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  • Writer's pictureRobin Yong

My Ancestral Goddess 楊貴妃 觀音

Updated: Jan 14



(China's most famous poet Li Bai from the Tang Dynasty's words about Concubine Yang's beauty and clothes...that they are more beautiful than the flowers and clouds respectively...)

I had a strange dream one night in ancestor - the Concubine Yang GuiFei from the Tang Dynasty did not die in China, instead, she escaped the rebellion and fled to Japan. She told me her grave and temple are in Japan. So I did a bit of research online and found that these places actually exist in Japan, although not well-known to non-Japanese.

Yang Yuhuan (26 June,719 — 15 July 756) often known as Yang Guifei () was known as one of the Four Beauties of ancient China. She was the most beloved consort of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang during his later years.

During the An Lushan Rebellion, as Emperor Xuanzong and his cortege were fleeing from the capital Chang'an to Chengdu, the emperor's guards demanded that he put Yang to death because they blamed the rebellion on her cousin Yang Guozhong and the rest of her family. The emperor capitulated and reluctantly ordered his attendant Gao Lishi to strangle Yang to death. Some rumours however state that Yang had been rescued - the combined efforts of Gao Lishi and a Japanese diplomat Shino Fujiwara (藤原刷雄), escaped to Japan and lived her remaining life there. In Japanese, she is known as Yōkihi.

Famous Tang poet Bai Juyi (白居易) hinted in his most famous poem The Song of Never-ending Sorrow that Yang Guifei escaped to Japan. Esteemed Chinese historians You Pingbo (俞平伯) and Zhou Zuoren (周作人) have mentioned earlier on in their careers that Yang GuiFei fled China.

In addition, there are writings on one of the most famous and precious paintings in Chinese history - Emperor Minghuang’s Journey to Sichuan (明皇幸蜀圖), that Yang GuiFei escaped from China. One will notice the many red inked seals/ stamps on the painting. In China, it is custom of a collector stamping his name on a work of art. This one has the seals of many famous collectors, including the Qing dynasty emperor Qianlong. The painting is currently held at the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

Sennyu-ji Temple - located in Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, was built in 856 and within it, is the “Yokihi-Kannon-do (Empress Yang-Avalokitesvara Hall)”. Inside the temple, there is a statue of the Goddess Kannon, regarded as “the most beautiful face in Japan”. This statue of Kannon is also called “Yokihi-Kannon”. The Yokihi-Kannon image is completely different from other Japanese Buddha images. It is a huge wooden carving, holding on her right hand, a “Hosoge”(寶相花), which is said to be a paradise flower - and a Hosoge-Karakusa carved on its crown. Below that, there is a crown of Kannon. The Hosoge is an imaginary composite flower that was very popular during the Sui and Tang Dynasties, and meant to represent ‘majesty and beauty’….This purely decorative flower combines the attributes of the peony, lotus, chrysanthemum, pomegranate, and other diverse flowers…. It has also been called Buddha’s Rose. These decorations are considered to be made in China in a style not found in any of Japan’s Kannon statues. An x-ray of the statue shows a holy relic within in. According to Sennyu-ji’s version of the legend, the emperor, bereft of his  beloved consort, was in a state of mourning and commissioned a sacred statue of Kannon to be carved from fragrant wood in the image of Yang Guifei, in both her remembrance and as a prayer for her happiness in her afterlife. Before the 1950s, the Yokihi Kannon was privately worshipped as a secret Buddha (hibutsu) and according to temple records, access to the statue was restricted to the public and was only displayed once every hundred years, although after the 1950s, the statue is open for public worship.

The temple is not usually indicated on foreign tourist maps and is generally only used by the Imperial family of Japan and local devotees who come to pray for eternal beauty and love.

For centuries, Sennyū-ji was a mortuary temple for aristocrats and the Imperial house. Located here are the official tombs of Emperor Shijō and many of the emperors who came after him.

I visited my ancestral temple on my first trip to Japan with a friend, and ever since then, I have been visiting Kyoto 3-4 times a year. Each time I come to Kyoto, I come to pray at the temple. I can sit here for hours, chatting to the Goddess. The environment is extremely quiet and zen. I come here often with my family and friends, including my Geisha friends - we like to come here to pray for eternal beauty and good health.

The Goddess has been extremely kind to me. There was a time in 2016 when Okaa-san invited me over to Kyoto in mid-April to view the cherry blossoms. And because of my extremely busy schedules, my trips must be booked months in advance. Alas, the cherry blossoms bloomed a month earlier and my personal guide and driver told me all the sakura in the city have faded away. The flowers generally last only a week. For Geisha photos, we normally like to match the actual scene with the kanzashi (hair decorations) on the Geishas' hair. The kanzashi in March was the Daffodil whereas the one in April is the Sakura flower. In my opinion, it would be odd to have cherry blossoms in the background with a daffodil kanzashi. The girls have strict rules and have to wear the kanzashi as stated by the months. I told my Japanese friends - "I think if we pray hard enough at the ancestral temple, the sakura will bloom again." Sure enough, the Goddess rewarded us all with full blooms at the cherry tree in front of her temple.

And on my most recent trip to Kyoto in late December, the trees and grounds were supposed to be bare, but again at the ancestral temple - the whole floor was filled with dried leaves, making it a spectacular backdrop for a beautiful photo for my Geisha friend.

Each time I come, I ask the Goddess to allow me to come back again quickly, and I hope it wouldn't be too long before I can come back to my Ancestral temple...missing Kyoto very much and missing all the zen moments at the temple. Looking forward to everlasting beauty both physically and in all my photo works and maybe true love someday as well...

PS: Photography is strictly restricted within the Yokihi-Kannon-do, but the temple does sell wonderful souvenir photos of the Goddess which I have posted here.

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