In Imperial China, one of the important tasks that the emperor needed to do was to ensure the continuation of the dynasty, which was achieved by the production of a male heir. For this purpose, the emperors of Imperial China kept an enormous harem of women. There was a hierarchy in the emperor’s harem, and whilst the exact classes changed over the millennia, it may be said that in general there were three ranks – the empress, consorts, and concubines. In addition, the eunuchs who served these imperial women may be considered to be a part of this harem as well.
Hierarchy in the Harem
At the top of the hierarchy of the Imperial Chinese harem was the empress, who was the Emperor’s one ‘official wife’. The empress was the most venerated and revered figurehead for women in China, as she was considered to be the ‘mother of the world’. In the harem, only the emperor and the mother of the emperor were above the empress, all other individuals had to obey her orders. In addition to empresses, there was also the rank of empress dowager. Empresses who outlived their husbands were promoted to this rank. Some famous empress dowagers include Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty (who later became China’s first female emperor) and Cixi of the Qing Dynasty.
Wu Zetian, Empress in the Tang Dynasty Harem (public domain)
Consorts in the Imperial Chinese Harem
Underneath the empress were the consorts. The number and ranks of these consorts differed according to the ruling dynasty. During the Qing Dynasty, for example, an imperial harem would have had one Imperial Noble Consort, two Noble Consorts, and four Consorts. Below these consorts were the concubines, and this number varied according to each emperor. According to the Rites of Zhou, an emperor could have up to 9 high ranking concubines, 27 mid ranking ones and 81 low ranking ones. However, during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), there were no limits set for the number of consorts an Emperor could have, and during the reigns of Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling, there were more than 20,000 women living in the Forbidden City.
Portrait of a concubine, by Chinese painter Lam Qua, 1864 (public domain)
Selection of Concubines
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), there was an official system for selecting concubines to join the emperor’s harem. The selection process would take place inside the Forbidden City every three years. Candidates ranged from 14 to 16 years of age and were chosen based on their background, virtues, behavior, character, appearance and body condition.
Eunuchs – The Only Males Allowed in the Harem
To ensure that any child born in the harem was fathered by the emperor, males were not allowed to serve the women of the emperor’s harem. The only exceptions to this rule were the eunuchs, men who had been castrated, thus rendering them impotent. Throughout the history of Imperial China, eunuchs have served the imperial family, including as servants in the harem. Far from being mere servants, however, these eunuchs could aspire to positions of power and wealth by involving themselves in the politics of the harem. During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), there was an eye-opening 100,000 eunuchs serving the emperor and his harem.
Chinese Eunuchs were the only males permitted in the harem (public domain)
Rivalries in the Harem
With so many women in the harem, it was inevitable that rivalries amongst the emperor’s women would arise, as they competed for the emperor’s attention. The most coveted position was, of course, that of the empress, and to bear a son for the emperor would certainly be a big bonus to a woman in the harem. At times, ambitious women in the harem who plotted against their rivals would form alliances with eunuchs. If an intrigue was successful, a woman in the harem could rise through the ranks. She, in turn, would reward the eunuchs who supported her by placing them in positions of authority.
Such harem intrigues have happened often in Chinese history. For example, during the Tang Dynasty, one of the Emperor Gaozong’s consorts was Wu Zetian. According to popular belief, Wu Zetian had her new born child murdered, and placed the blame on the Empress Wang. As a result of this, the empress was demoted, and Wu Zetian became the new empress. Nevertheless, not all imperial harems were hotbeds of conspiracy. The semi-mythical Huangdi, for example, had four concubines, who were not chosen based on their looks, but on their competence. One of his secondary concubines, for instance, is regarded as the inventor of cooking and of the chopsticks, whilst another is believed to have invented the comb. Together, these concubines assisted Huangdi in ruling the country.
Many concubines met a sad fate when their emperor died. They were sacrificed, often buried alive, to join their master in the afterlife.