Women Shall Not Rule

Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to Liao

By (author) Keith McMahon

Publication date:

06 June 2013

Length of book:

310 pages


Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

ISBN-13: 9781442222892

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.—[will] appeal to Chinese history scholars.