The Tang, the Maya and the concubine

Paleoclimatologists come to the rescue of China's most beautiful, and most unfairly maligned, woman.

By Andrew Leonard
Published January 5, 2007 10:26PM (EST)

If she turned her head and smiled she cast a deep spell,
Beauties of Six Palaces vanished into nothing.
Hair's cloud, pale skin, shimmer of gold moving,
Flowered curtains protected on cool spring evenings.
Those nights were too short. That sun too quick in rising.
The emperor neglected the world from that moment,
Lavished his time on her in endless enjoyment.
She was his springtime mistress, and his midnight tyrant.

-- Song of Everlasting Sorrow

You will have to scour the annals of history mighty hard to find a woman who has been blamed for more mischief than the legendary Tang dynasty concubine Yang Guifei. Helen of Troy may have launched a thousand ships, but Yang Guifei is said to not only have seduced the Xuanzong Emperor into neglecting his imperial duties, but also, through her connections to the rebel general An Lushan, to have contributed to the ultimate fall of the entire dynasty. Since Xuanzong ruled at the apex of the Tang dynasty, and the Tang is considered the peak of classical Chinese culture, that means Yang has been scapegoated for the crime of murdering nothing less than the greatest flowering ever of Chinese culture.

The Jade Beauty bears a heavy burden. But what if it wasn't her fault? What if the real culprit was (drum roll please) climate change.

The ever fascinating Jottings From the Granite Studio alerts us today to a report published in this week's Nature magazine that details the fascinating research of a team of paleoclimatologists who analyzed 16,000 years of sediment samples from the bottom of a Chinese lake to determine the yearly strength of China's winter and summer monsoons.

(I gotta say, I have a real soft spot for geeks who devote their days to using "micro X-ray fluorescence element scanning" technology to measure sediment samples as part of an ongoing reconstruction of the history of world climate. Some people get their weather kicks by watching the Weather Channel -- these guys take it to the next level.)

Anyway, the gist of the report is that the summer monsoon started to fail in the mid-8th century, leading to a drier climate and regular droughts. The mid-8th century is, of course, precisely when Xuanzong and Yang Guifei were lavishing each other with endless enjoyment. And as the authors note, "Dynastic changes in China often involved popular uprisings during phases of crop failure and famine, consistent with a linkage to reduced rainfall."

But the plot thickens. On the other side of the globe, at exactly the same time classical Mayan civilization was also collapsing. And the same climatological factors (technically referred to as "migrations in the intertropical convergence zone") were at work there, too!

Coincidence? I think not! The authors of the report try to claim some plausible deniability by noting that "it would be simplistic to imagine that all episodes of societal change are driven by climatic events, especially in an advanced and complex society such as dynastic China." But here at How the World Works, where we are psychologically predisposed toward hypotheses that suggest that civilization itself was an accidental (and not necessarily beneficial to humanity) response to climate change, we think it's a slam-dunk case that finally lets the spirit of Yang Guifei rest in peace. May the soldiers who throttled her (or forced her to hang herself) be themselves consigned to eternal disquiet. Yang didn't topple the Tang. It was just a case of bad weather.

The only question now is what unlucky woman will be the fall girl our descendants pick to blame the climate-change-induced collapse of contemporary civilization on. I'm betting on either Hillary Clinton or Madonna.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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