The Tragic Life of Concubines in Ancient China | The Terrifying Reality of Being a Concubine

The Forbidden City is a palace complex located in central Beijing, China. It served as the imperial palace of the Ming dynasty and the Qing dynasty, and was the home of the Chinese emperors and their households.

Construction of the Forbidden City began in 1406 and was completed 14 years later in 1420.

The complex covers an area of over 720000 square meters and consists of 980 buildings, including the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony. Female members of the imperial family, including the empress, concubines, and other female servants, were sequestered in the imperial quarters deep inside the Forbidden City.

This was known as the «Inner Court» and was located in the northern part of the palace complex. The Inner Court was a separate area of the palace that was heavily guarded and inaccessible to most people. Female residents of the Inner Court were not allowed to leave without permission from the emperor and were strictly monitored by eunuchs, who were castrated male servants. Life in the Inner Court was highly structured and strictly controlled.

Women in the Inner Court were expected to follow strict rules of conduct and were not allowed to interact with men who were not members of the imperial family.

They spent most of their time attending to the needs of the emperor and other members of the imperial family, as well as engaging in activities such as embroidery and calligraphy. The Inner Court was composed of three major groups of women: concubines, palace servants, and the royal princesses.

The concubines were women who had a relationship with the emperor, but who were not his legal wife. They were ranked according to their status and the order in which they entered the emperor’s household. The highest-ranking concubine was known as the empress, and she had the most power and influence in the Inner Court. Palace servants were women who worked in the Inner Court, performing various tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for the concubines and princesses.

They were also responsible for weaving, embroidery, and other crafts that were produced for the imperial household. The royal princesses were the daughters of the emperor and his concubines. They were also sequestered in the Inner Court, where they received education and training in the arts and sciences, as well as in the proper behavior and etiquette expected of royal women. All three groups of women were subject to strict rules and regulations governing their behavior and interactions within the Inner Court.

They were expected to maintain the highest standards of behavior and decorum, and any violation of the rules could result in punishment, including banishment from the Inner Court or even execution. The selection process for imperial concubines in ancient China varied depending on the dynasty and the emperor’s personal preferences.

During the Tang Dynasty, women were often recruited to become concubines through imperial orders or by recommendation from local officials.

Women from wealthy families were sometimes sold or offered as tribute to the imperial court, while women from lower social classes might be chosen through open auditions or by lottery. One common method for selecting imperial concubines was to hold a «selection day» or «beauty contest» where young women from noble families or selected from across the empire would be presented to the emperor.

During the Qing dynasty in China, it was a customary practice for young girls who were potential candidates for marriage to be brought to the Shenwu Gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing for inspection. The emperor’s mother, senior officials, and eunuchs were often involved in the selection process. The Shenwu Gate, also known as the Gate of Divine Prowess, was one of the main entrances to the Forbidden City.

On the designated day, families of eligible young girls would bring their daughters to the gate, where they would be examined by court officials and eunuchs. The purpose of the inspection was to assess the girls’ physical appearance and qualities, such as beauty, intelligence, and social skills. The officials would also check the girls’ family background and status to ensure that they were suitable matches for the emperor, his relatives, or high-ranking officials.

The practice of selecting potential brides for the imperial court was called «xiangnu» in Chinese, which means «inspection of women.»

It was a highly regulated and formal process that followed strict rules and rituals. The potential brides were selected based on strict criteria such as their family background, social status, physical appearance, and education. They were also expected to possess virtues such as chastity, loyalty, and obedience.

The girls had to be physically beautiful, with fair skin, a delicate figure, and well-defined facial features. The officials would inspect their hair, skin, teeth, and other physical attributes to determine their suitability. The girls were expected to be talented and skilled in various areas such as music, dance, poetry, and calligraphy. The girls had to be well-mannered, polite, and respectful. They were expected to have good social skills and the ability to converse intelligently.

The girls who passed the inspection would be presented to the emperor or other high-ranking officials for consideration as potential wives or concubines. Once a girl was chosen, a betrothal ceremony would be held, and she would be officially engaged to the emperor or the high-ranking official. The selected brides would then live in the palace as the emperor’s wives or concubines. They were expected to obey strict rules and follow strict protocols, such as bowing to the emperor and his mother, addressing the emperor in a certain manner, and observing a strict hierarchy among the other wives and concubines.

One of the main duties of the emperor’s wives and concubines was to bear him a son, who would become the heir to the throne. The birth of a male child was considered a significant event and was celebrated with great pomp and ceremony. Unfortunately, concubines were often treated like things. In the history of ancient China there are many examples of emperors mistreating their concubines and wives.

Emperor Jiajing once ordered the execution of a group of concubines whom he suspected of conspiring against him. Slow slicing, also known as «death by a thousand cuts,» was a particularly gruesome form of execution that involved slowly cutting a person’s body with a knife, causing them to suffer a long and painful death. Emperor Jiajing was known to have used this punishment on several of his concubines who had fallen out of favor with him.

