Xuanzong, Yang Guifei & An Lushan
The Decline of the Tang
Xuanzong and Yang Guifei being entertained by An Lushan dancing the Whirl
Icon with the Chinese character for the Tang Dynasty
Tang Xuanzong
Painting of Yang Guifei Reading the Parrot Sutra
Yang Guifei
 
The Emperor & the Consort
Xuanzong began as the lead actor in two bloody palace coups. He was instrumental in the restoration of his father, the Ruizong Emperor in 710 after the luckless Zhongzong, on the throne a second time, was allegedly poisoned by agents of his scheming Empress. He was similarly central to the thwarting of a new conspiracy in 713. In both cases, Chinese chroniclers present these attempted coups as the last gasps of Empress Wu’s perverse age in which women held sway. Ruizong had had enough by this point, and conceded the throne to his son — Xuanzong’s ensuing reign (r. 713-756) would be the longest of any Tang emperor, and for the first twenty years, proceeded without an obvious hitch. ... What vigor Xuanzong may have had at the start of his reign was played out by 737, when he was left inconsolable by the death of his favorite concubine, Empress Wu’s great -niece — there was definitely something special about those Wu girls. In his early fifties and facing the mother of all mid-life crises, he developed an unhealthy obsession with his daughter-in-law, Yang Yuhuan (719-756). Married to Xuanzong’s son at fourteen, she was still not yet twenty when Xuanzong ordered her divorced, briefly declared a nun for appearance’s sake, and then rebranded as his Precious Consort, Yang Guifei. ...
 
Yang Guifei dancing the Whirl to "Coats of Feathers, Rainbow Skirts"
 
The relationship between Yang Guifei and her emperor was famously obsessive. Yang’s hold over Xuanzong turned him practically monogamous — a dangerous decision in a court riddled with scheming affines. Xuanzong would not be the last middle-aged man in history to be bewitched by a girl young enough to be his daughter — they became avid fans of Sogdian dances and exotic booze, and their soirées would erupt in loud arguments that would occasionally see Yang Guifei banished or fleeing the palace, only for a tearful reconciliation and epic make-up sex. Xuanzong would indulge all her whims, and happily looked the other way when her desire for fresh lychees required the abuse of his vital post rider system, tying up days of imperial dispatches in order to get the treasured fruits to the capital from the south.
 
Eunuch removing Li Bai's shoes
 
Li Bai (701-762), one of the greatest poets in Chinese history, was dragged into their orbit against his will. Drafted into a consultant position at Xuanzong’s academy, Li Bai was summoned to the palace and made to produce verses on command praising Yang Guifei’s beauty. Drunk (he was usually drunk), Li Bai came up with something that praised her garments flowing behind her like a cloud, the radiant bloom of her face, and the likelihood that she was some kind of apparition, usually only seen in the Crystal Palace of fairyland. Everybody liked that one, but Xuanzong badgered the barely conscious Li Bai for a repeat performance. A reluctant Bai made the Emperor’s chief eunuch take off his shoes to help [him] think, and then dashed off the most back-handed of compliments.
 
Painting of Yang Guifei
Hers is the charm of the vanished fairy
That broke the heart of the dreamer king ...
Pray, who in the palace of Han
Could be likened unto her
Save the lady Flying Swallow...
Painting of Zhao Feiyan
 
There are some who think that Li Bai’s verse was perfectly benign. “Flying swallow” (feiyan), as the more well-read of the Tang court might have noticed, was a reference to Zhao Feiyan, the famously slender beauty of the Han dynasty. John Wu, in his Four Seasons of Tang Poetry, observes that Yang Yuhuan was as “overjoyed at the praise as a fat lady must be when made to believe she was as light as a flying swallow,” although such a comment may read modern-day fat-shaming onto a woman who was thought beautiful because she was chubby. In fact, there is even a Chinese proverb, “plump [Yu]huan, slender Fei” (Huan-fei Yan-shou), that contrasts the two women as two co-existing paragons of beauty. What really caused problems for Li Bai was his likening of Yang Guifei to a woman who, while beautiful, was also a notorious kingdom-wrecker. The eunuch who had been humiliated by being made to remove Li Bai’s shoes soon convinced Yang Guifei that the poem had been a high-handed insult, and she blocked Li Bai’s further promotion at the capital. (BHC, 144-6)
Icon with the Chinese character for the Tang Dynasty
An Lushan rebels attacking Chang'an
 
