Selecting Women for the Qing Imperial Harem
The naming of young women selected for the imperial harem fall into two categories. The first, xiunü (lit:‘elegant’ or ‘beautiful’ females) were selected from the daughters of the Manchu bannermen. The second, gongnü (lit: ‘palace women’) were chosen from the daughters of the Manchu baoyi, the bonservants of Manchu bannermen.
Every three years young women between the ages of thirteen and sixteen were required to present themselves at the Forbidden City for selection. It was the responsibility of the Board of Revenue (Lubu) to send requests to the Manchu banner officials in the capital and in the provincial garrisons who submitted a list of potential candidates.
On the appointed day, these young women were brought by their parents or relatives, together with their clan heads and local banner officials, to the Gate of Divine Prowess—the northern gate of the Forbidden City—to begin the selection.
There were close to three hundred young girls on parade during the initial selection process. Those who passed the initial inspection were called jiming (lit: ‘registered or ‘recorded names’). The young women who passed an initial inspection became registered within the palace and were issued an ID card called liupai (lit: 'keep or retain the card'). During the next five years, they would go through a series of further inspections, checking out their family backgrounds and so on before a desired match was found. Those eliminated during this process were called liaopai (lit: 'turn down the card').
The inspection or review of the women generally took place in front of the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Kunninggong), but inspections could take place in front of other palaces. When any of the emperor’s subjects saw the 'son of heaven,' they were required to perform the customary kowtow, but during the inspection of the palace women, the candidates were not required to kneel which made it easier for the emperor and his mother to view the women.
Pearl Buck in her novel Imperial Woman (1956), recounts part of the inspection process involving a young girl of the Manchu Yehonala clan who was to become the future Empress Dowager Cixi. In this account, the girls passed before the Daoguang Emperor (r. 1820-1850) and Dowager Mother one by one:
The virgins arranged themselves in procession and the tiring women put the last touches on hair and lips and eyebrows. Silence fell upon all and laughter ceased. One girl leaned fainting upon a serving woman, who pinched her arms and the lobes of her ears to restore her. Inside the Audience Hall, the Chief Eunuch was already calling their names and ages, and each must enter at the sound of her name and her age. One by one they passed by the emperor and the Dowager Mother.
The Dowager Empress Cixi was born into the Manchu Yehonala clan in 1835 and entered the Forbidden City at the age of sixteen. She became one of the eight women which made up the hierarchy in the Qing court harem during the reign of the Xianfeng emperor (r. 1851-61). Her attributes were recorded by one court poet:
O beauty Supreme! O brilliant Star
Shining but for the Son of Heaven!
From thy glowing and soul radiate
Love, daring, hope, intellect, ambition, power!
In 1854 she was promoted to the rank of imperial concubine and two years later gave birth to the emperor’s only son and heir and was elevated to the title and rank of Virtuous and Noble Consort (Yi Guifei), moving ever closer to the emperor’s empress Ci’an (lit: ‘benevolent and tranquil’). As the child emperor Tongzhi was too young to rule, these two women ruled literally ‘from behind the screen,’ sitting on thrones covered by a screen behind the emperor’s throne during official audiences in the Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxindian).
Cixi had already passed the most important steps in her stellar rise to rule China: she was chosen during the triennial selection of palace girls to enter the imperial palace, enjoyed royal favor, and most importantly was able to produce a male heir. This and a series of circumstances—the early death of her own son in 1861, the premature passing of the empress Ci’an in 1881, and Cixi’s ‘political wile’ and ‘intimidating personality’ to control the Guangxu emperor—enabled her to rule China until she passed away at the age of seventy-three in 1908.
Details of imperial consorts contained in the Draft History of the Qing (Qingshigao) reveal that women were chosen from Han Chinese, Manchu and Mongol elites. The first emperor of the Qing, Shunzhi, had two Han Chinese women among the nineteen consorts in his harem. The daughter of a Han Chinese official was one of the concubines of the Kangxi emperor. The Yongzheng emperor had a Chinese concubine when he was a prince and granted this concubine an official title succeeding to the throne in 1723.
Buck, Pearl S. Imperial Women, New York: The John Day Company, 1956:11.