In A.D. 712, Li Long Ji was crowned Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907). Also known as Tang Minghuang (reigned A.D. 712-756), he had a passion for young, beautiful girls. At the age of 61, he met a 26-year-old girl named Yang Yuhuang, who had been sent to the palace by her family to work as a maid.
Emperor Tang Minghuang immediately falls in love with her, giving her the title Guifei, which means 'first-class palace concubine'. She thus becomes known as Yang Guifei. The Emperor loves her more dearly than anything else in the world. He builds her a natural spring spa called Huaqing Palace, so that she can bathe and take the waters whenever they vacation there. He also grants her family wealth and social position. This has a major impact on Chinese society, in that families now prefer to have baby girls, rather than boys, in the hopes that their daughters will one day follow in Yang Guifei's footsteps, bringing wealth and glory to their families.
Tang Minghuang spends so much time with Yang Guifei that his subjects and court officials must wait hours each morning before they can meet with him about work. The Emperor becomes so obsessed with her that he neglects his empire. His Prime Minister, Yang Guozhong — elder brother to Yang Guifei, appointed to his position by the Emperor — becomes the empire's de facto ruler, amassing a great fortune through bribery and corruption.
As a result of personal conflicts and power struggles with the Prime Minister, a general named An Lushan launches an attack on the capital. Emperor Tang Minghuang hastily escapes the palace. Arriving at a place called Ma Wei (the present-day county of Xing Ping in Shaanxi Province) about 100 kilometers from the capital, the Emperor is faced with angry palace guards who demand the death of Prime Minister Yang Guozhong in exchange for their allegiance. They force the Emperor to execute Yang Guifei as well, or they will change sides and join the rebel forces. Reluctant as he is, the Emperor has no alternative and covers his face with his sleeves as Yang Guifei is taken away.
Realizing that the situation is desperate, Yang decides that she would rather sacrifice her life than jeopardize the Emperor's safety. She is to be hanged from a tree on a nearby hill. As she is led away, she sobs and begs the guards and the Emperor to spare her life. The Emperor, however, is powerless to protect her, and reluctantly allows the execution to proceed. He dares not look at her as tears well in his eyes. When he looks up again, he sees only a white silk scarf left behind on the ground.
Following Yang Guifei's death, the Emperor lives with deep regret. He can not bear to look at the full moon, as it reminds him of the joyous occasions he shared with his beloved. He has no desire to continue his life as Emperor. On his way back to the capital after the rebellion is crushed, he stops at the site where Yang Guifei was hanged. He lingers, sadly noting that everything is the same, except that his beloved is not there. He cannot find the exact place where she is buried, but he stands on the site and recites the oath they made together on July 7 (Chinese Valentine's Day), known only to themselves: 'Up above the sky, we wish to be two lovebirds flying wing to wing; on earth we wish to be two trees, with branches twined from spring to spring.'
Tang Minghuang abdicates in favour of his son, and moves to the West Palace, where he lives alone. He is tortured by memories of Yang Guifei's beauty and of their times together. The natural spring spa he built for her is still there, as are the flowers and trees. It is as if he had never left the place at all. The bridge and the pond remain, but his concubine is gone. He grieves for her and loses the will to live. Every night, Tang Minghuang goes to bed holding Yang Guifei's hairpin case, once a token of their love, and every morning he awakes with tears in his eyes. He deeply regrets the loss of his beloved, and hopes to be reunited with her in the next life.
At Tang Minghuang's request, a Taoist engages in a search for Yang Guifei's spirit, eventually bringing back news of her. He tells Tang Minghuang that his beloved is now in Heaven, and that she misses him very much. The Taoist also recites the oath which is a secret between the Emperor and Yang Guifei, as proof that he has met her. With the help of the Taoist, Tang Minghuang is finally able to join his beloved, holding an unforgettable conversation with her in Heaven. Yang Guifei pours out all her love to the Emperor when she sees him, and tells Tang Minghuang that she will wait for him in Heaven until the time that he can join her forever.
(For other versions of this story, please see the entries for The Song of Eternal Sorrow: The Story of the Emperor of the Tang Dynasty and The Beauty's Frolics in this collection.)