Themes and Goals
The years 755-756 were pivotal in Chinese history. The Tang dynasty (618 –906 C.E) capital of Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) had become a cosmopolitan center and hub of the Silk Road, importing horses, musicians, acrobats, dances, and Buddhist scripts from Central Asia and exporting new forms of architecture, poetry, silks, paintings, government rule, and religious practice to such places as Korea and Japan. In 755, An Lushan (703-757), a general who had roots in Central Asia, led a rebellion that not only destroyed much of Chang’an but also weakened the court’s confidence and openness to new ideas. Attitudes toward women, Buddhism, and foreigners changed precipitously.
This unit focuses on the shift in attitudes towards women in particular, using the case of Yang Guifei (719-756) to explore the wider transformation in values that occurred in 8th century Chang’an. Yang, the “Prized Consort” of the emperor, was blamed for the An Lushan Rebellion, possibly due to a purported relationship with the general. When An Lushan sacked the capital, the seventy year-old Emperor Xuanzong rode out of the city with Yang Guifei, but his men would go no further until she was killed. She was executed on the spot.
The shift in values in the late Tang may be attributed to any number of causes. The degree to which An’s rebellion and Yang’s actions spurred the transformation is subject to debate. It cannot be proven that what occurred with An Lushan and Yang Guifei kept China from developing new attitudes toward women, religion, or foreign ideas or people. But the hypothesis makes examination of these events particularly interesting. Was Yang Guifei a scapegoat or did she conspire to overthrow the emperor?
The value of the unit lies primarily in the conflicting views of Yang Guifei; from the evidence given in the written and visual texts listed in the Readings and Visuals section, she can seem either manipulative or bodhisattva-like. Students should be reminded that there is no “right” answer here. Rather, the consideration of different visual and written texts should help students to build a fuller understanding of history and its complexities. For freshman students in particular, an assignment that asks them to juxtapose different sources is helpful as they build fundamental analytical reading and writing skills.
The unit invites students to form and support their own opinions by a careful analysis of significant primary texts, both literary and visual. These include Buddhist art from Dunhuang and Bai Juyi’s “Song of Lasting Pain,” which the literary critic Victor Mair calls “the most famous of all Chinese poems.” An exercise in which students are asked to make a case for or against Yang Guifei’s execution is at the core of the unit.
The unit also offers instructors a related set of comparative readings centered on the Japanese author Murasaki Shikibu’s (ca. 978- ) novel The Tale of Genji (ca. 1010). Bai Juyi’s story was widely read in Heian Japan (794-1185), and it is arguable that the attitudes and values encoded in Bai’s text influenced Murasaki personally as well as broader attitudes in Japan.
After studying this unit, students should be able to give examples to demonstrate the following:
Audiences and Uses
The unit was originally developed in two freshman year interdisciplinary humanities courses, one with a worldwide scope and one an introduction to Chinese Culture and Civilization. The students had no knowledge of Chinese or Japanese language. The unit could also be useful in a wide variety of other courses, including but not limited to:
In a general humanities or world literature course, Yang Guifei’s story could be compared to Helen’s story in The Iliad, and Eve’s story in Genesis and Milton’s Paradise Lost. In a Women in History course, Yang Guifei could be compared to Marie Antoinette.
The following information should be sufficient background for students. Extensive lecturing about Yang Guifei should not be necessary. There is actually a disadvantage to a teacher saying more; it leaves less for students to discover on their own.
“Yang” is a family name, and “Guifei” is an official title, translated as “Prized Consort,” held by the woman ranked most highly by the Emperor. Yang Guifei’s uncle and siblings rose to power from the time she was 27 until her death eleven years later in 756. There are many legends about her. When tourists go to Huaqing Springs in Xi’an today, they can bathe in hot water as she allegedly did when the aging Emperor first saw her among the court women. She is said to have formed a friendship with An Lushan, who became a general of Chinese troops despite his Central Asian origins; she may have even adopted An Lushan as a son. Both Yang Guifei and An Lushan are described as dancing the “whirl,” a Central Asian dance which can be seen in pictures of the Tang court preserved in Dunhuang’s caves on the Silk Road. The Emperor is believed to have been so in love with Yang Guifei, he neglected his duties. The location of Yang’s death is as famous as that of her bath; guidebooks will tell you exactly the location of Ma Lei Station, the place where she was throttled, hanged, or forced to commit suicide by the Emperor’s disgruntled associates.
