We still get calls for more female leadership in the world because women are supposedly so caring and peace-loving – although the record of female-dominated societies like the Iroquois and the Tlingit give the lie to that – when the truth is that power is power and it has the same effect on everyone who wields it irrespective of genitalia, gender or sexuality. The 2001 Chinese miniseries “The Legend of Zhen Huan” or “Empresses in the Palace” illustrates this truth very bluntly.
It is China’s answer to the princess culture. The series is set in the 1720s in the Imperial Harem, during the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor. In continuity with imperial tradition from previous dynasties, the Qing emperors chose concubines from ranking families and promoted them to consort if they pleased the emperor and empress if they produced sons. These daughters of noble families were in fact the princesses of this society since the emperor could hardly marry foreign women and anyone he would marry would be of a lower rank anyway – foreign kings were not on par with emperors – so why not marry cultured and refined young women?
So while sons of these scholar official families spent their youth studying for the Imperial Examinations to be appointed to office and advance their families’ interests, their sisters were studying all the accomplishments that made then marriageable at that level. Becoming a concubine , maybe a consort or even an empress, was just as much a political play as nabbing a rich governorship or important post at court.
This plays out in the series. The story is told from Zhen Huan’s perspective, one of the young women audition for concubine in the first episode, and eventually it becomes clear how closely politics in the harem and in the government were linked:
“At the beginning, she was well-loved by Emperor, which brought her the jealousy and the treacheries of the royal harem. As the story progresses, she eventually finds herself caught in the conflicts between the insidious Empress (Ada Choi) and the aggressive Consort Hua (Jiang Xin), who is the younger sister of the heroic general Nian Gengyao……
The Emperor realizes the Nian Gengyao’s plot to usurp him, thus he orders Zhen Huan’s father, Zhen Yuandao, to remove the Nian family, while Zhen Huan also uses her wits to defeat Consort Hua. Soon, Zhen Huan herself is framed and loses His royal favour, and her father is purged in a literary inquisition. With a broken heart and being placed under house arrest, Zhen Huan faints.”
In the first episode Zhen Huan and the other young women”audition” before the Emperor and the Dowager Empress to be selected. imagine having your mother-in-law to be sitting in on a decision like this – well, it was an important matter and bad choices were not an option. First they assemble in a small courtyard, a very first day of school atmosphere, and a rather haughty young woman picks a fight with a low status girl. The audition proceeds, Zhen Huan and the haughty woman are selected and proceed to the hall where they are to meet and make obeisance to the Empresses and the other senior women. having performed this ritual, they pass into another courtyard and wait to be dismissed. the haughty young woman makes some new haughty remark just as Consort Hua and her retinue are coming out, and she hears every word. Worse, it turns out that she is responsible for these new recruits and their behavior and training. First there is a look of shock on her face and then a very satisfied “I’ve got something for your ass” smile replaces it.
A retainer murmurs “This is a beautiful spring, but the red of the apricot blossoms seems a little lacking.”
“You are so right,” Consort Hua answers, “lets’ make up the difference. Inflict the Scarlet Red punishment on her.”
One of the eunuchs who instantly grab her announces in a clipped and professional manner “The Scarlet Red punishment – you will be beaten slowly until the flesh comes off your bones.” And so a daughter of absolute luxury from one of the highest families in China (this was China’s 1%, so I was less sympathetic than I probably should have been) is going to be beaten to death as horribly as possible on the orders of someone she just met for a simple slip of the tongue. Of course all the other new recruits realize with a shudder just how firm a grip Consort Hua has on them.
Such is life at the pinnacle of power in the richest and most populous country on earth at the time. Huge power and wealth are in play and people play for keeps.
The imperial harem is secluded from the world but in no way separate from government or politics. This is not a nunnery or women’s republic(!) or anything of the sort. This is simply politics “by another means”, in a adjunct arena. This is what it looks like when women are in government, and when it comes methods and techniques and intensity of maneuvering, there is no difference between the way that men or women behave.
It’s a soap opera, but it’s a political soap opera. Basically it’s Downton Abbey meets House of Cards, but played at Game of Thrones intensity.
This kind of thing has a deep pedigree. Here’s a little bit of Han Dynasty history, from Wikipedia:
Lü Zhi did not harm most of Gaozu’s other consorts and treated them according to rules and customs of the imperial family. … One exception was Concubine Qi, whom Lü Zhi greatly resented because of the dispute over the succession between Liu Ruyi (Qi’s son) and Liu Ying. Liu Ruyi, the Prince of Zhao, was away in his principality, so Lü Zhi targeted Concubine Qi. She had Qi stripped of her position, treated like a convict (head shaved, in stocks, dressed in prison garb) and forced to do hard labour in the form of milling rice.
….Lü Zhi then had Concubine Qi killed in an inhumane manner: she had Qi’s limbs chopped off, eyes gouged out, ears sliced off, forced her to drink a potion that made her mute, and thrown into a latrine. She called Qi a “human swine” (人彘). Several days later, Emperor Hui [the son of Lü Zhi] was taken to view the “human swine” and was shocked to learn that it was Concubine Qi. He cried loudly and became ill for a long time. He requested to see his mother and said, “This is something done not by a human. As the empress dowager’s son, I’ll never be able to rule the empire.” Since then Emperor Hui indulged himself in carnal pleasures and ignored state affairs.”
Concubine Qi was not Lü Zhi’s only victim. She went after concubine Qi’s 12-year old son, Ru Yi.
“Lü Zhi then summoned Liu Ruyi, who was around the age of 12 then, to Chang’an, intending to kill him together with his mother…”
Chinese politics has always been a blood sport and this series shows reflects that in granular detail. It also shows how little difference one’s gender makes in a struggle with deadly rivals, where you can afford to leave no weapon or deceit unused. Power makes its own demands without regard for anyone’s gentle nature and exacts the same toll from everyone.
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