The love that ruined an empire

The area around the Huaqing hot spring near Xian still preserves the memory of the beautiful Yang Guifei. The local landscape is considered one of the best in the Middle Kingdom.

This story happened over a thousand years ago. Since then, of course, she has acquired new legends, as required by the laws of the genre. But at the heart of it is the pure truth: there was a young beauty, there was an emperor of a middle age, and such a fire broke out between them, in the fire of which an entire empire blazed … Today, only faded pictures on silk and lines of poetry remind of those distant events, sadly telling about the fate of the concubine Yang Guifei and her lover – Emperor Xuanzong.

What was China like in the VIII century far from us? Popular memory preserves well-known images – endless rice fields, tiled roofs of pagodas, lined like a ruler of streets, melodic ringing of bronze bells … And historical works interpret that already at the end of the 6th century the Chinese Empire revived after many centuries of civil strife and the dominance of barbarians, which in 618 the year the military leader Li Yuan founded the Tang Dynasty, which in endless wars extended its rule from the sands of the Gobi Desert to the jungles of Vietnam. This empire was recreated on a new basis. The all-powerful feudal lords and local princelings were replaced by the hierarchy of officials subordinate to the emperor. As before, he was considered, if not a god, then a higher being – the Son of Heaven, who, like a mountain, rises above the “yellow sea” of his subjects. The common people were not even allowed to look at him, and high-ranking dignitaries, appearing for an audience at the palace, weighed from 30 to 50 bows to the ground, depending on their rank. And yet the emperor’s life was by no means cloudless. The intrigues of the bureaucrats turned out to be even more dangerous than the autocracy of the appanage princes. The grandson of the first sovereign of the Gao-tsong dynasty in his own luxurious palace was a prisoner of his wife Wu Zetian. After his death, the empress removed her sons from power and took the throne herself – an unprecedented event in Chinese history. Her reign continued until the grandson of the late ruler Li Longji grew up.

It must be said that the Chinese emperors had several names. One consisted of a family name and a personal name given at birth (it was later tabooed), the other, after accession to the throne, was the motto of the reign, and there could be several such mottos – they successively replaced each other (Li Longji had three of them) , the third name of the emperor was called in temples, and the fourth was given to him posthumously. So, Li Longji, having become sovereign, began to rule under the motto Xiantian, that is, “Eternal Heaven”, and historians often call him by the temple name Xuanzong – Sacred Ancestor.

But, whatever you call it, this man was determined and energetic. He grew up in a large imperial palace, where death lurked around every corner: Wu Zetian tried in every possible way to get rid of the pretenders to the throne. The boy was saved only by the tutelage of Princess Taiping, the daughter of the empress.

After the death of Wu Zetian, power went to her son Zhongzong, but soon his wife, Empress Wei, poisoned her husband in order to rule herself. It was then that 25-year-old Longji made a “knight’s move”: in 710, with the help of Taiping, he made a coup and killed Wei along with her young children. There is nothing to do – the laws of power struggle are harsh not only in China.

First, Longji “appointed” his father Ruizong as emperor, but the quiet drunkard proved incapable of governing. And the prince in 713 firmly sat on the throne, beginning the era of reign under the motto Kaiyuan (“Open Initiation”). First, he conducted a population census. All the Chinese were entered into tax lists, after which the tax receipts to the treasury doubled. New coins were issued – copper “kai yuan tong bao”, which had been in circulation for almost 700 years. They were collected in long bundles, and during long travels they were replaced with squares of paper with a seal and the name of the emperor. This is how the world’s first paper money appeared. But the establishment of monetary circulation and the fight against robbers led to the growth of trade and the prosperity of cities. The capital of Chang’an (present-day Xi’an in Shaanxi province) had about a million inhabitants – more than any other city in the world at the time.

To ensure effective management, the emperor introduced periodic tests for all officials. From now on, it was possible to occupy the next position only by passing an exam on knowledge of the Confucian canons, etiquette and the basics of versification. All this was taught by the teachers, for whose training the Hanlin State Academy was founded, otherwise – “The Forest of Brushes” (meaning brushes for writing). Thus, the prestige of scientists and writers rose to unheard-of heights. The great poets Meng Hao-Zhan, Li Bo and Du Fu lived at the court of Xuanzong, the best architects, artists, musicians in the country worked. A library with thousands of scrolls was created, and the Pear Orchard school was opened, which trained actors. The Tang Poetry Anthology includes the poems of 3,500 poets, and it was only those who achieved fame!

