Compiled from Secrets of the
Wet nurses were responsible for suckling the imperial babies. The process of selecting the imperial wet nurses was extremely vigorous. They needed to be young, pretty and healthy. Every three months, a new batch of wet nurses was recruited in order to ensure quality. Initially, an infant would be suckled by a number of wet nurses. But after a while, the wet nurse the infant liked best will be retained to continue feeding the infant until he weaned.
Because princes and princesses were raised by wet nurses right from birth, their emotional attachment to their wet nurses was very strong. Several princes (after they had grown up and become emperor) gave their wet nurses imperial titles and accorded them great respect. For instance, upon ascending the throne, the Ming Emperor Chengzu (Yongle) gave his wet nurse, Lady Feng, the title Lady Virtuous Protector of the Emperor. Having the support of the emperor, a few wet nurses became palace tyrants. For example, Lady Ke, the wet nurse of Ming Emperor Xizong, conspired with the eunuch Wei Zongxian, to corrupt the government.
The palace midwives were responsible for delivering babies, while the palace medical women were responsible for looking after pregnant wives and mistresses. Even these women would sometimes swing their support in their struggle for power in the palace. Chun Yuyan, a medical woman during the Western Han Dynasty, poisoned Empress Xu, the wife of Emperor Xuandi. Chun Yuyan, who was responsible for looking after Empress Xu during her pregnancy, was a close friend of the wife of the powerful minister, Huo Guang. Madam Huo had always wanted her own daughter could become empress and ordered Chun Yuyan to poison the empress soon after she had given birth. Knowing that her refusal to help Huo Guang’s wife would lead to her own death and the destruction of her own family, Chun Yuyan had no choice but to do as she was told. So, she slipped the poison into Empress Xu’s food. Within a day, the empress was dead.