3 Tragic Tales From China’s Imperial Harems

Despite the collapse of Imperial China over a century ago, modern-day film and television continue to reimagine and dramatize life in the imperial harems.

Jun 26, 2023By Ching Yee Lin, BA (Hons) History

tragic tales imperial china harems


Imperial harems existed since ancient times and bore witness to the waxing and waning of dynasties. Life in imperial harems was imagined to be one of luxury and comfort. But what did really go on behind closed doors and beneath the glittery façade of the royal titles? Why do the lives of empresses and concubines in the imperial harems remain ever so intriguing to modern audiences? What are some of the tragic tales that most people have not even heard of? From Imperial Consort Yang in the Tang Dynasty (618–906) to Consort Zhen in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), we delve into the less-than-glamorous lives of women in China’s imperial harems.


Tang Imperial Harem: The Beloved Consort Who Was Forced to Die

The Yang Guifei Cherry (Yō Kihi Zakura) by Yashima Gakutei, 1822, via Yale University Art Gallery


Hailed as one of the Four Ancient Beauties of China, Yang Yuhuan – better known by her title Imperial Consort Yang or Yang Guifei – was Emperor Tang Xuanzong’s favorite. The emperor’s love story with Yang Guifei was often described as the start of the end of his empire. Apart from neglecting his official duties in order to spend time with her, the emperor’s favor also expanded Yang Guifei’s influence, leading to severe political complications later. It was said that the emperor first fell in love with Yang Guifei after seeing her emerge from the hot springs with her cheeks moist and flushed. The smitten emperor then proceeded to nullify Yang’s first marriage to his son, Li Mao, in order to make her his consort instead. Questionable as the emperor’s means were, his imperial harem nonetheless welcomed the 26-year-old beauty officially in 745, marking the start of a dramatic tale of decadence, power, and tragedy.


Yang Guifei you huayuan (Yang Guifei in a Flower Garden), 1690–1720, via The British Museum, London


As the emperor’s most favored consort, Yang Guifei lived a life of luxury, often indulging in fine foods and leisurely pleasures with him in the Huaqing Palace. The emperor would even order fresh lychees, especially from faraway places in southern China just for her enjoyment. Often, this involved the use of the diplomatic courier system which was supposed to ensure that official state documents arrived on time. With Yang Guifei’s ability to command the emperor’s attention, her influence grew immensely. By connection, her family members were also given important court roles and deeper relations through marriage were created with the imperial family. In particular, her cousin Yang Guozhong became extremely powerful, replacing the Prime Minister eventually and establishing influence in the court.


An Lushan and his troops attack Emperor by Toyoharu Utagawa, 1770, via ThoughtCo

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In 747, An Lushan, a cunning young general from Turkey rose to prominence through Yang Guifei’s patronage. She had supposedly adopted him as a son, although there were allegations that their liaison was one of illicit romance. With Yang Guifei’s backing, An found an army of 200,000 men at his disposal. Both wielding significant political power, An and Yang Guozhong were soon embroiled in conflict, with An leading a rebellion that would tear the Tang empire apart.


Over the following eight years, the Tang empire was brought to its knees, with nationwide famines and mass slaughters, amid widespread socio-political hardship. As An’s troops closed in on the palace in Chang’an, Emperor Tang Xuanzong was forced to flee south to Chengdu with his entourage and the Yang family. Mid-journey, the disgruntled imperial guards killed Yang Guozhong and two other Yang sisters as they saw them as the root of all the chaos that ensued. The guards refused to continue the journey unless Yang Guifei, too, was put to death – a painful decision the emperor eventually had to undertake.


Emperor Tang Xuanzong and Yang Guifei Playing Flute Together by Yashima Gakutei, 1603–1867, via Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Once the most powerful woman in the Tang imperial harem, Yang Guifei’s life ended tragically in a remote Buddhist temple where she either hanged herself or was strangled by a servant. She was later buried on the side of the road in purple silk without a coffin, a far cry from the traditionally lavish funeral rites associated with Chinese royalty.


