During the Northern Song Dynasty, an imperially sanctioned team of scholars compiled Zizhi Tongjian, a chronicle of Chinese history from the partition of the Kingdom of Jin in 403BCE to the final days of the Later Zhou Dynasty in 959CE (“1.1”). Politician, historian, and author Sima Guang spearheads the project. As suggested in the chronicle’s title, which means “Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance,” Zizhi Tongjian aids rulers in self-cultivation, giving Confucian socio-political theories historical context and clarifying which policies or actions may be called proper or wise. Among the history’s 294 volumes, only Volumes 214 to 218 mention Yang Guifei. According to the Confucian historians’ view of the story, Emperor Xuan of Tang’s relationship with Yang illustrates the danger of nepotism, the importance of rulers’ authority over women, and the necessity of avoiding excessive royal luxury.
Zizhi Tongjian warns about the repercussions of political favoritism by detailing the immorality and incompetence of individuals who gain prestige through connections to Yang. Focusing on Yang and the emperor in “Song of Lasting Pain”, poet Bai Juyi only makes a seven-character-long remark on how Yang’s “sisters and brothers all / were ennobled and granted great fiefs,” but Sima’s team details the exact positions obtained by Yang Guifei’s father, uncle, and three cousins, plus the houses and possessions offered to Yang Guifei’s three sisters (Owen 443; Sima 63-64; vol. 215). The Yangs, as the book repeatedly refers to them collectively, have become a potent political force. An even larger group of people achieve political advancements, frame political opponents, or gain material benefits by befriending or bribing the Yangs to influence the emperor. These people include An Lushan, who makes himself Yang Guifei’s foster son. Zizhi Tongjian includes lurid details about an abnormally close relationship between Yang Guifei and An, as “the prized consort uses beautiful brocades to make a giant swaddling cloth to wrap Lushan” and “bathes son Lu(shan) three days after [declaring the foster relationship]” according to customs intended for infants (Sima 58; vol. 216). Amused by Yang Guifei and An’s bonds and disregarding rumors of any illicit affairs, the emperor grants An tremendous wealth and a series of positions with military power, fueling An’s eventual rebellion that almost shatters the empire (Sima 58; vol. 216).
In Yang Guifei’s cousin Yang Guozhong’s case, Zizhi Tongjian teaches that nepotism promotes officials who behave not necessarily traitorously but nonetheless incompetently. Believing that he has discovered a virtuous person, Yang Guozhong elevates to the position of Governor of Jiannan a man named Xianyu Zhongtong, whose “narrow and impatient temper” ends up causing the Tang government to lose the support of the Man and Yi people in Nanzhao (Sima 50-65; vol. 216). This incident demonstrates not only Xianyu’s incompetence as governor but also Yang Guozhong’s inability to correctly judge people. Individuals who rise to power thanks to their ties with Yang Guifei are depicted as lacking either loyalty or capability or both. According to the Confucian tradition, such virtues are more likely to result from proper practice of filial rituals, careful study of ancient classics, and rigorous preparations for the imperial examinations. Spending much time of his political career campaigning for examination reforms that emphasize testing the literati’s virtues, Sima, alongside his collaborators, highlights the importance of meritocracy and strongly attacks nepotism in Zizhi Tongjian (Sun 152). The historians quote palace examination candidate Zhang Tuan’s sarcasm towards the lack of substance in Yang Guozhong and in the practice of nepotism: “We rely on Right Minister Yang as if he were Mount Tai, but I take him as merely an ice mountain! After the bright sun rises, will we not lose what we rely on?” This quote comes from Kaiyuan Tianbao Yishi written by Wang Renyu around the end of the Tang Dynasty, a book full of supernatural occurrences and sensational gossips and thus not usually accepted as a credible historical source (“7.1”). The historians’ selection of this quote, therefore, indicates their strong inclination of discrediting the nepotistic network which traces back to Yang Guifei.
Sima’s team also shows how emperors have a paternalistic duty to guide royal ladies and how Emperor Xuan’s failure to fulfill such personal duties with Yang Guifei subverts the social order. The Confucian yin-yang theory of the universe expects women to demonstrate yieldingness and men to become powerful guides for women. Under many circumstances, Emperor Xuan fulfills these gender-based duties. In 727, “his majesty orders women below the ranks of consorts and concubines to cultivate silkworms in the palace in the hope of letting them know about womanly work,” echoing Han Dynasty scholar Ban Zhao’s admonitions for her daughters to focus on domestic labor and have “wholehearted devotion to sew and weave”(Sima 34, vol. 213; de Bary 824). Even with his most beloved Consort Yang, the emperor twice sends her away to the Yangs’ private households because of her waywardness (Sima 86; vol. 215, 34; vol. 216). Disciplining Consort Yang, however, proves emotionally draining for the emperor. The first time he sends her away, Zizhi Tongjian describes him to appear “unhappy, and even until the middle of the day he has not yet eaten. If attendants fail to fulfill his orders in any way, they are all whipped with a stick” (Sima 86; vol. 215). Yang Guifei is soon brought back, demonstrating that the emperor’s male authority has yielded to his romantic attachments to Yang (Sima 86; vol. 215). This failure of Emperor Xuan as a Confucian male causes massive shifts in gender norms, and just like in “Song of Lasting Pain” ordinary folks are singing “don’t be happy about begetting a son and don’t be sad with a girl” (Owen 443; Sima 86; vol. 215). Since the Confucian natural order dictates the emperor to not only guide women as a male but also guide his people as a monarch, his failure in the first task causes a subversion of gender roles on the national scale—an immoral change that shakes the yin-yang order of the cosmos in Confucian eyes.
