Thursday, April 3, 2014

Imperial Harem System in Qing Dynasty

       John & I were enlisted to teach a class of professional adults in preparation for their government test to apply for grants to work abroad. We taught them Oral English for 2 hours a week while another teacher taught them Written English for 2 more hours on the same day. There were doctors, engineers, teachers, marine biologists and surgeons among this class. During one lesson we asked them to discuss in English the characteristics Chinese adults looked for in prospective mates. With a straight face one articulate gentleman said that the first wife should be pretty and the second wife should be a hard worker. I nearly fell over in shock & laughter. But he was dead serious. There are a lot of unwritten rules of relationships in China, and I learned that it was not that long ago that polygamy was acceptable and respectable in China; the modern version of which includes an acceptable arrangement of mistresses.
        Thus, I was interested to hear Maggie's report on the Imperial Harem System. It is a popular theme in TV entertainment today.

"As we all know, sexual discrimination had existed for a long time. And in ancient China, the system of imperial harem was just one of the reflections of the sexual discrimination. 

"This system mainly describes the wives and concubines of the emperor. There was a Chinese idiom which describes this system quite well:  3,000 beauties live in the Inner Court. The Qing Dynasty's system was among one of the simpler systems in Chinese history. There were 8 classes:

1.  Empress (Huang Hou), only one in the imperial harem. Of all these Harem concubines, the empress was on the highest status. In fact, this system was a system of monogamy with several concubines; and the empress was the principal wife of the emperor. She had more power than any other concubines because she could have 10 palace maids.
The Empress
2.  Imperial Noble Consort (Huang Guifei). There was only one such position in the imperial harem and she ranked only second to the empress. The number of the palace maids she could have was 8. But the emperor always shared more love to her than to the empress.
Imperial Noble Consort
3.  Noble Consorts (Guifei) Only 2 in the imperial harem. And each of them could have 8 palace maids.
Noble Consorts
4.  Consorts (Fei). Only 4 in the imperial harem. They are respectively, Gui  means noble, Xian means virtuous, Shu means kind & gentle, and De means moral. They could command at most 6 palace maids.
5.  Imperial Concubines (Pin). Only 6 in the imperial harem. They could have 6 palace maps, too.
Imperial Concubines
The above 5 categories in the Imperial Harem all had their own palaces. [That accounts for all those many, extra buildings that everyone wonders about in the Forbidden City.]  The following three categories of women all lived together.

6.  Noble Ladies (Guiren), unlimited number in the imperial harem. They can have at most 4 palace maids.
Noble Ladies
7.  First Class Female Attendant (Changzai), unlimited number in the imperial harem. And they can have at most 3 palace maids.
First Class Female Attendant

8.  Second Class Female Attendant (Daying), the number of it was unlimited in the imperial harem, too; and they can have 2 palace maids.
Second Class Female Attendant

"Above all, the center of the life in the imperial harem is the emperor. All of the consorts, which were the wives and concubines of the emperor, all tried their best to entertain the emperor. Every day they had nothing to do but strive for the emperor's love, which was really a Chinese tragedy.

"There were two ways of being a consort of the emperor. The first one is by showing herself in the palace (xuanxiu). That means the daughters of some insisters and officers have the chance to go into the palace to show themselves in front of the emperor to attract his attention. Besides, the maids in the palace also have the chance to get close to the emperor to attract tim, which was the second way. Once being selected, the maid could be promoted step by step from Second Class Female Attendant. The number of the palace maids is limited to 2000.  

"The consorts above the Imperial Concubines can live in their own palace. And there are 12 Eastern Palaces. Consorts below the Noble Ladies all live together. The system was solid, but the number of consorts an emperor actually had during the Qing Dynasty was subject to wild variations. The Kangxi Emperor holds the record for having the most consorts with 79, while the Guangxu Emperor holds the record for having the least consorts, with one empress and two consorts, a total of just three consorts. 

