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Meat forests and wine ponds: The role of the ‘evil’ concubine in early dynastic China


Tang-dynasty Empress Wu Zetian - image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Sam Harvey


In China, there is a saying: “a beautiful face is the source of troubles” (红颜祸水). Indeed, the ‘femme fatale’ is a recurring trope throughout China’s dynastic history, referring to a concubine who rises to a position of influence within the imperial court, and is subsequently blamed for any poor behaviour or judgement on the part of the emperor. Figures such as Da Ji (妲己), Wu Zetian  (武则天) and Cixi (慈禧)  have been vilified by orthodox historians as ‘evil’ women who brought about dynastic decline. Most likely, efforts to tarnish these women’s reputations have been driven by misogyny, with male historians sceptical that a woman could rise to place of such power.

 

Of course, it may actually be the case that these women were cunning, or even sadistic. But even so, it is important to point out the behaviour of male emperors throughout history has been far from exemplary. Yet these men are not subjected to the same historical scrutiny. This pattern over the narrative of Chinese history spans from the legendary Xia (c. 2070 – c. 1600 BCE) to the end of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 CE). Generally, it can be assumed that these stories were exaggerated for one of two reasons: either a new dynasty attempting to disparage the emperor whom they had just overthrown, or enemies within court trying to ruin the reputation of a woman in power. The stories nonetheless make for pretty entertaining reading, and it’s interesting to note what reputations were given to these women and how some of them are starting to be rehabilitated, from scholarship to museum exhibits.

 

When researching, three figures caught my attention, in part because of clear parallels we might draw between their stories. Supposedly, Mo Xi (concubine to the last Xia emperor), Da Ji (concubine to the last Shang emperor) and Bao Si (concubine to the last Western Zhou emperor) were responsible for the downfall of their respective dynasties. The ‘evil’ behaviour these women are charged with is encouraging their emperors to commit acts of debauchery and corruption.

 

Mo Xi

 

Mo Xi (妹喜) was the concubine of Jie (桀), the last king of the Xia dynasty (夏朝), the potentially legendary first Chinese dynasty. Mo Xi is believed to have possessed masculine features; in the Lienü Zhuan she is described as having a man’s heart, and wearing a man’s sword and cap. Mo Xi’s crime though, were the ways that her emperor tried to amuse her. The most famous story concerning Mo Xi is the wine pond. Ostensibly, King Jie constructed a wine pond for people to drink out of, when a drum was beaten. As those drinking became more and more intoxicated, some began to fall in the pond out of drunkenness and drowned. Mo Xi found this amusing and laughed at those drowning.

 

In another story, Mo Xi loved the sound of tearing silk. In order to please her, King Jie took expensive silks and made people destroy them in front of Mo Xi. The king’s frivolous actions brought great suffering to his people (presumably because he was spending all their money on wine and silks). In some history anthologies, Mo Xi supposedly plotted the downfall of the Xia as soon as she came to court, but this is inconsistent over the different ancient texts.

 

Da Ji

 

Da Ji was the concubine of King Zhou (纣王) of Shang (商朝; c.1600 – c.1046 BCE), the last king before the Zhou dynasty (周朝; 1046-256 BCE). Her portrayal in Chinese historiography is very similar to that of Mo Xi. The common legend that surrounds Da Ji is that she was the incarnation of a silver fox, sent by the celestial sovereign to corrupt Di Xin (商帝辛) (King Zhou) and overthrow the state of Shang. In reality, historical records state that she was born into a noble family named Su (蘇), whose state was conquered by King Zhou. Zhou subsequently took Da Ji as a trophy wife. Accounts of Zhou’s character vary widely, from a tyrant who Da Ji schemed to destroy, to a heroic king (with a penchant for beautiful women) who was corrupted by his concubine.

