The commercial rehabilitation of Yang Guifei

It seems that many of the people working in the tourism industry of Xi’an make their money from commissions on jade. At least, that’s the impression I got after spending three days there, during two of which Xuwen and I were hauled off quite against our will to jade emporiums via obvious tourist traps, once when we were on a Eastern tour to see the Terracotta Warriors and Hua Ching Chi, where we were dragged to an absolute rip off of a tourist canteen for lunch which had a jade emporium attached to it (the food was obviously made out of ingredients that assured the lowest cost price possible), a second time during the tour while we were at the Hua Ching Chi, and a third time the next day when we were driven to a jade emporium by our friendly black car, who had offered a suspiciously low rate to get us to Da Yan Ta, or Big Goose Pagoda, but had an ulterior motive.

Anyway, it was interesting to note that the famed Tang dynasty capital’s tourism industry painted a particularly glowing picture of Yang Guifei, which really surprised me as growing up I was fed the usual misogynistic stuff about her being the downfall of empires and whatnot by driving the emperor (Xuanzong) to distraction and being the cause of a rebellion. That is, until I realized that they were using her to, of course, sell jade.

At the Hua Ching Chi, where she had her own private bath in the hot spring that still survives today, in the shape of a beautiful lotus and purportedly lined in jade at the time, there stood an explicit, nude statue of her wearing nothing except two jade bangles. The tour guide assured us that she wore Fu Rong Yu (lotus jade – a pink, translucent jade) on her left arm and regular green jade on her right. Whether this is true or merely excellent marketing for Fu Rong Yu, I’m uncertain. But Fu Rong, or lotus, was supposed to be Xuanzong’s nickname for her, and that’s why the jade is named as such.

Yang Guifei is a natural match for the jade industry, of course, because her name, Yang Guihuan, () means jade loop. As a region with hot springs and fault lines, Shaanxi is also a region that produces jade, of which the Lan Tian Yu (蓝田玉)is most famous and celebrated in ancient historical writings.

The tour guide claimed that Emperor Xuanzong gave Yang Guifei Fu Rong Yu as a love gift, subtly hinting that any gentlemen in the audience should do the same for their women. In any case the marketing worked (although retrospectively, since I succumbed to the delicate prettiness of the milky pink stone before I went to Hua Ching Chi), as I am now the proud owner of a Fu Rong Yu bangle, which I bought in the first tourist trap. The jade saleswomen claimed it had all sorts of health and beauty benefits, including being good for the skin, the ability to whiten skin if you rinse it with white vinegar and use the vinegar to wash your face, and other dubious hokum clearly directed at modern Chinese beauty obsessions. It didn’t say anything about making you more fleshy, like Yang Guifei’s famously full figure (the nude statue was carved on 1990s beauty standards, and is quite slender).

It was interesting that Yang Guifei’s story has become one of an enduring love story, rather than the rather frightening political intrigue that I grew up learning about. Emperor Xuanzong, after all, ends up ordering her death under pressure from his guards when the rebellion breaks out, though he does mourn her death bitterly. A musical performance at the Hua Ching Chi was supposed to celebrate their enduring love, and a couple of trees supposedly planted by the pair up the mountain overlooking the Hua Ching Chi is strewn with red ribbons of other couples wanting to declare their undying love. I doubt any of them tied their red sashes to the grate hoping their love stories would also end in politically-required murder.

Is Yang Guifei’s commercial rehabilitation a good thing? Well, it probably is, at least for the jade industry and local economy. She is portrayed more or less like an ancient celebrity, whose outstanding taste and love of pleasure (lychees, hot spring jade baths, jade bangles) the rising middle class are encouraged to emulate and buy a little piece of. It is certainly nice that one of the few famous women of ancient China is portrayed in a more positive light rather than being blamed for the demise of a dynasty, seeing as the rise and fall of dynasties are multi-causal and quite inevitable (it seems) by a certain time.

One interesting admirer and emulator of Yang Guifei’s taste was the rather unlikely Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek), who also lived at Hua Ching Chi during the Chinese Civil War, and was in fact held hostage there. He was so taken by the lotus-shaped hot spring bath that Yang had used that he had one made in the exact same design for himself, though presumably didn’t line it with jade. It is amusing to think of the Generalissimo and self-styled emperor bathing in such a feminine bath, but then Yang Guifei does cast a long shadow.

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