Ancient Concubines

The secret life of an ancient concubine

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In many ancient cultures and religious traditions, rulers and elite members of society not only had wives, they also had concubines. Concubines normally served a dual purpose – to increase a man’s prestige through his capacity to produce children and, of course, limitless opportunities to indulge in sexual desires.  Most people associate concubines with ancient China where Emperors were known to have kept thousands of concubines, however, the practice of taking concubines is certainly not exclusive to China.

The practice of taking a concubine goes back thousands of years to the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia and Babylonia where the elite members of society took concubines, many of whom were slaves, however, the first wife always retained a place of primacy in the family. In some city-states, women served as priestesses and held a very high social rank.  Generally, these women did not marry.  In some Mesopotamian cultures, men would visit these women as prostitutes, which society not only condoned, but considered an honourable fulfilment of religious duty, regardless of the marital status of the man.

Concubines and religion

Concubines appeared in the Bible as well. The Israelites often kept concubines in addition to their wives. Wives had dowries but concubines did not and this was the chief method of distinguishing between the two social positions. One of the most famous keepers of concubines in the Bible was King Solomon (1011 – 931 BC), who was said to have three hundred concubines in addition to his seven hundred wives. While concubinage is not acceptable in Christianity today, some Bible commentators have suggested that God allowed men to have more than one wife or several concubines during the period from the Great Flood until the Old Covenant in order to build up the world's population.

In Judaism, concubines are referred to by the Hebrew term pilegesh meaning "a mistress staying in house". According to the Babylonian Talmud, the difference between a concubine and a full wife was that the latter received a marriage contract and her marriage was preceded by a formal betrothal. Neither was the case for a concubine.  Certain Jewish thinkers, such as Maimonides, believed that concubines were strictly reserved for kings, and thus that a commoner may not have a concubine. Indeed, such thinkers argued that commoners may not engage in any type of sexual relations outside of a marriage.

In Islam, taking a concubine was also permitted. Chapter four, verse three of the Quran states that a man may be married to a maximum of four women if he can treat them with justice, and if he is unable to be just among plural wives, he may marry only one woman or depend on his slave woman. Concubinage was considered acceptable as a social need only under certain guidelines.  In ancient times, two sources for concubines were permitted under an Islamic regime. Primarily, non-Muslim women taken as prisoners of war were made concubines as happened after the Battle of Bani Qariza.  Alternately, in ancient (Pagan/Pre-Islamic) times, sale and purchase of human slaves was a socially legal exercise. However, on embracing Islam, it was encouraged to free slave women or bring them into formal marriage.

The historian Al-Tabari calculated that the Prophet Muhammad married a total of fifteen women, though only ever eleven at one time, and had at least four concubines.  All of Muhammad’s concubines were his slaves. According to records, Muhammad used to visit all eleven of his wives in one night.

Concubines around the world

In Ancient Greece, the practice of keeping a slave concubine was little recorded but appears throughout Athenian history. Law prescribed that a man could kill another man caught attempting a relationship with his concubine for the production of free children, which suggests that a concubine's children were not granted citizenship. 

Under Roman law, concubinage was tolerated as the relationship was durable and exclusive. The practice allowed a Roman man to enter into an informal but recognized relationship with a woman who was not his wife, most often a woman whose lower social status was an obstacle to marriage. It was not considered derogatory to be called a concubina, as the title was often inscribed on tombstones.  A concubinus was a young male slave chosen by his master as a sexual partner. Romans did not mark same-sex relations as "homosexual" if an adult male used a slave or prostitute, characteristically a youth, as his passive partner. These relations, however, were expected to play a secondary role in marriage, within which institution an adult male demonstrated his masculine authority as head of the household.

In ancient China, concubinage was a complex practice in which concubines were ranked according to their level of favour with the Emperor.  Concubines’ situation ranged from well-treated pseudo-wives to poorly treated prostitutes.

Consort Title of Qing Dynasty Concubines

Consort Title of Qing Dynasty Concubines. Photo Credit

A concubine could improve her situation by producing an heir (although their sons would be inferior to legitimate children), and could rise up the social ladder according to the favour of the ruler.  One example of this was Consort Wu. She was the consort and favourite concubine of Emperor Zuanzong of China. Known for her beauty, she rose to the highest rank that a concubine could achieve. After the Emperor’s wife died in 724 CE, Consort Wu was treated like an Empress by all of the servants living in the palace.  However, others were not so lucky. If a concubine failed to bear children, life often became less pleasant.

