The Emperor's Harem in Late Imperial China

The private life of the emperor and his harem is the stuff of a Hollywood blockbuster or best-selling biography. We might look at the emperor's sex life as repetitive, mechanical, his palace women little more than toys to play with until a son appeared. After all, the Son of Heaven had to produce celestial sons.

Despite the lack of motion pictures and television way back in late imperial China, the details of the emperor's boudoir did not go unrecorded. Eunuchs carried concubines wrapped up in rugs into the emperor's bedchamber. His most intimate retainers, standing only a few metres away, would shout something to the effect that the emperor should preserve his imperial body while he made love to his palace ladies. The word eunuch is of Greek origin--eunoukhos derived from eunē ('bed') and okhos ('to keep'). A eunuch therefore guarded the bed chamber of women.

All the details were minutely recorded by the retainers. Court astrologers were also consulted to determine the best time that the emperor should be intimate with his ladies, the theory being that a particular time would be conducive to producing a little dragon. We know however, that the emperors had lots of daughters as well as sons. If the emperor lacked energy or his intrinsic vital essence was disturbed--primordial qi as it is called in traditional Chinese medicine--an imperial physician was consulted. His doctor might prescribed some traditional aphrodisiacs to supplement his meals like shark fin's soup or generous servings of sea cucumber.

There is a Czech saying that a house without a woman is like meadow without dew, but Chinese emperors kept thousands of them in the 'rear palace.' Maintaining such a large pool of potential mates, as Patricia Buckley Ebrey points out, was a costly business. A couple of hundred would surely have been sufficient. Beautiful women, however, were needed to furnish the palaces. Consider the huge and vast ceremonial halls in the outer court. These young women were, for all intents and purposes, decorative furniture pieces. The first emperor of China, Qin Shihuangdi, is said to have filled his palace with beautiful women and musical instruments he had taken from his vanquished enemies. Ebrey argues that as the most important man in China, the emperor was the ultimate he-man, his sexual prowess reinforced by an unlimited pool of young virgins.

Kang Xi, the third emperor of China's last imperial dynasty had three empresses and nineteen concubines. The fourth emperor Qianlong kept two empresses and twenty-nine concubines. The second last reigning emperor Guang Xu, in contrast, had only one empress and two concubines. Guangxu's favourite concubine Zhen Fei, known as the Pearl Concubine, had a privileged position among other concubines in the palace. Concubines were carried in when summoned by the emperors--they were literally carried on the back of eunuchs. Pearl Concubine, however, was able to walk into the imperial boudoir. She became the envy of other palace women, including the empress dowager Cixi. The dowager ordered her eunuchs to throw her into a well tucked away in the labyrinth of courtyards in the inner court.

The Palace of Heavenly Purity, the first of these rear halls in the inner court of the Forbidden City, was the living quarters of the Ming emperors. It is also the place where a failed attempt by a group of palace women to do away with one of the Ming emperors took place in 1542. One of the emperor concubines led a group of more than a dozen women to strangle the emperor while he was asleep, but the knot in the noose slipped. The women were rounded up, their throats cut and the flesh of the limbs sliced off.

If we comb the historical records, we might discover that a Chinese Philip Marlowe was called in to piece together the crime. The emperor Jiajing took a while to recover from the incident. In fact, he decided to cloister himself away for the next twenty years cultivating his mind in a palace which is now the headquarters of China's government elite, Zhongnanhai ('Central Southern Seas').

Historians are not supposed to cross lines into fiction, but they can scarcely survive if the stories they tell are not compelling. If you were to ask the imperial harem in the Forbidden City 'tell me about your adventures,' it might reply, 'talk to the maidservants, the concubines, the eunuchs, the emperors,' and listen to their stories. It's a palatial playground rich in stories and tales to be spun by firelight on cold, winter nights.

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