Yang Guifei (719—56)
Renowned beauty of the Tang dynasty (618-906)

Yang Guifei (Yang Kuei-fey) concubine of the Tang emperor Xuanzong (Hsüan-tsung; 685-762). Renowned beauty of Chinese history. Of humble origins, she is said to have won the favor and passion of the emperor to the extent that he eventually began to neglect state affairs. She adopted An Lu-shan, a general of Turkic origin, as her son and helped him win power at court. A power struggle over control of the central government between An Lu-shan and Yang’s brother led to An’s rebellion in 755. Fleeing the capital before the rebels captured it, angry royal guards, who blamed Yang Guifei and her brother for the rebellion, forced Xuanzong to order their execution. The emperor soon abdicated.Yang Guifei’s story and her tragic end have been a favorite theme for Chinese poets and writers.

Bai Juyi (Pai Chu-i, Bo Juyi, Po Chü-i; 772-846) recounts the tragic love story of Yang Guifei in his long poem "Song of Everlasting Sorrow" (C: Chang hen ge; J: Chōgonka). He was one of the most famous poets and men of letters of the mid-Tang period. Born in modern Henan, he held several senior official posts during his life-time, although his outspoken criticisms of government policies resulted in his being exiled from Chang'an in 815. A prolific poet with an international reputation, he strove for clarity in his writings and, with his good friend Yuan Zhen, promoted the new yuefu style of poetry. He was a devout Buddhist and many of his poems are very critical of the society of the time. His long poem "Song of Everlasting Sorrow" was particularly popular among the aristocracy of mid-Heian period Japan as well, which accounts for the numerous references to Bai Juyi and his poems in The Tale of Genji and other works of classical Japanese literature.

  • Scenes from Mizoguchi Kenji's film Princess Yang Kwei Fei (Yōkihi; 1955)

     Emperor Xuanzong meets Yang Guifei and is moved both by her resemblance to his dead wife and by her sincerity. He installs Yang Guifei as his favorite concubine. We then see An Lushan plotting his rise to power after having lifted Yang Gueifei from her humble origins as a kitchen maid to imperial concubine. Click here to show scene one
     Emperor Xuanzong argues with his chief minister concerning the importance of just laws--in accordance with the mandate of heaven. Click here to show scene two

    Image gallery

  • Additional Reading
    Masako Nakagawa, The Yang Kuei-Fei Legend in Japanese Literature (Edwin Mellen Press, 1998)
    S. Wu, Yang Kuei-fei, The Most Famous Beauty of China (1924)
    Yang Kuei-fey entry in the Columbia Encyclopedia.)
    The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari) and related study links (maintained by Michael Watson)

    Bai Juyi's Works available in English:
    Bai Juyi: 200 Selected Poems (Rewi Alley). Beijing: New World Press, 1983.
    Chinese Poems: Selected from 170 Chinese Poems (Arthur Waley). London:
    George Allen and Unwin, 1946, pp.120-192.
    More Translations from the Chinese (Arthur Waley). London: George Allen and Unwin, 1919, pp.24-67.
    One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Arthur Waley). London: Constable, 1918, pp.105-168.
    Po Chu-I: Selected Poems (Burton Watson). New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
    The Selected Poems of Po Chu-I (David Hinton). New York: New Directions Publishing Corp., 1999.
    Translations from Po Chu-I's Collected Works (Howard S. Levy). New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1971-1978.

