Practice of Chinese Concubines

A cropped painting of one of emperor Yongzheng's concubines (Holdsworth & Courtauld 1998)
Concubinage is a common practice in various parts of the world. Concubines are essentially sexual partners of a man and can have legitimate children with him, but they are of lower rank than his real wife. The status of the concubine's children, however, depended on the status of the man she served. In some cases like during the Song dynasty of China, concubines were even regarded as secondary wives. In contrast, some concubines resembled more like maids than wives while others lived like slaves. Although polygamy was sanctioned in China, only elite, wealthy men had enough money to financially support their concubines; therefore, these women were also perceived as a status symbol. (Ebrey 2003; McMahon 2010)

In China and in other regions like Egypt, concubines legalized and supported polygamy, specifically polygyny. These women provided additional outlets for men's sexual desires. However, concubinage predominantly functioned as a way of supplying enough children for a household. (Ebrey 2003)

Within the Imperial Palace, this practice was essential for emperors because they needed sons to succeed the throne and daughters to give as gifts to foreigners. Boys were preferred over girls because China is a patriarchal society. All concubines faced discrimination upon entering the palace from their older peers. A concubine's main purpose was to produce male heirs for the
Crown of Wanli emperor's empress excavated from Dingling tomb (Lei et al. 1995)
emperor, but many competed shrewdly for his love. Several gained the emperor's affection, but many more were neglected. The palace's supply of concubines never depleted because emperor's servants frequently sought beautiful, young women to replenish the imperial harem through various means of recruitment. One practice was known as the Qing custom of xiunu where young teenage girls were sent to the Forbidden City every three years for the emperor to select a bride. As a result the constant recruitment, the number of concubines ranged from hundreds to thousands in some cases. A social hierarchy even developed among these women based solely on whoever the emperor adored. The highest rank for a concubine was the title of Empress, which very few have managed to claim. (Ebrey 2003; Wang 2004)

According to Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Emperor Qin Shihuangdi initiated the tradition of mantaining an imperial harem of beautiful women. He alone housed approximately 10,000 of women in his palace. In her book, "Women and the Family in Chinese History", Ebrey criticizes this practice because a man, regardless of his status, does not require thousands of women to satisfy his sexual urges or to bear him sufficient children. A few concubines would have sufficed both necessities; therefore, concubinage in the Imperial Palace almost entirely served to demonstrate that the emperor was the most powerful and wealthiest man in all of China.

Diagram showing imperial concubine ranking

Wu Zetian

She was brought to the Imperial Palace at fourteen years old as a concubine under the reign of Tang emperor Gaozong. The current empress at the time befriended Wu in hopes that she would help the empress overthrow her
The Qianling Tomb: the joint burial of emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu Zetian. For more information, please click on the image.
rival, the Pure Concubine. Ironically, Wu became the emperor's favorite and succeeded in overthrowing the empress. Wu accomplished this goal by deliberately murdering her own newborn baby girl and blaming the empress for the deed using jealousy as the motive. Afterward, Wu gradually rose to power and in 655 AD, she became the new Empress. When Gaozong fell ill, Wu overtook his kingly administrative duties and eventually seized the throne while competing with her own son. Despite her conniving actions, empress Wu Zetian governed China successfully with care and institutionalized effective political policies that were beneficial to the state. The story of how Wu Zetian became empress shows the intensity of the palace among the emperor's concubines. Beautiful women can indeed be cunning and deadly. The strive for the emperor's affection drove many women to death and negligence like Wu's predecessor. Few women in history have been granted the opportunity to preside over a country. (Fitzgerald 1968; Peterson, ed. 2000) Egypt is another civilization where women have been rulers, but it is interesting to note that both Egypt and China have similar views regarding beauty as depicted in their art.