The Ming Dynasty ruled China from 1368 to 1644. The Ming Dynasty would be known for its trade expansion to establish ties with the West. Equally the Ming Dynasty is also remembered for its drama, literature, and world-renowned white and blue porcelain.
We were told by our guide on that winter’s day in Beijing, China that:
“The most interesting thing was the burial rituals of Ming and Qing Dynasty, that Emperor was buried with his wife, the Empress, and concubines. Sometimes up to 100 concubines. They would be buried alive or required to commit suicide. The exact location of where the Emperor and Empress are buried is unknown. The two gravediggers would have to commit suicide as well as they are not allowed to leave the burial chamber.”
My husband and I have got surprisingly good at not giving any facial expressions, when we hear facts like that due to political correctness, and when one travels so much as we do. We never discuss history and facts about a country in front of locals, in certain countries that can get you into a whole bunch of trouble, especially China. So, when we came back to our hotel, Novotel in Central Beijing… the first item up for discussion was the ancient burial traditions of the Ming and Qing Dynasty. We just could not believe what we had heard, surely it must be wrong or incorrect. Now we are home again after 3.5 years away travelling. We have time to research these facts, and I must admit the guide was right that day in China.
So here are some interesting facts I have found out after hours and hours of research, as this had me of intrigued…
What is Concubine?
The term Concubine comes from Latin term “Concubinatus”, its institution was in ancient Rome, that regulated the cohabitation of free citizens who did not want to enter into a marriage, similar to modern-day civil unions. Concubinage has existed in all cultures in history.
Concubines are women living in quasi-matrimonial relationships; they live together with a married man, but to whom they are not formally married. Concubines had a lower social status than the man or the official wife or wives.
Concubines in Imperial China
The main function of concubinage was producing additional heirs, as well as pleasing males. Children of concubines had lower rights in account to inheritance, which was regulated by the Dishu system.
In places like China, the concubine of a king could achieve power, especially if her son also became a monarch.
Imperial concubines during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), were 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, there was an official system to select concubines for the emperor called Xiunu selection process. The age of the candidates ranged mainly from 14 to 16. Virtues, behaviour, character, appearance, and body condition were the selection criteria. The Eunuchs would leave the palace to go looking for concubines for the general public. No women over the age of 14 were exempt unless she was married or with physical disabilities or deformities.
Having one or more concubines was quite common in imperial China -that is if one could afford it. There were very few life options available for women in imperial China. A woman could become a wife, a maid, a concubine, or a prostitute.
Concubinage was in many cases the only way that a poor woman could achieve financial- and social security if she could not find a husband. And however undesirable, concubinage was still vastly safer than prostitution and with a lot less chance of attracting STD.
The situation did improve for Concubines under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). A concubine could be promoted to wife if the original 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.
The selection process changed during the Qing Dynasty. Concubines were no longer selected from the general public but from the “Eight Banners” families, who were mainly Manchurian and Mongolian.
As previously discussed in my blog “AN IMPRESSIVE PALACE OR PRISON – THE FORBIDDEN CITY, BEIJING, CHINA”, the Concubines would enter the Forbidden Palace via the West or Eastern Gates of the Palace, and never be allowed to leave again. They would have to break off all contact with their friends and family. Their one job in life was to provide the Emperor with sexual pleasures and a male heir. Only on a few occasions did Concubines leave their service to the Emperor, either if they were given as a gift to another country or if they were over the age of 25. Under the rules set by Emperor Yongle, only a concubine would leave after 5 years of service.
Where does the ancient burial rituals come from?
Immolation was a gruesome custom that Emperor Yongle copied from the previous Mongolian Yuan dynasty (1279-1368).
The deceased emperor’s concubines were either killed by commit suicide with a white scarf by hanging or they were killed by the gravediggers by cutting of their throats and buried with him. Some were outright buried alive standing up. The purpose was to follow the emperor into the afterlife and service him there in all perpetuity.
How many Concubines went into the Afterlife with their Emperor?
When the first Ming Dynasty emperor Hongwu died in 1398 forty concubines were forced to commit suicide to follow their Emperor into the Netherworld. Two of them were buried with him and the Empress.
When the third Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongle died in 1424. Not only are Emperor Yongle and Empress Xu were buried in Changling in line with custom in those days, but sixteen concubines were also required to commit suicide. After an honorary feast, they were made to stand on a wooden bed with ropes around their necks after which the bed was pulled away. They were all interred in the tomb.
As was still customary at the time in 1425, 10 concubines were buried in Xianling along with the fourth Ming Dynasty, Emperor Hongxi and Empress Zhang. They were among others Noble Consort Gongsu and consorts Zhenjingjing, Gongjingchong, Gongxishun, Hui’anli and Zhenhuisu. This horrific custom of immolation would survive another few years.
The practice of burying concubines and palace maids alive was stopped when the eighth Ming Dynasty Emperor Zhengtong died at the age of 36 in 1464. He gave the order to cease the practice of burying concubines. It is a custom that has been in place since the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in 1368.
Different burial practices amongst Ming and Qing Dynasty
However, the practice continues under any of the emperors of the subsequent Qing dynasty (1644-1912). They adopted the custom of immolation, whereby the concubines were buried in a standing position, to be prepared to greet their Emperor on his journey to the Afterlife.
This inhuman ancient burial practice and he practice of Concubinage were finally outlawed in China in 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party came to power and in Hong Kong in 1971.