Meanwhile, both Yang Guifei and the Emperor Xuanzong became friendly with a giant Sogdian-Turk warrior known to the Chinese as An Lushan — the surname pointing to his Sogdian origins, while Lushan is liable to have been a Chinese attempt at Roxshan. Even across 1200 intervening years, Roxshan seems to have been one of the most charming men in Chinese history: ever ready to impress the court with some trinket or curiosity from the edges of the empire, always at hand at public occasions with tall stories of military daring and hard-won victories. ... He was a hit with Lady Yang, who doted on him to the extent that she officially adopted him as her own son, an act leading to a bizarre palace skit in which Roxshan was paraded as a giant infant in a diaper. But Roxshan was already living on borrowed time. By 751, even as he was playing the fool by dressing up as a baby in the palace, he was already planning a revolution, not out of any desire to betray his imperial patron, but because he rightly feared that the knives would be out for him after Xuanzong’s death. A large part of Roxshan’s humor, it seemed, relied upon facetious bluster and making others the butt of his jokes, and the heir apparent was sure to avenge himself as soon as he was crowned. Roxshan hand-picked a personal honor guard of 8000 soldiers from the armies of defeated enemies, and honed them into a force that was loyal only to him. ...
 
Painting of the Imperial Court Fleeing to Sichuan During the An Lushan Rebellion
 
Roxshan’s forces amassed in the northeast and swept up the Yellow River, taking both Luoyang and Chang’an. Xuanzong and his court were forced to flee westwards towards Sichuan, where they hoped to regroup with reinforcements coming home from the Western Regions. When food turned out to be in short supply at Mawei station, just 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) outside modern Xi’an, [Yang Guifei’s cousin, Prime Minister] Yang Guozhong got the blame. He did, after all, hold up to forty government positions, none of which he seemed to be much good at, and some suspected that he was planning to hand Xuanzong over to Tibetan emissaries on the road to Sichuan. With tempers frayed and egos bruised, the troops mutinied, refusing to go on until the imperial party was flensed of the hated Yang family.
 
Yang Guifei Strangled by Chief Eunuch
 
Xuanzong had gone from being the ruler of the civilized world, sun-king of the height of the Tang dynasty, to being an old man nearing 70, feebly protesting as his chancellor was struck down, along with the chancellor’s son and several cousins. The coup against the Yang family was complete, although one still remained. The soldiers came for Yang Guifei herself, and Xuanzong tearfully, impotently handed her over to his eunuch servant to be strangled.
 
Yang Guifei lying dead amongst the soldiers
 
The whole sorry affair would be celebrated by one of China’s greatest poets, Bai Juyi, in his Song of Everlasting Sorrow:
 
But one hundred li west of the capital gates
The six divisions halted and left him with no choice
Struggling she of the moth eyebrows died among the horses
Her ornate headdress fell to the ground, and none took it up
the kingfisher, the gold sparrow and the jade hair clasp
But his Majesty covered his face and said nothing.
 
It was the end of Xuanzong’s reign. A broken man, he abdicated in Sichuan and left his son Suzong (r. 756-762) to clear up the rebellion. ... But in order to secure the vital reinforcements to retake Chang’an, he formed an alliance with Bayanchur Khan, the leader of a confederation of nomad tribes called the United Peoples (Uy-ghur). ... Inheriting a domain roughly equivalent to the Xiongnu steppes of old, the Uyghurs were in the process of turning away from life on the steppes with a new, permanent citadel in Mongolia that was fast becoming a city to rival China’s best. But they retained plenty of horsemen, becoming a vital, if expensive, factor in the retaking of Chang-an and the suppression of the rebellion. Thereafter, the Uyghurs would become much like many a previous nomad ally in Chinese history, valued greatly for their aid in times of trouble, but fiendishly difficult to get rid of without extensive gifts of valuable silk. (BHC, 147-9)

Icon with the Chinese character for the Tang Dynasty
Bai Juyi
 
“A Song of Unending Sorrow
Bai Juyi (772-846)

During the half century following the An Lu-shan Rebellion and the execution of Yang the Prized Consort, her legend took shape, embellished time and again in prose anecdotes and in poems. Such accounts sometimes drew stern lessons about the consequences of failure to pay attention to business, and sometimes lamented the sadness of broken love. The story reached its first full expression in Bo Ju-yi’s (772-846) long ballad “Song of Lasting Pain,” and in Chen Hong’s prose account written to accompany it. Comparison between these two versions of the story gives a good sense of the very different forces at work in shaping poetic narrative and prose narrative. (Anthology of Chinese Literature, 442)
 
Shaman entering trance
 
As time and events passed, all joy had gone from [Xuan-zong] and only sadness came. Every day of spring or night of winter, when the lotuses in the ponds opened in summer or when the palace ash trees shed their leaves in autumn, the performers of the Pear Garden Academy would produce notes on their jade flageolets; and if he heard one note of “Coats of Feathers, Rainbow Skirts,” His Majesty’s face would lose its cheer, and all those around him would sob and sigh. For three years there was this one thing on his mind, and his longing never subsided. His soul sought her out in dream, but she was so far away he could not reach her.
 
