The Life of A Concubine

The Pavilion of Beautiful Scenery (Forbidden Palace), inside which Ci Xi gave birth to the future Tongzhi Emperor.

The Pavilion of Beautiful Scenery (Forbidden City), inside which Ci Xi gave birth to the future Tongzhi Emperor.

“Shroud”

The ancient emperors had hundreds of concubines who were not allowed beyond the confines of the palace. Sealed off from the world, the women were captives for life.

Long nights,
in bound feet,
I dream of my
Majesty ap-
proaching.
When I walk,
I sway as a
willow sways,
delicately –
And the locusts
come, lustful
and horny, their
violent wings
covering the
gnarled limbs
of this old,
bowed tree.

I am copying this poem as I wrote it more than ten years ago after hearing a story about how a concubine, in ancient times, was put to death with her lover after their affair was discovered.  Under punishment and threat of death, these lovers took great measures to hide their affections for each other.  Her lover was a performer with an opera troupe that frequented the imperial court, so the two had the opportunity to meet from time to time.

After hearing this story, I was very curious. I asked, “How many concubines did the emperor have?”  The Chinese emperors had many concubines, numbering from the hundreds to thousands.  But what was the life of a concubine in the imperial court?

Traditionally, a concubine to the emperor was brought to the attention of the court because of her beauty or status.  She was not considered officially married to the emperor but was recruited to the court to bear the emperor sons and to entertain, usually at a young age.  Once a concubine was taken inside the palace walls, she had to leave behind her family, her friends, her familiar ways of life and was not permitted to see her relatives or friends or leave the palace without official consent. The parents would agree to give up their daughter in exchange for a secure life for their child.  However, giving up a daughter to be a concubine to the imperial palace was usually a heart-breaking affair, as it was considered a parting for life.  The concubines’ activities were generally overseen and monitored by the powerful eunuchs.  Of course, sex with any one other than the emperor was strictly forbidden.

Before the emperor would visit, a concubine was required to bathe and be examined by a court doctor.  With hundreds or thousands of concubines to choose from, a concubine was considered lucky to have a visit by the emperor.  Many of them, I was told, throughout their lives in the palace, barely had any contact with the emperor at all.  They had their own rooms, and their daily activities were filled with making themselves up, sewing, practicing various arts and sharing their time with the other concubines in the palace.  

There were varying ranks of concubines, and many of them engaged in ruthless struggles for power.  Indeed, there were some concubines who managed to become very powerful.  The most famous were Ci Xi and Wu Ze Tian who were very shrewd and eventually became two of China’s Empresses and rulers.  Still, for many concubines, they had to wile away their days, presenting themselves as best as they could and many leading very lonely lives.

2 thoughts on “The Life of A Concubine

    • Sorry, I’ve been very terrible with my replies. At any rate, I’m re-replying to say that I was surprised and fascinated when I learned a little about concubines and what their lives were like. It’s not at all what I had imagined. Thanks for your comment!

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