"The tradition of ranking concubines ended as the Qing Dynasty was overthrown. However, the practice of giving rank to people who 'unofficially' (lives with, but never marry) have more than one wife is still widespread. In addition, the term Madame is still used, albeit rarely and only in very formal setting, as an honorable title towards another person's wife in China.

"Finally, with the sexual discrimination being eliminated, this system was also abolished."


  1. It takes all kinds to make a world. What a great explanation of a system most of us never have contact with.

  2. Hi, with regards to your pictures as reference, I would like to correct them.

    The picture of the second rank, imperial noble consort, in which the actress is NOT an imperial noble consort. The actress was actually the empress dowager.

    1. hi you really make yourself an idiot here saying this.sorry saying this out. guess all who see your comments agreed with me.

    2. Consorts may be titled either according to the surnames or an honourific name, not solely based on the above four titles. The above scheme only applies to the Qing Dynasty. Concubines need not necessarily start at Second Class Female Attendant. There's a lot more to it.

    3. I would just like to say that the one comment about the imperial noble consort picture is correct. From the show Empresses in the Palace. She actually overthrew the previous empress and then became empress. Thats what that picture shows.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Hello. I think the 'Gui' 'Shu', 'Xian' and 'De' fei are for the Tang Dynasty. Qing Dynasty indeed has 4 feis but they can be freely named. I dont think 'Gui', 'Shu' etc are for Qing, if so won't there be a total of 3 Guifeis for Qing Dy.

    Oh, and I knew I will see Zhen Huan here XD

  4. What is the title for the head companion attendant?

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. I'm really curious... Aside from the difference in the number of palace maids, how does the cosorts (Gui-noble, Xian-virtuous, Shu-kind & gentle, and De-moral) differ with each other? Are they assigned or chosen because they possess such virtues? Thanks in advance!!

    1. it would seem so.
      but like a commentator stated above, the four categories (xian, shu, de, and gui) were abolished by the time of the qing dynasty.

      according to the series, that most of these pictures originate, the emperor gives a title or code name to the concubines he favors. since there's not much information regarding qing palace life in text or online i'm getting MOST of my understanding from this series (empresses in the palace/legend of zhen huan)

      from what i can gather from other palace dramas, the ranking of FEI outside of the qing held those four titles. but it was changed at some point and the concubines were given titles to fit the qualities they possessed that were admired or favored by the emperor.

      so a concubine wouldn't be given the titles of MORAL, GENTLE, VIRTUOUS or NOBLE they might be given something like HUMBLE or QUIET or something if that was their most outstanding characteristic.

      again this is just my understanding from what i've observed in the series "Empresses in the palace"/"legend of Zhen Huan"

  8. I wonder how they could tell apart the two noble consorts(Guifei) from the Gui-noble (Fei) consort. Because see it says two noble consorts but then below them in rank are the four consorts one who is called noble. Kind of odd. This is so interesting!!

    1. they might have a code name of sorts.
      in the series that these pictures come from
      there was duan guifei and Jing guifei. Duan and Jing weren't they're real names.

      in the qing dynasty, like one of the commentators stated that the "gui xian, shi, de, and gui fei were abolished.
      instead, it made it the title of Fei. and their code name given by the emperor upon reaching a certain rank.the codename was usually something that stated an admirable quality of the consort of that position. so, what ever "Duan" means is a naming of her characteristic admired by the emperor. (at least in the series, there seems to be very little information regarding the process in anything we can find online) this same thing was done with the naming of the consorts under the four names listed in the article. the four of them being given the rank that best suited the personal quality of the woman it was given to. (if that makes sense) "this consort is noble... NOBLE CONSORT" "this consort is able... ABLE CONSORT" and so on
      this was removed and so you have consorts named something like "PATIENT consort" or "LUXURIOUS consort" or "HUMBLE consort" what ever the chinese translations of these words with FEI tacked on to the end. as FEI is the title.

      in the series, Duan Guifei was Duan Fei for most of the series until episode 67 of Empresses in the palace/legend of zhen huan. this is a good series if you like palace dramas. you can find it on youtube, with the subtitles in the [CC] settings