The heartbroken emperor continued on his journey, returning a year later to bury Yang Guifei properly. It was said that the emperor never got over the tragic loss of his beloved consort and would often gaze sadly at a painting of her that he had commissioned following his return to the palace. Today, the timeless and tragic love story of Yang Guifei and Emperor Tang Xuanzong is immortalized in countless poems and novels, with the Song of Everlasting Regret (809) by famed poet Bai Juyi being the most iconic. The following lines in the poem reflect the emperor’s longing and love for Yang Guifei after she passed away.


Upon return, the ponds and gardens seemed like old days,

Hibiscus by Lake Taiye and willows by Weiyang Palace.

Her face resembled a hibiscus, her eyebrows willow leaves.

Viewing these, how could he stop the tears down his face?


Ming Imperial Harem: The Consort Who Cried Herself Blind

Royal portrait of Empress Dowager Xiaojing, Ming Dynasty, via History of Royal Women


Known in her lifetime as Consort Gong, the would-be Empress Dowager Xiaojing led a pitiful life that was a far cry from her royal status. Her name was not officially documented, and it was only understood that she was from the Wang clan. In 1578, Wang entered the imperial harem, working as a palace lady to Empress Dowager Xiaoding, the mother of the Ming Emperor Wanli. It was said that while visiting his mother, the young emperor took a liking to Wang and began a relationship with her. Despite their romantic liaison, the emperor was deeply embarrassed by Wang’s existence owing to her lowly palace lady status. When she became pregnant with his child, the emperor ignored her and refused to acknowledge their relationship. This prompted Empress Dowager Xiaoding to confront her son, forcing him to recall the exact date of the sexual encounter, and advise him to marry Wang.


A portrait of Emperor Wanli (1572-1620), date unknown, via The New York Times


In the fourth lunar month of 1582, Wang was officially elevated to Consort Gong and she would give birth to Zhu Changluo, the future Emperor Taichang four months later. Despite giving birth to the first male heir of the imperial family, Consort Gong was not treated any better by the emperor. Not only was she not promoted – as imperial consorts would normally be after giving birth, but Consort Wang also did not receive any gifts or privileges from the emperor. Instead, he continued doting on Noble Consort Zheng whom he was said to love genuinely. Her son Zhu Changxun was favored by the emperor who wanted to make him the heir apparent instead of Zhu Changluo, a deviation from a tradition that led to endless court factionalism and conflict.


Palace of Great Brilliance: Built in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and rebuilt in 1686 (the twenty-fifth year of Kangxi Emperor’s reign [1662-–1722] of the Qing dynasty [1644–1911]), via Palace Museum, Beijing


In the years that she was neglected, Consort Gong was confined to the Palace of Great Brilliance which now serves as a home to royal goldware and silverware. It was said that she would often spend her days crying, so much so that she cried herself blind eventually. Her miserable life would later give the Palace of Great Brilliance the nickname Cold Palace which described desolate palaces of concubines who had fallen out of favor. In 1601, her son Zhu Changluo was finally made Crown Prince after Emperor Wanli gave in to vehement opposition from his court. Even so, Consort Gong – the mother of the future emperor – received no promotion or recognition of any kind. It was only in 1605 when Zhu Changluo’s son was born did Emperor Wanli promote her to Imperial Noble Consort Cisheng.


A painting of the Ming Tombs where the Dingling Mausoleum is located, after 1736, via Library of Congress, Washington


In 1611, the Imperial Noble Consort Cisheng fell ill. When her son Zhu Changluo visited her in her final days, her last words to him reflected a mother’s silent sacrifice: You’ve grown up now. I will die with no regrets. Nine years later in 1620, Zhu Changluo finally ascended to the throne – a sight his mother sadly never lived to see. Unfortunately, he passed away a month later and his son Emperor Tianqi took over the throne.


