The Ming Dynasty Concubines: A Life of Abuse, Torture and Murder for Thousands of Women
The Chinese Ming Dynasty lasted for 276 years (1368 – 1644 AD), and has been described as “one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history.” This dynasty became a global superpower, undertaking major sea expeditions before Christopher Columbus, and producing books before the invention of the printing press in Britain. While this dynasty was praised for its stability and innovation there was a darker more gruesome underbelly.
The cruelty of the Ming emperors knew no bounds, and was specifically targeted towards the imperial concubines. Some Ming emperors had upwards of 9,000 concubines, many of whom had been kidnapped from their homes and were forbidden to leave their gilded prison except when they were called to the emperor’s bed. Since the barbaric practice of foot-binding was prominent at this time, the hobbled women could not run away or even walk into the emperor’s bed chambers, but instead had to be carried naked to the expectant man.
Official court painting of the Hongwu Emperor (reigned 1368-1398 AD), Ming Dynasty, China. ( Public Domain )
The Obsessive Founder
The founder of the Ming Dynasty was The Hongwu Emperor, and he is considered to be one of the most influential and important Chinese Emperors. Starting out as a penniless monk wandering China, he grew to be one of the most powerful warlords in Asia. In 1368 he commanded the army that expelled the Mongol invaders who had ruled China for a century.
After establishing his dynasty, he adopted the name “ming,” the mandarin word for brilliant. However, his ruthlessness went beyond the battlefield. Behind closed doors he kept concubines confined and subjected them to torture. His pride and jealousy drove him to control every aspect of their lives. In order to continue to control them even after his death, he started the tradition whereby concubines would be killed, forced to commit suicide, or were buried alive alongside the dead emperor. Both Yongle and the Hongxi Emperor, two of The Hongwu Emperor’s successors, continued this gruesome tradition. Thankfully the Zhengtong Emperor abolished the practice in his will in 1464, so the concubines of the other emperors only had to fear loss of favour instead of the loss of their life.
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Mass Slaughter in the Forbidden City
The Yongle Emperor is famous for creating a second capital for China, besides Nanjing, and named it Beijing as it is still called today. Here he built “The Forbidden City,” the imperial Chinese Palace at Beijing, which lasted from 1420- 1912. His reign provided a mix of military, economic, and educational reforms in his dictatorial style of government. However, his acts of cruelty were numerous and well documented. In 1421, shortly after Yongle unveiled the Forbidden City on New Years Day, there were rumors that one of the emperor’s favourite concubines had committed suicide because she had an affair with a palace eunuch due to the emperor’s impotence.
Panorama view of the Forbidden City, Beijing, built by Yongle Emperor, 1420 AD ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Humiliated, the emperor set to work silencing all that knew of the situation as well as everyone involved. He told the rest of the palace that the concubine in question had been poisoned, he then rounded up 2,800 women from this harem and had them all executed by slicing. In this mass execution girls as young as 12 years old were put to death. While there is no mention of this massacre in the official record, a written account exists from another one of his concubines, Lady Cui, who had been away from the palace at the time. Shortly after, Lady Cui as well as 15 of the emperor’s remaining concubines were hung from white silk nooses in the halls of the Forbidden City on the day of Yongle’s funeral.
The tenth Ming ruler, Zhengde, who ascended in 1505, grew tired of concubines and was obsessed with the life of an ordinary citizen. He would slip out in the night, in disguise, and frequent local brothels. However, this did not stop him from collecting so many concubines that, it is said, many starved to death as there was not enough food to feed them or room to house them. Many historians claim that it was Zhengde’s rule that led to the downfall of the Ming Dynasty. His successor Jiajing was obsessed with finding an elixir for provide him with eternal life and he believed the key ingredient in this elixir to be the menstrual blood of virgins. During his reign, he ordered that thousands of girls should be rounded up and taken to the Forbidden City to be “harvested.” To ensure that their bodies were pure, their diets were restricted to mulberries and dew. Many died from starvation due to this cruel diet. But in 1542, a group of 16 concubines fought back. Their attempt to bring down the violent Emperor became known as the Renyin Plot.
The alace women took action on a night that the emperor spent in the chambers of his favouite concubine, the Consort Duan (known also as Lady Cao). After the concubine withdrew with her attendants, the emperor was left alone, and the palace women took the opportunity to attack. The women held down the emperor while one concubine tried to strangle him with a ribbon from her hair. When this failed, they tied a silk curtain cord around his neck but unfortunately tied the wrong kind of knot and were not able to tighten the noose to finish the job. One of the conspirators panicked and reported the assassination attempt to Empress Fang. As the emperor was unconscious till the next afternoon, the Empress took matters into her own hand, and tragically, had the palace women executed by ‘slow-slicing’, known also as ‘death by a thousand cuts’. The families of these women were also executed.
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The One Good Ming
Amongst the cruelty, there was one Ming emperor that limited his philandering and was never documented as being cruel to the members of his palace. Hongzi, ninth Ming emperor and father of Zhengde, saw the kind of life that came from multiple marriages, thousands of concubines, and cruelty towards all. His father, Emperor Chenghua, was obsessed with pornography and neglected his throne allowing eunuchs to wield immense power. Hongzhi’s mother, a consort named Lady Ji, was murdered at the hands of the child-less favourite concubine, Lady Wan, out of jealousy over Chenghua being named Hongzhi’s heir. Prior to this Lady Wan had murdered as many of the Emperor’s children as she could find, often killing the mothers as well in an attempt to gain favour for her never-to-be-born son. As such, Chenghua saw the damage that could come from having too many concubines and giving them power and prominence within the imperial house. As such, he only has two empresses, one after the other, and there is no documentation to suggest that he was as violent, torturous, or evil as any of the other Ming Emperors.
Feature Image: Chinese concubines. Credit: GameBBS.zol.com.cn
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