An only child who lost her father early in life, Yang Yuhuan was raised in the household of her uncle, Yang Xuangui. She grew up to be one of the few women whose beauty has caused the downfall of monarchs and nations.
"Yet with such beauty bestowed by fate, how could she remain unknown!
One day she was chosen to attend to the emperor.
Glancing back and smiling, she revealed a hundred charms.
All the powdered ladies of the six palaces at once seemed dull and colourless.
One cold spring day she was ordered to bathe in the Huaqing Palace baths.
The warm water slipped down her glistening jade-like body.
When her maids helped her rise, she looked so frail and lovely,
Immediately winning the emperor's favour."
In the twenty-second year of the Kaiyuan reign, Yang Yuhuan was chosen to enter the imperial harem. In the twenty-eighth year, the Tang Emperor Xuanzong summoned her to the Huaqing Palace where she first rose to imperial favour.
"Her hair like a cloud, her face like a flower,
A gold hair-pin adorning her tresses.
Behind the warm lotus-flower curtain,
They took their pleasures in the spring night.
Regretting only the spring nights were too short;
Rising only when the sun was high;
He stopped attending court sessions
In the early morning.
Constantly she amused and feasted with him,
Accompanying him on his spring outings,
Spending all the nights with him.
Though many beauties were in the palace,
More than three thousand of them,
All his favours were centered on her."
Her relatives gained unprecedented influence: her uncle, Xuangui, was made a senior official in the capital; her cousin Yang Guozhong was appointed prime minister; her elder brother, Yangxian became an official of the second rank while her younger brother, Yangqi was given an imperial consort as his wife. Her sisters were all appointed to nobility.
"The Rainbow and Feather Garments Dance
Was stopped by the sounds of war.
Dust filled the high-towered capital,
As thousands of carriages and horsemen
Fled to the south-west."
Emperor Xuanzong, wallowing in the pleasures of the flesh, neglected his court and politics. In AD 755, An Lushan, a powerful general, seized the opportunity to stage a rebellion and marched into the capital. Emperor Xuanzong fled towards the south-west, taking Yang Guifei with him.
"The emperor's green-canopied carriage
Was forced to halt,
Having left the west city gate
More than a hundred li.
There was nothing the emperor could do,
At the army's refusal to proceed.
So she with the moth-like eyebrows
Was killed before his horses.
Her floral-patterned gilded box
Fell to the ground, abandoned and unwanted,
Like her jade hair-pin
With the gold sparrow and green feathers."
They had not gone far from the capital when the soldiers refused to go on, demanding the death of Yang Guifei. Emperor Xuanzong had no choice but to watch Yang Guifei kill herself at the slopes of Mawei village.
Like the soldiers, the common people hated Yang Guifei, believing that she had brought harm to their country. In reality, she was no more than the plaything of a fatuous monarch, used as an excuse by treacherous subjects to justify sedition. Perhaps those who truly deserve to be despised are the self-indulgent emperor, his traitorous subjects, and fair-weather friends who used claims of kinship to gain power. Beyond that, the blame must lie with the backward system of feudal autocracy under which Yang Guifei lived.
"Heaven and earth may not last for ever,
But this sorrow is eternal."