In Imperial China, successful men often had concubines, or sexual partners beyond marriage, who were expected to bear children for the family. Polygamy was legal and having a concubine was considered a luxury for aristocratic families.
It was illegal and socially disreputable for a man to have more than one wife at a time, but it was acceptable to have concubines. In the earliest records a man could have as many concubines as he could afford. From the Eastern Han period (AD 25–220) onward, the number of concubines a man could have was limited by law. The higher rank and the more noble identity a man possessed, the more concubines he was permitted to have.
Concubinage resembled marriage. Wives brought a dowry to a relationship, but concubines did not. A concubinage relationship could be entered into without the ceremonies used in marriages, and neither remarriage nor a return to her natal home in widowhood were allowed to a concubine.
A concubine’s treatment and situation was variable and was influenced by the social status of the male to whom she was attached, as well as the attitude of his 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.
Until the Song dynasty (960–1276), it was considered a serious breach of social ethics to promote a concubine to a wife.
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 a wife’s children.
The child of a concubine had to show filial duty to two women, their biological mother and their legal mother—the wife of their father.
Children of official concubines are legitimate children; Unofficial concubines (婢妾) are of lower status, and their children are considered illegitimate.
The concubines of an emperor are called “consorts of emperors”, an official position often carrying a very high rank.
During the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the status of concubines improved. It became permissible to promote a concubine to wife, if the original wife had died and the concubine was the mother of the only surviving sons.
Lady Yehenara, otherwise known as Empress Dowager Cixi, was arguably one of the most successful concubines in Chinese history.
In Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chambers, 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, develop distorted personalities because they are the children of a concubine.
By Staff Translator