On this date in 756, the imperial consort Yang Guifei was expediently executed during the An Lushan Rebellion.
The Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong, whose beloved concubine Yang was, undertook this cruel extremity only in great duress. Initially married to one of the emperor’s sons, Yang so enamored the emperor that he usurped the prince’s place and got the kid a different wife. In the c. 800 classic poem “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” the poet Bai Juyi mused on the smitten sovereign rushing headlong into waiting tragedy.
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,a
All his gifts were devoted to one person.
Indeed, over the 740s Yang’s relations rose at court on the strength of her hold over the emperor, causing no few resentments among courtiers now obliged to flatter them. She’s been cast as a femme fatale, a siren whose chords called the emperor to capsize his own ship of state.
The general An Lushan was the rock of his ruin. Though An Lushan’s revolt would one day claim Yang’s life, he was a great favorite of hers and eventually adopted as Yang’s son; it was whispered that the imperial gifts showered on this commander might reflect favor with the concubine quite surpassing the bounds of propriety.
The most important favor was command of all northern China’s garrisons, with 150,000-plus troops.
His influence (and the fact that he was not ethnically Han, but of Turkic and Iranic extraction) made him rivals at the imperial court, even including the concubine Yang’s cousin, chancellor Yang Guozhong.
One can speculate as to who suspected whom first, but as we’ve seen with the Roman Empire a sufficiently strong inducement to treachery inevitably becomes tantamount to the real thing: eventually one’s intemperate supporters or implacable enemies will cast the die for even the most retiring general. An Lushan was Caesar enough to cross the Tang’s Rubicon, which for him was the Yellow River, above which his armies had been confined.
In the winter of 755-756, An crossed this river and marched towards Chang’an (Xi’an, then the imperial capital and the world’s most populous city), styling himself the Emperor of Yan. This aspirant state proved far from durable, and vanished by 763 — but by the time that long term had come into view, all of our principal characters were dead.
Yang Guifei was the first of them. (Plenty of secondary characters — generals, eunuchs, rivals and family of rivals — were being put to death all along and well before Yang, of course.) As the rebel army advanced on the capital, Xuanzong and his court fled in panic, Yang included. One day’s march further inland towards Chengdu, the royal guards themselves rebelled. Embittered like many others by the sway Yang and her family held — and blaming the consort for the ignominious retreat they were embarked upon — the soldiers refused to proceed without Yang’s execution. Xuanzong had little choice under the circumstances but to assent to her summary strangulation.
The Son of Heaven made good his escape, and his kingdom prevailed in the fight. (An was assassinated in 757.) Xuanzong himself, however, had to abdicate in favor of his son before the chaotic summer was out, and lived out his last five years as Taishang Huang, “Retired Emperor”.
One can only guess at the regrets he had in those days for the beloved mistress sacrificed to the safety of his person and throne. It’s a circumstance that has become a staple of Chinese literature over the centuries since, from the aforeentioned Bai Juyi right down to the present day, in every medium imaginable.
In Bai’s “Song of Everlasting Sorrow”, the bereft former emperor at last sends a Taoist priest to the heavens in search of his lost love, whose spirit has not even appeared to him in a dream. Yang Guifei sends the messenger back with a last pledge of sundered love:
“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.
Yang Guifei’s tomb remains a popular tourist destination to this date.