Empress Wu and Her Male Concubines (Concubinus)
In ancient Chinese history, it has been documented that Chinese Emperors accommodated thousands of concubines. This was also true for the only Empress of China, Wu Zetian, who continued the same tradition.
I mentioned her male concubines (or concubinus) in my first article, but this time we are going to delve further into her relationships with various men during her reign. This may remind you of Queen Elizabeth I in British history and her lovers. As she never married, Elizabeth had relationships with several men, one of the best known of whom was Robert Dudley, who was even suspected of arranging the death of his wife, Amy Robsart, to marry Elizabeth . Comparatively, it may be said that the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian bears some resemblance to this English Queen.
According to The Old Tang Book, the most famous male concubines related to the Empress were Xue Huaiyi, Zhang Yizhi, Zhang Yizong and Shen Nanmiu, who were regarded as handsome and strong and thus catering to the Empress’s desires. For example, Xue Huaiyi was described as ‘with good figure’ [有非常材用] and the Empress ‘was pleased and treated him with great kindness’ [悦之, 恩遇日深] . Now, let’s discuss them in more detail.
The first male concubine we want to discuss is Xue Huaiyi, who met Empress Wu when she was 61 years old. His original name was Feng Xiaobao and he was known for his handsome looks and stature, which led him to be nicknamed ‘God of Figure’.
Prior to meeting the Empress, he worked in various minor jobs in Luoyang and was in a relationship with the Maid of Princess Qianjin. Later, he was introduced to Wu Zetian by the princess and quickly gained Wu’s admiration.
At that time, the palace often organized Buddhist activities and to show her affection, Wu Zetian ordered him to be ordained as a monk to facilitate his access to the court. Wu even granted him the surname “Xue”, the same as that of her son-in-law, as well as lots of rewards. In addition to accompanying Wu Zetian, Xue Huaiyi also managed the construction of two great palace courts – Ming Temple and Tian Temple. He also conducted a military expedition to Tujue (Turkey) though the troops of Tujue had withdrawn at that time.
As Xue started to get more involved in the Empress’ reign, he claimed that he had found a religious book titled ‘Dayunjing’, which stated an empress would become a Buddha after her reign. In ancient China, the mandate used the authority of Heaven to justify the change of the ruling house. It contributed to Wu Zetian’s rule although the book was later found not to be an authentic Buddhist text.
Xue was becoming increasingly intransigent and intervening in state affairs, and his demise finally came when he deliberately set fire to the Ming and Tian Courts due to the Empress’ affairs with other male concubines. The Empress lost all her patience with him and Xue suspiciously died two weeks after the fire (694 AD), possibly killed by Wu or her daughter the Princess Taiping.
So, who was the male concubine annoying Xue Huaiyi so much? He was an imperial doctor called Shen Nanmiu. There is not much information about him in historical records, but It is said that he introduced some new medical knowledge related to sex to the Empress, which intrigued her and heightened her sexual prowess.
Now let’s turn to the most famous male concubines in Chinese history – Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong. In the second year of Empress Wu’s reign (697 A.D.), Zhang Changzong, praised for his “face as beautiful as a lotus flower”, was recommended to the Empress by the Princess Taiping. After that, Zhang Changzong introduced his brother Zhang Yizhi who was endowed with both a handsome face and a good voice. The Empress Wu enlisted them in her circle and thus changed their lives. They became overnight successes in their official roles and they mesmerized many members of the Wu family and other royal families, which gave them unparalleled access to the queen. The Zhang brothers accompanied the Empress on her affairs of state, as well as to every banquet and state function.
In my previous blog post, I mentioned that the Empress killed her granddaughter because she talked about the Zhang brothers behind their back. Other officials rebelling against the two brothers also faced a similar end to Prime Minister Wei Yuanzhong. People were afraid and the rebellious voices disappeared from the court.
The Empress eventually fell ill, yet even the Prime Minister could not gain access to the Empress due to the influence the Zhang brothers had over her. They were untouchable in her eye and could do no wrong. Following her death, the brothers lost their protection and Prime Minister Zhang Jianzhi authorized their execution when he organized the coup.
The Empress was extremely picky with her choices: she rejected the famous scholar and poet Song Zhiwen because of his bad breath!
We haven’t even scratched the surface of the number of male concubines the Empress entertained. In fact, due to her large number of male concubines, the Empress established an institution called Kong He Jian in 698 A.D. (the name was changed to Feng Zhenfu in 700 A.D.), in order to manage them better. The institution was directed by the Zhang brothers, and was similar to an emperor’s harem.
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