In China, the structure of the imperial harems varied across the dynasties. It was essentially a system of strict hierarchies that governed the lives and behaviors of women in the Forbidden City. During the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), women in the palace were typically categorized into eight classes, from the Empress at the highest tier to the humble serving ladies at the lowest. What did it take to enter the Qing imperial harem? What was life like for the women in the Forbidden City during the Qing period? What rights and privileges might they have, and what tragic tales resided behind the closed doors of the imperial harems?
Introduction to the Chinese Imperial Harems
In China, imperial harems constituted an important part of an Emperor’s reign. To ensure the continuation of the dynasty, his harem needed to produce male heirs to be groomed as the future successor of the dragon throne. As such, it is customary for the royal family to scour the whole of China for suitable consorts to join the Emperor’s harem. The selection of xiunu (literally beautiful girls) was a rigorous selection process where young, unmarried women were benchmarked against impossible standards and competed to stand out.
They were put through rounds and rounds of physical examinations, as well as a series of behavioral and cognitive tests. Those who managed to survive the rigorous process and excel would be given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to serve the emperor as his concubines. Once they were selected, the concubines committed themselves to a strictly hierarchical system and a lifelong competition for the Emperor’s attention. Such a selection process to sieve out the most suitable consorts for the emperor was said to date as far back as the Jin Dynasty (265–420).
Qing Imperial Harem: The Selection Process
Though the process of selecting xiunu was practiced in Qing China, it differed from the previous dynasties as Emperor Shunzhi limited the selection strictly to the Eight Banners families instead of the majority Han population. A Manchurian military and administrative framework, the Eight Banners system referred to an elite network of Manchurian and Mongolian families. Through the various clan heads and banner officials, the imperial Board of Revenue would secure a list of eligible candidates to facilitate the selection process that occurred once every three years.
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Accompanied by the respective clan heads and their family members, the prospective candidates would report to the Gate of Divine Prowess at the Forbidden City for inspection on a selected date. Approximately 100 to 300 eligible girls would partake in the initial inspection of appearance and demeanor. Among the lot, those found suitable would register as a xiunu to undergo a more stringent selection process. This included tests that evaluated the intellectual abilities, talents, and skills of the remaining dozens of girls. Finally, those who survived these tests would attend the final selection at the Palace of Heavenly Purity where the Emperor himself and the Empress Dowager would make their choices. Usually, the candidates who were selected stood out in terms of beauty, health, talents, and most importantly, family heritage.
The Hierarchy in the Qing Imperial Harem System
Officially, there were eight classes in the Qing imperial harem system. The Empress, who held the highest authority at the top, was the Emperor’s only principal wife. Expected to exemplify Confucian morals, she was to take charge of and maintain harmony in the harem, playing a key ceremonial role in the palace. The Empress presided over the Six Western Palaces and Six Eastern Palaces where all the concubines lived. Down the pecking order, there was to be a maximum of one Imperial Noble Consort, two Imperial Consorts, four Consorts, and six Imperial Concubines. Commanding considerable authority, these women were granted their own official residences with at least six to eight attendants each. Lower on the hierarchy were the Noble Lady, First Class Attendant, and Second-Class Attendant. With no restriction on the numbers, these women lived communally in the same quarters and had little authority.
The Emperor’s Love Life
As a thriving harem was an indication of a strong empire, the imperial court took pains to organize the Emperor’s sex life. With a rotation of concubines, detailed records of who the Emperor slept with every day were kept meticulously by court officials. As emperors typically were spoilt for choice, a standard practice was for the eunuchs to display wooden tablets of the names of concubines in front of the emperor. Once the tablet of a particular concubine was flipped over by the emperor, it meant that he wanted to sleep with her that night. The selected concubine would then have her body showered and cleansed before being wrapped up naked in a thick blanket as eunuchs carried her on foot to the emperor’s chambers. Concubines had to be naked before entering the emperor’s chambers to ensure that they did not carry any weapons that could harm the emperor.
Life-in-Waiting: Passing Time
A day in the life of the imperial concubines could be rather boring if they did not have to accompany the Emperor on official functions. As such, leisure activities were abundant in the palace for them to pass the time and enjoy. Imperial concubines during the Qing Dynasty would often occupy themselves by playing board games such as Chinese Chess and enjoying arts and musical performances.
A special activity said to be enjoyed by the Manchu royalty was frolicking in the snow during winter. Not only would the concubines play in the snow, but the Emperor would also join in the fun as well. Other popular hobbies in the imperial harem included taking long garden walks, fishing, playing on swings, and taking care of pets. At one point, there were over 100 cats and dogs in the imperial palace, and designated caretakers were entrusted with ensuring they were well-fed and healthy.
