Historical Information

Women in Historical C-Novels and History

The Imperial Family

王(wang): Equivalent to a prince. There are imperial princes and non-imperial princes. Imperial princes are those that can claim a relation to an Emperor, and he, or one of his male ancestors, was a son to the Emperor. Non-imperial princes can occur for a variety of other reasons. There are also rankings within 王 as a major rank.

亲王 (qinwang): the highest rank of wang. Qin means the closest, most intimate, of one’s own.

王妃(wang fei): the wife of a prince, equivalent to a princess. The wife would be called —王妃 according to the title of the 王 she was married to.

公主 (gong zhu): princess. Most princesses are daughters of the Emperor but some noblewomen would be bestowed the title of a princess if they were to be married (or given) in alliance to the ruler of another country.

长 公主 (chang gong zhu): Princess royal or literally eldest princess. A title decreed by the emperor which ranks the princess a rank above normal princesses.

驸马: the husband of a princess, the emperor’s son-in-law.

郡主: a rank below princess. Daughters of wang. Not all daughters can be ennobled, it usually has to decreed by the emperor. Usually the eldest legitimate daughter of a wang.

Imperial Harem Consort Rankings

妃: fei, concubine of the Emperor. Fei is the highest major rank in the Imperial Harem, below the Empress, depending on the dynasty. There are sub-rankings within the fei.

            皇贵妃 (huang guifei): imperial noble fei. Highest position in the Imperial Harem possible under the Empress.

            贵妃 (guifei): literally noble/valued fei. A rank above normal fei.

嫔 (pin): one of the middle ranks. In most dynasties, it is a rank lower than fei.

良娣 (liang di): one of the intermediate ranks.

才人(cairen): lower-ranked concubine of Emperor.

Concubines (in the wang fu)

侧妃 (ce fei): a “side” fei. The woman could be interpreted to be a secondary or vice “wife” of a wang. However, in the dynasty of the novel, the position of the ce fei is not official, and is by the whim of the wang. Consequently, a ce fei only differs from other concubines in terms of the money and treatment she receives. She also isn’t recorded onto the zupu (族 谱) or genealogy of the man she “marries”, essentially meaning she disappears and her children wouldn’t be attributed to her. In other dynasties, such as the Qing, a ce wife has to be appointed by the Emperor, similar to the primary wife, will be recorded on the genealogy books and can have her children under her name.

侍妾 (shique): concubines which are ranked lower than ce fei. They receive less money and have less servants than a ce fei as well as other differences in treatment. Shique that serve wangs and other high-ranked nobility are usually “legitimate” children born of the wife of their father who may be of minor nobility or a lower-ranked official.

通房 (tongfang): The lowest ranked concubines. They usually are of low birth, likely former servants. In the case of shique, while the male wouldn’t hold a marriage ceremony and the woman wouldn’t have a dowry, the man would give some present of monetary worth to the family, similar but not the same as a “bridal price.”

Government Positions

Three Excellencies: Grand Perceptor (太師), Grand Tutor (太傅) and Grand Protector (太保)

These three were the highest ranked officials and closest advisors to the emperor. Also known as the three dukes, or three lords, these three officials were responsible for the government.

Government Ministries: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Departments_and_Six_Ministries

Three major departments: Chancellery (门下省), State Affairs (尚书省), Secretariat (中书省)

Three minor departments, Household affairs (殿中省divided into six departments: food, medicine, clothing, residence, riding, carriage), Imperial Library (秘书省), and Internal Attendants (內侍省, in charge of all personnel inside the palace)

Six Ministries (部): Personnel or Civil Appointments (吏), Revenue (户), Rites (礼), Defense (兵), Justice (刑), Works (工) who each have local ministries under them.

There was a nine-grade (九品) ranking system with subrankings depending on the ministry.

The imperial exams can be divided into different levels but are all administered by the Ministry of Rites. After passing the county-level exams, those scholars could be called 秀才 (xiucai) which come with many benefits, including an allowance and not having to pay taxes.

太监(taijian): eunuchs which are employed by the Imperial Family and hold an official position.

太医(taiyi): imperial physicians. The Imperial Family, and consequently the nobility, were able to employ physicians. The group of doctors may have entered as a result of being from a famous physician family, outstanding study in some field of medicine or rising through the ranks of examinations if they were held. Taiyi is a general title of respect. For many dynasties, the “best” physicians served the Emperor only and were 御医 (yuyi). Yuyi was akin to the dean of an university faculty. Then there were professors, assistant professors, and teaching assistants. All had the general title of taiyi.


Five general ranks: (subranks depend on the dynasty)

公爵 (gong): Duke

侯爵(hou): Marquis

伯爵(bo): Earl

子爵(zi): Viscount

男爵(nan): Baron

There are two types, hereditary (世袭罔替)and normal-hereditary(普通世袭). Hereditary titles are inherited at the exact same rank by the successor. Normal-hereditary means the title can only pass on for a certain number of generations. Additionally, the title falls down a rank each time it is passed to a successor.

府: a house. A 府is the physical representation of the head of the family’s position. A diagram of the traditional type of 府, the siheyuan(四合院) can be seen here: http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Siheyuan_pmt.JPG. This one is a sanjin (三进) or three-entry. It is not the simplest version of a siheyuan. Members of the nobility and the imperial family have more complicated houses according to their rank. There is the front entrance, damen (大门) followed by the second entrance, ermen (二门). The last “entrance” refers to the building behind the zhengfang(正房) which is the main building opposite ermen. The space between the walls with damen and ermen is waiyuan (外院) or the outer courtyard. Behind ermin is neiyuan or the inner courtyard. More complicated siheyuan will have more men or doors which increase the number of total buildings. The zhengfang is the residence of the wife while the side buildings (which can have various names) are for the assorted other women of the husband. Female children when they grow up reside in the building behind zhenfang in more affluent homes and either with the wife or their own mother in smaller compounds. Servants and older male children live in the waiyuan and the male head of the family will also have separate chambers there. The two next major buildings would be dongxiangfang (东厢房) and xixiangfang (西厢房). Those two, along with zhenfang can become yuan (院) usually if they are somewhat independent of each other. A primary characteristic is that each yuan will have its own kitchen.


丫鬟 (yahuan): also can be called丫头 (yatou). These are young, unmarried servant girls. They are the main labor force serving women. Rankings exist among the yahuan depending on what positions their owners give them. The treatment they receive could be something very similar to women of affluent families with others serving them to hard physical labor. The highest rank is first rank or 大(da) yahuan, followed by second, third-rank and heavy labor yahuan.

婆子(pozi): lower-ranked female servant of some significant age. Usually married.

嬷嬷 (mama):old female servants

Social Class

皇室 (huang shi): the Imperial House

良民 (liang min): ordinary people, ordinarily belonging to the four major classes

士(shi): the scholar, the educated class, officials

农(nong): farmers, landholders, does not include workers and serfs

工(gong): artisans and craftsman

商(shang): merchants, business people

贱民 (jian min): below ordinary people. Servants belong to this category of people which could be sold by others similar to slaves. They couldn’t be educated, take the imperial exams or become an official. Even those who might have been freed were still considered to “belong” to the class still. The members could have been sold by their parents, or of their own initiative. Other jian min would have been demoted for crimes.

6 thoughts on “Historical Information”

  1. Wow it’s very detailed and intricate! Thank you so much! I’m really looking forward to the first installments!

  2. Wow, this is an impressive run down. Thank you for the information, and I will be referencing it during my reading.

  3. I watch historical dramas, but after the concubine rankings I lose track of what’s what lol!! Thanks for the superb explanation!!

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