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Religion Flourished Concubinage in Ancient China Essay

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Updated: Nov 14th, 2019


The most prominent religions in ancient china were the Daoism and Confucianism. Daoism sought to instill virtues in human beings while Confucianism sought to show people the right way to live. The people who do not support concubinage could hardly expect it flourish where such religions existed. However, the contrary happened.

The practice of concubine gained prominence in the period when these religions were growing strong. Actually, the followers of Daoism supported the issue of emperors and warlords to have many mistresses and concubines. In those days, concubinage was the status symbol for wealthy men. The concubines who were well maintained portrayed the wealthy of their owners. Daoism as a religion in china underlines the natural existence of the universe.

The doctrine states that one’s spirit should be aligned with that of nature. This is achieved by meditation by an individual to create a connection with nature. Dao believes that every action performed has a counter action. The action must confirm to developments and circumstances of nature. Concepts of Confucianism and Buddhism branch off from Daoism as its philosophical forms.

During the tang dynasty, one of the most important and significant dynasties in china, Buddhism gained momentum, encouraged by empress Wu as a strategy to oppose Daoists. Toward the end of the dynasty, Confucian officials took to the destruction of Buddhist temples. The preceding tang officials made Daoism and Confucianism the state religions.

In ancient china, it was common practice for wealthy men to have concubines, with empires keeping thousands of them. The concubines were allocated eunuchs to protect them and avail them whenever they were needed by ‘their men’. The practice of foot binding was another unusual behavior in ancient china where women bound their feet as a status symbol so that women could marry wealthy men.

Some of these unusual and exotic behaviours became extinct, while some have persisted on to date with some communities known to practice them in isolation.

This research shall analyze the exotic and unusual personalities of china during the Tang dynasty within the framework of Daoism. During this reign, concubines, eunuchs, and foot binding were famous in the country. We shall study factors that led to these practices, the significance of the practices among the people of ancient china, and the impact they have on present day china.

The Practice of Concubinage

Concubines were traditionally the mistress’s richness and powerful men in the society. The practice gained prominence in China in the 20th century. Concubines are women who cohabit with a married man to whom they are not married. In china, it was and still is common for successful men to keep a number of concubines for their sexual pleasure and appeal. The concubine would be inferior to the wife and her happiness with the man depended on the personality of the wife.

Some wives were too strict and un-tolerating to concubines so that they could not be happy with the man. Some were more welcoming and let the concubines be. A concubine would improve her status by bearing the man a son, but he too would be inferior to the man’s legitimate sons1. Concubines.

Concubines could not be kept by all men but only successful men were able to have them. Since the Chinese emperors were wealthy people, they were able to have so many concubines. The treatment that a concubine received was highly dependent on the social status of the man who had her as a concubine. The wife of the man also determined how the concubines of her husband will be treated. However, the concubine was usually inferior and not an equal to the wife.

The children of a concubine did not enjoy the same status as those of the legitimate wife. They belonged to a lower status that the children of the woman who was legally married to the man. Although concubines were not people of high social status in the society, incidents of concubines rising levels of power and influence in China were not uncommon. During the Ming dynasty, concubines resided in the Forbidden City. Eunuchs were given the role of guarding them from any intruders.

They were guarded to ensure that they did not have sexual relations with other men apart from the emperor. This ensured that all children they got belonged to the emperor and not other men. It is believed that among all the concubines that were kept by various emperors in china, Dowager Empress Cixi had the greatest achievements. Some of her achievements include being a senior official in the Manchu Qing Dynasty.

Concubines in the Daoist Theory

This theory was used to justify men and emperors’ need for many different women. The Daoist religion preached harmony and peaceful coexistence among all peoples. The emperor was a representative of Yang who was bestowed upon the responsibility of ensuring harmony among people. In order to achieve this, he had to sleep with as many women as possible as a way of uniting families and clans2.

The concubines were accompanied by eunuchs. The eunuchs protected them from other men to ensure that they were not impregnated by other men. This was a preserve for the king alone. One popular Chinese saying justifying the need for men to have concubines is that one teapot requires four cups, and one cup cannot serve four teapots.

Reasons for Becoming a Concubine

While it may seem to many that being a concubine was not a very privileged position, especially with regard to the many fights that always ensued between concubines and wives, usually ending in favour of the wife. The attraction for concubines was wealthy and riches from the successful men. Those who were lucky managed to amass a lot of wealth from the men to become very wealthy themselves.

A concubine was able to use her position as a favourite to an emperor or influential man in town to improve her family’s status and pursue her own interests. One concubine Yehenala is popular in Chinese history because of her undying ambition that saw her to becoming an empress. She was a concubine to the then emperor Xian Feng. She bore him an only son whom she later killed as a way of eliminating all opposition to her way to the throne. She was empress for almost half a century3.

