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Ranks of Imperial Consorts in China

In Chinese History, polygamy was not prohibited until recent times. As a result, different dynasties have different systems of ranking for their palace's inner harems.

Early History

There exists a class of consorts called Ying (Chinese: 媵) during early historical times in China. These were people who came along with brides as a form of dowry. It could be the female cousin or sister of the bride, or people from other countries (not necessarily from another race).

Worth noting is the fact that during the Shang Dynasty, there were times where two queens reigned at the same period.

The Rites of Zhou contains great details of an imperial consort ranking system. However, as the Rites of Zhou is considered by modern scholars to be merely a fictitious constitution for a utopian society, the system listed in that work of literature cannot be taken word for work. Rather, it offers a rough glimpse into the inner harem during the time.

Ranking System for Emperors

The Rites of Zhou states that for Emperors, they are entitled to the following:

  • 1 Empress (皇后)
  • 3 Madames (夫人)
  • 9 Imperial Concubines (嬪)
  • 27 Shifus (世婦)
  • 81 Imperial Wives (御妻)

A grand total of 121 women. It was suggested that a system (not necessarily resembling the one listed above) was set up to prevent the situation of having two queens.

Ranking System for Others

According to the Rites of Zhou, Feudal Lords are entitled to 9 consorts in total, and cannot marry again after having 9 consorts, which makes for 1 wife and 8 consorts. For other officers, they are entitled to 1 wife and 1 consort. For normal citizens, only 1 wife is allowed.

Qin Dynasty

In the Qin Dynasty, there exists a much simplified ranking system. The Emperor's wife was called Queen (后), and other consorts, should they exist, along with the wives of Feudal Lords were called Madames (夫人)

Han Dynasty

During the Eastern Han period, the Emperor's principal wife was called Empress (后), and consorts were all called Madames (夫人). Within the rank of Madame, there exists a system of sub-rankings.

  • Zhaoyi (昭儀, created during the reign of Emperor Yuan)
  • Madame(夫人)
  • Beautiful Lady (美人)
  • Good Lady (良人)
  • Bazi (八子)
  • Qizi (七子)
  • Changshi (長使)
  • Shaoshi (少使)
  • Jieyu (婕妤, created by Emperor Wu)
  • Kenge (娙娥, created by Emperor Wu)
  • Ronghwa (容華, created by Emperor Wu)
  • Chongyi (充依, created by Emperor Wu)
  • Wuguan (五官)
  • Shunchang (順常)
  • Wujuan (無涓)
  • Gonghe (共和)
  • Yuling (娛靈)
  • Baolin (保林)
  • Liangshi (良使)
  • Yezhe (夜者)

No limits were set on the number of consorts during this time, except for the Queen, which was limited to one.

The principal wife of the Crown Prince was called Consort (妃). There also exists a sub-ranking system for other consorts. They were called Liangdi (良娣) and Ruren (孺人). For grandchildren of the Emperor, their principal wives were called Madame (夫人). Consorts for these people have no titles, and were simple called people of the household (家人子).

When the Eastern Han (or Later Han]] Dynasty bean, the ranking system for consorts was dramatically scaled down, and only four ranks remained. They were Honoured Lady (貴人), Beautiful Woman (美人), Person of the Palace (宮人), and Cainu (采女).

No limits were set for these consorts. This later created situation when more than 20,000 women were living in the Palace during the reign of Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling

Cao Wei

Initial System

During the reign of Cao Cao, a new ranking system, as follows, was created. It expanded during the reigns of Cao Pi and Cao Rui.

  • Empress (皇后)
  • Madame (夫人)
  • Zhaoyi (昭儀)
  • Jieyu (婕妤)
  • Ronghwa (容華)
  • Beautiful Lady (美人)

Cao Pi and Cao Rui Expansions

Cao Pi and Cao Rui further expanded the ranking system with the following ranks.

  • Zhaohwa (昭華, created by Cao Pi)
  • Xiurong (修容, created by Cao Pi)
  • Good Lady (良人, created by Cao Pi)
  • The Honoured Imperial Concubine (貴嬪, created by Cao Pi)
  • The Decent Consort (淑妃, created by Cao Rui)
  • The Decent Concubine (淑媛, created by Cao Pi)
  • Shuncheng (順成, created by Cao Pi, abolished by Cao Rui)
  • Xiuyi (修儀, created by Cao Pi)

This created a final system with 12 ranks.

