Women (Wife and Concubines) in Historical China (and historical novels)

For those who want to understand just how lucky Qu Qing Ju really is (and just how much the original Qu Qing Ju failed)

One thing that is special in historical China which might be hard to grasp for those who don’t know is the power of the wife. In Western society, there is a wife and there could be a mistress. Children born of the wife are called legitimate and of the mistress or any other woman are illegitimate/bastard. Commonly, illegitimate children do not have the right to inherit anything.

That’s not how it worked in historical China. For most noble families, the wife had an unparalleled position in many aspects. For example, the household was under the control of the women, either the head of the household’s mother or the wife. Here is where di (born of wife), shu (born of concubine), and illegitimacy come in. A male born to a concubine has a di mother. Under the Confucian philosophy of filial piety, the male’s filial duty is to the di mother first, not his own concubine birth mother. They actually cannot call their birth mother “mother,” only “yiniang.” Even with the children, the order of society is the wife is above the concubine. In a case where a shu son inherits the household after his father died, his di mother would be in control of the household, not his own birth mother. Secondly, most concubines sign an agreement or are sold into concubinage. That contract is held by the wife unless the concubine’s family is of significant status. Concubines are akin to servants/slaves and the wife is one of their masters. There is a saying “favor a qie to destroy a wife”. It is a serious accusation to make because it is against the “order of the world” and could lead to dishonor and loss of an official’s position. The marriage prospects of all the children would be affected – hardly good for the development of the entire clan. Thirdly, only the family of the wife is considered relatives of the family. A marriage is really an alliance of two clans, not just two family units. Both sides get access to the network of marriages of the other family (wives of the male’s brothers, the sisters have to become wives, not qie. And so on for cousins and such). The woman holds considerable importance due to the status of her own relatives. This extends to the status of the wife herself and all her own children. If she is a di offspring, she has relatives to help from both her paternal and maternal family. That is passed onto her offspring. Shu children would only and possibly receive help from their paternal family. All of these children would be put on the genealogy books. For males, they will also receive support and benefits from the larger clan. They are also able to inherit from the father. Di children are entitled to their mother’s dowry which is divided completely dependent on the woman. Concubines do not have dowries, however, so shu children may lose out depending on the circumstances. Children born “illegitimately” or “in the outside room” may not be put on the genealogy books, may not be acknowledged by the father/family, and there is a large stigma and barrier to even attending the exams and improving their circumstances unless the father is willing to help.

So Qu Qing Ju landed in a bad situation but she knows her advantages. She is the eldest di daughter and the wife that was decreed in marriage to Duan Wang. She cannot be taken off her position of wife unless He Heng becomes Emperor and decrees it so. At the same time, he has to be able to do it against the pressure of the scholars and literati as the decree was made by his father-emperor (opposing his father’s decision is unfilial). That’s part of the reason Empress Lu of Han kept her position even though her husband had abandoned her and the children during his escape before he became emperor. Why Yang guifei never became the Empress. Similarly, Wan guifei of the Ming Dynasty also was stuck as an imperial consort and not Empress. Then there was Donggo guifei of the Qing Dynasty. It was extremely rare for a concubine to ever be elevated to a wife (even marrying a new wife after the first one dies requires permission from the first wife’s family. Then the second wife is still considered a concubine to the first wife). The Imperial Palace, as a battlefield for politics and a mechanism for equalizing the court, is widely considered the easiest place for a concubine to ever become the wife, or the Empress.

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15 thoughts on “Women (Wife and Concubines) in Historical China (and historical novels)”

      1. I’m not juli, but I’m having a little trouble with this paragraph: “Here is where di (born of wife), shu (born of concubine), and illegitimacy come in. A male born to a concubine has a di mother.”
        If “di” means born of wife, how can a concubine’s child (should be shu–born of concubine) have a di mother? I’m missing something.
        Another question: Qu Qing Ju, as the wife, could she get rid of He Heng’s concubines?
        Thank you for explaining.

      2. Oh, it means that shu children have two mothers. A di (legitimate) one which is the wife and a shu mother. They are not related by blood but the children can only call the di mother “mother” and their own birth mother “yiniang”. Di children only have one mother, the wife.

        There are seven “crimes” for which a wife can be divorced for. One of them is “jealousy.” Qu Qing Ju could get rid of them if she really wanted to but He Heng can add more in because he holds more power in the household. Also, that would ruin both of their reputations. Qu Qing Ju wouldn’t do that.

  1. Thank you for this very informative post. It really helped me a lot in understanding the animosity, struggles and conspiracies behind novels like this one…

  2. I just finished rereading this post (fascinating stuff!–thank you for writing it), and have one more question.
    You wrote: “The Imperial Palace… is widely considered the easiest place for a concubine to ever become the wife, or the Empress.”
    How does this statement fit in with the examples you gave just above, all detailing situations where the first wife could not be dislodged from the position of Empress even by the Emperor himself (in fear of appearing unfilial, or offending the Court etc.) and where an Imperial concubine–no matter how favored–could never rise to that highest level (of Empress)? Thanks.

    1. Oh … … because it is seen a lot in history. Most of the time, when the Empress passes away, then the Emperor will have to have a new empress. The empress obviously doesn’t have to die of natural causes and if there is a drastic reason (ie. Empress is a murderer, has been unfilial, tried to curse the Emperor.)

      It’s hard to get a “good virtuous” Empress off her position but it’s not difficult if there are “reasons.” Also, if the Emperor says screw it, I don’t care, then he could probably do it.

      1. Yep, I assumed that the key to dislodging the Empress would reside in “finding” (*cough*inventing) some evidence to prove her unfit for the role–or maybe arranging a timely “accidental” death, like you said. Still, I was unclear as to the extent to which the Emperor could freely (i.e., without fear of repercussions from the court) pick an Empress other than his first wife. Like during time periods when men were allowed multiple official wives (in the Qing period?) Does the first wife automatically become the Empress always? It seems so, at least–even if she is childless, which is a bit surprising since wouldn’t that be sufficient reason to demote the Empress and maybe promote a favored concubine (who gave birth to the Crown Prince)?

      2. There is still a difference between the “dafujin” and the “cefujin” among the Manchu. The “dafujin” becomes the Empress if the husband takes the throne.

        Childlessness wouldn’t be an excuse if the other concubines had children since they would technically be her “children.” The childlessness part would come in if she didn’t allow her husband to have concubines (for children) or if this was a poor family that couldn’t support a concubine so the man would divorce her and marry someone else.

    2. If the Emperor doesn’t care for his reputation, he can do it because it is not like the family of the previous Empress can complain to the absolute monarch. But most of the time, the Emperor doesn’t want to be seen as a lusty person bewitched by beauty. For the best example of how to get a concubine on the throne, it would be Empress Wu of the Han Dynasty, the one with the golden house. He demoted his childhood sweetheart and cousin. However, I think he only promoted the next Empress, Wei Zi Fu, after she had a male child.

      1. Ah, okay. I Googled this, and it answered all of my potential questions. Reality sure beats imagination, doesn’t it? Thank you again.

  3. Hello, can this also be applied to wealthy citizens or is it only like this in the emperial court?

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