Chinese Imperial Babes

Whether looking at centuries-old pictures or black-and-white photos from the late nineteenth century, I’ve always been struck by how plain the women are. You’d assume that the imperial concubines must have been great beauties, but more often than not they are hags… sometimes complete growlers! Any thoughts?

Ah, that must have been before Hollywood casting agents were doing the choosing.

It must be hard to look your best when your feet are all smashed up.

Certainly the centuries old paintings must be appreciated given the fact that styles did not incorporate three-dimentional renditions. The nifty method in which space was conveyed, flat-looking, did not enhance portraits.The famous portrait of Koxinga is a good case in point – could you pick this guy out of a group of real people from the painting? Probably not.
As for the old photos, you may be confusing beauty with glamor. Also, photographs were merely visual records (bizarre ones to the Chinese of 100 years ago, no doubt) and the concept of looking spiffy and fashionable for the camera was far in the future.
I am sure that there were serious babes back then just like there are now.

Well, if you look at a photo of Cixi, then I’d agree with the above statment…she was a total hag. But as an art historian, I’ve seen many beautiful women in Chinese painting…not sure if they are accurate portraits though…

Different standards of what is “beautiful” for different times. During the Tang Dynasty, “plump” women were considered beautiful (like Yang Guifei), in the Ming Dynasty, sickly, pail women were considered beautiful (like Lin Daiyu), etc. You can’t use today’s standards or perceptions of beauty to measure this kind of thing …

From Court Life in China, by Isaac Taylor Headland.

[quote]When little Miss Chao had reached the age of fourteen or fifteen she was taken by her parents to an office in the northern part of the imperial city of Peking where her name, age, personal appearance, and estimated degree of intelligence and potential ability were registered, as is done in the case of all the daughters of the Manchu people. The reason for this singular proceeding is that when the time comes for the selection of a wife or a concubine for the Emperor, or the choosing of serving girls for the palace, those in charge of these matters will know where they can be obtained.

This custom is not considered an unalloyed blessing by the Manchu people, and many of them would gladly avoid registering their daughters if only they dared. But the rule is compulsory, and every one belonging to the eight Banners or companies into which the Manchus are divided must have their daughters registered. Their aversion to this custom is well illustrated in the following incident:

In one of the girls’ schools in Peking there was a beautiful child, the daughter of a Manchu woman whose husband was dead. One day this widow came to the principal of the school and said: “A summons has come from the court for the girls of our clan to appear before the officials that a certain number may be chosen and sent into the palace as serving girls.” “When is she to appear?” inquired the teacher. “On the sixteenth,” answered the mother. “I suppose you are anxious that she should be one of the fortunate ones,” said the teacher, “though I should be sorry to lose her from the school.” “On the contrary,” said the mother, “I should be distressed if she were chosen, and have come to consult with you as to whether we might not hire a substitute.” The teacher expressed surprise and asked her why. “When our daughters are taken into the palace,” answered the mother, “they are dead to us until they are twenty-five, when they are allowed to return home. If they are incompetent or dull they are often severely punished. They may contract disease and die, and their death is not even announced to us; while if they prove themselves efficient and win the approval of the authorities they are retained in the palace and we may never see them or hear from them again.”

At first the teacher was inclined to favour the hiring of a substitute, but on further consideration concluded that it would be contrary to the law, and advised that the girl be allowed to go. The mother, however, was so anxious to prevent her being chosen that she sent her with uncombed hair, soiled clothes and a dirty face, that she might appear as unattractive as possible.

The prospects for a concubine are even less promising than for a serving maid, as when she once enters the palace she has little if any hope of ever leaving it. She is neither mistress nor servant, wife nor slave, she is but one of a hundred buds in a garden of roses which have little if any prospect of ever blooming or being plucked for the court bouquet. When, therefore, the gates of the Forbidden City close behind the young girls who are taken in as concubines of an emperor they shut out an attractive, busy, beautiful world, filled with men and women, boys and girls, homes and children, green fields and rich harvests, and confine them within the narrow limits of one square mile of brick-paved earth, surrounded by a wall twenty-five feet high and thirty feet thick, in which there is but one solitary man who is neither father, brother, husband nor friend to them, and whom they may never even see.

When therefore the time came for the selection of concubines for the Emperor Hsien Feng, and our little Miss Chao was taken into the palace, her parents, like many others, had every reason to consider it a piece of ill-fortune which had visited their home. The future was veiled from them. The Forbidden City, surrounded by its great crenelated wall, may have seemed more like a prison than like a palace. True, they had other children, and she was “only a girl, but even girls are a small blessing,” as they tell us in their proverbs. She had grown old enough to be useful in the home, and they no doubt had cherished plans of betrothing her to the son of some merchant or official who would add wealth or honour to their family. [/quote]

The Miss Chao mentioned here was Cixi.

It’s interesting that the concubines were all Manchu.

Why would that be interesting? Sounds quite natural to me as we are talking about the Qing-Dynasty…

Given that the Manchu were but a tiny minority even in the Qing dynasty, that considerably limited the pool of available females. Omnipotent Sons of Heaven the emperors might be, but not in the selection of the scores of their concubines.

And considering that during the Qing there was a sense among the greater population that the Manchu were outsiders and not really Chinese, if the Manchu-only restriction were really enforced that would mean I’ve had more “Chinese” lovers than all the Qing emperors put together. :shock: :smiley: :laughing:

If they hadn’t had that restriction, then they wouldn’t have been able to keep the Manchu blood-line pure (from their perception). As it worked, though, the definition of Manchu was sometimes distorted, and Chinese families of “good standing” that had been given hereditary titles, served the Manchus for years, and perhaps had a little Manchu blood in them, were also supposedly permitted to be chosen as concubines.