The Chinese Emperors kept concubines with them in the Forbidden City and by the Qing dynasty there were around 20,000. The Imperial concubines were guarded by an equally obscene number of eunuchs (men who were castrated) to ensure that they couldn’t be made pregnant by anybody except the Emperor.

In many stories, the concubines were taken by force and sold into their life but this was not always the case. It was not uncommon in some cultures for poorer families to present their daughters to a ruler in order to see if they would be chosen as a concubine. This often served the dual purpose of getting rid of an extra mouth to feed as well as giving their daughter a life of comfort, privilege and protection.

Daily life of a concubine in the Forbidden City

The internal hierarchy was firm and inflexible and consorts would fiercely guard their unofficial ranking and do virtually anything to advance. Jealousy and bickering between concubines was rampant and ensured that daily life was far from a life of pleasant leisure. Spending a night with the emperor was hard to come by due to the high number of consorts available so concubines would compete vehemently against each other.

While in the service of the palace no concubine was allowed to communicate with the outside world, not in person and not even by mail. This ban went so far as to not allow a doctor to enter the palace and see a sick concubine. Her illness would be described and prescriptions acquired and administered according to the doctor's advice.

But there were some situations in which a concubine would leave the palace. Just like the emperor could receive a consort as a gift from a foreign ruler, so could the emperor choose to present one of his concubines as a gift to a foreign ruler. It could however be argued that one prison had merely been replaced by another.

Some consorts were allowed to return to their families with an adequate pension after many years of service. The minimum period to serve was set at five years by the Hongwu Emperor in 1389. Retired consorts were free to pursue a normal life, including marriage and establishing a family. Many consorts too old to be of any further use for the imperial palace chose instead to become employed by in the palace as a maid or pursue a life as a nun.

One of the less glamorous parts of concubinage was the fact that the consorts were considered personal "property" of the ruler. They were his to do with as he pleased, including taking them with him to the afterlife.  In many older tombs of nobles we find the remains of several females of similar or slightly lower age buried close to a single man, a strong indicator of concubinage. The imperial consorts were either executed by palace eunuchs or chose to commit suicide, normally by hanging themselves with a silk scarf or by taking poison.

In the first part of the Ming dynasty concubines were often immolated and buried in separate tombs near the deceased emperor. In a few cases, consorts were buried alive in a standing position -awaiting the arrival of the emperor in the afterlife.

China’s last concubine

As China's last imperial consort, Li Yuqin was enslaved from the age of 15. This was back in 1943, when Pu Yi's empress, Wan Rong, was all but destroyed by opium, his first concubine had divorced him, and a second concubine had died in mysterious circumstances.  The emperor's minders decided that Pu Yi needed a new consort, and he was invited to take his pick from photographs of local schoolgirls. He chose Li Yuqin, who was plucked from her home and told she was going to the palace to learn and study.   The young girl did not realise what awaited her. "Because I thought I went there to study, I even took my school bag. I was very innocent then, thinking I could flee back if I didn't like it. In fact it was absolutely impossible to escape,” said Li Yuqin.

To this day, Li remains benevolent in her judgement of Pu Yi, who was finally released from prison in 1959 and sent to work in Peking's botanical gardens until he died, childless, of cancer in 1967. "Pu Yi has many aspects, he was timid, suspicious, irritable… but as a human being, he also suffered a lot of pain and misery much heavier than the common people's" she said.  Li Yuqin is the only surviving female consort of the last emperor.

While concubinage has been stamped out in many religions and cultures around the world, it still lives on in many countries today.

Featured image: Chinese concubines. Photo credit.

By April Holloway

References

The Role of Concubines in the Ancient World – The Ancient Standard

Ancient Mesopotamian Family Life - By John Brant

List of Muhammad's Wives and Concubines – WikiIslam

Women’s lives in ancient Persia – by Massoume Price

Ming Tombs - Concubines

The Last Concubine – The Independent

Comments

According to multiple sources on the internet, Li Yuqin died 13 years ago.

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