Chapter 4

Emperor Xianfeng had such a strong desire for sex that he couldn’t spend a single night sleeping without a woman beside him in bed. The emperor had nineteen concubines. According to the palace records about the procedures for the emperor’s sex life, the emperor never went to the chamber of any concubines. Every night before the emperor went to bed, a eunuch brought in a tray on which lay many small rectangular wooden pieces with the names of all the concubines inscribed on them. The eunuch held the tray high above his head on his knees before the emperor. If the emperor decided on someone, he would turn upside down the wooden piece with the name on it. Then the eunuch went to the chamber of the concubine the emperor had chosen. The concubine was stripped naked. Two other eunuchs put a blanket around her and carried her on their shoulders to the emperor’s bedroom. The eunuchs laid down the concubine at the foot of the emperor’s bed and taking the blanket off of the concubine, they left the emperor’s bedroom. The nude concubine crawled to the pillows and lay down beside the emperor. In the morning, the two eunuchs came back to wrap the concubine in the blanket and carried her back to her own chamber. The date and the name of the concubine were recorded so that if the concubine got pregnant, they could count the days to make sure the child was the emperor’s flesh and blood, not someone else’s. Since he was so fond of Royal Concubine Yan, he sent for her into his bedroom almost every night, even when she was with child. They were happy together in bed. Sometimes the emperor slept so late that he missed holding his court.
His courtiers came early and waited in the resting room, but the emperor never showed up to meet them to hear their reports or have discussions about all the national affairs. The written instructions set up and handed down by the ancestors wouldn’t allow such negligence of state affairs. But the courtiers could do nothing about it. They were not permitted to go to the emperor’s chamber to rouse him. The queen could, nevertheless. When she learned it from the eunuchs, (eunuchs were all gossips.) she sent her head eunuch to the chamber the emperor was sleeping in. The head eunuch carried on his head the book, in which the instructions of the ancestors had been written. He knelt before the chamber door and began to recite the instructions aloud. When the emperor heard it, he must get down from the bed and listen to the recitation on his knees. If the emperor was still sound asleep and didn’t hear it, his head eunuch would go to wake him up. Of course, the emperor would be annoyed, but he couldn’t ignore the instructions of his ancestors. He had to dress up and go to meet his courtiers. This happened too often lately, to the queen’s liking. So one day, the queen went there herself with the book on her head. The emperor’s head eunuch saw the queen coming and went immediately into the chamber to report to the emperor, who jumped out of bed and had barely time to put on his shoes. He opened the door and found himself face to face with the queen. He said hastily, “Enough, enough. I’ll go now.” So the queen waited at the door till the emperor left for his court session.
Then the queen ordered Royal Concubine Yan to follow her to Kunning Palace. (The whole Forbidden City was the emperor’s residence, inside which there were many buildings. Each building was called a palace in Chinese.) Kunning Palace was a place where the queen held her “court”, generally when she wanted to punish someone. The queen was the second in power in the Forbidden City.
“You shouldn’t let the emperor sleep so late and neglect the state affairs. Do you know it’s your fault?” The queen accused Concubine Yan.
In the Forbidden City, if anyone was accused of anything by his or her superiors, no matter it’s his or her fault or not, he or she must say, “It’s my fault.” And then he or she must beg to be punished. If the punishment was inflicted, when it’s over, he or she must thank his or her superiors for being punished. Likewise, if anyone was to be executed by the order of the emperor or the queen, he or she must thank the emperor or the queen for the execution. That’s feudal China. Ridiculous?
So Royal Concubine Yan said accordingly, “Yes, it’s my fault.” But she pleaded, “I can’t refuse to be carried to the emperor’s chamber. (Implied, “What’s the use to be jealous?”) I can’t tell the emperor what to do if he wants to sleep late.” (Implied, “Don’t blame me.”)
The queen flared up and ordered her eunuchs to beat Concubine Yan. Two eunuchs held her down on the floor. A third eunuch fetched a wooden stick. Just as the stick was being brought down, a voice, panting, shouted, “Stop!” The emperor came to her rescue.
When the emperor was holding the meeting with his courtiers, one of his eunuchs came running to whisper to the emperor that the queen took Concubine Yan to Kunning Palace. The emperor knew at once what would happen. He adjourned the meeting till tomorrow and hurried to Kunning Palace, just in time to prevent the beating.
“Oh, my dear queen,” said the emperor sweetly, “though Queen have the right to beat her, Queen can’t beat her today.” (In Qing Dynasty, Emperor and Queen were used to address the emperor and the queen. Or Empress Dowager was used to address an empress dowager.)
“Why not?” the queen looked dubious.
“Because Concubine Yan is pregnant.” The emperor acquainted the queen with the surprising happy news.
The emperor had no son yet. If an emperor had no heir, it was deemed as a sin to his ancestors. So pregnancy in the palace was very significant in the eye of the queen. Concubine Yan was spared and sent back to her own chamber.
“Since Concubine Yan’s pregnant, Emperor should let her have more rest. Emperor should no longer sleep with her till her child is born.” The queen warned the emperor. (The superiors could use pronouns and names to address or mention the subordinates.)

