In Chinese history, there are four women considered as the Four Great Beauties. They are XiShi 西施, Wang ZhaoJun 王昭君, DiaoChan 貂蝉 and Yang YuHuan 杨玉环. They are known for their beauty and they are remembered also due to their influences over the emperors.
There is a idiom to describe how beautiful each of them was. It is called 沉鱼 落雁闭月羞花 meaning the beauty can make the fish sink, birds fall, the moon eclipse and flowers be ashamed.
Today we will talk about the beauty Yang YuHuan whose beauty was so entrancing that the flowers would be shameful. Since she was the most beloved consort of Emperor XuanZong of Tang 唐玄宗, people always called her Yang GuiFei 杨贵妃, Imperial Consort Yang.
Yang YuHuan was born in the year 719 during the Tang dynasty 唐朝, in the reign of Emperor XuanZong. Her father was a official and had four daughters. In the year 733, when Yang YuHuang was 14 years old, she married to Li Mao 李瑁, one of the sons of the Emperor XuanZong and one of his consorts Consort Wu 武惠妃. Emperor XuanZong loved Consort Wu a lot and after her death in the year 737, he lived in depression of the lost. None of any other consorts could make him happy again.
In the book JiuTangShu 旧唐书, it says, when Yang YuHuan met the Emperor XuanZong, who was her father in law, she was a Taoist nun with a tonsured nameTaiZhen 太真 and didn’t mention at all she was the wife of the son of the emperor. Because the Emperor XuanZong fell in love with Yang YuHuan, his daughter in law.
A woman married to both the father and the son was and is accepted in some parts of the world and time period but not that time of China. Not too say it was related to the emperor and his son. That’s why it is not recorded in the official history book. In the book XinTangShu 新唐书, it says Yang YuHuan was staying in the palace as a Taoist nun invited by the Queen Dou 窦太后, mother of the emperor for the purpose of praying. So nobody knows when Yang YuHuan got secularized.
In the year 745, Yang YuHuan’s first husband, the son the emperor married a new wife. After a month, she was officially the consert of the Emperor XuanZong and she was the favorite woman of the emperor and was treated as the queen. That year, Yang YuHuan was 27 years old and Emperor XuanZong was 61 years old.
In the ancient China, if the consort was favored by the emperor, her family would have a huge benefit as well. Yang YuHuan’s parents, sisters, uncles and cousins were either given high positions or ranks and titles. The family of Yang became one of the most prestigious families at that time.
Yang YuHuan herself of course got whatever she liked. There was a famous poem by poet DuMu 杜牧 from the Tang dynasty says, “一骑红尘 妃子笑，无人知是荔枝来”, which means the consort smiles when she saw the horse coming and nobody knows it is the delivery of lychees for her. It is believed that Yang YuHuan loved to eat lychee which grows in tropical areas like south China . However, the capital ChangAn 长安 was in the north. So the emperor ordered people to deliver the freshest lychees with the fastest horses whose riders took shifts day and night non stop from LingNan 岭南 to ChangAn. Even today, it takes 3 hours to fly between these two cities not to say at that time by horse.
She had conflicts with the emperor and was dismissed twice. However, she was invited back by the emperor both of times cause he couldn’t live without her. So why was she the favorite of the emperor? She was for sure a beauty that there are tons of poems about her beauty and her dance. But she was not a skinny type like the aesthetics today especially in Asia. In the Tang dynasty, it is easy to tell from the paintings that women with a little fat were considered as beautiful. And Yang YuHuan had such kind of curvy feminine figure and her skin was said to be smooth and white. It is believed she liked to take showers in the hot spring. Actually today if you visit XiAn, you can go to hot springs and take a spa where Yang YuHuan used to bath.
As it says good things come to an end. Yang YuHuan’s cousin Yang GuoZhong 杨国忠 was the chancellor at that time who liked to gamble. The government was corrupted. Plus, the whole Yang’s family had been doing whatever they wanted for a while, which angered other officials. In the year 755, provoked by the chancellor Yang GuoZhong, three officials rebelled and marched the troops toward the capital. Emperor XuanZong, along with Yang YuHuan and Yang GuoZong fled the next year.
On the way leaving the capital, the soldiers protested and requested the emperor to kill Yang GuoZhong who caused the disaster. As his cousin, Yang YuHuan, was urged to be put to death as well even the emperor initially declined. She was 37 years old that year.
There are variations of how she was killed and if she was killed. Some version say she was hung in a Buddhist temple and some version say she died by being forced to swallow a gold. But some version say she was hid and didn’t get killed. Some version say she ran to Japan and was taken care of by the queen of Japan. In Japan, some people say she lived in Kyoto for 30 years and died in her 60s. There is even a tomb in Japan and some Japanese claimed to be the descendants of Yang YuHuan including the famous actress Momoe Yamaguchi.
Her story is retold and is popular in Japan. It is said it was the source of inspiration for the classical Japanese novel The Tale of Genji. In China, the most well-known literature is the long poem Chang Hen Ge 长恨歌, meaning Song of Everlasting Sorrow written by poet Bai JuYi 白居易 about the love of the emperor and grief at her death.
长恨歌 Song of Everlasting Sorrow