Chinese historians tell us that during China’s long history there were two women whose beauty surpassed that of all the others combined.
Their names were Mei Fei and Yang Kuei-fei. Both lived during the T’ang Dynasty. Both were mistresses of the Emperor Ming Huang (also known as Hsüan Tsung). And, of course, they were bitter enemies.
The Emperor met Mei Fei first and made her his concubine, sure that no lovelier woman existed. But then he saw Yang Kuei-fei, the betrothed of his son, the heir apparent.
Her skin, T’ang chroniclers tell us, was “as white and smooth as jade,” her features “as finely carved as jade,” but her heart, to her own undoing, was not as cool as jade.
The Emperor saw her, displaced Mei Fei, and made Yang Kuei-fei his own.
Installed as his concubine, she became known as the Jade Beauty, for it is said that she slept on a “jade bed,” wore only jade ornaments, and surrounded herself only with objects of jade.
From her robes hung a large variety of tasseled jades in the shape of baskets, flowers, fruit, birds, bells, and animals. From her waist hung a small jade cylinder which exuded the fragrance of crushed blossoms. In her long black hair, knotted in the back, were two long jade hairpins and two pierced white ornaments of jade. When wearing her festive headdress, there were dozens of additional jades: small pendants in myriad forms and colors, elaborate earrings, and a pair of festoons over a foot in length which hung from the headdress.
On her arms were solid-jade bracelets, on her gently heaving chest, brooches of jade.
Yü was no less evident in her Imperial suite. Her furniture was ornamented with jade. On her dressing table were small jade bottles of perfume and feminine spices, a jade box for her jewelry, a jade tray, jade combs. She played upon a jade flute.
One night the Emperor dreamed that an evil spirit was attempting to steal Yang Kuei-fei’s jades. But a second ghost appeared and devoured the thief. This ghost identified himself to the Emperor as a poor student who had killed himself after failing his examinations. Upon awakening, the Emperor had the student’s body disinterred, gave it an honorable burial, and the ghost forever after protected the Imperial household.
Yang Kuei-fei’s lover, the Emperor Ming Huang (we must be explicit, for she had two), also lived in a jade world. In addition to the Imperial jades custom required, the Emperor sat on a jade throne chair, secretly dallied with the dispossessed Mei Fei behind paper-thin jade screens, ate from jade dishes, encouraged his horse with a riding crop topped in jade, wrote on a jade plaque with a jade-handled brush. When nobles addressed him in court they held a jade tablet in front of their mouths so their breaths would not offend.
Though the Jade Beauty was undoubtedly China’s most exquisite woman, the Emperor was greedy and wanted to keep the second best too. Once, upon entering the Imperial bedchamber unannounced, Yang Kuei-fei noticed the jade hairpins of Mei Fei on the table. Pulling aside the window curtains, she discovered her rival, whereupon she threw her own jade jewelry to the floor and left in a rage.
On another occasion Yang Kuei-fei was herself visited unexpectedly. The young man was banished, but he returned to the capital some months later with an army, determined to kill the Emperor and rescue his beloved. The enraged Emperor demanded Yang Kuei-fei’s death, and even the offer of all her precious jade ornaments to palace servants did not save her. In desperation the Jade Beauty hanged herself. But, as narrated in a long poem by Po Chu-i, this was not the end of her story; later, in a dream, Ming Huang saw her knocking at the jade door of the Palace of Paradise.
from Jade: Stone of Heaven by Richard Gump, pp. 147-151
© 1962 Doubleday & Company, Inc., New York, NY