Some Indian and Chinese emperors had more than 50 mistresses. Wasn't it difficult to please so many women and maintain peace among them? What caused them to have so many women?

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    Maybe the main purpose of a harem is not to please the women there...
    – Greg
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 1:35
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    What has your research revealed? What sources have you consulted? From my memory, some of the members of the harem were there for political reasons, or as tribute or to secure alliances, or to obtain control of dowries, or to keep them out of the hands of other people, or purely for a form of conspicuous consumption.
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 2:12
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    Because they could? I think a significant fraction of men would maintain a harem, if they had the resources and freedom from legal & social pressures.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 6:23
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    It is worth to point, that Empress Wu Zietan had thousand of MALE concubines - it was just something that was to be expected from the ruler.
    – Yasskier
    Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 20:33
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    If you happen to come back around, @TillyCaine, there's a much better answer to your question here. T.E.D. was close but focused too much on western fantasies (even the specific ones that kicked off Said's Orientalism); the actual reason is that considering any child of the emperor as a legitimate heir meant withdrawing any women he slept with from access to any other man. This is also why eunuchs were so common in premodern Asian capitals. Romans slept with just as many women; they just didn't worry.
    – lly
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 17:04

2 Answers 2


I think you're finding this odd because you are looking at it from the point of view of your own culture, and assuming that is "normal". In fact, different cultures evolved with different standards for adult gender relations. Since the rules used appear to be nearly universal within language families, likely the roots of these idioms go back at least to the time their entire language families were formed.

In Afroasiatic cultures, the common historical arrangement was plural marriage. Wives had nearly equal status (subject to the preferences of the husband), and the status of all their offspring was strictly birth order.

Indo-European cultures tended more to a strict exclusive binary marriage. IE Men were generally free to dally outside of that bond (if they could), but both the women and any resulting progeny would not considered "legitimate" at all, so they essentially had no status.

Our records for the ancient Sumerians (who were neither Afroasiatic nor Indo-European) tend to show a surprisingly looser bond, with women able to control their own finances and hold their own positions and generally participate in society completely independent of their husbands.

China appears to have been essentially halfway between the IE and Afroasiatic models. You could look at what high-status men like the emperor had as a plural marriage, with the first wife having a greatly enhanced status. The offspring of concubines were not removed from inheritance, and thus were not considered "illegitimate" in the way a child of a European mistress would be. However, they were lower status than the first wife's children, regardless of birth order. So calling Chinese concubines "mistresses" as this question does is very misleading. Better to think of them as "lesser wives".

As for how this was run, consider it like any large workplace. People are thrown together not necessarily because they are or aren't friends, but because they all are working together on the same job.

In both Afroasiatic and Chinese plural marriage societies, the number of wives was limited by the number that the man was rich enough to support. Of course this meant having a large number of them was an indicator of wealth. As with any wealth indicator, its acceptance as such induces people to acquire more of the status good in question than they really need or can use, just to demonstrate how rich they are.

If you've read The Great Gatsby, you can consider a 50+ harem as like Jay Gatsby's library. The books were all real, so he's not a poser. However they were uncut, openly showing off their purpose is not to be read, but just for you, so you know they are there.

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    So you mean the emperor just wanted to show off his wealth? Wouldn't these noble ladies and their families feel utterly humiliated when they found out his true intention, and grow hatred towards him? Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 3:54
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    Why? It was a great honor to be selected for the Imperial harem. Selections were made based on talents and personality as well as beauty, much like winning on The Bachelor or Miss America (both of which there appear to be no dearth of aspirants for today). If you make it, its relatively easy work, with an assured future, and even a outside chance of your bloodline bearing future emperors.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 4:21
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    Good answer, but I doubt whether many concubines remained 'uncut' as the books in Jay Gatsby's library.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 13:45
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    @Evargalo Generally, most Chinese Imperial concubines remained untouched, as once the emperor found a favorite, the rest were left to languish.This is not true for all emperors, but it was true for most. Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 14:14
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    @TillyCaine "It sounds like a master and slave relationship between the man and woman." sums up the state of society for most of history in most of the world.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 9:41

A line in the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms illustrates the scenario well: After Zhang Fei causes Liu Bei's two wives to be captured, Liu Bei (let me emphasize that he is the hero of the story) tries to aleviate his guilt by saying that wives are like shirts but brothers are like limbs. A shirt can be replaced, a limb cannot. So yeah... that's how things worked at the time.

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