    The Song of Everlasting Sorrow

    China’s Emperor yearning, for beauty that shakes a kingdom, Reigned for many years, searching but not finding, Until a child of the Yang, hardly yet grown, Raised in the inner chamber, unseen by anybody, But with heavenly graces that could not be hidden, Was chosen one day for the Imperial household. If she turned her head and smiled she cast a deep spell, Beauties of Six Palaces vanished into nothing. Hair’s cloud, pale skin, shimmer of gold moving, Flowered curtains protected on cool spring evenings. Those nights were too short. That sun too quick in rising.
    The emperor neglected the world from that moment, Lavished his time on her in endless enjoyment. She was his springtime mistress, and his midnight tyrant. Though there were three thousand ladies all of great beauty, All his gifts were devoted to one person.
    Li Palace rose high in the clouds.
    The winds carried soft magic notes,
    Songs and graceful dances, string and pipe music. He could never stop himself from gazing at her.
    But the Earth reels. War drums fill East Pass, Drown out ‘The Feathered Coat and Rainbow Skirt’. Great Swallow Pagoda and Hall of Light, Are bathed in dust - the army fleeing Southwards. Out there Imperial banners, wavering, pausing Until by the river forty miles from West Gate, The army stopped. No one would go forward, Until horses’ hooves trampled willow eyebrows. Flower on a hairpin. No one to save it. Gold and jade phoenix. No one retrieved it. Covering his face the Emperor rode on. Turned to look back at that place of tears, Hidden by a yellow dust whirled by a cold wind.
    As Shu waters flow green, Shu mountains show blue, His majesty’s love remained, deeper than the new. White moon of loneliness, cold moon of exile. Bell-chimes in evening rain were bronze-edged heartbeats. So when the dragon-car turned again northwards The Emperor clung to Ma-Wei’s dust, never desiring To leave that place of memories and heartbreak. Where is the white jade in heaven and earth’s turning?
    Lakes and gardens are still as they have been, T’ai-yi’s hibiscus, Wei-yang’s willows. A flower-petal was her face, a willow-leaf her eyebrow, How could it not be grief just to see them? Plum and pear blossoms blown on spring winds Maple trees ruined in rains of autumn. Palaces neglected, filled with weeds and grasses, Mounds of red leaves spilled on unswept stairways.
    Burning the midnight light he could not sleep, Bells and drums tolled the dark hours, The Ocean of Heaven bright before dawn,
    The porcelain mandarin birds frosted white, The chill covers of kingfisher blue, Colder and emptier, year by year.
    And the loved spirit never returning.
    A Taoist priest of Ling-chun rode the paths of Heaven, He with his powerful mind knew how to reach the Spirits. The Courtiers troubled by the Emperor’s grieving, Asked the Taoist priest if he might find her. He opened the sky-routes, swept the air like lightning, Looked everywhere, on earth and in heaven, Scoured the Great Void, and the Yellow Fountains, But failed in either to find the one he searched for. Then he heard tales of a magic island In the Eastern Seas, enchanted, eternal, High towers and houses in air of five colours, Perfect Immortals walking between them, Among them one they called The Ever Faithful, With her face, of flowers and of snow.
    She left her dreams, rose from her pillow, Opened mica blind and crystal screen, Hastening, unfastened, clouded hair hanging, Her light cap unpinned, ran along the pavement. A breeze in her gauze, flowing with her movement, As if she danced ‘Feathered Coat and Rainbow Skirt’. So delicate her jade face, drowned with tears of sadness, Like a spray of pear flowers, veiled with springtime rain.
    She asked him to thank her Love, her eyes gleaming, He whose form and voice she lost at parting. Her joy had ended in Courts of the Bright Sun, Moons and dawns were long in Faerie Palace. When she turned her face to look back earthwards And see Ch’ang-an - only mist and dust-clouds. So she found the messenger her lover’s gifts With deep feeling gave him lacquer box, gold hairpin, Keeping one half of the box, one part of the hairpin, Breaking the lacquer, splitting the gold.
    ‘Our spirits belong together, like these precious fragments, Sometime, in earth or heaven, we shall meet again.’ And she sent these words, by the Taoist, to remind him of their midnight vow, secret between them. ‘On that Seventh night, of the Herdboy and the Weaver, In the silent Palace we declared our dream was To fly together in the sky, two birds on the same wing, To grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree.’
    Earth fades, Heaven fades, at the end of days. But Everlasting Sorrow endures always.

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