Concubinage is an interpersonal and sexual relationship in which the couple are not or cannot be married. The inability to marry may be due to multiple factors such as differences in social rank status, an existing marriage, religious or professional prohibitions (for example Roman soldiers), or a lack of recognition by appropriate authorities. The woman in such a relationship is referred to as a concubine, and occasionally so is a man in such a relationship.
In ancient China, successful men often had concubines until the practice was outlawed after the Communist Party of China came to power in 1949. The standard Chinese term translated as “concubine” was qiè 妾, a term used since ancient times, which means “female slave”. Concubines resembled wives in that they were recognized sexual partners of a male family member and were expected to bear children from him. Unofficial concubines (婢妾) are of lower status, and children of her are considered illegitimate. In English the term concubine is also used for what the Chinese refer to as pínfēi “consorts of emperors”, some of very high rank.
In premodern China, it was illegal and socially disreputable for a man to have more than one wife at a time, but he could have concubines. At first a man could have as many concubines as he could afford, however, from the Eastern Han (AD 25–220) onward, the maximal number of concubines a man could have was limited by law. The higher ranking and the more noble an identity a man possessed, the more concubines he was permitted to have.
A concubine’s treatment and situation were highly variable and were influenced by the social status of the male to whom she was engaged, as well as the attitude of the wife. In the Book of Rites chapter on “The Pattern of the Family” (內則) it says: “If there were betrothal rites, she became a wife; and if she went without these, a concubine.” Besides, wives were married with dowries but concubines were not. Concubines could be taken without any of the ceremonies used in marriages, and neither remarriage nor a return to her natal home in widowhood were allowed.
The position of the concubine was generally inferior to that of the wife. Although a concubine could produce heirs, her children would be inferior in social status to wife’s children but were still better than illegitimate children. The child of a concubine had to show filial duty to two women, their biological mother and legal mother—the wife of their father. After the death of a concubine, her sons would make an offering to her, but these offerings were not continued by the concubine’s grandsons, who only made offerings to their grandfather’s wife.
In ancient times, concubines were allegedly buried alive with their masters to “keep them company in the afterlife”. Until the Song dynasty (960–1276), it was treated as a serious breach of social ethics to promote a concubine to a wife.
During the Qing China (1644–1911), the status of concubines improved. It became permissible to promote a concubine to wife, if the wife had died and the concubine was the mother of the only surviving sons. Moreover, the prohibition against forcing a widow to remarry was extended to widowed concubines. Tablets for concubine-mothers seem to have been more commonly placed in family ancestral altars and genealogies of some lineages listed concubine-mothers.
Imperial concubines, kept by emperors in the Forbidden City, had different ranks and were traditionally guarded by eunuchs to ensure that they could not be impregnated by anyone but the emperor. In Ming China (1368-1644), there was an official system to select concubines for the emperor. The age of the candidates ranged mainly from 14 to 16. Virtues, behavior, character, appearance and body condition were taken as selection criteria.
Despite the limitations imposed on Chinese concubines, there are several examples of concubines who achieved great power and influence in history and literature. Lady Yehenara, otherwise known as Empress Dowager Cixi, was arguably one of the most successful concubines in China’s history. Cixi first entered the court as a concubine to the Xianfeng Emperor and gave birth to his only surviving son, who would become the Tongzhi Emperor. She eventually become the de facto ruler of Qing China for 47 years after her husband’s death.
A display of concubinage is in one of the Four Great Classical Novels, Dream of the Red Chamber (believed to be a semi-autobiographical account of author Cao Xueqin’s family life). Three generations of the Jia family are supported by one notable concubine of the emperor, Jia Yuanchun, the full elder sister of the male protagonist Jia Baoyu. In contrast, their younger half-siblings by Concubine Zhao, Jia Tanchun and Jia Huan, developed distorted personalities, being children of concubine. Tanchun insisted that the brother of her father’s wife Madam Wang, instead of the brother of Concubine Zhao, is her uncle and strive to be excellent in the girls to overcome her inferiority. Wang Xifeng stated that occasionally nobles seeking marriage would value the bride from her Dishu (being born by wife or concubine) status. Jia Baoyu himself has an unofficial concubine Hua Xiren, whom he had first sexual encounter with, but remain deep spiritual love to his cousin Lin Daiyu and intend to marry her.