* * *

Sushun and Duanhua were brothers. Since Duanhua was the elder one, he inherited the title of Prince Zheng when their father died. But the younger brother was a man of ability and determination. The brothers, especially the younger one, had won the emperor’s favor by offering things to the emperor’s liking. They often suggested to the emperor how to have fun and even provided him with every possible diversion and pastime. The most desired fun to the emperor was sex.
The younger brother, Sushun, knew that the emperor could no longer sleep in Concubine Yan’s chamber at present. Therefore, he found some very beautiful women, who belonged to Han Clan (The ruling class of Qing Dynasty was Mandarin Clan.) and stole them into the Round-Bright Garden, where the emperor lived most of the year while he should live in the Forbidden City. The Round-Bright Garden was located outside the capital, Peking. The garden had hills and lakes, trees and flowers that covered almost every inch of the ground with footpaths zigzagging among them. Even in the winter, the snowy scene was also beautiful. All the buildings, the pavilions and the arbors, were imitated from the architecture of the famous structures all over the country. The emperor liked to live in the Round-Bright Garden, not just because of its beautiful scenery, but mostly because when he was in the Forbidden City, he must do almost everything in accordance with certain etiquette set up by his ancestors, but when he dwelled in the Garden, there were not so many rules required to observe. Life was a bit easier there for him.
But his ancestors had set up a rule that women with small deformed feet were inhibited to enter any of the emperor’s residences. Women of Han Clan had such feet. So the emperor broke the rule to accept them. Among these Han Clan women, one was a widow, some were whores from brothels. All were beauties. One of the whores was originally the mistress of a courtier, who, when aware of it, sent in a report of advice, saying that the emperor should not keep Han Clan women in the Garden. The emperor wrote a sentence on the report and gave it back to the courtier. It said, “You are jealous.” Among all the women of Han Clan, there were four beauties the emperor liked best. He named them “Apricot Spring”, “Peach Spring”, “Peony Spring” and “Crabapple Spring”. (Crabapple here means Chinese flowering crabapple.) They were called “Four Springs” by the maids and eunuchs in the Garden.
After giving birth to a son, Concubine Yan expected the emperor’s visit everyday, but for a long time the emperor seemed forgetting her. At length she came to the knowledge that the emperor kept a lot of Han Clan women in the Garden. But she could do nothing about it. Only the queen could produce the book containing the ancestral instructions. She must seek alliance in the queen. So she went to pay her respect to the queen. She knelt before the queen and kowtowed. The queen bade her to stand up after the ritual.
“Queen.” she began, “Does Queen know why the emperor looks thinner day by day?”
“No idea.” replied the queen. “What have you heard?”
“The emperor has many Han Clan women hidden somewhere in the Garden.”
“That’s against the rule.”
“So. That’s why I must report to Queen. Queen must interfere. I’m not jealous. I’m only concerned with the emperor’s health.”
Therefore, the queen decided to search the garden. Early one morning, many maids and eunuchs followed the queen into the Round-Bright Garden. Concubine Yan accompanied the queen there. They searched every building, every corner in the buildings, but couldn’t find any of the Han Clan women supposed to be there. They had been there before, but when the emperor got the wind that the queen would search the garden, he ordered them to be removed to some secret place.
It was said that the emperor liked to have fun outside the Forbidden City. He went out in plain clothes. Once he stole out of the Forbidden City, strolling in the streets, followed by a eunuch and some bodyguards, also in plain clothes. He looked this way and that, at all the interesting things he had never seen before. Someone was kneading a few colored doughs. Then picking pieces of dough off from here and there, he made a female figure out of them. The hair, the face with a mouth, a nose, eyes and ears, colored clothes, the hands and shoes. Nothing missing. Then he made another, a male figure. The figures were taken after the characters from well-known operas. Looking so vivid. Just wonderful. So the emperor told the eunuch to buy both and bring them back to his palace. He had them displayed on his desk. But after a while when the dough dried, there appeared some cracks on the figures. And the last place the figures ended up in was among the garbage.
Another time when the emperor was sauntering along a narrow street, he saw a young beautiful woman standing at the door of a dye shop. She was the owner’s wife. When he made for the door, the woman stepped aside to let him in. He walked in like he was a customer and talked to the woman since the husband was in the back of the shop. He said to the woman that he could make her husband rich if she was willing to be his concubine. The woman was at a loss what to say to such an improper proposal. Just then, the husband came out. The emperor left with his attendants. Next day a stranger came into the shop. His servants carried in two boxes. A big heavy box they left on the floor and a small one they put on the table. The man announced that the emperor wanted his wife. If he refused, he must drink the poisonous wine in the cup in the small box. If he agreed, he could keep this big box full of gold. Besides, the emperor would make him a government official. He must choose between the two. He had to choose the latter, even if he loved his wife. The wife was taken and sent to live with the women of Han Clan. Sushun had done another favor to the emperor.