Zizhi Tongjian also illustrates how sometimes the emperor is expected to sacrifice his love for Yang out of practical necessity rather than Confucian principles. Eunuch Gao speaks in a realist manner when advising the Emperor to kill Yang to appease mutinying troops: “Guifei is indeed guiltless, but the generals and soldiers have already killed Guozhong, and seeing how Guifei remains by your majesty’s side, how can the generals and soldiers settle down” (Sima 14; vol. 218). Gao invokes here not moralizations about whether Yang Guifei should be blamed as the source of national turmoil but the simple yet harsh fact that the emperor would be killed if nothing drastic is done. Either moralistically speaking or practically speaking, romance proves unimportant in Zizhi Tongjian. Unlike Bai Juyi who depicts Yang Guifei’s origins as those of a pure virgin who “no man knew of,” the historians refrain from telling an idealistic love story, presenting the uncomfortable truth that Yang Guifei is originally married to the Emperor’s son King Shou (Owen 442; Sima 27; vol. 214). Zizhi Tongjian also contains no poetic description of Consort Yang’s beauty and only states that “Taizhen has flesh and posture that are plump and beautiful, knows musical patterns, possesses traits that are alert and quick, and is good at satisfying the Emperors’ wishes” (Sima 45; vol. 215). The last two phrases characterize Consort Yang as a woman adept at currying favor and not the emperor’s fated lover.
Zizhi Tongjian cautions emperors against not only indulging their women but also indulging themselves in extravaganza, which can also lead to social chaos like the An Lushan Rebellion. Again, the Emperor proves not completely inadept at fulfilling Confucian expectations. In 734, “the emperor plants wheat in the garden and leads the crown prince and others in mowing the weeds” in the hope of “letting [them] know the difficulties of farm work” (Sima 9, vol. 214). The emperor values a plain lifestyle, knowing how profligacy tramples on the hard work of the people and violates a ruler’s reciprocal duty to care for his country. Nevertheless, the emperor apparently forgets this lesson as he later holds a series of banquets and acquires all kinds of treasures for himself, Yang Guifei, and other favored individuals, and Sima breaks away from the historical narrative to offer a personal commentary on the emperor’s extravagance: “The sage sees the Way and virtuous power as beauty, humanness and rightness as happiness; so even though he lives in thatches made of grass, walks on steps made of dirt, wears poorly-made clothes, and eat humble foods, he still only fears being overly attended to and thus tiring the people and wasting money” (57; vol. 218). Sima also laments how people across the country follow the emperor’s poor example and develop a culture of extravagance (86; vol. 215). In addition to making these moralistic comments, Sima presents at the same time some practical considerations: “When people’s ruler demonstrates to others how he worships glory and luxury, this is just enough for great thieves to be attracted”(57; vol. 218). Referring to An Lushan as a great thief, Sima argues that even if an emperor fails to fully recognize the immorality of self-indulgence, he should still shun extravagance to avoid stirring the jealousy of potential rebels.
Considering the national misfortunes that follow political nepotism, female waywardness, and palatial extravagance in Emperor Xuan and Lady Yang’s story in Zizhi Tongjian, one can conclude that Sima and his team are teaching rulers what not to do when governing the country according to the Confucian Way. These historians not only seek a relatively truthful representation of the past but also search out opportunities to teach future rulers Confucian lessons, so although Zizhi Tongjian remains and will always remain one of the most authoritative Chinese historical sources, one must always keep in mind the didactic Confucian undertone behind the words and think critically about what really happened.
De Bary, Wm. Theodore, Irene Bloom, Wing-tsit Chan, and Joseph Adler. Sources of Chinese Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Owen, Stephen. An Anthology of Chinese Literature : Beginnings to 1911. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
Peng, Jiang. “1.1 Songchu Wenzhi Daoxiang de Queli 1.1 宋初文治导向的确立 [1.1 Establishment of the Trend of Cultured Governance during Early Song Dynasty].” Chaoxing Faxian, http://mooc1.ppsuc.edu.cn/nodedetailcontroller/visitnodedetail?courseId=202289794&knowledgeId=134683644. Accessed 13 Jan. 2019.
—. “7.1 Dui Zizhi Tongjian Caiyong Biji Xiaoshuo de Piping 7.1 对《资治通鉴》采用笔记小说的批评 [7.1 Criticism on Zizhi Tongjian’s Use of Folk Stories].” Chaoxing Faxian, http://mooc1.ppsuc.edu.cn/nodedetailcontroller/visitnodedetail?courseId=202289794&knowledgeId=134683666. Accessed 13 Jan. 2019.
—. Sima Guang. http://p.ananas.chaoxing.com/star3/origin/5694a19ee4b0e85354b6df2c.jpg. Chaoxing Faxian.
Sima, Guang. Zizhi Tongjian. Chinese Text Project, 1084, https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&res=745983&remap=gb.
Sun, Fuxuan. “Testing Prose Poems in the Imperial Examination in Tang and Song Dynasties.” Journal of Zhejiang University (Humanities and Social Sciences), vol. 38, no. 3, May 2008, pp. 150–58.
Zizhi Tongjian. 2018, https://img12.360buyimg.com/imgzone/s800x800_jfs/t3613/330/312173334/410082/f2010410/580717daN7bfe4e11.jpg. OpenChinaCart.