 

At first, Zhou tried to please Da Ji, acting foolishly to gain her affections. Learning that Da Ji loved animals, he built her a garden full of different species of animals. He also had new dances and songs created for her because she was fond of music. Curiously, we are confronted with yet another wine pond story here. As Zhou gradually abandoned his state affairs to spend more time with Da Ji, he had to come up with new forms of leisure. He built a wine pond, with an island in the middle where cooked meat strips had been hung on trees, and invited thousands of guests for a party. Furhter, for Da Ji’s amusement, he allowed guests to play a nude cat and mouse game in this meat forest. When one of the noblemen’s daughters protested at this debauchery, Zhou killed her, then had her father grounded to pieces and fed to the tyrant’s vassals.

 

Supposedly, over time, Da Ji developed her own taste for sadism as she grew to love the sound of people suffering. On one occasion, to test the belief that “a good man’s heart has seven openings”, she opened the heart of Zhou’s uncle Bi Gan (比干) and inspected his insides. She also cut open the stomach of a pregnant women when she was curious about what she would find. Da Ji even invented her own tool to cause suffering, a bronze cylinder heated by charcoal until the sides were extremely hot. Sources differ on what happened next: either the victim was forced to hug it and baked to death, or oil was poured on the cylinder (which was placed on the burning charcoal) and the victim was ordered to walk over the cylinder; if the victim slipped, they would burn to death on the charcoal. Both interpretations make for pretty gruesome reading.

 

In recent years, however, historians have made considerable efforts to reassess Da Ji’s reputation. Huang Ming-chong (黄銘崇), a research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of History and Philology, pointed out that noble women during the Shang Dynasty were given power in royal court affairs, with Shang Dynasty queens expected to lead troops into battle. He states that logically, if this was the contemporary expectation, Da Ji must have been a general for Zhou at times. Through an exhibit, “Daji Speaks” in 2021 at the Museum of the Institute of History and Philology, he tried to show people the level of responsibility she must have been trusted with, and re-frame the narrative that has dominated histories of Chinese women in court.

 

Bao Si

 

In fact, the example Huang cites for the rewriting of female history by later Confucian scholars is Bao Si (褒姒), the last queen of the Western Zhou (西周; c.1046 – 771 BCE). There are two halves to the story about Bao Si’s role in bringing about the demise of the dynasty. Bao Si was the second wife of King You (周幽王). You’s original marriage had been to a noblewoman from the house of Shen (申). You later met Bao Si, and became so enamoured with her that he divorced his first wife, deposed their son Crown Prince Yijiu (宜臼), and instated Bao Si in her place. In retaliation, the house of Shen began planning an uprising against King You.

 

While King You was infatuated with Bao Si, her melancholic demeanour and reluctance to show emotion coloured their relationship. The only thing that ever amused her was when King You decided to light the warning beacons on Mount Li (骊山) that summoned the vassal states to the Zhou’s aide. On discovering this, You, desperate to please Bao Si, frequently lit the beacons. When the Shen finally staged their uprising, and the beacons were lit, no vassals were willing to believe there was an emergency to arrive for and the Zhou dynasty fell.

 

This story is probably the least compelling of the three, given the earliest warning beacons did not exist until the Han Dynasty (汉朝; 202 BCE – 9 CE, 25 – 220 CE). Histories can be found in which drums were beaten, rather than beacons lit, to summon the vassals, but the narrative now more commonly accepted by scholars is that Bao Si unfairly became the emperor’s scapegoat as a result of an imperial rivalry (For English-language scholarship, Olivia Milburn’s article “The Wicked Queen: Portraying Lady Bao Si in Imperial Era Literature” creates a refreshing analysis on Bao Si’s reputation; for Chinese-language scholarship, Ma Yinqin has published “The Story of How Bao Si Ruined the Zhou Dynasty and the Nature of Zheng-Yue of Xiao-ya in the Book of Songs” in the Peking University Journal).

 

Hopefully, these revisits to the historical annals by modern scholars will start to shift the common perception of these women. That being said, it is difficult to tell how long it will take, if ever, for societies as a whole to stop reverting a female scapegoat when they need someone to blame.

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