756: Yang Guifei, favored concubine

Add comment July 15th, 2014 Headsman

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,China,Early Middle Ages,Execution,History,Myths,No Formal Charge,Political Expedience,Popular Culture,Power,Sex,Strangled,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women

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2011: Yao Jiaxin, road rager

3 comments June 7th, 2012 Headsman

On this date last year, a young pianist turned public enemy number one was executed in China for a notorious roadside murder.

Yao Jiaxin, a 21-year-old student at Xi’an Conservatory, hit a waitress on her bike while driving in October 2010.

Seeing her taking down his car’s license plate and fearful that she would revenge herself with financial demands for her minor injuries, an infuriated Yao stabbed her to death there at the scene.

“Yao stabbed the victim’s chest, stomach and back several times until she died,” in the words of one court. “The motive was extremely despicable, the measures extremely cruel and the consequences extremely serious.”

Appropriately, the execution took place on the very day that Chinese students were facing grueling university entrance exams, like the ones Yao himself had passed a few years before.

This event sparked massive national outrage, and Yao — the ivory-tickling son of a well-off couple who worked for the defense industry but didn’t have the pull of true elites — proved to be perfectly cast for the role of public pariah in a country undergoing the cataclysmic social displacements of internal migration, urban proletarianization, social stratification, and uneven capitalistic growth. He reportedly told police in his confession that he feared that his victim, a “peasant woman[,] would be hard to deal with.”

So-called “netizens” thrilled to the scandalous murder and bombarded online communications spaces with demands for Yao’s condign execution — an offering to the hollow bromides of legal egalitarianism that people in China as everywhere else see flouted every day. Yao’s family even fed that in a backhanded way by offering the victim’s family a larger compensation than that demanded by law if they would back off their demand for execution. Those “peasants” spurned the bribe.

Despite the familiar spectacle of public bloodlust over an infamous crime, Yao’s case also had an unsettling effect for at least some. He was, after all, a promising young man undone by a moment of madness and moral frailty: his downfall was distinctly tragic, in the classical sense, and not such a stretch to read as symbolic of China’s challenges and transformations.

Palpably grief-stricken and contrite about it — his parents took him to the police station to turn himself in, and cameras tracked the frail-looking youth through his few months of legal calvary all the way to a pitiably sobbing spectacle in his final court appearance as he pleaded in vain for his life — Yao could inspire pity as well as loathing.

The nature of Yao’s crime makes him an unlikely poster-boy for ending capital punishment per se. Yet there was also something discomfiting about authorities’ theatrical and foreordained compliance with a bloodlust that they had arguably stoked.

And in a China which has moved towards dialing down executions in recent years, even Yao’s individual culpability met some overt challenge: academics and legal professionals prepared to frame it as a crime of passion or something akin to “temporary insanity,” meriting a lesser punishment.

“A lot of people felt shocked,” a Chinese death penalty opponent told a western reporter. “They felt shocked by the process. Some people thought the netizens pushed the court into giving Yao the death penalty.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Pelf,Ripped from the Headlines

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1945: John Birch, Society man

8 comments August 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1945, according to a fringe faction of American conservatism, the first victim of the Cold War was shot by Chinese Communists at Suchow, China, near Xi’an.

John Birch, a military chaplain proselytizing in China and an agent of the CIA’s precursor entity Office of Strategic Services, had the kind of portfolio sure to rub Mao’s boys the wrong way.

Apparently it was his personality that got him into trouble.

On recon duty days after the end of World War II, he bumped into a patrol of Red Chinese. According to Time, he failed his diplomacy check.

As the scene has been reconstructed, Birch argued violently with the Communist officer who wanted to disarm him. Birch was seized and shot after his hands had been tied. The Communists then bayoneted him at least 15 times and tossed his body on a heap of junk and garbage.

“In the confusing situation,” said [Birch’s commanding officer Major Gustav] Krause last week, “my instructions were to act with diplomacy. Birch made the Communist lieutenant lose face before his own men. Militarily, John Birch brought about his own death.”

Days after World War II — how does that square with your international Communist conspiracy? The incident was not especially notable at the time, but some elements later conceived John Birch the first American casualty of Communism during the Cold War, and in this guise he became the namesake of the John Birch Society (Wikipedia entry | homepage — evidently forward-thinking enough to have grabbed their own three-letter acronym)

Here’s candy magnate and founder Robert Welch, Jr., explaining:

Despite the young lieutenant’s credentials as a martyr of evangelical anti-Communism, the oft-loopy Society’s relationship to the mainstream conservative movement and the Republican Party it took over was never completely comfortable and eventually came to a definite sundering.

The Society soldiers on, its “Get US out of the United Nations” billboards a minor fixture of Americana from Port Angeles, Washington to this one in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Shot,Soldiers,Spies,Summary Executions,USA

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