BYU Asian Studies Journal


Emma Nymoen


BYU Asian Studies, concubines, empresses


In official Chinese history, women were the ultimate scapegoat. The downfall of dynasties was often blamed, not on the weak character of an emperor, but rather on the wife or concubine that seduced him and monopolized his attention away from the empire. The accomplishments and influence of women were often erased or downplayed, often twisted in order to paint the women in a dark and problematic light. Emperors were usually isolated in the inner court of the palace to protect them, but in turn this insulated them from the officials and advisors of the outer court and gave the women around them access to the most powerful figure in the nation. Indeed, while the proximity of women in the inner court to the emperors created a natural conduit for power, it was often seen as an outrageous issue that needed to be fixed. The effects of this influence were overlooked and portrayed from the bias perspective of jealous and power-hungry officials. However, this portrayal of women’s access to imperial power as problematic rather than functional is not only prejudiced, but also inaccurate. Understanding concubinage and marriage is essential to understanding women’s only path to power and how the government functioned in early China. These social and political roles can be found in the accounts of the lives of queens, concubines, and empresses since the beginning of Imperial China.