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The Chinese Emperor Minghuang and his concubine Yang Guifei, with attendants on a terrace
16th century

KanĊ Eitoku , (Japanese, 1543 - 1590)

Ink, color, and gold on paper
H: 156.7 W: 360.6 cm

Gift of Charles Lang Freer F1900.10

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Few works of Chinese literature have so enthralled the Japanese people as The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, a narrative poem by the Chinese poet Bo Juyi (772–846) of the Tang dynasty (618–907). The poem recounts the tragic story of Emperor Xuanzong (reigned 712–56), commonly known as Minghuang, whose excessive love for his beautiful concubine, Yang Guifei (circa 720–56), led to intrigue at court and disorder in the empire. Yang Guifei was put to death in 756 during the An Lushan uprising. The passionate love and inconsolable grief portrayed in the Chinese poem found a sympathetic reception in the Japanese imperial court of the Heian period (794–1185), where the emotional entanglements of Japanese aristocrats became the theme of The Tale of Genji, an important work of narrative fiction written by a noblewoman, Murasaki Shikibu.

Many Japanese screen paintings of the Momoyama (1573–1615) and early Edo (1615–1868) periods illustrate the story of Minghuang and Yang Guifei with elegant figures in settings that represent an imaginative and idealized image of the Chinese emperor's household. Here the emperor and his beloved Yang Guifei stand in an open pavilion facing a garden where ladies-in-waiting pull threads attached to the branches of flowering trees. The enduring allure of this story in the Japanese visual and literary arts reflects both a strong emotional identification with its themes of love, death, and longing, and the persistent idea of Tang dynasty China as a cultural golden age.

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