The Case of Empress Wu Zetian

Wu was selected at the age of 14 to become emperor Taizong’s cai Ren (a Tang concubine). She gained favour before the emperor because of her beauty and intelligence. She ascended to the position of Zhao Yi, a superior concubine with which she was not satisfied. She murdered her daughter and imputed it to the king. With this, she became empress with emperor Gaozong as the emperor. When her husband died, she manipulated the system to become emperor, therefore achieving her imperial ambition.


Eunuchs were recruited from among the poorest households in society. Despite the fact that castrated men were regarded to be inferior to other men, many were attracted to the profession to find opportunities of wealth and power regarding their weak status in societies.

Some eunuchs were castrated as young boys so that their voices remained high to adulthood. These were engaged in singing and acting and were paid less than those in palaces.

Because they were unable to get children, they were considered not considered as threats to the king. They, therefore, were entrusted with crucial roles and powers within the palace. They knew the emperors well, and took advantage to manipulate them and their decisions so that their presence in the palace placed them right in the center of authority4.

During the tang dynasty, the number of eunuchs in chine exceeded that of all other dynasties. During the reign of emperor Xuanzong, eunuchs were appointed to high offices, a practice that was forbidden before. They took this opportunity to manipulate emperors of this era with illicit advices that led to the fall of the emperor to the hands of the once despised eunuchs.

Foot binding

Foot binding was a very common practice in the Chinese culture. The practice involved tying of young girls’ feet tightly to inhibit their growth. It is not clear where the practice but it is believed to have originated from among court dancers. The practice was common among women of high social class as a show of their increased social status. As the practice gained popularity, it spread to all classes and was practiced by most women as part of Chinese culture5.

The practice was highly criticized and considered inhuman by a number of people because of the pain the girls had to undergo while binding their feet. The motive behind the practice was also regarded unreligious. Women who bound their feet did it so that they could alter their walking styles to a more sexually appealing style to catch the attention of men. Despite this opposition by reformers who wished to have it abolished, the practice persisted until the early twenty first century.

The estimated number of women who took part in the practice stands at over a billion between the tenth and twentieth centuries. The reason behind the immense number of women binding their feet was because it was believed to attract wealthy men to marrying women who had their feet bound. For poor women, therefore, this was an avenue to ret to riches as wealthy men could only marry women whose feet were bound.

Dancers were a popular group of women who bound their feet and were recognized internationally. The bound feet made their movements on the dance floor more swift and appealing to those watching.

There were many ways hat feet were bound. Some group did the binding in ways that were less painful while others used the most painful ways. The less painful method involved binding of the feet of young girls whose bones were not yet mature. This way, no bones were broken and the girls experienced less pain. The other method, which was more painful, was done on older women whose bones were harder to bind. In the binding process, their bones were broken and they experience a lot of pain6.

Manchu Women

The practice was vehemently opposed by Islam as it was perceived to interfere with God’s creation and form. Other communities also opposed the practice and forbade their women and girls from engaging in the practice. One such group was women from the Manchu community. Their emperor of 1644 forbade the women and girls from taking part in the practice.

The women, though, still admired and desired the walking style that resulted from bound feet. They, therefore, came up with a type of shoe that would constrict their feet so that their walking style would resemble that of women whose feet were bound. These women could easily be differentiated from the rest because their new shoes7.

The Problem with Foot Binding

Although the practice was well acclaimed for its advantages of getting women to marry off wealthy men, it had a number of limitations on those who bound their feet. The women were not as effective in the fields as those whose feet were free. They worked with a lot of difficult and pain and were much slower than their counterparts.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the practice was widely condemned by missionaries and feminist groups. They perceived the act as oppressive to women and a barbaric act that hindered civilization8.


The practices of concubinage, keeping eunuchs and foot binding were among the most exotic and unusual act in ancient china that received international attention. These practices persisted for a very long time some to the 20th century, and indication of china’s culture of keeping and continuing tradition. All the practices were done with the sole intention of gaining wealth, power and improved status in society. This, therefore, shows Chinese’s love for these three attributes.


Chan, Wing-Tsit. . (Princeton,NJ: Princeton, 2002) pp. 58. Web.

Cooke, Linda. . (New York, NY: Suny Press, 1993) Pp 26-27. Web.

Donna, Jo Napoli. . (Athens: Atheneum Books, 2004). Web.

Feng, Jicai. The Three-Inch Golden Lotus. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994). Web.

Johnston, Alistair. C. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press). Pp 223. Web.

Ju-Chen, Li. Flowers in the Mirror. (California, CA: California University Press, 1965). Pg 99-305. Web.

Mote, Frederick. Imperial China 900-1800. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003). Pp543-545. Web.

Turchin, Peter. & Hall Jonathan. “East-West Orientation of Historical Empires”. Journal of World Systems Research, Vol. 12(2), (2010): 219-229. Web.


1 Chan chinese philosopgy, 234-265.

2 Johnston, Cultural Realism, 223.

3 Cooke, Cities of Jiangnan, 26-27.

4 Turchin & Hall, Historical empires, 219-229

5 Donna, Bound.

6 Ju-Chen, Flowers in the Mirror.

7 Feng, Golden Lotus.

8 Mote, Imperial China, 543-545.

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