Compiled from Secrets of the
was where the emperor and his
family lived. Numerous people worked in the Rear Palace
to serve the imperial family. The lowest-ranked of these workers were the
palace women. They were responsible for sweeping, cleaning and sundry tasks
which kept them busy throughout their uneventful lives, living like caged birds
within the confines of the palace, growing old and eventually dying. Only the
rare minority would be lucky enough to become one of the emperor’s glittering
phoenixes and perch on a higher branch in the pecking order. Rear Palace
The vast majority of the palace women came from among the common people, but all needed to have come from ‘good families’ that were not doctors, witches, merchants or artisans. During the Eastern Han reign, the court would send people out to recruit women from good families in the month of August every year. The women who were selected to enter the palace not only had to be beautiful, but their faces must conform to fortune-telling rules.
It was recorded in The Unofficial Biography of Ming Empress Yian by Ji Yun how the Ming Dynasty Emperor Xizong selected palace women. First, the tall and short, fat and thin would be rejected. Then, the women’s eyes, ears, nose, lips and tongue as well as muscle, skin and hair would be inspected and those who failed to reach palace standards would be rejected. Then, hearing would be tested and those with hearing problems or stammers would be rejected. Finally, they would be asked to walk several paces to inspect their movements, rejecting several more. Those who remained would be sent to the palace to be palace women. According to their personalities, words and actions, as well as the emperor’s preference, a few of these would be selected to be concubines.
Most of the locals did not wish for their daughters to be sent to the palace because the women would lose their freedom. As a result, each time the emperor set out to find palace women from a place, the people would quickly marry off their daughters or flee to another part of the country. Such was the problem for the emperor that before he set off to find palace women, he would prohibit all marriages in the location he was heading for to choose women until after the campaign was over.
Court officials, however, were often eager for their daughters to be taken into the palace as palace women. Unlike commoners, court officials were able to influence the emperor’s treatment of their daughters. This is why most of these girls were given titles upon entering the palace. In order to foster kinship with the emperor, some of the officials would go to elaborate lengths to have their daughters taken into the palace so that they could have the opportunity to win the emperor’s favour. Emperors also sometimes gave away palace women as rewards to ministers or family members.
The future of the ladies who fail to win the favour of the emperor were grim. During the Qing Dynasty, those women who were not chosen by the emperor would be sent away from the palace by the time they were 24 or 25 years of age to be married off. There were also the strange practice of duishi in the palace. Duishi referred to two palace women who became coupled together as ‘husband and wife’, while caihu referred to palace women coupled with eunuchs as ‘husband and wife’.