What it took to be one of the emperor’s wives in imperial China

Feb 15, 2019

As the most powerful man in the country, the emperor of China had thousands of women at his disposal in the imperial palace.

Most were employed as maids and servants, but a select few acted as concubines whose sole task was to bear children for the emperor—as many as he could father—in order to ensure a viable successor.

These women were chosen from all over the country, and the ones who passed spent the rest of their lives sheltered in the imperial quarters and forbidden to leave.

Most, though, would never actually meet the emperor, instead passing their days in bitter loneliness and jealousy, and fighting for the emperor’s attention .

How women were chosen

The empress was always selected from the family of a high-ranking official, but other concubines were selected from the general population, and the criteria ranged from emperor to emperor.

During the Ming Dynasty, for example, no household was exempt from the process. All young unmarried girls had to go through selection.

In 1621, for instance, the Ming emperor Tianqi sent eunuchs across the country to handpick 5,000 young women aged 13 to 16 to be his wives.

A mockup of the Forbidden City during the selection of concubines.
A mockup of the Forbidden City during the selection of concubines. / Photo: Marcelo Duhalde

During the first round of selection, the women stood in lines of 100 according to age.

One thousand would be eliminated for being too tall, short, fat, or thin.

On the second day, eunuchs intensively examined the women’s bodies, and evaluated their voices and general mannerisms.

Another 2,000 were cut.

The third day was spent observing their feet, hands, and movements (for gracefulness).

Another 1,000 were sent home.

The remaining 1,000 underwent gynecological examinations, eliminating another 700.

The remaining 300 were then housed in the palace for a month to undergo tests of intelligence, merit, temperament, and moral character.

The top 50 candidates were subject to further examinations and interviews about math, literature, and the arts—and were ranked accordingly.

The three favorites received the highest ranking for imperial concubines.

The hierarchy of wives

The emperor’s sexual well-being was believed to be essential to the well-being of the entire empire, so those who gave birth to male offspring were elevated to imperial consorts, with the empress at the top of the pecking order.

Secretaries meticulously managed the emperor’s sex schedule, strictly regimenting the rotation of concubines who slept with the emperor.

The emperor’s sex schedule was based off the cycle of the moon.
The emperor’s sex schedule was based off the cycle of the moon. / Photo: Marcelo Duhalde

The empress and high-ranking concubines had priority. They were given specific nights in the lunar cycle that the Chinese believed had higher chances of procreation.

Lower-ranking concubines, on the other hand, were tasked with simply pleasuring the emperor. They weren’t expected to bear children and slept with him during other nights of the month.

When not entertaining the emperor, the women spent their days sewing, painting, and applying makeup.

Beauty, during this time in China, was more of a curse than a blessing.

Adapted from a piece first published in the South China Morning Post.

Sex and love in ChinaAncient ChinaForbidden City