TANG EMPERORS, EMPRESSES AND ONE OF THE FOUR BEAUTIES OF CHINA

TANG DYNASTY EMPERORS


Emperor Gaizu (Li Yuan)

Tang Dynasty rulers: Gaozu (Li Yuan, A.D. 618–626); Taizong (626–650); Gaozong (649–683); Zhongzong (684, 705–710); Ruizong (684–690); Wu Zetian (690–705); Xuanzong (712–756); Suzong (756–762); Daizong (762–779); Dezong (779–805); Shunzong (805); Xianzong (805–820); Muzong (820–824); Jingzong (824–827); Wenzong (826–840); Wuzong (840–846); Xuanzong (846–859); Yizong (859–873); Xizong (873–888); Zhaozong (888–904); Aidi (Zhaoxuan) (904–906). [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

There is some debate as to when the Tang dynasty began. Most historians argue that it was inaugurated by a Sui official named Li Yuan (later known as Gaozu) who took power after the last Sui emperor was assassinated in 618. The Tangs had Turkic influences and a little Turkish blood.

One of the most famous Tang ruler was Xuangzong (685-761), who was also known as the "Radiant Emperor" (Minghuang). He developed Chang'an into a center of art and culture. His court drew scholars and artists from all over Asia

The Tang dynasty had its share of corrupt, incompetent and decadent leaders. One 8th century Tang emperor spent nearly all of his time hunting and kept 5,000 chows and a staff of 10,000 huntsmen. In the later years of his reign it is said, Xuangzong was so distracted by a concubine named Yang Guifei it led to the catastrophe of 755.

Good Websites and Sources on the Tang Dynasty: Wikipedia ; Google Book: China’s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty by Charles Benn books.google.com/books; Empress Wu womeninworldhistory.com ; Good Websites and Sources on Tang Culture: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Tang Poems etext.lib.virginia.edu enter Tang Poems in the search; Tang Horses persiancarpetguide.com China Vista chinavista.com

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; 2) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; 4) Ancient China Life ancientchinalife.com ; 5) Ancient China for School Kids elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History)

Books: 1) Benn, Charles, “Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty,” Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002; 2) Schafer, Edward H. “The Golden Peaches of Samarkan,” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963; 3) Watt, James C. Y., et al. “China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200–750 A.D. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004; 4) Cambridge History of China Vol. 3 (Cambridge University Press); 5) The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press)

Li Yuan

The Tang dynasty was founded by Li Yuan, a military commander who proclaimed himself emperor in 618 after suppressing a coup staged by the attendants-turned-assassins of the Sui emperor, Yangdi (reigned 614-618). The Sui dynasties unified China under indigenous Chinese rule for the first time since the end of the Han period, and the Tang inherited this legacy. [Source: John D. Szostak, University of Washington washington.edu+|+]

Li Yuan belonged to the Li family, a northwest military aristocracy that had a strong presence during the Sui dynasty and claimed to be descendants of the Taoist founder Lao zi, the Han dynasty General Li Guang, and Western Liang ruler Li Gao on their paternal side. The family had Xianbei (proto-Mongol) blood on their maternal side. The mother of the first Tang Emperor (Gaozu) — Duchess Dugu — was Xianbei. This family was known as the Longxi Li lineage which includes Li Bai. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Li Yuan was Duke of Tang and governor of Taiyuan during the Sui dynasty's collapse, which was caused in part by the Sui failure to conquer the northern part of the Korean peninsula during the Koguryo–Sui War. He had prestige and military experience, and was a first cousin of Emperor Yang of Sui (their mothers were sisters). Li Yuan rose in rebellion in 617, along with his son and his equally militant daughter Princess Pingyang (d. 623), who raised and commanded her own troops. In winter 617, Li Yuan occupied Chang'an, relegated Emperor Yang to the position of Taishang Huang or retired emperor, and acted as regent to the puppet child-emperor, Emperor Gong of Sui. On the news of Emperor Yang's murder by General Yuwen Huaji on June 18, 618, Li Yuan declared himself the emperor of a new dynasty, the Tang. +

