Has anyone ever thought of what it takes to ruin a country? Power? Status? or military? In this case, all you need is a man’s heart. In many instances of the ancient history, such as Greece and Persian, ordinary women were not seen as significant in terms of their influence to the empire, or to the people. However, we would like to bring your attention to, in ancient China, many powerful figures were women such as Lv Zhi, Wu Zhe Tian, and the four beauties who had created a huge impact on history and also the development of China.
Today, we will be discussing on one of the four beauties of the ancient China; Yang Yu Huan, the favourite concubine of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang Dynasty(712AD- 756AD), she was also named as Yang Guifei (719AD - 756AD). Who was at the same time the ex-wife of his son; Prince Shou. Back in the day, the Chinese had always been using this idiom “红颜祸水” which roughly translates to “Helen Of Troy” to describe influential (pretty) women as a disaster to the country.
Yang was actually the wife of Prince Shou, the daughter-in-law of Emperor Xuanzong. After Emperor Xuanzong’s favourite Concubine Wu, the mother of Prince Shou passed away, Emperor Xuanzong felt lonesome and started to look for her replacement. He started to expand his imperial palace in order to contain more imperial concubines where he might find someone to replace the place of Concubine Wu but none of them attracted him, till he met Yang.
As recorded in the Zizhi Tongjian, also known as, the “Comprehensive Mirror In Aid of Governance”. It is a reference book used to record a detailed orientation of the Chinese Historiography. Emperor Xuanzong’s decision making and activities were written down in this book and it will aid us understanding what the Emperor did during his reign for Yang.
According to the Zizhi Tongjian, after Emperor Xuanzong fell in love with Yang YuHuan and became his most favourite concubine, he began to get influenced by her beauty. He started to neglect the economic and social matter of the country, due to his time spent with her. He gave her the title “Yang GuiFei”, to represent her as his highest-ranking imperial concubine. The emperor was mesmerised by her beauty, as stated by a famous poet, Bai Ju-Yi (772-846 AD, China) from “The Song of Everlasting Regret”, “All three thousand concubines in the rear palaces were ignored. On only one person was the royal affection concentrated”....“day after day the emperor could not get enough of these”. This line emphasises that the Emperor could not get enough of spending time with her and wanted to do what he could to make her happy.
He had never give her any harsh form of punishment regardless of her actions. One day she offended the emperor by her jealously and rudeness, instead of killing her, he simply sent her back home. After sending her back, the emperor immediately regretted his actions, his love for her was so great that he sent his favourite eunuch to escort her back to the palace after she apologised.
Before Yang YuHuan became the emperor’s concubine, the emperor decided to appoint a new wife for Prince Shou in order to replace Yang YuHuan. Due to his love for her, the emperor appointed all of Yang’s family members; father, mother, 3 sisters and brother, a high-level position in the government regardless of their abilities, right under the Emperor himself. However, it was decreed by law that the emperor is not allowed to consider one of his concubine and her/his family as one of his own, this behaviour is only acceptable to the empress’s family. However, with such behaviour, the emperor is breaking the law but was smart enough to counter this law by providing them with positions in their system. In the end, the officials turned a blind-eye on Yang Guifui’s family members and doing their best to gain the family’s favours for themselves.
In 748, the 3 sisters of Yang Guifei, from ordinary women to receiving the most honourable title of ladies of “Han”, ‘Guo” and “Qin” respectively, with this they were given greater honour than an actual princess. Furthermore, given the authority to decide the marriage for individuals (they would give permission to those that want to get married). Yang’s brother was given the title “consort prince” after marrying one of the Emperor’s daughters (Daughter of Consort Wu).
As for Yang GuiFei, the Emperor give his best to make her happy. She was constantly doted on by the Emperor, given a pet horse, and lead around by his head court eunuch, Gao Lishi like a princess. There may not have been any specific dates/duration in regards to the time spent between the Emperor and Yang GuiFei, but it is stated in ZiZhi TongJian that they spent their entire winter seasons together at the hot springs palace. In order to make things easier for them to not travel much, they made the hot springs into a palace. The hot spring’s name and the structure were changed into a palace, that meant the Emperor would spend an awful amount of time within the premises. Moreover, the Emperor and his officials even move their office to the hot spring palace.
Tang Xuanzong love for her does not stop here. In order to satisfy her materialised needs, he employed more than 700 people to work on the embroidery for her daily outfit. Created a special trade link between the capital and Lingnan just to delivery freshest lychee daily just to satisfy her cravings. Such acts wasted a lot of money also caused the death of countless.
It was mentioned within the “Comprehensive Mirror In Aid of Governance”, although this method was considered bribery, some of the officials who knew the true nature of Yang GuiFei, made “offerings” to her, in order to gain her favour for promotion within the government. After such attempt, it was stated within the official record, that at least 2 officials were promoted to higher ranking officials through their “offerings”. It was obvious enough to understand that she loved this offering and convinced the emperor to promote them. With such behaviour, Yang GuiFei would have even, with no surprise, promoted a corrupt/atrocious official to be promoted and eventually further damaging the empire’s economic and social system, putting the country to ruins.
The ultimate downfall of the Tang Dynasty caused by Yang GuiFei was An Lushan’s rebellion which led to her death. An Lushan was a general who rose to his position after winning great battles, at the northeastern border against the Khitan and other northern threats. He began to gain favours from the Emperor after such accomplishments and Yang GuiFei took him as her godson. She celebrated this occasion as they would celebrate the birth of a newborn child, by wrapping a large cloth around him to signify him as her newborn son. An Lushan would enter the palace whenever he wanted and sit at the same table with Yang, despite having no such authority. According to Zizhi Tongjian and New Book of Tang, Yang GuiFei did not qualify her role as a good wife as she goes along with the emperor’s decision just to please him rather than walking along with him on the right path.
An Lushan had rivalries with Yang Guozhong, cousin of Yang GuiFei and chancellor of the Emperor. In 755, An Lushan finally rebelled and the turning point after years of preparation was due to Yang Guozhong arresting and executing An’s staff members. In order to reduce the tension of the people, Emperor Xuanzong wanted to pass the throne to his son. But Yang Guozhong was not on good terms with his son. Hence, convinced Yang GuiFei along with her 3 sisters to prevent the Emperor from passing the throne. When the empire’s defence fell, the Emperor along with Yang GuiFei and her family and few more escorts, tried to escape but the imperial guards demanded the emperor to kill Yang GuiFei. As he was her cousin and at the same time the cause of this rebellion, the Emperor gave in and ordered Gao Lishi, his attendant to strangle her to death.
Many of the historians sing the praise of the love story between Yang Guifei and Tang Xuan Zhong, it is uncommon to see an emperor doing so much for a concubine or even an Empress. Given the role of GuiFei, Yang should assist the emperor in ruling the country. Yet, she brings him deeper into seeking a life of pleasure to an extent where he gave all his political power to his chancellor. Her failure in supporting Tang Xuan Zhong's political life and draw him away from the right path leading to the fallen of the most prosper period of the Tang Dynasty. Therefore, Helen of Troy is a perfect description for Yang Yu Huan.
Many might wonder, it's just a concubine of Tang Xuanzhong, how could she be significance to the history. She might be one of the 3000 concubines in the palace for Emperor Xuanzhong, but she is the most influencer person to his decision making process. This is a perfect historical example of a woman who does not withhold any physical power yet, able to influence the direction of the country and slowly cause the ending of the most prosper period of the Tang Dynasty.
3. Zizhi Tongjian, Volume 14, Author: Sima Guang, Published: 1084
4. New Book of Tang, Volume 5, Author: Ouyang Xiu, Published: 1060