The historian Susan Manning points out that paintings and plays about Yang Guifei made her a household name in China over the centuries. Many Tang dynasty sculptures said to resemble Yang Guifei are exquisite pieces of art. Bai Juyi’s poetry was also well known in tenth-century Japan. In the first chapter of the illustrious eleventh-century Japanese novel The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu quotes his poetry repeatedly; and, indeed, depictions of both Genji and his mother may have been influenced by descriptions of Yang found in Bai Juyi’s writings.
Women in the Tang Dynasty
In imperial China, alliances of consorts to the Emperor or the Emperor’s extended family could elevate the consorts’ families and served to tie outlying regions to the central government. Because women were useful for these marriage-like arrangements, families with ambitions would carefully tend to women’s upbringing, whether in dress or skills of music, dance, reading, and composing poetry. There was no foot-binding by the Tang dynasty; there are many images of women riding horses and even playing polo. Perhaps because of Yang Guifei’s promotion of her relatives, the importance of marriage alliances as a vehicle for political advancement diminished after the Tang dynasty. As in East Asia and the West today, family influence was held under control and meritocracy advanced by a strong system of rigorously maintained examination systems. This shift from a system that benefited many women to one where families funded the formal education exclusively of men is a major aspect of Chinese economic, political and social history. Women became more sequestered, and foot-binding of women gradually spread from aristocratic women to laborers. Reversion to earlier attitudes toward women was also accompanied by lower receptivity to Buddhism and arts from Central Asia.
In discussing slides depicting Yang Guifei in the Tang dynasty, students might be intrigued with the following information which is also reflected by Bai Juyi’s poem:
While An Lushan is not the central focus of this unit, more information about his background and motivations may be helpful. An Lushan is often described as of Turkic or Sogdian ethnicity. While he was not Islamic, the name “An” later became associated with ethnic groups in Central Asia who did later convert to the Muslim religion. These groups had never been won over to a Confucian ideology that placed one secular emperor at the top of an administrative hierarchy and sent taxes and tribute to the capital. An Lushan was powerful because he controlled three contiguous areas northeast of Chang’an, and he had been allowed to maintain control of these troops for at least a decade. Eventually, he led 200,000 troops. The exact nature of his relationship with Yang is the subject of some debate. In the popular imagination, some of the association of An Lushan and Yang Guifei was because both were portrayed as hefty, a body-type that might have been linked to what was perceived, from the Han Chinese point of view, as being of similar foreign extraction.
The Tale of Genji
Students are often confused about three basic facts in Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji: 1) The Tale of Genji is written about two hundred years after Bai Juyi’s poem about Yang Guifei; 2) Genji is a fictional character; and 3) all of The Tale of Genji occurs in Japan.
It is useful to explain how Murasaki knew this Chinese source. Murasaki lived in the Heian Period (794-1185). She started writing about Genji about the year 1000. Kyoto, the capital city of Japan at that time, was modeled after the Chinese capital of Chang’an, with similar parallel streets, gardens, and architecture. The life of aristocratic Japanese women was also somewhat similar to that of Tang Chang’an, even though that court life had largely disappeared in China by the year 1000.
Aristocratic women in Heian Japan were highly educated, clearly for the purposes of marriage alliances. Murasaki and some other court women, such as the famous writer Sei Shonagon, could read poetry written in Chinese characters, even if they knew no spoken Chinese. Manuscripts from China entered Japan and were recopied, including illustrations.
The unit allows students to synthesize material from different disciplines. Secondary sources are used for an overview and balanced by close analysis of clusters of interdisciplinary texts of one time and place.
Sections A and B below are essential student readings. Section C offers a series of visual representations of Yang Guifei. Section D offers additional readings for instructors and/or interested students.
A. Tang Poetry: Essential Student Readings
“Interlude: Xuanzong and Yang the Prized Consort” in An Anthology of Chinese Literature, Stephen Owen, ed. and trans. New York: Norton, 1996. Pages 441-457.