Li Yuan Displaced By Son Taizong


Taizong

Li Yuan, known as Emperor Gaozu of Tang, ruled until 626, when he was forcefully deposed by his son Li Shimin, the Prince of Qin. Li Shimin had commanded troops since the age of 18, had prowess with bow and arrow, sword and lance and was known for his effective cavalry charges. Fighting a numerically superior army, he defeated Dou Jiande (573–621) at Luoyang in the Battle of Hulao on May 28, 621. In a violent elimination of royal family due to fear of assassination, Li Shimin ambushed and killed two of his brothers, Li Yuanji (b. 603) and Crown prince Li Jiancheng (b. 589), in the Xuanwu Gate Incident on July 2, 626. Shortly thereafter, his father abdicated in his favor and Li Shimin ascended the throne. He is conventionally known by his temple name Taizong. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Although killing two brothers and deposing his father contradicted the Confucian value of filial piety, Taizong showed himself to be a capable leader who listened to the advice of the wisest members of his council. In 628, Emperor Taizong held a Buddhist memorial service for the casualties of war, and in 629 he had Buddhist monasteries erected at the sites of major battles so that monks could pray for the fallen on both sides of the fight. This was during the campaign against Eastern Tujue, a Göktürk khanate that was destroyed after the capture of its ruler, Illig Qaghan, by the famed Tang military officer Li Jing (571–649), who later became a Chancellor of the Tang dynasty. With this victory, the Turks accepted Taizong as their khagan, a title rendered as Tian Kehan in addition to his rule as Emperor of China under the traditional title "Son of Heaven". +

Taizong

Taizong (Tai-tsung, 597-649), the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty, is one the most admired Chinese leaders and is known for his love of art. He so admired the calligrapher Wang His-chi he took his famous work “Preface to the Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion” with him to his grave. Taizong coveted Wang’s original manuscripts were so greatly reportedly tried to obtain them by trickery from monk who was sworn to destroy them. Tang Dynasty China under Emperor Tang Taizong was a period of peaceful development of the Chinese economy, when the emperor put the emphasis in the welfare of his subjects, promoting a policy of low taxes and good treatment to the frontier minorities.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Li Shimin reigned as Taizong, second emperor of the Tang dynasty (618-907), from 626 until his death in 649. An energetic ruler, Tang Taizong had played a major part in the military campaigns that brought his father (Li Yuan, Tang Gaozu, r. 618 -626) to the throne as the first emperor of the Tang dynasty. Having eliminated his two competitors for the throne (his brothers Li Jiancheng and Li Yuanji) in an ambush at the capital city’s Xuanwu Gate in 624, Li Shimin forced his father into retirement in 626 to take the throne for himself. As the second emperor of the Tang dynasty, Li Shimin gave shape to the administrative structure of the empire. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>]


Taizong

According to Silk Road Foundation: “A unified country, a strong central government, efficient communications and wide economic and cultural contacts made the Tang dynasty one of the most brilliant epochs in Chinese history. Li Shih-min or emperor Tai-tsung played a major role in the success. Tang emperor Tai-tsung Taizaong], enthroned in 626, proved to be one of the greatest emperors of China.” [Source: “Exoticism in Tang (618-907), Silkroad Foundation”, Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com <>]

Tai-tsung “was just the man for the times. He was open-minded, brave and extremely intelligent. Under his powerful leadership, Tai-tsung brought the Turks and the oases of the Gobi within his sphere. With his advent China was revealed to the astonished peoples of Asia, who tremble at the sound of his name. The emperor's home land lay along the Turkish frontier, so he was familiar with the problem of raids. In 630 Tai-tsung crushed the nomadic Eastern Turks who had been pressing southward from their base in Mongolia. Many northwest tribes in Central Asia sent envoys to seek Tang protection and presented the emperor with the title of Heavenly Khan, or the Khan of Khans, thus marking the beginning of a remarkable political-military alliance with territory extended to East, Central and South Asia. He was well respected not only in China but also in the Turkic regions.

