Sunday, 28 December 2014

Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to Liao

Women Shall Not Rule: 

Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to Liao

  • Hardcover: 310 pages
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (June 6, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1442222891

Chinese emperors guaranteed male successors by taking multiple wives, in some cases hundreds and even thousands. Women Shall Not Rule offers a fascinating history of imperial wives and concubines, especially in light of the greatest challenges to polygamous harmony—rivalry between women and their attempts to engage in politics. Besides ambitious empresses and concubines, these vivid stories of the imperial polygamous family are also populated with prolific emperors, wanton women, libertine men, cunning eunuchs, and bizarre cases of intrigue and scandal among rival wives.

Keith McMahon, a leading expert on the history of gender in China, draws upon decades of research to describe the values and ideals of imperial polygamy and the ways in which it worked and did not work in real life. His rich sources are both historical and fictional, including poetic accounts and sensational stories told in pornographic detail. Displaying rare historical breadth, his lively and fascinating study will be invaluable as a comprehensive and authoritative resource for all readers interested in the domestic life of royal palaces across the world.


This survey of the role of women in early Chinese dynastic history succeeds in elucidating patterns over many periods. University of Kansas professor McMahon relies on a variety of sources, including official histories offering a “correct” view of events and unofficial histories, which provide more salacious details. From these, McMahon pieces together brief vignettes, each usually a few paragraphs, about empresses and consorts through the ages. The author acknowledges difficulties with veracity, but aims to document the qualities ascribed to both praise-worthy and poorly-behaved imperial women rather than determine precise historical accuracy. An upright wife is, above all, lacking in jealousy while wives that are vilified are described as “wanton.” Highlights of the book include the story of Wu Zeitan, who described herself as emperor. The book includes scenes of torture, mild pornography, and acts of self-sacrifice. Examples presented over the time span covered here—1250 B.C.E. to 1125 C.E.—may overwhelm general readers, but the book will likely appeal to Chinese history scholars. (Publishers Weekly)

In this book, written with conscientiousness and compassion, Keith McMahon illustrates early Chinese dynastic history from a very unique perspective. Rather than discussing emperors and heroes as in mainstream historiography, Woman Shall Not Rule focuses on imperial ladies—empresses and consorts—in the context of polygamist ancient China with scenes of self-sacrifice, torture and violence, and even mild pornography. . . .In addition to presenting an alternative narrative of Chinese history from about 1250 B.C.E. to 1125 C.E., the author also takes imperial polygamy as an approach to the study of sexual politics in China. . . .McMahon’s narratives of palace women in the context of the royal polygamist family offer many insights when rethinking the roles of imperial women in Chinese history. . . .In addition to scholars in Chinese history, the book could also attract general readers with its vivid accounts of historical women. (Women and Gender in Chinese Studies Review)

The reader will find here a treasure house of ideology, history, and lore about China’s highest-placed and most visible women, the empresses and concubines of China’s rulers, starting from the earliest times of the civilization. Denied formal access to political power and at times indifferently educated, a few palace women managed, for better or worse, to exert great political force. Every famous empress and consort known to history appears here, along with many others whom the author has rescued from obscurity. The women appear mainly as intimate participants in the rulers’ private lives, but some made their way into the public sphere as well, influencing policy, and, in a few cases, commanding the realm. Useful comparisons are made to royal and imperial households in other cultures. McMahon, an experienced scholar of China’s traditional fiction and gender relations, is especially well qualified to take up this ambitious project, one the China field has long needed. (John W. Dardess, University of Kansas)

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