Jin Dynasty (265–420)

The system in the Jin Dynasty was based on the systems used in Cao Wei and the Han Dynasty, as follows

Madame Rankings

There exists three ranks for Madames.

  • The Honoured Imperial Concubine (貴嬪)
  • Madame (夫人)
  • The Honoured Lady (貴人)

Imperial Concubine Rankings

There exists nine ranks for Imperial Concubines.

  • The Decent Consort (淑妃)
  • The Decent Concubine (淑媛)
  • The Decent Beauty (淑儀)
  • Xiuhwa (修華)
  • Xiurong (修容)
  • Xiuyi (修儀)
  • Jieyu (婕妤)
  • Ronghwa (容華)
  • Chonghwa (充華)

Other Ranks

There exists a ranking below Imperial Concubines also.

  • Beautiful Lady (美人)
  • The Talented Lady (才人)
  • The Average Talented Lady (中才人)

Southern Qi

The Southern Qi, like the other dynasties in the Southern and Northern Dynasties era, inherited the Jin system for their harems, albeit with some name changes.

Initial Ranking System

At the ascension of Emperor Gao to the throne, the Minister for Ceremonies (禮司) successfully petitioned the Emperor to establish the following system:

Empress

There was only 1 Empress.

Madames

There were three ranks for Madames:

  • The Honoured Imperial Concubine (貴嬪)
  • Madame (夫人)
  • The Honoured Lady (貴人)

Imperial Concubines

There were three ranks for Imperial Concubines:

  • Xiuhwa (修華)
  • Xiuyi (修儀)
  • Xiurong (修容)
  • The Decent Consort (淑妃)
  • The Decent Concubine (淑媛)
  • The Decent Beauty (淑儀)
  • Jieyu (婕妤)
  • Ronghwa (容華)
  • Chonghwa (充華)

"Scattered Positions"

Three ranks were set aside in what became known as the "scattered positions" (散位)

  • Beautiful Lady (美人)
  • The Talented Lady (才人)
  • The Average Talented Lady (中才人)

1st Expansion

The system was expanded later in Emperor Gao's reign, and added the following new positions:

  • Liangdi (良娣)
  • Baolin (保林)

While the position of The Talented Lady (才人) was elevated to a more prestigious position.

2nd and 3rd Expansion

When Emperor Wu ascended to the throne, the Minister for Ceremonies (禮司) successfully petitioned the Emperor to once again expand the system.

This round of expansion involved elevating the position of The Decent Consort to a category all unto itself, with the following ranks:

  • The Decent Consort (淑妃)
  • The Honoured Lady (貴人)

The new category was just underneath the Queen. In the 7th year of Emperor Wu's reign, the position of ''Zhaorong" (昭容) was created to fill the gap created when The Decent Consort was elevated to an independent category.

Chen Dynasty

Initially, during the reign of Emperor Wu, no specific ranking system for consorts were devised, due to the Emperor's desire to live a simple life. It was only until Emperor Wen's reign did a ranking system came into being for the Chen Dynasty.

The ranking system consists of the following:

Empress

There was only one Empress allowed at any time.

Madames

There were three sub-ranks within this category. Each titles within this rank may be held by only one person at any given time. This did not prevent the elevation of others into the title upon the death of an existing holder of the title in question.

  • Noble Consort (貴妃)
  • Honoured Imperial Concubine (貴嬪)
  • Guiji (貴姬)

Imperial Concubines

Each titles within this rank may be held by only one person at any given time. This did not prevent the elevation of others into the title upon the death of an existing holder of the title in question.

  • The Decent Concubine (淑媛)
  • The Decent Beauty (淑儀)
  • Shurong (淑容)
  • Zhaohwa (昭華)
  • Zhaorong (昭容)
  • Zhaoyi (昭儀)
  • Xiuhwa (修華)
  • Xiuyi (修儀)
  • Xiurong (修容)

Common Titles

There are five titles within this rank.

  • Jieyu (婕妤)
  • Ronghwa (容華)
  • Chonghwa (充華)
  • Chenghui (承徽)
  • Lierong(列榮)

Scattered Positions

Three titles exist in this rank. There were no limits on the number of holders for the following title.