“As the trade became vitally important to Tang, Tai-tsung was anxious to clear the trade routes to India and Persia. He moved westward to conquer the Western Turks and other smaller states in Central Asia. The Chinese court now had diplomatic relations to the west of Pamirs. He directly ruled an area larger than that of the Han dynasty.

Consolidation of the Tang Dynasty Under Taizong

While Gaozu (Li Yuan) was the first of the Tang emperors, it was under his son Taizong (reigned 624-649) that the Tang dynasty consolidated its power and began to achieve a domestic peace that would last for virtually unbroken for three centuries, interrupted only by the nine-year-long An Lushan rebellion (755-763). [Source: John D. Szostak, University of Washington washington.edu+|+]

Unlike the Sui emperors, Taizong was of part Turkic ancestry, born and raised on the frontier, so he was intimately familiar with the problem of nomadic raiders who were pressing on the Tang northern borders. By 630 Taizong had defeated the first eastern Türkic nomads and resettled them north of the Ordos in Inner Mongolia. Other Central Asian peoples and minor kingdoms in northwestern China submitted to the Tang court, naming Taizong and his heirs their "supreme Khan." This brought the important Hexi corridor and Gobi oases under imperial Chinese control, and Taizong enlisted garrisons of Turkic and Central Asian soldiers to protect the trade routes, facilitating a renewed flow of trade goods transported by Central Asian, Indian and Near Eastern merchants, who also brought along with them their religion and their culture. +|+

The famous Tang-era poet Du Fu (712–770) wrote:
Good fortune falls on the gold-pillared gateway...
The prophecies of Taizong are supreme
The empire is firmly established and reaches the sky!

Taizong, the Artist


Taizong calligraphy

“Ode on Pied Wagtails” by Tang Emperor Xuanzong (685-762) is a handscroll, ink on paper (24.5 x 184.9 centimeters): According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In the autumn of 721, about a thousand pied wagtails perched at the palace. Emperor Xuanzong (Minghuang) noticed pied wagtails give out a short and shrill cry when in flight and often wag their tails in a rhythmic manner when walking about. Calling and waving to each other, they seemed to be especially close, which is why he likened them to a group of brothers demonstrating fraternal affection. The emperor ordered an official to compose a record, which he personally wrote to form this handscroll. It is the only surviving example of Xuanzong's calligraphy. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

“The brushwork in this handscroll is steady and the use of ink rich, having a force of vigor and magnanimity in every stroke. The brushwork also clearly reveals pauses and transitions in the strokes. The character forms are similar to those of Wang Xizhi's (303-361) characters assembled into "Preface to the Sacred Teaching" composed in the Tang dynasty, but the strokes are even more robust. It demonstrates the influence of Xuanzong’s promotion of Wang Xizhi's calligraphy at that time and reflects the trend towards plump aesthetics in the High Tang under his reign.” \=/

Empress Wu Zetian

Empress Wu Ze Tian, the first female ruler in Chinese history, usurped the throne in 690. The daughter of a Shanxi lumber dealer, she grew up in Shaanxi and was briefly a nun before she worked her way up to empress from a low-ranking concubine. Regarded as a tyrant, she reportedly killed many of her rivals and changed the name of the dynasty from Tang to Chou (or Zhou). It was changed back after she died.

Empress Wu Zetian was the only female emperor in Chinese history. Her story has intrigued many in China, and has been the subject of a TV series. She expanded China, improved international relations and trade, raised the status of women and encouraged the arts. Under her rule great works of art such as Buddhist statuary, mounted dolls playing musical instruments, gold and silverworks, ceramics and glassware were produced. She reportedly had her own harem of men and is famous for being tactful with her husbands.. She was ultimately forced off the throne by a coup in 705 orchestrated by one of her sons.

