Women and the Family in Chinese History

By Patricia Buckley Ebrey | Go to book overview

8
Rethinking the imperial harem
Why were there so many palace women?*

Chinese emperors, from the First Emperor of Qin (r. 221–206 BC) on, surrounded themselves with attractive young women. Many let the number of palace ladies increase unchecked until it reached several thousand. These women (in Chinese called shinü, yushi, gongren, gongnü, or the like) were potential mates, young and unmarried, kept on only as long as they were considered sexually desirable. They formed a huge pool of women available to the emperor, and any he was attracted to could be promoted into the lower ranks of consort if the emperor chose to favor them. Although these women served as palace attendants or servants, they were not recruited, promoted, or retained on the basis of their skill as seamstresses or cooks, but rather for their sexual allure. Despite Confucian criticisms, dating back to the Zhou period, of rulers who let themselves become befuddled by women, no dynastic founder ever proposed refraining from setting up a harem or keeping only two or three women. Even Hong Xiuquan, the nineteenth-century rebel Taiping emperor, who insisted that his followers practice monogamy, ended up with what looked very much like a harem. 1

Why would an emperor want or need thousands of potential mates? A harem numbering in the thousands incurs all sorts of costs – financial, emotional, managerial, and political – that do not seem obviously balanced by greater benefits. To assure an ample supply of heirs, surely dozens of women would have been sufficient. To demonstrate that the emperor was the most powerful man in the country, a couple of hundred would surely have been plenty, since even the richest subjects did not keep more than a couple of dozen concubines. Another strategy historians often use in looking for explanations – the search for origins – is no more enlightening. The first emperor to keep a really large harem, the First Emperor of Qin, was never held up as a paragon to be emulated by all later emperors who wanted the respect of posterity. To the contrary, those who allowed their harem to grow large in the centuries after Qin Shihuangdi did so

____________________
*
Earlier versions of this essay were presented at Beijing University, Harvard University, Seattle University, and the University of British Columbia. Its present form has benefited from the questions and comments received on those occasions.

-177-

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