Yang Guifei 杨贵妃 (719-756), Imperial Consort Yang, is one of the four best known beauties in ancient China. She married Emperor Xuanzong 玄宗 (685-762) of Tang Dynasty in essence, granted the highest rank among the Emperor’s harem, but was not his official wife (I believe he didn’t have one at the time.) Her family rose to power because of the Emperor’s favoritism, but also caused a lot of tension in the court. During a rebellion that forced the Emperor to escape the capital, the imperial guards blamed Yang Guifei for distracting the Emperor from his royal duty and forced him to kill her. Her short but eventful life was commemorated in poetry, paintings, dramas, and novels throughout Chinese history till today. The legend even goes beyond China. Some Japanese believe she didn’t die but escape to Japan.
In the outskirt of Xi’an, a city in central China, and once the ancient capital of Tang Dynasty, there’s a tourist site called Huaqing Palace. It’s said to be the royal resort of Emperor Xuazong and Yang Guifei. I visited the site two years ago, and was fascinated by the story and the modern obsession of it in China. I always wanted to make an artwork about it, but find it very hard to condense a rich narrative. Eventually, I did it with 5 paintings – 5 sides of a box.
The story begins with a peony. In Chinese culture, peony not only implies beauty, but it’s beauty in richness and glory. It’s the national flower of China today. The blooming flower is Yang in her innocent years. The background design is a twist of the Taoist symbol. Legend has it she spent some years practicing Taoism in a temple before entering the palace, a fashionable thing to do among upperclass women at the time.
The story continue on to the Huaqing Palace panel, where she enjoyed the Emperor’s love. Yellow is an imperial color in Chinese culture, and dragon is a sign of the emperors. The figure on the left is after an modern statue of Yang in Huaqing Palace. Among the four ancient Chinese beauties, Yang was regarded as the plump one (that also reflects the aesthetics of the Tang Dynasty). However, her modern statue is not only slim, but also western – makes you wonder about the presentation, representation, and the interpretation of history. The ribbons were often used in traditional dance and Yang was an excellent dancer according to legend. Huaqing Palace is also a site for hot spring, and you can still see the pools where Yang and the Emperor enjoy themselves today.
The next panel is a part of the map of the capital of Tang Dynasty, with the yellow part represents the royal palace. The hairdos and hats were an indication of the social position back then. As illustrious as the imperial couple, they were both just chess pieces on a political power grid. This is especially true for a woman like Yang. However she’s favored by the Emperor, she’s never the only woman around him.
The final part of her life story features a broken jade bracelet. Yang Guifei’s maiden name Yuhuan, in Chinese means jade bracelet. In Chinese culture, broken jade is also a symbol of the death of someone beautiful or virtuous. The battle horses and banners referenced ancient paintings about Tang battle scenes.
The top of the box is a collage of how Yang’s life story was remembered throughout history. The calligraphy is part of a long poem Chang hen ge 长恨歌, “Song of Everlasting Sorrow,” written by Tang poet Bai Juyi 白居易 (772-846). The poem is a retell of the love story of Yang and the Emperor. The painting next to it is done by a Japanese woman artist Uemura Shoen in 1922. There are still TV dramas produced present days in China. The cell phone is both our means to access history nowadays, and a tool to fulfill our desire to share some glory of a celebrity. I change the Apple symbol to Lichee fruits – a favorite of Yang Guifei. Legend has it the Emperor ordered the battle horses to transport the fresh fruit (native to southern China) to the capital (central China) for her in three days!
The most difficult part of the project is to balance the narrative and the art. I have a story to tell, but I also hope viewers could find the work interesting to look at even though they don’t know anything about the story. I want the symbols and the designs I use serve both as literary and artistic devices. For example, there a line running though the four sides of the story with a tiny circle on each side. It loosely follows the geographic route from her birth place, to the Huaqing palace, the capital, and finally her death place. The color changes of the line correspond to the vicissitude of her life. It links the narrative, and I hope it also moves the eyes.
The project is acrylic on a wooden box, and the surface of the box was quite textured. I sanded it, gessoed it, but it’s still very different from painting on canvas or masonite board. It’s a lot of work. Having so many surfaces to work on expand my ability to tell a complex story, but it also gives me the trouble of finding a place for it in the house! 🙂 Honestly speaking, I couldn’t tell if any of these makes sense, but I had a great time working on this project.