Originally a low-ranked concubine, Wu allegedly rose to power after killing her own baby daughter, when the baby was only one week old, through suffocation and pinning the death on Emperor Gaozong’s wife, Empress Wang. Since Wang often visited the baby’s nursery alone, the accusation stuck easily and she was dethroned. In 655, despite opposition at the imperial court, Wu took Wang’s place as empress. Her first act was to get rid of Wang and a concubine named Xiao, a former rival who also had her heart set on becoming empress. Wu ordered the two women have their hands and feet cut off. Their bodies were then hurled into wine jars, where they drowned on wine. Wu spent years consolidating her power and ruling behind the scenes. In 690, after Gaozong had been dead for some time and she had forced two of her sons off the throne, Wu became the official emperor of China. While condemned for her ruthlessness and violent tactics, he is credited for the stability of her reign, her reform of the civil service examinations, and her policy of keeping nationwide suggestion boxes in which ordinary subjects were allowed to criticize government officials.[Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, May 16, 2016]

Wu Zetain had high-level female officials working under her. In September 2013, the BBC reported: “The ancient tomb of a female politician in China, described as the country's "female prime minister", has been discovered, Chinese media say. The tomb of Shangguan Wan'er, who lived from 664-710 AD, was recently found in Shaanxi province...She was a famous politician and poet and a trusted aide of Wu Zetian. The grave was discovered near an airport in Xianyang, Shaanxi province, reports said. A badly damaged epitaph on the tomb helped archaeologists confirm that the tomb was Shangguan Wan'er's. Experts described the discovery as one of "major significance", even though it had been subject to "large-scale damage". "The roof had completely collapsed, the four walls were damaged, and all the tiles on the floor had been lifted up," Geng Qinggang, an archaeology research associate in Shaanxi, told Chinese media. "Hence, we think it must have been subject to large-scale, organised damage... quite possibly damage organised by officials," he said. [Source: BBC News, September 12, 2013]

Wu Zetian's Usurpation

20080216-176871~Portrait-of-the-Empress-Wu-Zetian-Posters.jpg
Empress Wu
Empress Wu's rise to power was achieved through cruel and calculating tactics: a popular conspiracy theory stated that she killed her own baby girl and blamed it on Gaozong's empress so that the empress would be demoted. Emperor Gaozong suffered a stroke in 655, and Wu began to make many of his court decisions for him, discussing affairs of state with his councilors, who took orders from her while she sat behind a screen. When Empress Wu's eldest son, the crown prince, began to assert his authority and advocate policies opposed by Empress Wu, he suddenly died in 675. Many suspected he was poisoned by Empress Wu. Although the next heir apparent kept a lower profile, in 680 he was accused by Wu of plotting a rebellion and was banished. (He was later obliged to commit suicide.) [Source: Wikipedia +]

In 683, Emperor Gaozong died. He was succeeded by Emperor Zhongzong, his eldest surviving son by Wu. Zhongzong tried to appoint his wife's father as chancellor: after only six weeks on the throne, he was deposed by Empress Wu in favor of his younger brother, 12-year-old Emperor Ruizong. This provoked a group of Tang princes to rebel in 684; Wu's armies suppressed them within two months. She proclaimed the Tianshou era of Wu Zhou on October 16, 690, and three days later demoted Emperor Ruizong to crown prince. He was also forced to give up his father's surname Li in favor of the empress's Wu. She then ruled as China's only empress. A palace coup on February 20, 705, forced her to yield her position on February 22. The next day, her son Zhongzong was restored to power; the Tang was formally restored on March 3. She died soon after. +

To legitimize her rule, she circulated a document known as the Great Cloud Sutra, which predicted that a reincarnation of the Maitreya Buddha would be a female monarch who would dispel illness, worry, and disaster from the world. She even introduced numerous revised written characters to the written language, which reverted to the originals after her death. Arguably the most important part of her legacy was diminishing the power of the northwest aristocracy, allowing people from other clans and regions of China to become more represented in Chinese politics and government. +

Xuanzong

Tristan Shaw wrote on Listverse: “Xuanzong’s 43-year reign is considered the high point of the Tang dynasty (618–907), a time in Chinese history renowned for its beautiful poetry and cosmopolitan culture. Not all of Xuanzong’s time on the throne was great, however, and the later half of his reign also marked the beginning of the Tang’s decline. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, May 16, 2016 \+\]