  • Beautiful Lady (美人)
  • The Talented Lady (才人)
  • Good Lady (良人)

Northern Wei

During the reign of Emperor Daowu, the consort ranking system was very simple, and only contained the rank of Madame. However, there existed an unwritten, subjective system of prestige rankings in between the Madames. It was during the reign of Emperor Taiwu did a system of rankings listed below came into force:

  • Empress (皇后)
  • Left and Right Zhaoyi (左右昭儀)
  • The Honoured Lady (貴人)
  • Jiaofang (椒房)

Ranking Reform

During the sinification of the Northern Wei Dynasty, Emperor Xiaowen reformed the consort ranking system to the system below.

  • Empress (皇后)
  • Left and Right Zhaoyi (左右昭儀)
  • Madame (夫人)
  • Imperial Concubine of the Third Class (三嬪)
  • Imperial Concubine of the Sixth Class (六嬪)
  • Shifu (世婦)
  • Imperial Woman (御女)

Northern Qi

In the beginning, there were only three ranks for Northern Qi's consort's: Madame (夫人), Imperial Concubine (嬪), and Imperials (御). However, as Emperor Wucheng ascended to the throne, a system of rankings more sophisticated than any devised before was promulgated.

Empress

  • Only one person may hold the Empress (皇后) at any given time.

E-Ying

There were two positions: Left and Right E-Yings (左右娥英). Only one person may hold each one of the positions at any given time, which means no more than two people can hold positions in this rank.

The Decent Consort

Only one person may hold this title at any given time.

Zhaoyi

There were two positions: Left and Right E-Yings (左右昭儀). Only one person may hold each one of the positions at any given time, which means no more than two people can hold positions in this rank.

Madame

There were three sub-ranks within the rank of Madame (夫人):

  • Madame Hongteh (弘德夫人)
  • Madame Zhengteh (正德夫人)
  • Madame Chongteh (崇德夫人)

Upper Imperial Concubines

There were three sub-ranks within the rank of Madame of the Upper Imperial Concubines (上嬪):

  • Longhui (隆徽)
  • Guangyou (光猷)
  • Zhaoxun (昭訓)

Lower Imperial Concubines

There were three sub-ranks within the rank of Madame of the Lower Imperial Concubines (下嬪):

  • Xuanhui (宣徽)
  • Xuanming (宣明)
  • Ninghui (凝暉)
  • Ninghua (凝華)
  • Shunhua (順華)
  • Guangxun (光訓)

Shifu

There were 27 sub-ranks within the rank of Shifu (世婦), and each title can only be held by one person at any given time:

Imperial Woman

There were 81 sub-ranks within the rank of Imperial Woman (御女), and each title can only be held by one person at any given time:

Scattered Positions

  • The Talented Lady (才人)
  • Cainu (采女)

Northern Zhou

Initially, Northern Zhou only had a system that allows for five madames. However, during the reign of Emperor Xuan, five Empresses were created - unprecedented by Chinese standards:

In addition, there were an innumerable number of consorts in the harem.

Sui

In the beginning of the Sui Dynasty, there existed a simple system of rankings for imperial consorts

  • 1 Empress
  • 3 Imperial Concubines
  • 9 Shifu
  • 38 Imperial Women

There also existed a system of Female Imperial Officers (女官) to manage ceremonial affairs in the harem. The system was based on similar systems in the past.

However, since the Empress at the time, Dugu Qieluo, was jealous of others, no consorts were actually installed.

1st Expansion

After Dugu Qieluo passed away, Emperor Wen expanded the ranks of the consorts to the following:

  • 1 Empress
  • 3 Honoured Ladies (new creation)
  • 9 Imperial Concubines (up from 3)
  • 27 Shifu (up from 9)
  • 81 Imperial Women (up from 38)

2nd Expansion

During the reign of Emperor Yang, the ranking system was expanded yet again, based on systems in the past, to the following.

  • 1 Empress
  • 3 Madames
    • 1 Guifei (貴妃)
    • 1 Shufei (淑妃)
    • 1 Defei (德妃)
  • 9 Imperial Concubines
  • 12 Jieyu
  • 15 Shifu, Beautiful Ladies, and Talented Ladies in total
  • 24 Baolin (保林)
  • 24 Imperial Women
  • 37 Cainu (采女)

Tang

Initial System

During the early ages of the Tang Dynasty, a system based on previous dynasty's systems, as shown below, was used

Empress

Only one person may hold this title at any given time.

Madames

There were four sub-ranks within this rank, which consists of:

  • Guifei (貴妃)
  • Shufei (淑妃)
  • Defei (德妃)
  • Xianfei (賢妃).

