北方有佳人, From the north came a ravishing maiden,
絕世而獨立. Whose beauty stood alone.
一顧傾人城, At a glance, cities fall,
再顧傾人国. Once more, empires collapse.
寧不知倾城與倾国, Care not whether cities fall or empires collapse,
佳人難再得. Such beauty never comes around twice.
This is the story of Emperor Han Wu Ti and Madam Li (漢武帝李夫人). The Emperor had 3 passions – power, women and music. Court Composer, Li Yannian (李延年) wanted to gain imperial favours and so he composed the above lyrics. On hearing the words, the startled emperor inquired if there is indeed such a beauty. The already bribed older sister of the Emperor, Princess Ping Yang (平陽公主) then casually remarked that there is indeed such a beauty in the form of the court musician’s sister.
The Emperor fell madly in love when he gazed upon her beauty. However this romance did not last long. First of all she was a fragile beauty and her health gave up upon her soon after giving birth. Knowing that she was not going to live long, she refused to see the emperor. Each time he came to see her she hid herself under the quilts crying. No matter how much he pleaded or entreated, he could not get to see her face. The frustrated Emperor once remarked that he would give her a million taels of gold and elevate her brothers to the ranks of dukes. She merely replied that it was his imperial prerogative to do so and does not need the excuse to get a glimpse of her. The Emperor left angrily. Her siblings came berating that she could cause the demise of their family.
She rebuked at their stupidity, “It is for the sake of the welfare of our family that I will not see him. He cares only for my beauty and nothing else. By denying him even a glimpse, he will not be able to see me in a state of diminished beauty. My beauty will forever be enshrined in his mind. After I’m gone, you all will know unbounded wealth and glories!”
When she died she was buried with the honours due to an Empress. Just as she predicted, each time the emperor thought of her, her family gained unbridled wealth and power. A crafty Taoist priest told the love sick Emperor that he could conjure her spirit to meet him. The wily priest then asked for her clothing and on such and such a night, in a heavily curtained and poorly candle lit chamber filled with incense smoke, the Emperor in his tipsy mood, glimpsed an image of her appearing on the curtains for a brief moment before her clothes fell to the ground when a gust of the wind caused the curtains to flutter.
Han Wu Ti ascended to the throne at the age of 16. When he was the crown prince, he fell in love with his cousin (his father’s sister’s daughter who was older than him) but could not get his hands on her and remarked that once he became emperor, he will build a house made of gold for her (in another words a golden cage!) . The phrase 金屋藏嬌, “a golden house to contain a beauty” comes from this story. Actually, the word ‘beauty’ is the name of the cousin, 陳阿嬌.
In his old age, the Emperor dabbled in mysticism to attain immortality but only enriched the pockets of Taoist priests and ending with deadly consequences including the execution of the crown prince on false charges of rebellion. When the truth finally came out, it was too late. Part of the cause of the demise of the Han Dynasty was due to his foolishness in his old age which the Emperor did not learn from his past mistakes.
There was a time when some pills of immortality were finally ready for the Emperor’s consumption. Just as he was about to take them, this minister suddenly grabbed them and ate it himself. The Emperor was so enraged that he ordered immediate execution. The wily minister remarked calmly to him that such an order cannot be carried out. The astonished Emperor asked for the reason.
“If the pills were indeed that effective, then nothing can do me harm now that I am an immortal. If I get be killed, then the pills are false. Your Majesty’s sacred name would forever be sullied in history as a befuddled ruler!”