Shaman entering trance
 
It happened then that a wizard came from Shu; and knowing that His Majesty was brooding so much on Yang the Prized Consort, he said that he possessed the skills of Li the Young Lord, the wizard who had summoned the soul of Lady Li for Emperor Wu of the Han. Xuan-zong was very  pleased, and ordered him to bring her spirit. The wizard then used all his skills to find her, but could not. He was also able to send his spirit on journeys by riding vapors; he went up into the precincts of Heaven and sank down into the vaults of the Earth looking for her; but he did not meet her. And then again he went to the margins and the encircling wastelands, high and low, to the easternmost extreme of Heaven and the Ocean, where he strode across Fang-hu.
 
Xuanzong and Yang Guifei with the golden hairpin and inlaid box
 
He saw there the highest of the mountains of the Undying, with many mansions and towers; at the end of the western verandah there was a deepest doorway facing east; the gate was shut, and there was written “The Garden of Tai-zhen, Jade Consort.” ... Then he saw a person with a bonnet of golden lotuses, wearing a lavender chiffon, with pendants of red jade hanging from her sash and phoenix slippers, and sever or eight persons in attendance on her. She greeted the wizard and asked, “Is the Emperor well?” Then she asked what had happened since the fourteenth year of the Tian-bao Reign. When he finished speaking, she grew wistful and gestured to her servant to get a golden hairpin and inlaid box, each of which she broke in parts. She gave one part of each to the envoy, saying, “Express my gratitude to the Emperor and present him these objects as mementos of our former love.”
 
Xuanzong and Yang Guifei with the golden hairpin and inlaid box
 
The wizard received her words and these objects of surety; he was ready to go, but one could see in his face that something was troubling him. The Jade Consort insisted that he tell her what was the matter. Then he knelt down before her and said, “Please tell me something that happened back then, something of which no one else knew, so that I can offer to His Majesty as proof. Otherwise I am afraid that with the inlaid box and the golden hairpin I will be accused of the same kind of trickery that Xin Yuan-ping practiced on Emperor Wen of the Han.” The Jade Consort drew back lost in thought, as if there were something she were recalling with fondness. Then very slowly she said, “Back in the tenth year of the Tian-bao Reign, I was attending on His Majesty, who had gone to the palace on Mount Li to escape the heat. ... We then made a secret vow to one another, a wish that we could be husband and wife in every lifetime. When we stopped speaking, we held hands, and each of us was sobbing. Only the Emperor knows of this.”
 
Xuanzong and Yang Guifei vow their eternal love
 
Then she said sadly, “Because of this one thought so much in my mind, I will be able to live on here no longer. I will descend again to the world below and our future destiny will take shape. Whether in Heaven or in the world of mortal men, it is certain that we will meet again and form our bond of love as before.” (Anthology of Chinese Literature, 450-1)
Warning: Women at Work
In winter of the first year of the Yuan-he Reign, the twelfth month (February 807), Bo Ju-yi of Tai-yuan left his position as Diarist in the Imperial Library to be the sheriff of Chou County. I, Chen Hong, and Wang Zhi-fu of Lang-ya had our homes in this town; and on our days off we would go together visiting sites of the Undying and Buddhist temples. Our discussion touched on this story, and we were all moved to sighs. Zhi-fu lifted his winecup to Bo Ju-yi and said, “Unless such an event finds an extraordinary talent who can adorn it with colors, even something so rare will fade away with time and no longer be known in the world. Bo Ju-yi is deeply familiar with poetry and has strong sentiments. Why doesn’t he write a song on the topic.” At this Bo Ju-yi made the “Song of Lasting Pain.” It is my supposition that he was not only moved by the event, but he also wanted to offer warning about such creatures that can so enthrall a man, to block the phases by which troubles come, and to leave this for the future. When the song was finished, he had me write a prose account for it. Of those things not known to the general public, I, not being a survivor of the Kai-yuan, have no way to know. For those things known to the general public, the “Annals of the Reign of Xuan-zong” are extant. This is merely an account for the “Song of Lasting Pain.” (Anthology of Chinese Literature, 452)
 
When An Lu-shan did the Whirl,
he bewildered the ruler’s eyes;
even when troops crossed the Yellow River,
it was doubted that he had rebelled.
 