Only 1 person may hold each of the titles at any given time.

Imperial Concubines

There were nine sub-ranks within this rank, which includes

  • Zhaoyi (昭儀)
  • Zhaorong (昭容)
  • Zhaoyuan (昭媛)
  • Xiuyi (修儀)
  • Xiurong (修容)
  • Xiuyuan (修媛)
  • Chongyi (充儀)
  • Chongrong (充容)
  • Chongyuan (充媛)

Other Titles

In additions, there were nine Jieyus (婕妤), nine Beautiful Ladies (美人), nine Talented Ladies (才人), 27 Baolin (保林), 27 Imperial Woman (御女), and 29 Cainus (采女).

1st Reform

The first reform of the ranks occurred during the Emperor Gaozong's reign, which creating the following system

  • 1 Empress (皇后)
  • 2 Zanteh (贊德)
  • 4 Xuanyi (宣儀)
  • 5 Chenggui (承閨)
  • 5 Chengzhi (承旨)
  • 6 Weixian (衛仙)
  • 8 Gongfeng (供奉)
  • 20 Shijie (侍櫛)

2nd Reform

The second reform of the ranks occurred during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong, and created the following system:

  • 1 Empress (皇后)
  • 1 Noble Consort (貴妃. This position was originally of equal rank to other consorts. But during the time of Yang Guifei, this position became much more prestigious)
  • 3 Consorts (妃)
    • 1 Huifei (惠妃)
    • 1 Lifei (麗妃)
    • 1 Hwafei (華妃)
  • 6 Yis (儀)
    • 1 Poyi (波儀)
    • 1 Tehyi (德儀)
    • 1 Xianyi (賢儀)
    • 1 Shunyi (順儀)
    • 1 Wanyi (婉儀)
    • 1 Fangyi (芳儀)
  • 4 Beautiful Ladies (美人)
  • 7 Talented Ladies (才人)
  • 2 Shanggong (尚宮)
  • 2 Shangyi (尚儀)
  • 2 Shangfu (尚服)

Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period

During these times, governments were replaced frequently, and as a result, it is difficult for modern scholars to get any solid information on ranking systems during these times.

However, it is known that the Later Tangs uses the following system:

  • Zhaorong (昭容)
  • Zhaoyi (昭儀)
  • Zhaoyuan (昭媛)
  • Chushi (出使)
  • Yuzheng (御正)
  • Shizhen (侍真)
  • Yicai (懿才)
  • Xianyi (咸一)
  • Yaofang (瑤芳)
  • Yiteh (懿德)
  • Xuanyi (宣一)

Whether there were any limits to the holders of these titles are unknown.

Song

Jin Dynasty, 1115–1234

Yuan

During the Yuan Dynasty, the ranking system was at its simplest, and only consists of Empress, Consort, and Imperial Concubine. No limits were set on the number of people who could enjoy the title, so multiple Empresses could exist.

Although the number of ranks were few, there existed a subsystem of ranking by prestige inside the Yuan harem. The tent (Chinese: 宮帳, translated term from Mongolian: 斡兒垛) that a consort lives in often determines their status. These tents often contain multiple Empresses, Consorts, and Imperial Concubines. In the many tents that existed, the first Empress of the first tent is considered to be the most prestigious consort.

Ming

Qing

The Qing Dynasty system was among one of the simpler systems in Chinese history. There were eight categories

  • 1 Empress (皇后)
  • 1 Imperial Noble Consort (皇貴妃)
  • 2 Noble Consorts (貴妃)
  • 4 Consorts (妃)
  • 6 Imperial Concubines (嬪)
  • Honoured Ladies (貴人, Unlimited in numbers)
  • The Present (常在, Unlimited in numbers)
  • The Comply (答應, Unlimited in numbers)

The system was solid, but the number of consorts an Emperor actually had during the Qing era was subject to wild variations. Kangxi Emperor holds the record for having the most consorts with 79, while Guangxu Emperor holds the record for having the least consorts, with 1 Empress and 2 Consorts- a total of just three consorts.

The tradition of ranking concubines ended as the Qing Dynasty was overthrown. However, the practice of giving rank to people who "unofficially" (lives with, but never marry) have more than 1 wife is still widespread. In addition, the term Madame is still used, albeit rarely and only in very formal settings, as an honorific title towards another person's wife in China.

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