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Journey into the past: Changan’s compelling love story between Tang emperor Xuanzong and his imperial consort Yang Guifei

The imperial city of Changan is the site of many legends and stories, perhaps none as compelling as the love between the Tang emperor Xuanzong and Yang Guifei, his imperial consort. Yang Guifei was born Yang Yuhuan and began her relationship with the imperial family as the wife of Xuanzong’s son, Li Mao, the prince of Shou.

But her allure was such that the emperor himself wanted her for his own, so he had her put on Taoist robes – to nullify her marriage – and then made Yang Yuhuan into his favourite consort, with the name Guifei.

Their love may have helped bring about the devastating An Lushan rebellion, in which a general of the Tang army rebelled against imperial forces, particularly one of Yang Guifei’s cousins, Yang Guozhong. Many poems, plays, television series and movies have dramatised the relationship, alternatively painting Yang Guifei as an innocent girl in love with the emperor or a scheming consort who brought about ruin.

One of the main locations in Xian that still holds the legacy of their relationship are the Huaqing Hot Springs, about 30km outside the city. The hot springs were a favourite retreat for emperors long before the Tang dynasty, but during the Tang they reached a heyday.

During the time of Yang Guifei, she was one of very few consorts allowed to enjoy the hot springs and the many accompanying fragrances and pleasures – all other visitors had to be members of the royal family or high-ranking officials.

Although the story of Xuanzong and Yang Guifei ended in tragedy, her beauty was held in such high regard that she became enshrined in Chinese lore as one of the “Four Great Beauties”.

Today, visitors to the hot springs pass through two towering cedars into a vision from the past: pillars and gardens are reflected in the Nine Dragon Lake, which leads into a complex of majestic halls and pools specifically designed to give pleasure to the most powerful men and women in Imperial China.

There are several wonders at Huaqing Hot Springs, including the Dragon Marble Boat and the Imperial Pool, the only one of its kind in all of China. Five other pools stretch out across the gardens, giving visitors an idea about life for the imperial Tang dynasties’ most powerful personalities.