The Pecking Order of Imperial Consorts

In the summer of 2007, I happened to find my way into one of the labyrinth of courtyards that lead me to an exhibit on Qing concubines and the imperial harem. I was struck by a number of objects on display: bamboo tallies which resembled book marks which I later learned recorded the names of the xiunü, women chosen for the Qing imperial harem, gynecology records of doctors who examined these woman, and a large chart which detailed the daily provision of food utensils for concubines and empresses. I knew that the Qing emperors kept a harem of women, but I had no idea of how many and what socio-political function they served. This was my initial foray into the world of late imperial China and trying to understand the role and status of women in the palace.

During China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911), the number of imperial consorts varied according to the reigning period of the emperors. The Kangxi emperor, the Qing’s empire’s second emperor had three empresses and nineteen concubines, Qianlong, the fourth emperor, had two wives and twenty-nine concubines. The Guangxu emperor, the dynasty’s ninth reigning emperor, in contrast, had only one empress and two concubines. All these women came from Manchu, Mongol or Chinese families and entered the palace after rigorous selection.

The highest ranking female of the Qing court was the empress dowager, the emperor’s nominal mother. Below her were the empresses and imperial concubines. During the reign of the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736-1795), the imperial consort was divided into eight ranks headed by the emperor’s wife, the empress, one imperial noble consort, two noble consorts, four consorts, six imperial concubines, any number of honoured ladies, 'the ever-present' and ‘those who comply.’ In this highly stratified system, items such as food, clothing and jewelry were allocated to the consorts by rank.

The empress (皇后)

Imperial noble consort (皇贵妃)

Noble consorts (贵妃)

Consorts (妃)

Imperial concubines (嫔)

Honoured ladies (贵人)

The ever-present (常在)

Those who comply (答应)

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