“For most of his time on the throne, Xuanzong was a very competent ruler. After becoming emperor in 712, Xuanzong embarked on a number of successful reforms, cleaning up the bloated imperial bureaucracy and keeping the frontiers of the empire well-protected with military governors who commanded professional armies. In his later years, Xuanzong’s interest in governing declined. He used much of his time to dote on Yang Guifei, a concubine who was initially his son’s wife. Yang used her powerful influence over the emperor to advance her friends and family, helping her cousin Yang Guozhong to become prime minister. Her adopted son, An Lushan, was also made a military governor. \+\

“By 755, An Lushan had a falling out with Yang Guozhong and launched a rebellion to topple the Tang government. As the rebels began to close in on the capital city of Chang’an, Xuanzong and Yang Guifei had to flee the city for safety. After stopping at a remote village, the Imperial Army came to a halt and demanded that the emperor execute Yang Guifei and her cousin for their role in instigating An Lushan’s rebellion. Faced with a revolt from his own troops, Xuanzong realized that there was no way out but to have Yang Guifei killed. The historical record varies about what happened next, but Yang either voluntarily hanged herself or was strangled to death by an imperial official. Xuanzong, devastated by his lover’s death, then gave up his throne and left the job of putting down An Lushan’s rebellion to his son.” \+\

Xuanzong's Rise to Power and Reign


Xuanzong

There were many prominent women at court during and after Wu's reign, including Shangguan Wan'er (664–710), a poetess, writer, and trusted official in charge of Wu's private office. In 706 the wife of Emperor Zhongzong of Tang, Empress Wei (d. 710), persuaded her husband to staff government offices with his sister and her daughters, and in 709 requested that he grant women the right to bequeath hereditary privileges to their sons (which before was a male right only). Empress Wei eventually poisoned Zhongzong, whereupon she placed his fifteen-year-old son upon the throne in 710. Two weeks later, Li Longji (the later Emperor Xuanzong) entered the palace with a few followers and slew Empress Wei and her faction. He then installed his father Emperor Ruizong (r. 710–712) on the throne. Just as Emperor Zhongzong was dominated by Empress Wei, so too was Ruizong dominated by Princess Taiping. This was finally ended when Princess Taiping's coup failed in 712 (she later hanged herself in 713) and Emperor Ruizong abdicated to Emperor Xuanzong. [Source: Wikipedia +]

During the 44-year reign of Emperor Xuanzong, the Tang dynasty reached its height, a golden age with low economic inflation and a toned down lifestyle for the imperial court. Seen as a progressive and benevolent ruler, Xuanzong even abolished the death penalty in the year 747; all executions had to be approved beforehand by the emperor himself (these were relatively few, considering that there were only 24 executions in the year 730). Xuanzong bowed to the consensus of his ministers on policy decisions and made efforts to staff government ministries fairly with different political factions. His staunch Confucian chancellor Zhang Jiuling (673–740) worked to reduce deflation and increase the money supply by upholding the use of private coinage, while his aristocratic and technocratic successor Li Linfu (d. 753) favored government monopoly over the issuance of coinage. After 737 most of Xuanzong's confidence rested in his long-standing chancellor Li Linfu, who championed a more aggressive foreign policy employing non-Chinese generals. This policy ultimately created the conditions for a massive rebellion against Xuanzong.

Yang Guifei (719–756)

Yang Yuhuan (A.D. 719-756), an imperial concubine of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty, is commonly called “Imperial Concubine Yang” (Yang Guifei), with “Guifei” being the highest rank for imperial consorts during her time. She was born in an old, well-known official family. She was naturally beautiful with a docile character. She was gifted in music, singing, dancing and playing lute. These talents, together with her education, made her stand out among the imperial concubines and win the emperor's favor. Jade ("yu") was considered so precious that it was often used in women's names. Yang Yuhuan means "jade ring."

Yang Guifei was the beloved consort of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang during his later years. Pink jade is associated with beauty, and it is said that Emperor Xuanzong would only allow Yang Guifei to wear it. There are many operas and shows based on their tragic love story. In A.D. 755, during the An Lushan Rebellion, as Emperor Xuanzong and his cortege were fleeing from the capital Chang'an to Chengdu, the emperor's guards demanded that he put Yang to death because they blamed the rebellion on her cousin Yang Guozhong and the rest of her family. The emperor capitulated and reluctantly ordered his attendant Gao Lishi to strangle Yang to death.

