The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (长恨歌) is a true story about a tragic love between a Chinese emperor and his wife Yang Yuhuan, known as one of the four most beautiful women in Chinese history.
Left: Emperor Xuanzong enjoying the cool air produced by maids in summer
Right: Yang Yuhuan praying to heaven for everlasting love with the emperor
Colour ink painting by Tang Dynasty artist Zhang Xuan (张萱)
Zhang Xuan was a court artist and mainly did portraits for court ladies. It was since he that Lady Painting became one of the three major genres in traditional Chinese ink painting, along with Landscape Painting and Flower & Bird Painting. He lived during the period when Yang Yuhuai was in the palace.
Bai Juyi (白居易 772–846), one of the greatest Tang Dynasty poets, composed a long verse titled “The Everlasting Sorrow”, recapping this royal love story.
Guan Hanqing (关汉卿 1241–1320), China’s greatest playwright, produced four famous tragedies in his lifetime, one of them being about the romance between the cool air-loving emperor and his love-praying lover.
The images below are selected from a picture book with gouache paintings by Chinese artist Li Yishi (李毅士 1886 – 1942), a native of Wujin in Jiangsu province and one of the first Chinese studied in the United Kingdom.
Li Yishi’s profession was physics but he also loved painting. His illustration of the Song of Everlasting Sorrow, published in the 1920s, is one of the earliest picture books appeared in China.
A Fatal Attraction with a Prince at a Royal Wedding
Lady Yang Yuhuan was born in the year 719 during the heyday of the Tang Dynasty.
She was not only gifted with beauty but talent, being an accomplished composer, musician and dancer.
At the age of 17, Lady Yang attended a royal wedding where she met a prince and the two fell in love at first sight.
The fatal attraction sent her life into a revolving door.
Half a year later, she entered the royal family and became a princess.
But five years late, she left the prince and entered a temple, becoming a female Daoist.
Yet a few more years late, she left the temple and entered the palace to become a royal consort to an emperor, who was also a composer, musician, as well as playwright and poet.
A Fatal Attraction with an Emperor in a Palace Pool
Yang Yuhaui’s most beautiful moment is said to be after a bath in a scented Huaqing pool.
One day the emperor encountered her when she just came out of the pool, and the monarch immediately fell in love with her. She was quickly elevated to the state of top-ranking royal consort.
As Yang Yuhuan gained special favour with the Emperor, her greedy family rose to the top of power. Her brother became prime minister and her adopted son controlled the imperial army.
Love Vow of Emperor Xuanzong and Yang Yuhuan – Kunqu opera The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (长恨歌), written by 14th-century playwright Guan Hanqing
Shan Wen (单文) as Yang Yuhuai
Li An (黎安) as Emperor Xuanzong
On the night of the 7th day in the lunar 7th month, when the loving couple Fairy Seven and Cowherd Boy separated by a Milky Way enjoy an annual reunion in the sky, the loving soulmates Emperor Xuanzong and Yang Yuhuan made a joint vow in the Hall of Eternity that they would be together in all future lives – if they were reborn as birds they would fly side by side, and had they were reincarnated as plants, they would have their roots intertwined.
Beijing Opera: Royal Lady Getting Drunk — with aminated ink paintings
Singer: Mei Baojiu (male)
Once Lady Yang and Emperor Minghuang planned to watch a full moon on a Moon Day night, lunar August 15, in a royal garden.
She enthusiastically prepared wine and fruits waiting for the appearance of her husband who was the only man she loved in life and in death.
Unfortunately, she was not the only woman the emperor loved. He had too many female fans among his numerous wives and was invited to a big party under the moonlight by Plum Lady.
Lady Yang waited for her lover while drinking the wine. Yet until she got really drunk, the polygamist still showed no sign of leaving the moon party in Plum House for the date.
A Shared Fatal Indulgence in Arts
Yang Yuhuan and Emperor Xuanzong shared a common interest in music, opera and verse, and the couple indulged in creative artistic activities day and night, to the point that the crown repeatedly failed to attend cabinet meetings, leaving all the decisions in the hands of Yang Yuhuai’s brother.
The kingdom’s major crisis was looming.
A Fateful Political Struggle
The crisis broke out in the year 755.
Yang Yuhuai’s brother, a corrupted prime minister, and her adopted son, an ambitious general, fought a fierce political battle.
Eventually, the ferocious verbal exchange to expose each other’s nasty deeds escalated into a physical struggle: the general, who had a dubious background of and a suspicious connection with an alien state to China’s northwest, mounted a military coup.
As the rebel army pressed down on the capital Chang’an (today’s Xi’an), the emperor had to flee the capital with his life and his beloved Yang.
The Doomed Fate of Yang Yuhuan
The general population in the kingdom was fed up with the factional battles between the two parties, and blamed the emperor for his leadership or, more precisely, the lack of it.
The monarch won the heart of his lover but lost the support of his people; even his guards refused to bail him out of the circumstance. When passing Mawei Slope, his troops issued an ultimatum to the emperor: Your life or Yang’s life, you can only have one.
Emperor Xuanzong had no choice but to watch his beloved darling die before his mortal eye on a chilly autumn night.
Yang’s brothers and sisters were all killed by the soldiers.
The Fateful Decline of a Great Empire
After the death of Yang Yuhuan and her brother, Emperor Xuanzong was able to regain the support from the armies, the officials and the general population.
The mutiny was eventually crushed and the emperor returned to his dragon seat in the capital.
But the kingdom was never the same. The event marked the beginning of the decline of the great dynasty.
The Emperor’s Everlasting Sorrow
Without his artistic soulmate by his side, Emperor Xuanzong was reduced to a pale shadow of his former self.
Each night, he tried to communicate with Yang Yuhuan, but was never able to meet her in his dreams.
Before his death, the emperor revisited an abandoned terrace where he once took refuge with Yang Yuhuan during the mutiny.
The sky was gloomy and began to shower, and the rain didn’t stop through the night.
Sitting alone in wavering candlelight, now bright now dim in the autumn wind, while registering the pattering sound of the rain beating on the tree leaves like the Lady’s tears falling on the ground before her death, the emperor was drowned in everlasting sorrows.
Everlasting Love – Beijing Opera by Li Shengsu and her husband Yu Kuizhi
Emperor Xuanzong Heard the Sound of a Bell from the Terrace of the Sword
Singer: Luo Yusheng (骆玉笙 1914－2002), the top master of the Beijing Tune Drum
Beijing Tune Drum is an audio art form popular in Tianjin and Beijing. It’s normally performed by one person who narrates a story in a melodic fashion and through the role-playing method while beating a drum to tune the rhythm and control the speed.