The emperor himself composed good poetry. In addition, with age, he was tired of state concerns and preferred to spend time in the palace chambers, doing poetry, listening to music and watching the dances of young ladies. There were more than a thousand girls in the imperial harem, but the esthete Xuanzong did not indulge them too much. According to the poets of that era, he was looking for “conquering countries”, that is, similar in beauty to the ancient beauty Li, about whom they said: “She conquered the country at a glance.” Once upon a time, this was exactly how the first wife of Wu Huifei seemed to him, but over the years she lost her charm, and then died, leaving the emperor to grieve under the mournful singing of a bamboo flute.

The hidden truth

In 739, the court eunuch Gao Lishi, as if by chance, invited Xuanzong to the palace bath, where an unknown young beauty was taking a bath. This was not considered a violation of etiquette: the Son of Heaven could go anywhere. But something made him hide behind a bamboo screen and watch the stranger. She seemed beautiful to him: thick black hair, red lips, milky-white skin. Maybe a little overweight … But the emperor liked such beauties. It seemed that the girl did not suspect that she was being watched, but before taking the silk robe from the servant’s hands, she threw a sly glance towards the screen, which struck Xuanzong in the very heart. Poet Bo Juyi described this moment as follows:

“Leaning on the maids, she rose –
Oh, impotent tenderness itself!
And then it was then for the first time spilled over her
Sovereign favors rain. ”

Coming out of the pool, the emperor summoned Gao Lishi and ordered to find out everything about her.

He was clearly ready for such a question and boldly blurted out that her name was Yang Yuhuan, she was nineteen years old, and she had been married to the son of Emperor Li Mei for almost three years.

It turns out that if Xuanzong saw her at palace receptions (women appeared there very rarely), he would hardly have recognized her in a magnificent dress and makeup. She was the daughter of Yang Xuanyan, who served as a treasurer (syhu) in one of the counties in Shaanxi Province. After the death of her parents, she was raised by a rich uncle. When the girl was sixteen years old, he gave – and actually sold – Yang Yuhuan as a wife to Prince May. For this he was entitled to a life pension and the honorary title of “relative of the emperor.”

In 736, a wedding took place, and Yuhuan entered the chambers of the palace in Chang’an, which she could only leave after her or her husband’s death. In the latter case, she was imprisoned in one of the Buddhist monasteries. But life decreed otherwise. As they say in China, the woman caught the golden phoenix by the tail. In part, this was the merit of the cunning Gao Lishi, who, in order to strengthen his influence, decided to show the emperor a young beauty, knowing full well that she could not help but please. He made such attempts more than once, but only with Yuhuan did the eunuch hit the bull’s-eye. It is worth considering that she was not just a beautiful doll, but possessed innate abilities, and even in her uncle’s house she learned poetry and singing. She played various instruments and even rode a horse. This was completely unusual for Chinese women who were brought up in the solitude of women’s chambers …

Meanwhile Xuanzong lost both sleep and peace. Forgetting about the affairs of the state and about the impending campaign against the nomads, he thought of only one thing: how to get the beauty into his harem. Oddly enough, she came up with a way out herself, informing her husband that she wanted to go to a monastery. This was the only way a noble Chinese woman could get her marriage dissolved. True, in this case, she was deprived of all property.

And so the princess shaved her head and gave the monastic name Taizhen – “The Supreme Truth.” Obviously, she found a way to come to an agreement in advance with the emperor in love, since she was not sent to a distant monastery, but settled right there in the palace so that she, along with other nuns, would pray for the emperor’s health. Within a few days, Xuanzong was able to fulfill his dream and meet the “Highest Truth.” Nun Taizhen’s prayers turned out to be miraculous: the health of the 55-year-old emperor clearly improved. During the day he did business with renewed vigor, and in the evening he went to the pavilion, where a lovely nun was waiting for him among the burning incense burners. Of course, everyone knew where the sovereign spends his nights, but the comedy lasted for five whole years, until Prince May was found a new wife. After that, Xuanzong officially introduced his beloved to his palace, giving her the title of Guifei – “Precious consort”, as the beloved concubine of the emperor has long been called. She did not hope to become a real wife, since she had already been married. In addition, she could not have children, but this did not affect the imperial feelings: he already had 27 sons from different wives and concubines.