According to one version of the story when Emperor Xuanzong and Yang arrived at the Mawei Slope, the army refused to march, for the army thought that the reason of this rebellion by An Lushan was that Imperial Concubine Yang's behavior of attracting emperor ruined the state and that her cousin Yang Guozong colluded with the enemy. To appease the army, Emperor Tang Xuanzong had no choice but to order Yang to commit suicide at the Mawei Slope.

Yang was known for having a full and fleshy figure, which was a much sought-after quality at the time. She was often compared and contrasted with Empress Zhao Feiyan, the wife of Emperor Cheng of Han, because Yang was known for her full build while Empress Zhao was slender. This led to the Four-character idiom “yanshou huanfei," describing the range of the types of beauties.

Early Life of Yang Guifei


Yang Guifei

Yang was born in 719 during the Tang Dynasty, early in the reign of Emperor Xuanzong. Her great-great-grandfather Yang Wang was a key official during the reign of Emperor Yang of Sui, and, after the fall of the Sui Dynasty, served one of the contenders to succeed Sui, Wang Shichong; Yang Wang was then killed when Wang Shichong was defeated by Tang forces in 621. Yang Wang was from Huayin (in modern Weinan, Shaanxi), but his clan subsequently relocated to Yongle (in modern Yuncheng, Shanxi). [Source: Wikipedia +]

Yang's father Yang Xuanyan served as a census official at Shu Prefecture (in modern Chengdu, Sichuan), and his family went there with him. He appeared to have had no sons, but had four daughters who were known to history — Yang Yuhuan and three older sisters. Yang Xuanyan died when Yang Yuhuan was still young, so the latter was raised by her uncle Yang Xuanjiao, who was a low-ranking official at Henan Municipality (modern Luoyang). Princess and Taoist nun

In 733, sixteen year-old Yang Yuhuan married the son of Emperor Xuanzong and Consort Wu, Li Mao the Prince of Shou. She thus carried the title of Princess of Shou. After Consort Wu died in 737, Emperor Xuanzong was greatly saddened by the death of his then-favorite concubine. Some time after that however Princess Yang somehow came into Xuanzong's favor and the emperor decided to take her as his consort. However, since Princess Yang was already the wife of his son, Emperor Xuanzong stealthily arranged her to become a Taoist nun with the tonsured name Taizhen in order to prevent criticisms that would affect his plan of making her his concubine. Yang then stayed, for a brief moment, as a Taoist nun in the palace itself, before Emperor Xuanzong made her an imperial consort after bestowing his son Li Mao a new wife. Yang hence became the favorite consort of the emperor like Consort Wu was before. Imperial consort

Yang Guifei and Emperor Xuanzong

In 745, after Emperor Xuanzong gave the daughter of the general Wei Zhaoxun to Li Mao as his new wife and princess, he officially made Taizhen an imperial consort — with the newly created rank of Guifei, which was even greater than the previously highest rank of Huifei, carried by Consort Wu. He bestowed posthumous honors on her father Yang Xuanyan and granted her mother the title of Lady of Liang. He also gave high offices to her uncle Yang Xuangui and cousins Yang Xian and Yang Qi. Her three older sisters were conferred the ranks of Ladies of Han, Guo, and Qin, and it was said that whenever the noble women were summoned to imperial gatherings, even Emperor Xuanzong's highly honored sister Li Chiying the Princess Yuzhen did not dare to take a seat more honorable than theirs. Emperor Xuanzong also gave his favorite daughter Princess Taihua (born of Consort Wu) to Yang Qi in marriage. The five Yang households — those of Yang Xian, Yang Qi, and the Ladies of Han, Guo, and Qin — were said to be exceedingly honored and rich, and all of the officials fought to flatter them. Also around the same time, her second cousin Yang Zhao (whose name was later changed to Yang Guozhong) was also introduced to Emperor Xuanzong by Consort Yang, and Yang Zhao began to be promoted due to his flattery of the emperor. [Source: Wikipedia +]


