Ranks of the wives of the emperor

Every three years, young women between the age of 13 to 16 were required to present themselves to the Forbidden City for selection which was called ‘selecting beautiful ladies’. There were two categories for the selection. One was for the daughter of officials whom were called beautiful ladies. These ladies would be inspected. Those who passed the inspection would get a higher rank and would be inspected again. After each inspection there would be women who would be eliminated. Those who passed through all the inspections could then present themselves to the emperor. The emperor and the empress, sometimes also the empress dowager would select the ladies they like and gave them a rank. The second category was for the daughters of commoners. They were called in to become palace maids. Although palace maids weren’t wives of the emperor, but they were required to stay virgin until the moment they could leave the palace which was usual at the age of 25. 25 was considered very old in those times. Hence, no one willingly wanted to become a palace maid unless their family was very poor.

The ranks of the women in the palace was as follows:

  1. The empres (huanghou): there was only one in the palace. She was the main/official wife of the emperor. She managed the affairs of the harem and was considered the owner of the six palaces. She also could command 10 palace maids and has her own palace. Usually, the emperor married her not because of love but because of her family’s power. However, only she could be buried next to the emperor in the imperial tomb.
  1. The imperial noble consort (huangguifei): there was also one in the palace. She was only ranked second to the empress. She could command 8 palace maids. She also had her own palace. Usually, she was the one the emperor loved the most.
  1. Noble consort (guifei): there were two in the palace. They could command 8 palace maids and had their own palace.
  1. Consorts (fei): 4 in the harem.
  • Gui: noble
  • Xian: virtuous
  • Shu: kind and gentle
  • De: moral

All of them could command 6 palace maids and had their own palaces.

  1. Imperial concubines (pin) : 6 in the harem. They also had 6 palace maids, but don’t have their own palaces. They live together in one palace.
  1. Noble ladies (guiren): unlimited number in the imperial harem. They could have 4 palace maids and also share one palace with each other.
  1. First class female attendant (Changzai): unlimited number in the harem. They could have 3 palace maids and also share a palace with each other.
  1. Second class female attendant (daying): unlimited number in the harem. They could have 2 palace maids and share a palace with each other.
  1. Beautiful ladies (meiren): unlimited in number in the harem. They could have 2 palace maids and share a palace with each other.
  1. Talented ladies(cairen): unlimited number in the palace. They also could have 2 palace maids and share a palace with each other.

Ranks of the wives of the prince of first rank and also the crown prince.

  1. Wangfei: main wife/consort of the prince of first rank. Crown princess was the main wife of a crown prince. Their children were the legitimate children and would most likely inherit everything.
  2. Cefei: side concubine. A prince could have two side concubines, but their children wouldn’t be registered. When they married to the prince, they weren’t allowed to wear red. Red was only for the main wife. They also weren’t allowed to marry through the front door. They were carried in through the side door.
  3. Shiqie: unlimited number. There’s no wedding ceremony here.
  4. Tongfang: lowest rank of a concubine. Usually maids whom the prince took a fancy on.

    See also Ranks in China