Life-in-Waiting: Food and Fashion
From the highest-ranking Empress down to the humble Second-Class Attendant, life in the imperial harem matched a certain standard when compared to that of a commoner. This was especially apparent in the food and fashion enjoyed by the concubines. Imported from various locales, food of the highest quality was abundant in the imperial kitchen staffed by skilled chefs and nutritionists. While all of the Emperor’s concubines were entitled to curated, delectable meals, the quantity and variety differed according to rank. For example, it was said that the Empress would be given 21 pounds of premium meat every day, while a Second-Class Attendant would only receive five pounds.
Where fashion was concerned, the Manchurians were known for their colorful and ornamented clothing. Bright yellow was often the color associated with the Emperor and the Empress, especially on formal occasions. The other higher-ranking concubines would be dressed in golden yellow, while the remainder of the harem would be in champagne for easy differentiation. Expected to dress to impress, an imperial concubine had different sets of clothing, from the ceremonial Lifu and semi-formal Jifu right down to the more casual Changfu and Bianfu.
The Harrowing Harem: Survival of the Fittest
While the imperial harem system was to function as a pillar of support for the emperor’s reign, it often became a bloody battlefield filled with schemes, lies, jealousy, and tragedy. From vying for the Emperor’s attention to elevating one’s rank through reproduction, being an imperial concubine was no easy feat. As with promotion, demotion and loss of favor were also a possibility should one put the wrong foot out. During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, several concubines were met with this fate – even the Empress herself.
In 1765, Step Empress Nara was said to have committed a grave faux pas by cutting her hair – an act associated with mourning according to Manchu traditions. Infuriated, Emperor Qianlong made a deliberate effort to strip her of her authority, removed her privileges, and even downsized the palace ladies attending to her. In 1778, another concubine, Lady Wang, was also demoted after a palace maid succumbed to injuries from the severe beatings she had ordered. Similarly, in 1788, within 16 days, Consort Shun dropped two ranks to a Noble Lady for unknown reasons.
The Tragedy of Being The Favorite
While it would seem like fighting for the Emperor’s favor was all it needed to elevate through the ranks, being a favorite did not always bode well for a concubine. Such was the tragic fate of Emperor Guangxu’s beloved Consort Zhen in the late Qing era. In sharp contrast to the traditional and conservative imperial palace, Consort Zhen was a bubbly and free-spirited woman who enjoyed learning about new cultures and technology. Her effervescent personality deeply captured the favor of Emperor Guangxu who would often spend his leisure time with her. Consort Zhen commanding the Emperor’s sole attention, along with her penchant for breaking the rules, soon became a source of discontent for the powerful Empress Dowager Cixi.
Furthermore, during a time when the glories of the Great Qing were fading, widespread socio-political unrest and internal conflicts within the court plagued Emperor Guangxu’s reign. Consort Zhen knew about the Emperor’s well-meaning intentions to fix what was perceived as an ailing and outdated imperial system and often encouraged him to pursue his reforms. As such Consort Zhen would sometimes interfere in and influence decisions, which resulted in Cixi giving her a demotion to punish her perceived brazen behavior. During the siege of the Eight-Nation Alliance in 1900, Cixi and Emperor Guangxu fled Beijing and left Consort Zhen behind in the Forbidden City. Rumor has it that before she left, Cixi had ordered the eunuchs in the palace to drown Consort Zhen in a well. The well where her body was later found and retrieved is a tourist site in the Forbidden City today.
Entering the Imperial Harems: Was It All Worth It?
As tales of imperial concubines such as Consort Zhen continue to intrigue today, so too have retrospective evaluations of life in the Chinese imperial harem. While one can indeed expect a life of luxury in the palace, it was not without its fair share of problems. Has anyone ever prepared these young women for what was to come before they entered the palace? Was it all worth it to fight their entire life for the Emperor’s elusive attention and favor? Had these women known how difficult things would be in the future, would they have still taken the plunge during the xiunu selection?
A life of constant scheming, fear of making mistakes, as well the pressure of having to produce an heir was certainly not something everybody could endure. But perhaps the toughest to endure was the loneliness that came with the glory. Just as the great master poet of the Tang Dynasty Li Bai so eloquently captured in the poem below, the price of a life of luxury was the sorrowful solitude that resided behind the closed chamber doors in the vast and lonely palace.
The glad spring goes unattended,
At the laurel bower where sorrow is long;
But on the four walls of gold
The autumn dust clings like grief;
And night holds the bright mirror up in the emerald sky,
For the lonely one in the Palace of Long Gate.
– “Sorrow of the Long Gate Palace II” by Li Bai (701–762)