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Women behind the Heirs of the Forbidden City


How did a lowly, sixth rank concubine rose to power and effectively controlled the late Qing dynasty for 47 years?



Born in 1835, a Manchurian girl who entered the Imperial Palace at the age of 16, unexpectedly rose to power. The now known Empress Dowager Cixi, originally named Yehenala, caught the eye of Emperor Xianfeng and first served as one of the lowest ranking concubines. Cixi’s eyes were taught to be her most arresting feature, where even General Yuan Shi Kai, who was well known for being fierce, felt unnerved by the gaze of Cixi. It was not until the birth of her son that then made her rise fast and high into the ranks of a concubine to a secondary escort. After the death of Emperor Xianfeng, her son was crowned Emperor Tongzhi. This was when Cixi’s extraordinary political career took off, where she led behind the curtains. After her son died in 1875, she adopted her three-year-old nephew to become Emperor Guangxu, in which she continued ruling in his name. Although Cixi’s rule was initially more traditional and closed, she began to open up to the westerners after the Boxer rebellion. Her rule eventually became the starting point of where medieval China transformed into a modern society, making her one of the most influential women figures of Imperial China.


Babylonian Marriage Market 

Interestingly enough, the culture of concubines originated from the ancient Mesopotamia and Babylonia. It was that only the elite members of the society engaged concubines, many of whom were slaves. However, their first wives still hold the highest place in the family (next to the husband, of course). The culture of concubinage then spread across Asia and become a prominent part of ancient China’s culture.

Concubinage refers to an woman having an ongoing (sexual) relationship with a man out of marriage. Concubines are different from prostitutes. Concubines were considered as members of the family, specifically bounded to the King. They were not paid for having sexual relations with the King. On the other hand, prostitutes are paid for their services and are not obligated to one person.


In ancient China, emperors adopted concubinage primarily to satisfy their sexual pleasures and in addition, ensured they had multiple male heirs to maintain the family dynasty. The emperors are known to have thousands of concubines (aside from the Empress and other wives), whom were confined to life within the walls of the Forbidden City. For instance, during the Qing Dynasty, the King had approximately 20,000 concubines. Concubinage was never seen as infidelity. In fact, as ancient China was heavily influenced by Confucianism, kings were prompted to actively seek for socially acceptable wives and fueled their desire for male offsprings. Initiation for sex by the Kings were recorded in detail, marked accordingly by the names of the concubine of a bamboo tablet. If chosen, concubines would be wrapped in silk, naked and carried to the King’s bed. After the deed is done, concubines were to leave immediately and were not allowed to stay overnight.


In spite of this, concubines could improve her livelihood by winning the favor of the Emperor, resulting in a status change to becoming a possible mother to an heir of the King. A promotion through the ranks meant that she would have a higher salary, receiving better food and accommodation. Sadly, if a concubine failed to give birth or bear any children, her quality of life decreases. The internal hierarchy was strictly adhered to in the Forbidden City. Tensions grew among the concubines as they were willing to do almost anything to advance up the rank. Furthermore, because of the immense amount of concubines - chances to spend the night with the King was rare. While some concubines might not even meet the King in their lifetime, others are banished into the Cold Palace if deemed fit by the King in power.


However, not all concubines had the same fate as Empress Dowager Cixi. Some met their abrupt death when their King died. Upon Ming Emperor Yongle’s death in 1424, 30 of his favourite concubines were forced into committing suicide. This was how they demonstrated their eternal fidelity to the King, by following him to his grave.

Even though China has no longer adopts the authoritarian regime, the Chinese are still continuing the culture of concubinism. Instead of concubinism, it is now known as er nai, which is a “modern concubine, someone that a man decides to take in addition to his wife, while the first wife is still around”. This phenomenon is widespread, where common chinese men and not just political leaders to have a “second wife” as well. Concubinism is a never-ending trend in today’s modern China and, it has greatly influenced the younger generations.