Yang Guifei movie poster

Consort Yang became so favored that whenever she rode a horse, the eunuch Gao Lishi would attend her. 700 laborers were conscripted to sew fabrics for her. The officials and generals flattered her by offering her exquisite tributes. In 746, there was an occasion when she angered Emperor Xuanzong by being jealous and rude to him, and he had her sent to her cousin Yang Xian's mansion. Later that day, however, his mood was such that he could not eat, and the servants were battered by him for minor offenses. Gao knew that he missed Consort Yang, and Gao requested that the treasures in Consort Yang's palace be sent to her. Emperor Xuanzong agreed, and further sent imperial meals to her as well. That night, Gao requested that Emperor Xuanzong welcome Consort Yang back to the palace, a request that Emperor Xuanzong easily agreed to. Thereafter, she was even more favored, and no other imperial consort drew the favor of Emperor Xuanzong. +

In 747, when the military governor (jiedushi) An Lushan arrived at the capital Chang'an to meet Emperor Xuanzong, Emperor Xuanzong showed him much favor and allowed him into the palace. He had An honor Consort Yang as mother and Consort Yang's cousins and sisters as his brothers and sisters. In 750, there was another occasion at which Consort Yang offended Emperor Xuanzong with her words, and he sent her back to her clan. The official Ji Wen told Emperor Xuanzong that he overreacted, and Emperor Xuanzong regretted his actions. He again sent imperial meals to her, and she wept to the eunuchs delivering the meal, stating: “My offense deserves death, and it is fortunate that His Imperial Majesty did not kill me, but instead returned me to my household. I will forever leave the palace. My gold, jade, and treasures were all given me by His Imperial Majesty, and it would be inappropriate for me to offer them back to him. Only what my parents gave me I would dare to offer." She cut off some of her hair and had the hair taken back to Emperor Xuanzong. Emperor Xuanzong had Gao escort her back to the palace, and thereafter loved her even greater. +

In 751, An again visited Chang'an. On An's birthday on 20 February, 751, Emperor Xuanzong and Consort Yang rewarded him with clothing, treasures, and food. On 23 February, when An was summoned to the palace, Consort Yang, in order to please Emperor Xuanzong, had an extra-large infant wrapping made, and wrapped An in it, causing much explosion of laughter among the ladies in waiting and eunuchs. When Emperor Xuanzong asked what was going on, Consort Yang's attendants joked that Consort Yang gave birth three days ago and was washing her baby Lushan. Emperor Xuanzong was pleased by the comical situation and rewarded both Consort Yang and An greatly. Thereafter, whenever An visited the capital, he was allowed free admittance to the palace, and there were rumors that he and Consort Yang had an affair, but Emperor Xuanzong discounted the rumors. +

In 752, when the chancellor Li Linfu, in light of Nanzhao incursions against Jiannan Circuit (headquartered in modern Chengdu, Sichuan), of which Yang Guozhen served as commander remotely, wanted to send Yang Guozhong to Jiannan to defend against the Nanzhao attacks, Consort Yang interceded on Yang Guozhong's behalf, and Yang Guozhong did not actually report to Jiannan. Li Linfu soon died, and Yang Guozhong became chancellor. +

An Lushan's Rebellion and Consort Yang's Death

Yang Guozhong and An Lushan soon were in conflict with each other, and Yang Guozhong repeatedly tried to provoke An into rebelling, by actions including arresting and executing staff members at An's mansion in Chang'an. In 755, An finally reciprocated. In order to try to placate the populace, which believed that Yang Guozhong had provoked the rebellion, Emperor Xuanzong considered passing the throne to his crown prince Li Heng. Yang Guozhong, who was not on good terms with Li Heng, feared this development, and persuaded Consort Yang and the Ladies of Han, Guo, and Qin to speak against it. Emperor Xuanzong, for the time being, did not abdicate the throne. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In 756, General Geshu Han was defeated by An's forces, after being forced by Yang Guozhong to engage An out of fear that Geshu Han himself might usurp the throne, and Tong Pass, the last major defense, fell to An's forces. Yang Guozhong suggested fleeing to Chengdu, the capital of Jiannan Circuit. On 14 July, Emperor Xuanzong, keeping the news secret from the people of Chang'an, took the imperial guards to escort him, Consort Yang, her family, and his immediate clan members, and exited Chang'an, heading toward Chengdu. Attending him were Yang Guozhong, his fellow chancellor Wei Jiansu, the official Wei Fangjin, the general Chen Xuanli, and some eunuchs and ladies in waiting close to him. +

