According to historical records, each Chinese emperor had a substantial number of concubines. Were they merely there for the satisfaction of the emperor’s lust or were they there for another purpose? 

The RULE of Selecting an Heir to the Throne.

In imperial China, after ascending to the throne, an Emperor was expected to quickly fulfill one of their most important tasks; bear a male heir in order to ensure the continuation of the dynasty. 

Therefore, an enormous harem of women was established to serve for this purpose. Within the emperor’s harem, a clear hierarchy was established. Although the ranks of imperial consorts varied over the ruling dynasties, generally they could be simplified into three ranks – the empress (at the top of the hierarchy), consorts (underneath the empress), and concubines (below consorts). This ranking system supposedly originated from an initiative set out in the Zhou Dynasty called the ‘Rites of Zhou’ or the ‘Liu Xin’. 

The Zhou considered the worship of ancestors as the most important, therefore the man who was in charge of the ancestral rituals would be the patriarch of the clan. For this reason, the selection of the heir to the patriarch was very important to the Zhou and there was only one heir to be chosen at a time. 

The hierarchy of imperial consorts played a crucial role in the management of the inner court and in imperial succession because heirs were ranked according to the prominence of their mothers and their birth order.

The firstborn son of the empress, known as the dauphine, would be the heir apparent to the throne. In the case that the empress had no son, the heir would be chosen among the sons of other consorts and concubines, who were then ranked according to the position of their mothers in the hierarchy.

Previously to this rule, during the succession of the throne, there could be fierce political turmoil and civil wars. This selection method ensured the empire its new emperor so governmental officials and citizens no longer had any doubts about who would be the heir to the throne and the selected young dauphine also benefited from early training in how to become a future emperor.

A typical example is the case of Emperor Xuan of Han and his Crown Prince Shi (the firstborn son of Xuan’s empress). According to historical records, soon after coming to the throne, Emperor Xuan chose Shi to be the crown prince. Furthermore, he regularly instructed the young dauphine to read a lot of books about kingdom management and discussed political policies with him. 

The rule of selecting the heir to the throne was strictly obeyed through Chinese dynasties, helping to keep the smooth imperial succession and maintain the stability of ancient Chinese politics. In general, if the emperor had a number of princes, this rule would always secure an heir to the throne. 

The Consequence of Failing to Produce an Heir. 

So, what if the emperor had no descendants? Many people would think, the emperor had so many wives, how could this happen, but in reality, it was always a risk dangerous enough to threaten the existence of the Han.

Both the Eastern Han and Western Han perished because the emperors failed to produce a male heir. 

In the West, Emperor Cheng of Han bore no son so, at the end of his life, he had no option but to offer the throne to his nephew, who became known as Emporer Ai of Han. As the grandson of the previous Emperor Yuan his claim was strong and he was well regarded as an intelligent, articulate and capable young man. However, Emporer Ai of Han was a homosexual and not long after being crowned, he fell in love with a handsome man named Dong Xian. When the young Emporer was just 24, he died having never produced a descendant, creating an opportunity for Wang Mang, a rebel, to finally and violently take the throne.

The situation in Eastern Han was worse still, this was the dynasty renowned for having the greatest number of child emperors in all of Chinese history. Many emperors during this period died at less than 10 years old, and the only surviving Emperor, Huan also failed to produce an heir. Therefore, his empress had to offer the throne to another prince who was the great-grandson of Emperor Zhang. The new emperor was still young, so the empress became the queen-regent, who gradually took control of the throne, pushing the Eastern Han dynasty into the path of destruction.

The Han Dynasty and The Roman Empire. 

The Roman Empire and the Han Dynasty had a lot of things in common such as their powerful military strength, highly developed societal structures, and flourishing development in art and culture. However, there is one thing that made the Roman Empire very different from the Han dynasty. 

Looking back at the pages of Roman history, we can see countless bloody battles and wars, waged as conquerers but also civilly. One of the main reasons was that the Romans could find no way to solve the persisting problem of imperial succession.

In the history of the Roman Empire, there are many examples of times where rebellious and treasonous plots have been enacted to kill the emperor and arbitrarily crown a new man in his place, or where the heir selected by the king was not supported by the generals, leading to the outbreak of continuous civil wars. Each time a king died or was replaced, it became even more difficult to avoid a bloody battle.

Contrastly however, for the most part, the Han Dynasty successfully managed to maintain its political stability through the smooth succession of emperors. 

Spring morning in the Han palace by Qiu Ying (1494–1552) (Qiu Ying/ Wikimedia Commons/ {{PD-US}})

The truthful purpose of the enormous harem.

Throughout Chinese history, the emperor’s sexual relationships were quite strictly managed. For example, the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties were notoriously restricted in this respect. Legend has it that Emperor Kangxi allowed his eunuchs to record the number of times he slept with each of his consorts and concubines. This action was taken, on the one hand, to ensure that these women became pregnant with the emperor’s children, but on the other hand, to curb the emperor’s lustful desires.

In order to ensure that the emperor would have a number of viable ‘candidates’ for the position of dauphine, a large number of women were necessary to serve him in his harem. So, the huge number of consorts in the emperor’s harem was not there primarily to satisfying his lustful desires but much more importantly to secure the peaceful succession of the dynasty.