You are in: Home » Beijing History » Concubines of Ancient China

Beijing History

See Also

See Also...

Learn Chinese Online

If you're interested in learning Chinese, Beijing Made Easy highly recommends signing up to the *free trial* from Chinese Pod - all you have to give them is your name and email address.

Concubines of Ancient China

Ancient Chinese Emperors sometimes kept thousands of concubines

See also: Er nai – the modern Chinese concubine

Concubines are women who cohabit with men but are not married to them. In ancient China it was common for successful men to have several concubines – the Chinese Emperors often kept thousands. Concubines’ situation ranged from pseudo-wives to poorly treated prostitutes.

Concubines do not officially exist in modern China, but ‘Ernai’ or ‘second wives’ are increasingly common. Unlike in the West, keeping a mistress is not always frowned upon in China. The CCP tried to stamp out concubinage, which they saw as a feudal vice, but among China’s new breed of super-rich businessman, keeping a young, fashionable, spoilt young woman as a mistress can gain you face – which in turn is good for business. Concubinage was not abolished in Hong Kong until 1971.

In ancient China position of the concubine was inferior to that of the wife. The concubine was heavily dependent on the nature of the wife, and the favour of her ‘husband’. A concubine could improve her lot by producing an heir (although their sons would be inferior to legitimate children), but this could happen at the expense of the goodwill of the wife. Chinese history is littered with wife-concubine intrigues that often end in murder. Concubines were sometimes buried alive with their master to keep him company in the afterlife.

The Chinese Emperors kept concubines with them in the Forbidden City. By the Qing dynasty there were around 20,000. They served a dual purpose – to ensure the Emperor a very good chance of producing an heir and, of course, limitless opportunities to indulge his more licentious instincts. There was also a very convenient Daoist theory that helped the Emperor justify requiring the favour of 20,000 different women. According to the theory, the Emperor represented the extreme of Yang, and so therefore it was essential for the harmony of the cosmos that he have sex with as many women (women are yin) as possible.

The Imperial concubines were guarded by an equally obscene number of eunuchs (men who’ve been castrated) to ensure that they couldn’t be made pregnant by anybody except the Emperor. Becoming a concubine might not seem like a very appealing career path, but successful concubines became extremely rich, and were able to use their position to promote the interests of their own family. In the classic of Chinese literature ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’, three generations of the Jia family are supported by one favourite concubine of the Emperor.

Perhaps the most successful concubine in China’s history was Yehenala, otherwise known as Dowager Empress Cixi. Cixi first entered the court as a concubine to the Xian Feng Emperor and gave birth to his only male heir. By killing off our outmanoeuvring her rivals (including her own son), she took the reigns of power and held onto them for almost half a century.

There’s a popular Chinese explanation why Chinese men need multiple women but women are expected to make do with just one man: ‘One teapot is usually accompanied by four cups. But have you ever seen one cup with four teapots?’

Recommended Chinese culture articles:

Traditional Chinese Architecture: Evolution and History, Chinese Siheyuan Courtyards

Chinese Religion: How To Tell Chinese Temples Apart, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism

Beijing Arts: Chinese Opera, Acrobatics, Tai Chi, Chinese Gardens

Beijing Society: Er Nai, Lucky Numbers, Chinese Etiquette, Drugs in China

Chinese History: Chairman Mao Zedong, Eunuchs, Chinese Emperors, Ancient History Timeline, Concubines, 20th Century Timeline


Beijing Hotels

Great discounts on Beijing hotels
Beijing Hotels And Accommodation

Beijing hotels – from backpacker hostels to elegant courtyard hotels, Beijing Made Easy gives you the lowdown on where to stay and how to book it – Beijing hotels made easy.

Beijing Flights

Flights to Beijng from around the world
Beijing Flights And Travel

Beijing Flights – flying times and getting to Beijing Capital Airport, flight booking and who to fly with – everything you need to make Beijing flights easy.

Beijing Attractions

What to see and do around Beijing
Beijing Attractions: The Great Wall of China

Wonder at the Great Wall, be awed by the magnificent Forbidden City, drink in the scenery from a boat on the Summer Palace’s Kunming Lake.



Beijing Made Easy Beijing History And Culture Beijing Entertainment Beijing Events Beijing Made Easy Beijing Flights Beijing Food Beijing History Beijing Hotels Beijing Shops And Shopping Beijing Sights Beijing Tourism Guide Beijing Tours Beijing Travel Beijing Travel Insurance Beijing Visitor Guide Beijing Weather Beijing Nightlife Beijing Bars Beijing Clubs Beijing Visitor Attractions