Emperor Tianqi gave the posthumous title to his grandmother Empress Dowager Xiaojing and reburied her in the Dingling Mausoleum next to Emperor Wanli. After a lifetime of misfortune and sacrifice, one would hope that Empress Dowager Xiaojing could finally be laid to rest in peace in her death. Tragically, during the Cultural Revolution some 300 years later in 1966, Empress Dowager Xiaojing’s tomb was raided and desecrated by the Red Guards in the name of denouncing old traditions. Along with Emperor Wanli and Empress Xiaoduanxian, her remains and belongings were condemned and torched for all to see.


Qing Imperial Harem: The Concubine Who Drowned in a Well

Portrait of Consort Zhen, 1895–1900, via China Global Television Network


Born to the Manchu Bordered Red Banner Tatara Clan, Lady Tatara – the future Consort Zhen – grew up in Guangzhou, a port city in southern China, before she relocated to Beijing when she turned 10. On 26 February 1889, one day shy of her 13th birthday, Lady Tatara was chosen to enter Emperor Guangxu’s imperial harem as Concubine Zhen with her elder sister Concubine Jin. In 1894, they were both elevated to consorts. Growing up in a port city like Guangzhou with ample interactions with the West gifted Consort Zhen an appreciation of new cultures and practices. This would prove to be both a blessing and a curse in the Forbidden City.


With her carefree spirit and bubbly personality, Consort Zhen quickly gained the favor of Emperor Guangxu in the palace. The couple would often spend their time together exploring photography – a Western creation considered by the traditional court as unorthodox. It was said that in 1894, Consort Zhen managed to secretly procure a set of photographic equipment from outside the palace. The photography enthusiast would even dress up and pose for photographs in different clothing, disregarding royal etiquette. Apart from photography, Consort Zhen would also engage Emperor Guangxu in political discussions, often encouraging him to pursue political reforms to salvage the ailing empire. These behaviors, along with her ability to command the emperor’s attention, earned Consort Zhen the wrath of the revered Empress Dowager Cixi – the aunt of the emperor.


Portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi, 1903 – 1904, via National Museum of Asian Art, Washington


In 1894, Consort Zhen and Consort Jin were demoted by Cixi after it was discovered that Consort Zhen had interfered in the civil appointments procedures, which resulted in a series of public scandals. As the Qing empire battled foreign incursions and widespread socio-political unrest, Emperor Guangxu launched the Hundred Days’ Reform in 1898. This comprised political, social, and educational reforms such as modernizing China’s military and abolishing the imperial examination system. Among these was a plot to oust Cixi from power which unfortunately was exposed before fruition. Angered, Cixi launched a coup and placed Emperor Guangxu under house arrest separate from his wives.


The well where Consort Zhen was thrown into in the Forbidden City, date unknown, via China Global Television Network


In August 1900, following the Boxer Rebellion, an Eight-Nation Alliance composed of troops from Germany, Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Italy, and Austria-Hungary stormed Beijing. This forced Cixi and Emperor Guangxu to flee south to the city of Xi’an. It was said that this was also the period when Consort Zhen drowned in a well in the Forbidden City. There were rife but unverified claims that it was Cixi who ordered her to be flung into the well and her body was only retrieved a year later after the royal entourage returned. The well where she died can be found near the Palace of Tranquil Longevity in the Forbidden City today. To this day, the legacy of Consort Zhen continues to live on as the mysterious circumstances surrounding her tragic death fuel persistent rumors.

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By Ching Yee LinBA (Hons) HistoryBased in Singapore, Ching Yee is a copywriter who focuses on the historical and contemporary issues concerning the Singapore society. She holds a BA (Hons) in History from the National University of Singapore and is passionate about topics related to social and cultural history of Asian societies. In her spare time, she enjoys pottery and watching films.