Yang Yuhuan, later to become Yang GuiFei (713-756), was one of the few women whose beauty has caused the downfall of monarchs and nations.
Yang Yuhuan was the daughter of Yang Xuanyan, a census official in Sichuan. An only child who lost her father early in life, Yang Yuhuan was raised in the household of her uncle.
When Emperor Xuanzong had firmly established a strong empire with a cosmopolitan capital in Chang’an (outskirts of Xi’an) and a brilliant Court, he ordered a search throughout the land to find China’s greatest beauty. One day, at Huaqing Hot Springs, Yang Yuhuan, the 18-year-old concubine of Li Mao, the Prince of Shou, and one of the Emperor’s sons, caught Xuanzong’s eye. Amidst protestations from his son, Xuanzong took Yang to be his own concubine, and she grew to wield enormous influence over the emperor, who began neglecting matters of state to spend time with her. He renamed her Yang GuiFei (high-ranked imperial concubine).
On one occasion, Yang GuiFei offended Emperor Xuanzong with her words, and he sent her back to her home. Emperor Xuanzong regretted his actions. He against sent imperial meals to her, and she wept to the eunuchs delivering the meal, stating:
My offense deserves death, and it is fortunate that His Imperial Majesty did not kill me, but instead returned me to my household. I will forever leave the palace. My gold, jade, and treasures were all given me by His Imperial Majesty, and it would be inappropriate for me to offer them back to him. Only what my parents gave me I would dare to offer.
She cut off some of her hair and had the hair taken back to Emperor Xuanzong. Emperor Xuanzong had his chief eunuch Gao LiShi escort her back to the palace, and thereafter loved her even more.
Tang-Dynasty paintings indicate that — like other beauties of the time — Yang GuiFei was a plump woman.
Emperor Xuanzong, wallowing in the pleasures of the flesh, neglected his court and politics. Taking great pains to please her, the emperor had the palace at Huaqing Hot Springs enlarged, and she spent many languorous hours bathing there to keep her skin fresh. Fresh lychees, her favorite fruit, were brought by pony express from Guangzhou every week. Many of her relatives took positions at Court, with her cousin, Yang Guozhong, becoming Chief Minister, and her sisters were all appointed to nobility.
Yang GuiFei even adopted An Lushan, a general of Turkic origin, as her son and helped him win power at court. In 755, An Lushan seized the opportunity to stage a rebellion and marched into the capital. Emperor Xuanzong fled towards ChengDu in the southwest, taking Yang GuiFei with him.
Years of neglect had weakened the imperial army, and its remaining soldiers were determined to remove Yang GuiFei, the cause of its decline. When stopping to change horses at Mawei village, the soldiers mutinied, killing Yang Guozhong, and demanding the death of Yang GuiFei. Emperor Xuanzong had no choice but to order her execution. Yang GuiFei was strangled in the courtyard of a small Buddhist temple by Gao Lishi, and buried at Mawei village.
The An Lushan rebellion dragged on for several years, but was eventually crushed. The emperor, however, never recovered from his loss of Yang GuiFei, and died a broken man a few years later.
The Tang dynasty survived nominally, but a steady decline had set in, and its former glory was never to be regained.