Tang Minghuang (A.D. 712-756) was an Emperor of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907). He was an outstanding patron of the arts and music, and established the first Chinese acting school in his Pear Garden. He is known as the Patron Saint of Chinese Opera in Chinese history.
The Song of Eternal Sorrow is one of the masterpieces of Ancient Chinese opera. It tells the tragic story of Tang Minghuang and his concubine, Yang Guifei. The story, based on historical fact, has been told for generations, interlacing dreams and reality to reflect the joys and sorrows of people living in chaotic times.
Yang Guifei is one of the Four Great Beauties in Chinese history. Emperor Tang Minghuang is so obsessed with her that he neglects his official duties. He builds a spa called Huaqing Palace for her, and grants her family wealth and social position. He even appoints her brother Yang Guozhong Prime Minister. Yang Guozhong is the de facto ruler of the country, and becomes so corrupt that he takes bribes and sells government positions. An Lushan, a general encamped along the frontier, even manages to bribe his way to a promotion, instead of being punished for his military failures.
The Emperor, however, cares little about what happens outside the palace. On the night of July 7, Chinese Valentine's Day, Tang Minghuang and Yang Guifei pledge an oath of mutual love under the moon. They express a wish to be up in the sky, two lovebirds flying wing to wing, on earth two trees, with branches twined from spring to spring. When Tang Minghuang notices that Yang Guifei loves lychee fruit, he orders an express delivery of the fruit from the far south, a thousand miles away. The couriers' speeding horses ruin numerous rice seedlings on their way to the capital, and people grumble against Yang Guifeis extravagance and the Emperor's blind devotion.
Meanwhile, the power struggle between General An Lushan and Prime Minister Yang Guozhong worsens. Knowing Yang Guozhong's sister is the Emperor's beloved concubine, An Lushan begins training his army in earnest along the frontier, and begins to plot rebellion. Unaware of his responsibility in this power struggle, Emperor Tang Minghuang orders the execution of An Lushan, based on a false charge brought by Yang Guozhong. General An Lushan and his troops attack the Tongguan Pass on the frontier, placing the Tang Dynasty in jeopardy. Rebel troops are on their way to the capital, so Emperor Tang Minghuang hastily escapes from the palace.
Chinese history records that the Emperor's troops blamed the rebellion on Yang Guifei and her brother for distracting the Emperor, as well as for the subsequent decline of the empire. Wrathful palace guards demand the death of Prime Minister Yang Guozhong in exchange for their allegiance. They also demand the death of Yang Guifei, or they will change sides and join the rebel forces. Reluctant as he is to order the execution of his beloved concubine, Emperor Tang Minghuang has no alternative, and covers his face with his sleeves as Yang Guifei is pulled away. Seeing how desperate the situation has become, Yang decides that she would rather sacrifice her life than jeopardize the Emperor's safety, and she is strangled with a white silken cord. When Tang Minghuang looks up again, he sees nothing but a white silk scarf left behind on the ground, and realizes that his love is gone forever.
After the rebellion is quelled, Tang Suzong, son of Tang Minghuang, succeeds to the throne. Tang Minghuang grows old and lives alone in the West Palace. He is tortured by thoughts of Yang Guifei's beauty and by the memory of their love. The willows, the bridge and the pond are still the same, but his beloved is gone. Every night, Tang Minghuang goes to bed holding Yang Guifei's hairpin case, once a token of love, and every morning he awakes with tears in his eyes. He misses his lover with boundless regret, and hopes to be reunited with her in his next life. With the help of a Taoist, he is finally able to join his beloved and to have a conversation with her in Heaven.
(For another version of this story, please see the entry for The Innermost Feelings of the Emperor's Favourite Beauty Yang Guifei and The Beauty's Frolics in this collection.)