “Yuan Guifei”, para. 5

[37]Peterson, “Yuan Guifei”, para. 5

[38] “Yang Guifei (719—56).” Princeton University

[39] “Yang Guifei (719—56).” Princeton University

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1 Comment on Imperial Consort Yang Guifei: The tragic love story that inspired The Tale of Genji

  1. I just want you to know that I really read and enjoy all the articles that you send me. It is very interesting to ready about the ancient women and how they lived in their time.

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