Noilly Prattle: China 2017: 5 – the face that nearly sank the Tang Dynasty

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

China 2017: 5 – the face that nearly sank the Tang Dynasty


Lady Yang Guifei
     We had no particular plan after our visit to the Terracotta Warriors, but it was still early in the afternoon. We were thinking of just returning to Xi'an but our guide suggested stopping off at the Hua Qing Palace on the way back to Xi'an (at no extra charge) so, why not, and we agreed--a worthwhile decision as it turned out. The palace was built using the local geothermal springs for heating and bathing pools. The palace complex serves as background to a story entitled “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” about Lady Yang Guifei the favorite consort of the aging Tang Dynasty (616-907AD) Emperor Xuanzong (685 -762AD). The Huaqing pools are mentioned in the story:

Lady Yang emerging from the pool
On a cold spring day,
he bestowed upon her the honor
of bathing with him at the Huaqing pools.
According to legend,
this is the pool that was used
by Yang Guifei and the Emperor.
The waters of the hot springs were smooth,
and washed over her pale white skin.
The palace maids helped her to leave the pool,
because she was too delicate and lacked strength.
This was when she began to receive
the Emperor's advances.

Hua Qing Palace sculpture of Lady Yang 
dancing for Emperor Xuanzong
       The "Song of Everlasting Sorrow" is a renowned story in China and Japan. Lady Yang Guifei (719 -756AD) was a kind of Helen of Troy figure, a voluptuous young beauty and accomplished dancer who captured the heart and soul of an emperor and drove the realm to near chaos with her family's involvement in palace intrigues and strife—a face that nearly sank an empire so to speak.

Hua Qing Palace and Mount Li
          Hua Qing Palace is a beautiful example of traditional Chinese architectural and landscape design built at the foot and on the slopes and summit of Mount Li (about 25km east of Xi'an), blending the natural landscape with its stone walls, wooden buildings, sculpture, ponds, trees, rocks and hot spring pools into a magnificent complex.

Lady Yang's private hot spring pool
pool shared by Lady Yang
and Emperor Xuanzong
      Lady Yang, unfortunately, was only able the enjoy the luxurious spas and surroundings for a few short years. She held considerable influence over the old Xuanzong who adored her to distraction. She was sure enough of her power to quarrel with the Emperor. He banished her at least twice after lapses in respect for his exalted position, pined for her in her absence and then brought her back to the palace. She was also foolish enough to aid and abet her family in palace intrigues.

pond and landscape garden
plum blossoms
     The Lady was caught up in a rebellion (the An Lushan Rebellion) led by her cousin, Yang Guozhong, that failed and they were forced to flee the palace. The emperor's officials took matters into their own hands before the realm was brought to total ruin and demanded that Xuanzong have the Lady Yang executed. He capitulated and had her taken to a Buddhist shrine and strangled. She was 37-years old. 

Emperor Xuanzong
      The rebellion, however, marked the beginning of the decline of the Tang Dynasty. Xuanzong was forced to retire and was said to be disconsolate over the death of Lady Yang and wept bitter tears thereafter. He died six years later in a depressed state at age 76. The Hua Qing Palace remains as a breathtaking testament to the powerful influence of this  femme fatale.

screen painting of Emperor Xuanzong and Lady Yang with courtiers and attendants
by Japanese artist Kano Eitoku

Chiang Kai Shek headquarters at Hua Qing Palace
       During the first phase of the civil war in China the Nationalist Leader Chiang Kai-shek was forced to join with Mao Zedong's Communist forces in a joint effort to beat back the Japanese advance into China. He had his headquarters in Xi'an at this time and stayed at the Hua Qing Palace. You can see the rooms that he and his staff occupied at the time. Chiang, of course, eventually lost the war to the Communist leader, Mao Zedong, and fled to the Island of Taiwan in 1949.

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