Palace for the Concubine

Chinese historians write about Guifei in different ways. Some consider her a weak-willed toy in the hands of the court cliques, others – an insidious intriguer who sacrificed the state to her ambitions. Perhaps both are true, but her love for the emperor was hardly insincere. She surrounded Xuanzong with endless affection and care. “… and on a spring walk she is always with him, and at night keeps his sleep.” In order to preserve the health of the middle-aged lover, she made up a therapeutic diet for him, from which some recipes have survived. For example, young bamboo shoots fried in honey were prepared for the emperor. Guifei herself maintained her health with the help of the sour green fruits of the litchi (lychee). They grew only in the south, in the Sichuan mountains. After them Hsuan-zong dispatched special messengers, who daily for hundreds of li delivered a basket of ripe fruit for the favorite’s breakfast.

This whim was far from the most innocent. Almost all of her provincial relatives took up posts at court, and her sisters became maids of honor and married princes. And the chair of the first minister went to another relative of the favorite – Yang Guozhong. He quickly learned the “science” of covetousness, demanding bribes from all officials applying for positions. Contrary to the will of the emperor, high posts were awarded not to knowledgeable people, but to rich ignoramuses. The treasury quickly began to empty, taxes flowed past into the pockets of the Yang family and the chief eunuch who joined them. To compensate for the losses, the authorities increased the tax burden, causing discontent. The complaints of the people were brought to us by the same Bo Juyi:

“The last flap is ripped off our bodies,
The last piece is ripped out of our mouths!
They torment people, take away good
Jackals and Bad Wolves!
Why these hook claws, why these saw teeth
Are they eating human flesh? ”

There were those who tried to complain to the emperor about the omnipotence of the Yang family, but he did not want to listen to anything. Several times he still challenged his beloved to a frank conversation, but she, feeling her strength, was not going to give in. Twice she left the palace and went to her native district, but even before arriving at the place the imperial messenger caught up with her with a request – no, a prayer – to return as soon as possible. And with her arrival, the members of the clan received new positions, and the complainants were thrown into prison, to starvation. And while some whispered powerless curses to the insolent favorite, others raised their beautiful daughters in the hope that someday they would replace her at court.

At this time, a war was brewing on the country’s borders. The Tanguts united with the Tibetans and cut the Great Silk Road, which connected China with the outside world. Armies one after another moved west and died there from the arrows of the nomads and desert storms. The forcibly mobilized peasants did not want to die in a foreign land, and they were kept in the ranks only by fear for their relatives: the one who left the system doomed his relatives to death. To fight the enemies, the Chinese recruited warriors from nomadic tribes to the service, making them generals and even military governors (jiedushi). It was to such mercenaries that power on the outskirts of China increasingly passed. One of them was An Lushan, a Turk by birth who made a career in the capital’s court. He and his associates tried to convince Xuanzong that victory was near, they only needed to collect even more taxes and mobilize even more soldiers.

And the emperor was thinking about something completely different. At the request of his beloved, he erected the wonderful Huaqing Palace in the Lishan Mountains to the west of Chang’an. There, on the hot springs, baths were built, where Guifei and her sisters splashed, and the emperor, from old memory, watched them from a gazebo set on a dais. Noble guests were treated to exquisite dishes, as yet another famous poet, Du Fu, wrote indignantly:

“And camel hoof soup
Dignitious old men are treated here,
Wine and meat smell full,
And on the roads are the bones of the dead. ”

Protecting the reputation of a patron of the arts, Xuanzong forgiven such attacks for the time being. True, after a couple of years, Du Fu’s elder friend, poet Li Bo, was still imprisoned. This happened when his patron, Prince Lin, conspired against his father. The prince was executed, and the poet was sent into exile, from which he never returned. They said that when he got drunk, he tried to catch the reflection of the Moon in the river and drowned. And the favorite of the emperor, Du Fu, at that time lived in the village, burying children dying of hunger. But Xuanzong and his beloved were no longer up to the poets – to save themselves.

