The story of Tang Emperor Xuanzong and mistress Yang Guifei

This is the view from the bedroom chamber. 1300 years ago, same thing.

This is the view from the bedroom chamber. 1300 years ago, same thing.

The story of Tang Emperor Xuanzong 唐玄宗 and mistress Yang Guifei 杨贵妃

The most memorable part of a recent trip to Xi’an, China was to the Huaqing palace Xian (華清宮), an ancient winter palace with thermal springs that Emperor Xuānzong of Tang Dynasty 唐玄宗 originally built in 723 and then expanded into one huge love nest for his favorite mistress Yang Guifei (also known as one of the four great beauties of China) over a 10 year period years later.

It was the ultimate Macbeth story, of a father systematically stealing his son’s wife, and taking her as consort only when he was 64 and she was at the ripe 28 years of age. She obviously had a hold of epic proportions on him, because despite being a well regarded ruler in his earlier years, he started neglecting his military duties, appointed her family members into positions of power and set in motion the decline of the otherwise amazing Tang dynasty.

The idea of a man besotted by one woman beyond reason is the setting for many a tragic tale, and this one is almost to script. The poet Bai Juyi 白居易 retold the story in a poem “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” 長 恨 歌 in the year 806, which Chinese school children study to this day. Out of this human tale arose the powerful literature and operas that define China today.

The palace complex is built against the Li Shan (mountain) and has the magic of being engulfed in mist against snow and hot springs in winter. It is not difficult to imagine the lovers as soulmates in consumption of each other in the hours spent pruning the grafted pomegranate trees together, long baths, long walks and long nights in the bedroom built to open to the mountains. The impact of the setting is the fact that this was a true and well-documented story right down to the exact dates, speaking through the ages.

The Japanese have a version of this tragic story in the “tale of Genji” which made some to believe that Yang Guifei did not commit suicide but ran away to Japan, which is unverified, and Chang Kaishek’s kidnap at this location was the setting of another story in itself.


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