He is also said to have forced some of his concubines to fight each other to the death for his entertainment. The exact details of these fights are not well-documented, but it is known that the concubines were trained in martial arts and forced to engage in combat. The fights would continue until one of the concubines was killed or seriously injured.

Emperor Wu of Han was known for his ruthless treatment of his concubines.

He had a large harem of over 10000 women, and he was notorious for his cruelty towards them. One of the most famous examples of Emperor Wu’s cruelty towards his concubines was his treatment of Lady Li. Lady Li was a favorite concubine of Emperor Wu, but she fell out of favor after she became pregnant with his child.

Emperor Wu was already married to Empress Wei Zifu and he did not want any competition from Lady Li and her child. So, he ordered Lady Li to be imprisoned and her child to be killed. Emperor Wu also had a habit of castrating his male concubines, known as «Gong», as a way of punishing them. He would also force his concubines to engage in sexual acts with each other and with animals as a form of entertainment.

Additionally, Emperor Wu was known for his strict beauty standards for his concubines. He would only choose women who met his specific criteria, such as having a certain height and weight, and would punish those who did not meet his standards.

Emperor Cheng of Han, also known as Liu Ao, was the ninth emperor of the Han dynasty in China.

While he is generally remembered as a capable ruler who expanded the empire’s territory and stabilized its economy, he was also known for his cruelty towards his concubines. According to historical accounts, Emperor Cheng had a large harem of concubines, which he often mistreated and abused. He was known to be particularly cruel towards those who failed to bear him a son, and he would frequently beat, starve, or even execute them for this perceived failure.

He was also known to have a preference for young, beautiful women, and would often force his attendants to find new concubines for him. One particularly gruesome incident involved the concubine Zhao Feiyan, who was favored by the emperor for her beauty. After she was accused of having an affair with one of his officials, Emperor Cheng had her stripped naked and forced to walk across a hall filled with knives and spears.

Miraculously, she survived this ordeal, but was later executed along with her sister for allegedly plotting against the emperor. Another concubine, Lady Xu, was punished for having an affair with a palace eunuch. Emperor Cheng ordered her to be beaten with a wooden rod until she lost consciousness, and then had her thrown into a latrine to drown.

Emperor Cheng’s cruelty towards his concubines was not limited to physical abuse. He was also known to use them as political pawns, often giving them away to his officials or allies as gifts or bribes. This practice was a common one among Chinese emperors of the time, but Emperor Cheng was particularly ruthless in his treatment of these women, many of whom were forced into sexual servitude and had no say in their own lives.

Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, also known as Li Longji is also known for his cruel treatment towards his concubines.

Emperor Xuanzong had a total of 1200 concubines in his harem, and he was known to be very demanding and brutal towards them. He would often punish them severely for even the slightest mistake, such as speaking out of turn or failing to please him in bed. Emperor Xuanzong’s cruelty towards his concubines was not limited to physical abuse, as he also imposed strict rules on their behavior and dress. For example, they were required to wear black robes and to keep their hair short, as a symbol of their status as slaves in the imperial harem.

Emperor Guangxu of Qing, who reigned from 1875 to 1908, was known for his cruel treatment towards his concubines.

He was the ninth emperor of the Qing Dynasty and ascended to the throne at the age of four. One of Emperor Guangxu’s most infamous acts of cruelty was his treatment of his concubine, Consort Zhen. According to historical records, Emperor Guangxu was physically abusive towards Consort Zhen, and she eventually died from her injuries.

It is said that the emperor was angry with Consort Zhen for giving birth to a daughter instead of a son, and he would beat her with a bamboo stick until she bled. In ancient China, it was not uncommon for high-ranking officials, including concubines and wives, to be buried with the emperor upon his death.

This practice was known as «accompanying burial» or «xinfu.»

In ancient China, the emperor was considered the son of heaven and his burial was a highly important event. It was believed that the emperor needed to be accompanied by a retinue of servants and concubines in the afterlife to ensure his comfort and well-being. This was seen as a way to maintain the emperor’s power and legitimacy even after his death.

The tomb of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, is perhaps the most famous example of the practice of burying large numbers of people with an emperor.

According to historical records, Qin Shi Huang’s tomb is believed to contain thousands of life-sized terra-cotta soldiers, horses, and chariots, as well as various other artifacts and treasures. It is also believed that the tomb may contain the remains of concubines, court officials, and others who were buried alive with the emperor.

While the exact number of people buried with Qin Shi Huang is unknown, it is estimated to be in the thousands. The tomb complex covers an area of over 56 square kilometers and is still being excavated by archaeologists today.

Emperor Jing of Han: Emperor Jing of Han was buried with more than 50 concubines, as well as numerous court officials and servants.

Emperor Wen of Western Wei: Emperor Wen of Western Wei was buried with more than 40 women, including his wives and concubines, who were believed to have been strangled to death and buried with him.

It’s worth noting that while the practice of burying people with an emperor was relatively common in ancient China, the number of people buried with each emperor varied greatly.

Some emperors were buried with only a few close companions, while others were buried with hundreds or even thousands of people.

Next articleThe sinking of the Mignonette: the horrific true story. Principle of Necessity of Extreme Survival.