Eternal sorrow

The same barbarian-general An Lushan started the trouble. It was said that he dared to covet Yang Guifei’s love, but the beauty rejected him. Burning with revenge, the general in 755 made peace with those against whom he fought in the Gansu province, and turned the army to the east. In his manifesto, he accused the emperor that he forgot about the welfare of his subjects, carried away by the charms of the favorite. Together with the thirsty nomads, the horsemen of An Lushan attacked the old capital Luoyang, subjecting it to a terrible defeat. To avoid the same fate, Chang’an prepared for the defense under the leadership of Emperor Li Heng’s ninth son. Xuanzong himself, along with Yang Guifei and other courtiers, fled south. On the way, the soldiers began to grumble, blaming the favorite for everything that had happened. They said that she and her relatives plundered the treasury, that a rebellion broke out because of her.

She was accused of witchcraft, as if she bewitched the emperor, and maintained her beauty with the help of a drug made from human blood.

On July 15, 756, an open mutiny broke out at the Mawei outpost in Sichuan province. The soldiers demanded the release of the favorite. After half an hour of tense waiting, two servants carried Yang Guifei’s body out of the gate of the house. Gao Lishi, who followed, announced that the “Precious Consort” had committed suicide. Perhaps she was strangled by the eunuch himself, who dreamed of rising above the Yang family. Seeing his beloved dead, old Xuanzong collapsed unconscious:

“The sovereign covers his face with his sleeve,
Himself powerless to save from death.
Turned around and tears and blood gushed
From his anguished eyes. ”

The emperor’s grief was so great that the rebels were ashamed and without hindrance brought him to Sichuan, where the court was temporarily located. There Xuanzong signed a decree transferring power to Li Heng, who henceforth became emperor.

Chang’an had to be surrendered to the enemies, and the new sovereign set off to the east to collect an army. A year later, when An Lushan was killed by one of his associates, the imperial troops recaptured the capital. Returning from exile, Xuanzong stopped at the Mavei outpost and tried to find the grave of his beloved, but in vain: either the robbers, or the forest animals did not leave even a trace of the modest burial.

In the poem “Eternal Sorrow” (“Changhenge”), the poet Bo Juyi told just about this episode in the life of the emperor. He wrote it many years later according to eyewitness accounts, very reminiscent of legends. It is no coincidence that the story of two lovers turned out to be fabulous. Grieving for his beloved, Xuanzong allegedly turned to a Taoist sage who, in search of a concubine, reached the heavenly palaces, found Yang Guifei there, who had become an immortal fairy. She gave the emperor a precious comb and a carved box along with the words:

“Stronger than gold, harder than precious stones
May our hearts remain
And then we are in heaven or in the human world,
There will be a day, we will meet again ”.

Returning to the human world, the Taoist conveyed the words of the concubine to the former emperor, and he died with a happy smile, clutching the heavenly gifts. Under the poet’s pen, the banal story of a court favorite turned into a story of immortal love, known today to all the inhabitants of China. Couples still come to the tomb of Yang Guifei, erected near Xian, to repeat the lovers’ vow of eternal fidelity. For many centuries the history of the Emperor and his “Precious Wife” has been retold by historians and poets. Confucians condemned them for forgetting their duty, Taoists praised them for loyalty to feelings, patriots sang for their resistance to foreign barbarians. Neighboring countries also contributed to the creation of the legend. For example, in Japan, many believed that the beautiful Yang Guifei escaped death and took refuge here, teaching the local people graceful manners.

In fact, everything was much more commonplace. The deposed Emperor Xuanzong died in May 762, being a prisoner of his son, who had learned well the lessons of the struggle for power. A little later, the revolt in the army was finally suppressed and China began to heal the wounds inflicted. Millions of people died, entire counties were deserted, the western regions, along with the Great Silk Road, were lost. The Tang Empire was never able to regain its power. In 906, it fell apart, and only half a century later China was reunited under the rule of the new Northern Song dynasty. And there was a long series of centuries ahead, during which many emperors and their favorites changed. But the name Yang Guifei still remains in China an echo of that eternal sorrow, about which the poet who immortalized her wrote.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments