After all the research I finally start to write my own cheesy story about Emperor, Empress and concubines. I would narrate the story in the perspective of the SON OF THE EMPEROR who later ascend to throne after his father’s early death. It makes sense as he would be someone witness all what happened. It is gonna to be a brief story, compared to the 60-episode Chinese drama, but would be sufficient to present all the jewelries in the collection. Story can be altered depending on my final designs.
However this is just the draft so a lot of things I have not made up my mind such as the names of the concubines, emperors, etc.
Before starting the main part, here is some background of my story. The hierarchy of the concubines of Emperor follows the late Qing Dynasty system(Top down):
皇后Queen Consort x 1
皇贵妃 Imperial Noble Consort x 1
贵妃Noble Conosort x 2
妃Consort x 4
嫔Dame x 6
贵人Noble Lady x unlimited
常在Attendant x unlimited
答应Repliant x unlimited
Girls selected from the triennial beauty pageant will start from the title of Noble Lady, skipping the Attendant and Repliant. The contestant of the pageant, before being selected, is called Xiunv秀女.
Chapter 1-Emperor’s new concubines
Every 3 years there will be a nation-wide beauty pageant to select new concubines for the Emperor. The indirect relatives of imperial family, as well as the families of government officials are required to send their daughters when they reach the age of 13. This year, the daughter of official Lee is 13, and thus, is sent to the Palace for the selection. Lee’s mother feels so anxious and reluctant to leave her daughter, as she knows the intense rivalries in the Palace can torture her daughter for the rest of her life. Lee has unparalleled beauty for her age, and mother is sure that her daughter will be selected as Emperor’s concubine. However, my father(the Emperor) is already 38 years old this year–older than Official Lee. Thinking of daughter becoming the concubine of someone that is 25 years older than her, the mother can’t stop sobbing.
Lee, however, shows more excitement than anxious. She has heard so much about the luxurious life inside the Palace. the endless jewelries and delicacies. She wants to be part of it, she wants all the attentions and respect. She has no idea about how she is going to achieve it, she only knows that she will gain what she wants one day.
On the day of departure, Lee’s mother gave her a 簪zan, telling her that she is going to become a lady soon, not a little girl anymore. This Zan has very simple design, as Lee’s family is not well off, and Lee’s mother hopes that Lee can always remember her root and her family.
Finally, 秀女Xiunv Lee is sent to the Palace, together with the daughters from other families. Lee’s mother has also appointed a girl servant for Lee, to take care of her. Among other families there is Xiunv Ou, who is the best friend of Lee. And Xiunv Zhao, who is the daughter of first rank official Zhao, and is a spoilt princess of the wealthy family. Although she was only a 13 years old Xiunv, she can afford to give tips to a lot of servants in the Palace, so as to build up her network. Like Lee, Zhao’s mother also gives her a piece of jewelry. However, hers is much more delicate and expensive-looking, with dangling tassels–a Buyao步摇.
All the Xiunvs were settled in a small courtyard, each is assigned with one room and one servant. Of course, Zhao gets the best room and the most obedient servant. So their life in the Palace starts. None of them have met my father (the Emperor), and all are excited about it.
The first time i see these girls is at the Imperial Garden. They are around the same age as me. I can’t tell which xiunv is from which family, but it doesn’t matter to me, because only those are selected will be my father’s concubine—my step-mother, although as I said, we are at same age.
Soon the selection day arrives. The selection is always very straight forward. Grandma, the Empress Dowager, will hint my dad on who to select. She always favors the girls from her own clan, or from her relatives family. As for the girls from her opponents’ family, they never get selected in the pageant, ending up all becoming the servants in the Palace. That is why, rumor says that those family always send fake daughters to the pageant, so their real daughters will not suffer and become servants for decades. If Xiunvs are not selected by the Emperor, they will be released out of the Palace only after 25-30 years old.
I get to witness all these because grandma wants me to learn about the customs. As expected, Xiunv Zhao is selected first. She is from Official Zhao’s family, certainly she will become my father’s concubine–Official Zhao is so close to grandma. Xiunv Zhao–Or Noble Lady Zhao now, has presentable look. However her attitude is so arrogant. But I guess no one can do anything about it, she has her father, and my grandma as backing, even my father doesn’t like her much, she will have her place in the family.
After the first Noble Lady is selected. the rest is more flexible for my father. As long as they are not from the opponent’s family, my grandma will close one eye. So normally the prettier ones are selected. My father picked this girl, I did not know her name at that time, but she is stunning. Her beauty stands out in all the Xiunvs. On her hair there is a simple Zan with minimum decorations. Later I learnt that she is from Official Lee’s family. After her there is another girl selected, which I did not pay attention to. I am mesmerized by Lee’s beauty, so much that I hope they were selecting girls for me, not my father. I always wonder why father needs so many concubines, he did not have time to meet all of them. I guess some of the step-mothers have not seen my father for years. The Palace is immense, and lonely. I see nothing fun being a concubine, especially when she is not favored by my father. It is just a sad life.
All the Xiunvs beings elected are now Noble Ladies, and they get to move into better place, with better attires and some more accessories. The nect time I see them, they are wearing flowery Chai and Huasheng. Lee is so pretty with her new look, even she was not given the best items. Nevertheless, their Palace life begins and so does my story with Lee.
This article will be briefly divided into the story if Cixi, and the development of Qing hairstyle. However, I could not find resources that clearly linked Cixi’s ranking with her hair style or accessory changes..So you may want to skip the lengthy text of Cixi story if you are just interested in the development of hairstyle.
Empress Dowager Cixi, of Manchu Yehenara clan, was a Chinese Empress Dowager and regent who effectively controlled the Chinese government in the late Qing Dynasty for 47 years, from 1861 until her death in 1908.
She was selected as an imperial concubine of Emperor Xianfeng (reign 1850-1861) in her adolescence. She gave birth to a son, Zaichun in 1856, who later became Emperor Tongzhi(reign 1861-1875) after the death of Emperor Xianfeng, and she thus became the Empress Dowager. Cixi ousted a group of regents appointed by the late emperor and assumed regency, which she shared with Empress Dowager Ci’an(The Empress Consort of Xianfeng). After the death of Emperor Tongzhi in 1874, Cixi and Ci’an continue to attend and monitor state affairs behind the screen(Chinese Custom for Empress Dowager to guide young Emperors) for the new Emperor Guangxu(reign 1875-1908).1881, Empress Dowager Ci’an passed away, Cixi thus became the only Empress Dowager who is controlling the emperor.
In 1898, Emperor Guangxu and Xici had conflicts over the Hundred Days’ Reform, Cixi rejected the, as detrimental to dynastic power and placed Emperor Guangxu under house arrest for supporting radical reformers. Since then, Cixi became the only authority in the court. Although Cixi’s main intention is to protect his country and the Qing Dynasty, she has underestimated the power of foreign invasion and have compromised too much to keep the vulnerable peace. China was on the phase of changing from Dynastic reign to modern China, politics became very complicated and western countries was aiming at China. 1900, the Eight-Nation Alliance invaded Beijing, Cixi together with Emperor Guangxu, escaped to Xi’an. Cixi attempted to create new reform campaign. in 1908, Cixi passed away in Beijing, one day after the death of Emperor Guangxu.
1851: 秀女Xiunv, the contestant for beauty pageant selecting Emperor Xianfeng’s concubines.
1852: 贵人Noble Lady, Sixth Pin, in the nine ranking system. She was given the title “Noble Lady Lan”. Among other chosen candidates were Noble Lady Li of the Tatala clan(Later Consort Li), and Concubine Zhen of the Niohuru clan(later Emperor Xianfeng’s Empress Consort).
1854, 懿嫔 Dame Yi, or Imperial concubine Yi. fifth Pin, one rank higher than Noble lady.
1856, 懿妃 Consort Yi, fourth rank, one rank higher than Dame. She was elevated to this position after giving birth to Zaichun, Emperor Xianfeng’s only surviving son, on 27th April 1856.
1857, 懿贵妃Noble Consort Yi, the rank placed her only second to the Empress Consort among the women within Emperor Xianfeng’s household. Unlike many of the other Manchu women in the imperial hosuehold, Cixi was known for her ability to read and write Chinese. This skill granted her numerous opportunities to help the ailing emperor in the governing states affairs in daily basis. Occasionally, Emperor Xianfeng had Cixi read palace memorials for him and leave instructions on the memorials according to his will. As a result, Cixi became well-informed about state affairs and the art of governing from the ailing emperor.
1861, 圣母皇太后Empress Dowager Cixi. After the death of Emperor Xianfeng in 1861, Cixi’s son Zaichun, Emperor Xianfeng’s only son, ascend to throne and became the new Emperor Tongzhi. As she is the birth mother of the Emperor, she is regarded as Empress Dowager, together with Xianfeng’s Empress Consort Ci’an, who became Empress Dowager Ci’an慈安太后. Both Empress Dowagers are to cooperate in harmony and help the young Emperor to grow and mature together, according to Xianfeng’s wish. Xianfeng also appointed “Eight Regent Minister” to direct and support the future Emperor. However, tensions between the two Empress Dowagers grow as time passes by, and in the competition of power.
1874, Emperor Tongzhi passed away, Cixi appointed the new emperor Guangxu光绪皇帝. Empress Dowager Ci’an passed away in 1881.
1898, 慈禧太后Empress Dowager Cixi. Cixi put Emperor Guangxu under house arrest after his attempt to push Hundred Days’ Reform. After which, Xici became the supreme power of Qing government and started her monopoly. Although from the title of “Empress Dowager”, it did not change since 1861, her power increased greatly after her ‘co-worker’ Ci’an’s death and the house arrest of Guangxu.
As we can see from the chronicle, Xici’s status in the imperial household rose extremely fast. In ten years(1851-1861), she was elevated from a xiunv with no rank, to Empress Dowager, the highest position for women in Qing Dynasty system.
However, Cixi lived in a socially unstable period of time in Chinese History, Qing Dynastic power was threatened and interfered by western invaders as well as the reformers within China. The title of Empress Dowager became less powerful as political situation changed. Qing court was under a series of unequal treaty with foreign countries, and has became a puppet regime.
Compared to Wuzetianhttps://oss.adm.ntu.edu.sg/tzhao002/emperors-wife-hierarchy-part-1-wu-zetian/, Cixi was at a time that China has declined power, while Wu Zetian was building a stronger nation. Both are of equal status by name, however in real, Xici was not as powerful in international aspect. 1905 AD, Sun Zhongshan and his peers established Zhonghua Minguo(Republic of China). Qing Dynasty ended in 1912, with its last emperor Puyi.
Now let’s look at the accessories of Qing Dynasty.
Cixi, like any other girl, pay a lot of attention on her grooming. Even at older age, she still indulged in dolling up herself. Cixi lived in late Qing Dynasty, compared to early Qing, China became much wealthier after Qianlong’s reign(1735-1796). Thus in late Qing Dynasty, the accessories, especially for imperial household, were more luxurious and flamboyant.
One popular hairstyle during Qing Dynasty is 两把头Two Side Bun. This hair style is demure and convenient to incorporate hair accessories onto it. This hairstyle splits hair to two sides, then bun up at the top of the head.
However, as China became wealtheir in mid Qing Dynasty, under Emperor Qianlong’s reign, the original small two side bun is insufficient for women to pile up all kinds of jewelries on their heads. The hair bun became fragile and would collapse at one touch. Thus, a new type of hair accessory emerged–扁方bian fang.
Bianfang is like a very long 簪zan(hair pin), and its flat in shape. Women used Bianfang to bun the excessive hair that could not hold the weight of accessories or the weight of hair itself. It upports the hair and allow more accessories to be added on.
Bianfang is a reflection of status in Qing Dynasty. It is also a symbol of becoming an adult for girls back then, just like 笄ji. Different occasions requires different types of Bianfang, people pf different background wears differently as well.
For example, during funerals wife mourning for her husband, she needs to style her hair in a very loose and effortless way, with a small bone bianfang on her hair. If it is the funeral for father or mother in law, then the woman should place a silver or white copper bianfang horizontally on her head.
For royals and rich families, the material and design of bianfang can be very precious and exquisite. Emperor’s concubines and other noble ladies would purposely reveal the two ends of bianfang, as that is the most elaborated part, to attract attention. Sometimes there will be tassels at the ends of bianfang. Wearing bianfang restricts the movements of head, neck, and shoulder, together with cheongsam and elevated shoes, making the ladies look very demure when walking.
For Manchu girls, the symbolic hairstyle, as we can see from many dramas and movies, is 旗头 Qi Tou, direct translate as flag head.
Interestingly, the elaborated, exaggerated Qi Tou is only developed at the very late stage of Qing Dynasty, after the death of Emperor Xianfeng(the husband of Cixi). Before that, hairstyle was kept simple and small, at special occasions Empress and other imperial household ladies would wear some Chai or the most, 钿子Dianzi.
Women would decorate with some hair accessories such as chai钗 and some flowers. As Bianfang helps to stabilize, there was a trend that more accessories were put onto hair. However, it got out of control as all ladies wanted to show off and be pretty. It went until the extend that Emperor Xianfeng had to officially gave an instruction to the ladies in the Forbidden City that the dressing code should be simple and non-exaggerated, maximum of only two flowers can be worn on hair. If three is worn, there will be punishment accordingly. Xianfeng believed that it is a good tradition and culture to be thrifty even in imperial families. As such, the hairstyle was not out of control at Xianfeng’s reign.
However, after Emperor Xianfeng passed away, the fashions and pursuit of hair started again
And to satisfy their ego and ambition of piling up hair accessories, the Qi Tou became larger and larger.
And it became SOOOOO big that real hair could not satisfy the appetite. So, what the ladies did is, instead of using real hair, they just simply put a black board on the hair bun, to substitute real hair, holding more and more accessories.
as we can see from the above image, Qi Tou has developed to such a exaggerated stage, almost like someone from Beking Opera.
Although Emperor Xianfeng has regulated the use of hair accessories, Cixi herself was a girl that pay a lot of attention to grooming, and I guess that is why after Xianfeng’s death, Cixi came into power and she probably brought back all the fashion and trend of dolling up. As a saying I read somewhere, in hereditary monarchy, where one person has the monopoly, the character of the person is the character of the nation. So I guess Cixi more or less is responsible the development of Qi Tou..
One bizarre thing, although Qi Tou looks so flamboyant and so showing-off, it is actually not restricted to social status. Because in Chinese Manchu tradition,Qi Tou is a casual hairstyle, and should be worn with only casual dress.No matter what social status you are, you can wear it. For formal occassions, ladies should wear Dianzi 钿子 as shown earlier. However, the influence of western culture diluted many of Chinese traditions and Cixi herself sometimes would ‘mix-match’ Dianzi with casual dress, (intentionally or unintentionally we are not sure), and Qi Tou could be seen as a more fashionable accessories, so end up the tradition was not strictly followed. It is said that Qi Tou was seen with formal dress in late Qing Dnasty as well. At the point of time, I guess all the traditions and customs are interrupted by the complicated political situation and people’s pursuit of new things.
What we can say is, for sure, people of better wealth and status are able to afford better hair accessories with more precious material, like gold, high quality jade, ruby, pearls, etc. Empress Dowagers and Empress Consort are able to wear phoenix pattern, abundant of gold, while commoners or abandoned concubines simply couldn’t afford.
The hierarchy of Emperor’s wife can be very complicated across Chinese History. During different Dynasties,the titles of the hierarchy can be very different. Some Dynasties have very sophisticated rankings and categories while others have simplified systems. The rankings of the wives can be equal to political status in the Imperial Court, although they are not allowed to interfere political affairs. Different rankings receives different salaries, daily supplies, accommodations, and the number of servant, etc. And of course, their attire and accessories can be quite different.
Speaking of the most famous women that rise from bottom to the top in power, there are only few to take note on, and each of them are from different dynasties. In fact many Chinese Dramas and movies have depicted their stories, with some imaginations and fantasies. There is one thing we need bear in mind, that all the stories we know about ancient Chinese and stories are derived from historical documentations, which is very limited and simplified in ancient Chinese language. A story can be as short as one sentence. So there are a lot of guessing, imagination, and ‘retouching’ on that one sentence to give an intriguing and complete story. We can only say that historians are trying their best to stick to the truth of history, but no one can be 100% sure about what happened in details hundreds thousands years ago.
What I believe is, art creation itself demands imagination and innovation. It is not a textbook for history student or scholars. As long as it does not go against the overall history, a little bit of ‘retouching’ can add fun to the design. Just like no movie is completely real even it says ‘based on a true story’. With this idea in mind, let’s look at the few famous women that rose from bottom to top power(as the emperor’s wife)–Wu Zetian(The Chinese Empress) and Cixi, the Empress Dowager. I chose these two women because they are no doubt the most famous two ladies, and their stories happened during Tang Dynasty and Qing Dynasty respectively, where the system for choosing the wives of Emperor are comparably refined. In addition, both of them not only rose to the top position for women but also, their power was higher than men at then.
The Story of Wu Zetian 武则天
Wu Zetian is also known as the Empress Consort Wu, Empress Wu, was a Chinese sovereign who ruled unofficially as empress consort and empress dowager and later, officially as Empress Regnant during the brief Zhou Dynasty(684-705), which interrupted the Tang Dynasty(618-690&705-907). Wu was the only Empress Regnant of China in more than four millennia.
She was the concubine of Emperor Taizong(reign 626-649)。 After his death, she married his succesor-his ninth son, Emperor Gaozong(reign 649-683), later officially became Gaozong’s Empress Consort(皇后),The highest ranking of all the wives, in 655. She had considerable political power even prior to her Empress Consort title. After Gaozong’s debilitating stroke in 660, Wu Zetian became administrator of the Court, a position equal as Emperor, until 705.
Her rankings and titles through out the years:
Wu Zetian was born in a rich family, in 624 AD
才人Cairen:637 AD, 14 years old, became the concubine of Taizong, title 才人 cairen, ranking of one of consorts with the fifth rank(五品 fifth Pin) in Tang’s nine-rank system for Imperial officials, nobles, and consorts.
Buddhist Nun: Emperor Taizong died in 649, while Wu did not have any son of his, she had to be permanently confined to a monastic institute after emperor’s death, according to Tang’s custom.
昭仪 Zhaoyi：652 AD, Wu was 27 years old. The son of Gaozong, who became the Emperor after his father’s death, decided to bring Wu back to the palace as his concubine(Although Gaozong was effectively Wu’s step–son) and gave her the title of Zhaoyi, which is the highest ranking of thenine concubines of second rank(二品2nd Pin). Wu progressly gained more and more influence over the governance of the empire throughout Emperor Gaozong’s reign, and eventually she effectively was making the major decisions. She was regarded as ruthless in her endeavors to grab power and was believed even to have killed her own daughter to frame Empress Consort Wang(and later, her own eldest son Li Hong), in a power struggle.
皇后Empress Consort: 655 AD. After the power struggle and rivalries against Empress Consort Wang and Consort Xiao, Wu finally became the new Empress Consort of Gaozong. Later this year, former Empress Consort Wang and Consort Xiao were killed on orders by the new Empress Consort Wu after Emperor Gaozong showed signs of considering their release from arrest. During her years as Empress Consort, she actively gained allies and eliminated officials who had opposed her ascension.
天皇天后Imperial Emperor and Empress：660 AD, Emperor Gaozong suffered from illness and began to have Empress Consort Wu make rulings on petitions made by officials. It was said Wu had quick reactions and understood both literature and history, and therefore, she was making correct rulings. Thereafter, her authority rivaled Emperor Gaozong’s. Slowly, Gaozong became aware of Wu’s increasing power however, he could not stop Wu effectively.
皇太后Empress Dowager：683 AD. Emperor Gaozong passed away, his son with Wu, Li Xian, ascend to the imperial throne, became Emperor Zhongzong. Wu thus became the Empress Dowager, title for the mother of Emperor. However, Zhongzong only had a short 6 weeks of reign. As he showed signs of disobeying Empress Dowager Wu, Wu deposed him and replaced him with her younger son, Li Dan, becaming Emperor Ruizong.
Although Li Dan carried the title of Emperor, Wu was the actual ruler, both in substance and appearance. She did not even follow the customary pretense of hiding behind a screen or curtain, and in whispers issued commands for the nominal ruler to formally announce(垂帘听政). Ruizong never moved into the imperial quarters, appeared at no imperial function, and remained a virtual prisoner in the inner quarters.
称帝 Empress Regnant：690 AD. Wu had Emperor Ruizong yield the throne to her and established the Zhou Dynasty(武周), with her named as the ruler. She gave herself the title 圣神皇帝(Supreme Imperial Emperor).Traditional Chinese order of succession sis not allow a woman to ascend the throne, but Wu Zetianwas determined to quash the opposition and the use of the secret police did not subside, but continued, after her taking the throne.
Removal and Death: by 705AD, Wu became seriously ill. In Febrary, Wu passed her throne to Li Xian, Emperor Ruizong. Ruizong honored her with the title of Empress Regnant Zetian Dasheng(则天大圣皇帝). On 3rd March, Tang Dynasty was restored, ending the Zhou. Wu passed away on 16th December 705,and pursuant to a final edict issued in her name, was no longer referred to as Empress Regnant, but instead as Empress Consort Zetian Dasheng(则天大圣皇后).
Let us look at the attires of Wu Zetian at her different stage of life.
When she was only 14, as a contestant in beauty peagent 秀女, she has very simple hairstyle, with two buns on each side of the head, called 双环重髻 the double loop bun, usually used by unmarried girls, with minimal hair accessories. The hair accessory is Chai钗 (refer to previous post about traditional Chinese hair accessories link:https://oss.adm.ntu.edu.sg/tzhao002/tag/chinese-hairstyle/).
After she was selected by Emperor Taizong and entitled Cairen, ranking fifth Pin, she has better ans slightly more hair accessories. Her hairstyle also changed. Her hair was splited into two sides and shaped like two loops on top of head, called 双环望仙髻 the ‘double loop fairy-watching bun’. This is a very popular style during Tang Dynasty. Her hair accessories now have not only Chai钗， but also Dian 钿, and tassels that resemble Buyao步摇.
When she was called back from Buddhist Temple and became the concubine of Gaozong, she was entitled 昭仪 Zhaoyi, 2nd Pin. It was a great leap in hierarchy. At this stage, her accessories are much more elaborated and luxurious.
In the first picture, her hairstyle is called 盘桓髻 Linger Bun, with all her hair gathered at the top first, then linger upwards, with a flat top. Then decorated with 篦Bi infront(the comb-like accessory), Chai钗(long pin with decorations) and Buyao步摇(pin with tassels) at sides, and some Dian钿(decorative flowery pin).
In the second picture, the hairstyle is same as Cairen style, the ‘doule loop fairy-watching bun’. However, there are more accessories, making her more demure, wealthy-looking, and high class.
The makeup in first picture is also a typical style during Tang Dynasty. It is called 梅花妆 the plum flower makeup, with plum flower motif at the middle of forehead.
Generally at Zhaoyi stage, her accessories are elaborated and flowery, colorful, and still has the youthfulness.
After she took down all her enemies and became the Empress Consort of Emperor Gaozong, her attire became even more flamboyant.
Her hairstyle is called 回鹘椎髻(literal translate as Hui Hu spine bun)
Hair accessories are excessive on her head. Chai, Dian, Buyao, Dian, Huasheng(forehead accessory), mostly golden in color, with some coral. The material are more costly, the amount of material used increased drastically. Also. Phoenix pattern are more obvious. Red and Yellow is the main colors. In addition, only the wife, not concubine, can wear scarlet color, as shown in the picture below.
Finally, she became the Empress Regnant, or the female Empress.
The hairstyle is called 高髻 high bun. the hair accessory is becoming more unisex, with less flowers and a throne same as previous male Emperors, with gold Chai at sides. Gold is the main color, giving the impression of supreme power. As she was already at the age of 67, her accessories are not as flowery and colorful anymore. She is matured ans experienced in handling all affairs of states and life. She did not need to dress prettily to impress any Emperor as she herself is the highest power. She only need to dress LIKE A BOSS.
There are many other hairstyles in Tang Dynasty, I cannot count and introduce one by one. The general trend is the higher position the person is at, the more elaborated one’s accessories will be. The color of gold and red is a symbol of power, and can only be used at certain position. Also, the use of phoenix and dragon pattern is very strictly classified.