B. The Tale of Genji: Essential Student Readings
Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Trans. Royall Tyler. New York: Viking, 2001. Chapter I: “Kiritsubo: The Paulownia Pavilion,” pages 3-18.
Alternate translation: Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Trans. Edward Seidensticker. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
C. Slide/Powerpoint Presentation and Discussion
The following images can be presented in class. The instructor should not lecture but rather identify the pieces and ask the students questions for discussion.
With noted exceptions, the images and objects presented here are from the Tang dynasty during Yang Guifei’s lifetime. This distinguishes them from the written materials by Bai Juyi, Chen Hong, and Murasaki, which were written after Yang’s death. A key question is to what extent the visual representations conflict with the written sources. The statues in Dunhuang were created by Buddhists, living in an area far from the capital city, in a similar cultural area to the ones where An Lushan (and “the whirl”) came from.
Students can use evidence from the visual representations of Yang Guifei in the essay assignment described in the Student Activities section below, using the same care as treating the written sources.
Click on thumbnails for larger images.
D. Additional Readings for Instructors and/or Students
Additional readings are marked according to the star* system:
*** Most important
*** Bai Juyi’s “Song of the Lute,” Burton Watson, trans and ed. Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
***Murasaki’s “ Akashi” chapter from The Tale of Genji. Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Trans. Royall Tyler. New York: Viking, 2001.
Alternate translation: Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Trans. Edward Seidensticker. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
*** Mack, Maynard, ed. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. New York: W.W. Norton, 1995.
** Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. Cambridge Illustrated History of China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
** Varley, Paul. Japanese Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.
Key Essay Assignment:
Give out this assignment two weeks in advance of the essay’s due date to allow for study of the readings and artwork. The study or discussion questions that follow the essay assignment are “pre-writing exercises” designed to help students sort through the material. The instructor should be careful not to discuss the material too extensively in class so that students can form their own insights.
Study or discussion questions for “Song of Lasting Pain”
Study or discussion questions for Chen Hong’s “An Account to Go with the “‘Song of Lasting Pain.’”
Study or discussion questions for Bai Juyi’s “The Girl Who Danced the Whirl”
Study or discussion questions for Chapter One of The Tale of Genji.
Beauchamp, Fay. “From Creation Myths to Marriage Alliances: Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Murasaki’s Akashi Chapter. Education About Asia, 6 (2001): 20-26.
Dunhuang Art through the Eyes of Duan Wenjie. Edited and introduction by Tan Chung. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1994. Also available online: http://www.ignca.nic.in/ks_19.htm
Graham, Masako Nakagawa. The Yang Kuei-Fei Legend In Japanese Literature. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1998. Foreword by Victor Mair.
Mair, Victor H. Ed. The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2001.
Mann, Susan L. “Myths of Asian Womanhood.” Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 59 No. 4, November 2000, pp. 835-862.
Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Translated by Royall Tyler. New York: Viking, 2001.
Pulleyblank, Edwin G. The Background of the Rebellion of An Lushan. London: Oxford University Press, 1955.
Quest for Eternity: Chinese Ceramic Sculptures from the People’s Republic of China. Los Angeles County Museum of Arts, and Chronicle Books: 1987.
The Silk Road. Prod. Isao Tamai. Dir. Junzo Tagawa. Videocassette. Central Park Media, 1990. Also available on DVD.
Additional materials on and by Bai Juyi and Murasaki are too numerous to list.
These teaching materials have evolved over a six-year period since 1997. That year, I collected materials on Yang Guifei on a Silk Road field trip organized by the Asian Studies Development Program of the East-West Center of Hawaii and led by art historian Steven Goldberg.
In 1998, a group of faculty was introduced to the Yang Guifei Chinese materials by Professor Paul Rouzer, and the Japanese materials by Professor Thomas Rimer at a seminar funded by the U. S. Department of Education Title VI project at Community College of Philadelphia.
In giving workshops in a series of colleges in China in 1999 in a community college project funded by the Ford Foundation, I found that the legends of Yang Guifei and Bai Juyi’s poetry were very widely known, including Chinese whose formal education had little study of poetry. It would be an interesting study of how this legend informs current Chinese attitudes toward women, for example in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In Madame Mao, Anchee Min refers to the legend, comparing Mao Zedong’s wife to Yang Guifei. But that is a different unit.