Male and Female Whirling Dervishes
 
When Yang the Prized Consort did the Whirl,
she befuddled the ruler’s heart;
when she was left dead at Ma-wei Station,
he yearned for her ever more.
(Anthology of Chinese Literature, 458)
 
Song of Everlasting Sorrow
 
Poster for a "Song of Everlasting Sorrow" opera
 
Poster for "Song of Everlasting Sorrow" Show in Xi'an
 
Legend of the Demon Cat
 
Icon with the Chinese character for the Tang Dynasty
Map of the An Lushan Rebellion
 
Suppressing the Rebellion
& its Aftermath
Map of Early and Late Tang Dynasty
 
"Equal Field" FarmlandThe violence of the rebellion and its suppression destroyed the cities that lay in the rebel’s path and wrecked the equal-field system. During the years it took the court to put the rebels down, the government had neither the manpower nor the funds to carry out the triannual land and population surveys the equal-field system demanded. The number of registered households in the Tang Empire dropped from nine million in 755 to two million in 760 — not because the population diminished but because the system of household registration was not enforced. After the rebellion, the tax base of the empire shrank to less than one-third of what it had been.
Centrifugal Force        The rebellion forced the emperor to share power with the military governors who ruled both the frontier provinces and those in the interior. These newly empowered governors commanded their own armies, which they funded from the tax revenues of the areas they governed. In 763, at the end of the rebellion, the court named four rebel generals to serve as the military governors of Hebei, one of the richest provinces in China’s heartland. When these newly appointed military governors seceded by refusing to pay taxes, the center lost over one-quarter of the empire’s population and the tax revenues they produced. Hebei and Henan were the first areas to drop off, but over the next century and a half, as more and more provinces followed suit, the Tang succumbed to a diminution it was powerless to combat. (Open Empire, 207)
 
The Salt Monopoly
Raising Revenues
The Salt Monopoly
The desperate court appointed special commissioners for taxation, whose task was to raise revenues in any way possible. They tried selling offices, speculating with the money supply, and taxing trade; they soon found that the salt monopoly could produce the highest revenues with the least manpower. Salt was produced in only a few areas, either along the coast or in Sichuan, w
here salty brine could be mined. In both places, saltwater was poured into large pans where it was allowed to evaporate. As long as the state maintained direct control over the area of production, it could buy up all the salt produced there and sell it to merchants. The populace at large could then buy the salt, a crucial element in their diet. The merchants who distributed the salt all over the empire were responsible for collecting the salt tax for the state. This was a genuine and lucrative innovation. In 779, the salt monopoly produced half the central government’s revenues. (Open Empire, 207-208)
 
Uncle Sam: Death and Taxes
 
The only things that are certain in life are
death ... and [twice-a-year] taxes!
 
The state continued to collect the tax on agricultural production but it was forced to develop a new method of taxation. In 780, it launched the two-tax system, a twice-yearly collection of taxes in summer and autumn, as the replacement for the defunct equal-field system. Each province was assigned a quota, which the military governors paid to the center, and then local government officials distributed the tax burden among the local population as they saw fit. (Open Empire, 208)
 
The Twice-a-Year Tax
Yang Yan’s Memorial
The way to handle all government expenses and tax collections is first to calculate the amount needed and then to allocate the tax among the people. Thus the income of the state would be governed according to its expenses. All households should be registered in their places of actual residence, without regard to whether they are native households or non-native. All persons should be graded according to their wealth, without regard to whether they are fully adult or only half adult. Those who do not have a permanent residence and do business as traveling merchants should be taxed in whatever prefecture or subprefecture they are located at the rate of one-thirtieth [of their capital holdings]. It is estimated that the amount taken from them will be the same as that paid by those having fixed domicile, so that they could not expect to gain from chance avoidance of the tax. The tax paid by residents should be collected twice a year, during the summer and autumn. All practices that cause annoyance to the people should be corrected. The separate land and labor tax, and all miscellaneous labor services, should be abolished, and yet the count of the able-bodied adults should still be kept. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 555)
 
When the Tang dynasty developed the new two-tax system and the salt monopoly in response to the rebellion ... the direct bond between the central government and the producer was snapped. The government no longer maintained any records concerning the landholdings or output of any individual cultivator. ... The central government’s withdrawal from direct management of the economy after 755 marks a major turning point in Chinese history. Before the rebellion, despite some evasion, the central government knew how much land everyone had and who worked it. After the rebellion, the central authorities lacked those records and were forced to rely on locally powerful families to collect taxes for them. They were permanently weakened as a result. (Open Empire, 221-222)
 
Icon with the Chinese character for the Tang Dynasty