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  • China's Palace Women through the Dynasties
  • Paul S. Ropp (bio)
Keith McMahon. Women Shall Not Rule: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to Liao. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2013. xiii, 295 pp. Hardcover $45.00, isbn 978-1-4422-2289-2.
Keith McMahon. Celestial Women: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Song to Qing. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016. xxxiii, 277 pp. Hardcover $85.00, isbn 978-1-4422-5501-2. E-book $52.99, isbn 978-14422-5502-9.

One of the world's leading experts in Ming-Qing fiction and gender relations, Keith McMahon is ideally qualified to undertake the study of women in the emperor's entourage over the two millennia of China's imperial history. In this masterful two-volume survey, Women Shall Not Rule and Celestial Women, he draws on official histories for the basic facts of who, when, and where, and he also casts a wide net, exploiting informal histories, gossipy memoirs, and the countless fictional narratives that have always done more than official histories to shape public perceptions of women and gender relations in the emperors' palaces.

McMahon is careful to note when some fictional accounts are blatantly implausible, when available narratives are completely contradictory, and when we have no reliable way of knowing exactly what happened in many instances. The result is a highly readable series of adventures of polygamous emperors and their wives, consorts, maids, and eunuchs. A skilled screenwriter could find on almost every page the outline of an engaging soap opera plot.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of McMahon's study is his careful analysis of changes and continuities in the place of women in imperial rule from earliest times to the early twentieth century. While he begins his detailed discussion of individual reigns in the Han dynasty (206 b.c.e.c.e. 220), he opens his study with a long first chapter titled "The Institutions and Values of Royal Polygamy," which begins with some generalizations about Chinese attitudes toward sex, women, and polygamy, including the earliest writings on oracle bones, other archaeological finds, and early written myths.

In all these early records male rulers were polygamous, but with the stipulation that they were to have one main wife who ranked above all other concubines or consorts. The chief rationale for this system was the need to ensure male [End Page 1] descendants to maintain the patriarchal line of the ruling family. The ruler's wives/consorts were to attend to the inner organization of the palace, the raising of children, and supervision of servants. McMahon is careful to note the difference between prescriptive writings and descriptive writings, and also to observe that some descriptive writings had prescriptive purposes, namely to praise virtue and condemn vice, which easily led to the exaggeration of both.

In this wide-ranging first chapter, McMahon focuses particular attention on the ideals that rulers and their women were supposed to embody. The ruler's women were to be loyal to him first and foremost, soft-spoken, and attentive to their domestic tasks; refrain from any involvement in public and political affairs; and above all, should never exhibit jealousy of other women. The ruler himself had a daunting task. He was to father many children with his numerous wives, but he should not play favorites so as to maintain harmony in his harem, and he should not waste his precious semen, which was seen as his finite supply of life force. (This seems a contradictory requirement, but fortunately for most emperors, the fathering of sons took precedence over the conservation of semen, and contrary to Daoist belief, their loss of semen seldom shortened their lives.) Sex was to be made enjoyable for the women, as a woman in orgasm released her yin energy to her male partner. Though we don't know the precise state of rulers' knowledge in the art of lovemaking, there were sexual manuals early on in Chinese history—at least by the early Han—and McMahon suspects these were readily available to most Chinese rulers.

Like all of palace life, the ruler's sex life was to be carefully regulated in formalized ritual fashion...


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