On 15 July, Emperor Xuanzong's cortege reached Mawei Courier Station in modern Xianyang, Shaanxi). The imperial guards were not fed and became angry at Yang Guozhong. Chen also believed that Yang Guozhong had provoked this disaster and planned to accuse him; he reported his plans to Li Heng through Li Heng's eunuch Li Fuguo, but Li Heng was hesitant and gave no approval. Meanwhile, Tufan emissaries, who had followed Emperor Xuanzong south, were meeting with Yang Guozhong and complaining that they also had not been fed. The soldiers of the imperial guard took this opportunity to proclaim that Yang Guozhong was planning treason along with the Tufan emissaries, and they killed him, along with his son Yang Xuan, the Ladies of Han and Qin, and Wei Fangjin. Wei Jiansu was also nearly killed, but was spared at the last moment with severe injuries. The soldiers then surrounded Emperor Xuanzong's pavilion, and refused to scatter even after Emperor Xuanzong came out to comfort them and order them to disperse. Chen publicly urged him to put Consort Yang to death — which Emperor Xuanzong initially declined. After Wei Jiansu's son Wei E and Gao Lishi spoke further, Emperor Xuanzong finally resolved to do so. He therefore had Gao take Consort Yang to a Buddhist shrine and strangle her. After he showed the body to Chen and the other imperial guard generals, the guard soldiers finally dispersed and prepared for further travel. Meanwhile, Yang Guozhong's wife Pei Rou, son Yang Xi, the Lady of Guo, and the Lady of Guo's son Pei Hui tried to flee, but were killed in flight. Consort Yang was buried at Mawei, without a coffin, but with masses of fragrances, wrapped in purple blankets. +


Yang Guifei


In 757, Prince Li Heng, who had taken the throne as Emperor Suzong, recaptured Chang'an and welcomed ex-Emperor Xuanzong, then Taishang Huang (retired emperor) back to the capital. Emperor Xuanzong went through Mawei on his way back to Chang'an. He wanted to locate Consort Yang's body and rebury her with honor. The official Li Kui spoke against it, pointing out that the imperial guard soldiers would still be prone to reprisals if he did so. However, Emperor Xuanzong secretly sent eunuchs to rebury her with a coffin. When they found the body, it had decomposed, but the fragrance bag buried with her was still fresh. The eunuchs returned with the fragrance bag, and upon its presentation to Emperor Xuanzong, he wept bitterly. When he returned to Chang'an, he had a painter create a picture of Consort Yang in a secondary palace, and often went there to view the portrait. +

Xianzong

The last great ambitious ruler of the Tang dynasty was Emperor Xianzong (r. 805–820), his reign period aided by the fiscal reforms of the 780s, including the government monopoly on the salt industry. He also had an effective well trained imperial army stationed at the capital led by his court eunuchs; this was the Army of Divine Strategy, numbering 240,000 in strength as recorded in 798. Between the years 806 and 819, Emperor Xianzong conducted seven major military campaigns to quell the rebellious provinces that had claimed autonomy from central authority, managing to subdue all but two of them. Under his reign there was a brief end to the hereditary jiedushi, as Xianzong appointed his own military officers and staffed the regional bureaucracies once again with civil officials. However, Xianzong's successors proved less capable and more interested in the leisure of hunting, feasting, and playing outdoor sports, allowing eunuchs to amass more power as drafted scholar-officials caused strife in the bureaucracy with factional parties. The eunuchs' power became unchallenged after Emperor Wenzong's (r. 826–840) failed plot to have them overthrown; instead the allies of Emperor Wenzong were publicly executed in the West Market of Chang'an, by the eunuchs' command.

Image Sources: Empress Wu, AllPosters.com; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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