Concubinage was highly popular before the early 20th century all over East Asia. The main function of concubinage was producing additional heirs, as well as bringing males pleasure. Children of concubines had lower rights in account to inheritance, which was regulated by the Dishu system.
Portrait of a concubine, by Chinese painter Lam Qua
In China, successful men often had concubines until the practice was outlawed when the Communist Party of China came to power in 1949. The standard Chinese term translated as "concubine" was qiè 妾, a term that has been used since ancient times, which means "concubine; I, your servant (deprecating self reference)". Concubinage resembled marriage in that concubines were recognized sexual partners of a man and were expected to bear children for him. Unofficial concubines (Chinese: 婢妾; pinyin: bì qiè) were of lower status, and their children were considered illegitimate. The English term concubine is also used for what the Chinese refer to as pínfēi (Chinese: 嬪妃), or "consorts of emperors", an official position often carrying a very high rank.
In premodern China it was illegal and socially disreputable for a man to have more than one wife at a time, but it was acceptable to have concubines. In the earliest records a man could have as many concubines as he could afford. From the Eastern Han period (AD 25–220) onward, the number of concubines a man could have was limited by law. The higher rank and the more noble identity a man possessed, the more concubines he was permitted to have.
A concubine's treatment and situation was variable and was influenced by the social status of the male to whom she was attached, as well as the attitude of his wife. In the Book of Rites chapter on "The Pattern of the Family" (Chinese: 內則) it says, “If there were betrothal rites, she became a wife; and if she went without these, a concubine.” Wives brought a dowry to a relationship, but concubines did not. A concubinage relationship could be entered into without the ceremonies used in marriages, and neither remarriage nor a return to her natal home in widowhood were allowed to a concubine.
The position of the concubine was generally inferior to that of the wife. Although a concubine could produce heirs, her children would be inferior in social status to a wife's children, although they were of higher status than illegitimate children. The child of a concubine had to show filial duty to two women, their biological mother and their legal mother—the wife of their father. After the death of a concubine, her sons would make an offering to her, but these offerings were not continued by the concubine's grandsons, who only made offerings to their grandfather's wife.
There are early records of concubines allegedly being buried alive with their masters to "keep them company in the afterlife". Until the Song dynasty (960–1276), it was considered a serious breach of social ethics to promote a concubine to a wife.
During the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the status of concubines improved. It became permissible to promote a concubine to wife, if the original wife had died and the concubine was the mother of the only surviving sons. Moreover, the prohibition against forcing a widow to remarry was extended to widowed concubines. During this period tablets for concubine-mothers seem to have been more commonly placed in family ancestral altars, and genealogies of some lineages listed concubine-mothers.
Imperial concubines, kept by emperors in the Forbidden City, had different ranks and were traditionally guarded by eunuchs to ensure that they could not be impregnated by anyone but the emperor. In Ming China (1368–1644) there was an official system to select concubines for the emperor. The age of the candidates ranged mainly from 14 to 16. Virtues, behavior, character, appearance and body condition were the selection criteria.
Despite the limitations imposed on Chinese concubines, there are several examples in history and literature of concubines who achieved great power and influence. Lady Yehenara, otherwise known as Empress Dowager Cixi, was arguably one of the most successful concubines in Chinese history. Cixi first entered the court as a concubine to Xianfeng Emperor and gave birth to his only surviving son, who later became Tongzhi Emperor. She eventually became the de facto ruler of Qing China for 47 years after her husband's death.
An examination of concubinage features in one of the Four Great Classical Novels, Dream of the Red Chamber (believed to be a semi-autobiographical account of author Cao Xueqin's family life). Three generations of the Jia family are supported by one notable concubine of the emperor, Jia Yuanchun, the full elder sister of the male protagonist Jia Baoyu. In contrast, their younger half-siblings by concubine Zhao, Jia Tanchun and Jia Huan, develop distorted personalities because they are the children of a concubine.
Emperors' concubines and harems are emphasized in 21st-century romantic novels written for female readers and set in ancient times. As a plot element, the children of concubines are depicted with a status much inferior to that in actual history. The zhai dou (Chinese: 宅斗，residential intrigue) and gong dou(Chinese: 宫斗，harem intrigue) genres show concubines and wives, as well as their children, scheming secretly to gain power. Empresses in the Palace, a gong dou type novel and TV drama, has had great success in 21st-century China.
Hong Kong and Macau
Hong Kong officially abolished the Great Qing Legal Code in 1971, thereby making concubinage illegal. Casino magnate Stanley Ho of Macau took his "second wife" as his official concubine in 1957, while his "third and fourth wives" retain no official status.
Before monogamy was legally imposed in the Meiji period, concubinage was common among the nobility. Its purpose was to ensure male heirs. For example, the son of an Imperial concubine often had a chance of becoming emperor. Yanagihara Naruko, a high-ranking concubine of Emperor Meiji, gave birth to Emperor Taishō, who was later legally adopted by Empress Haruko, Emperor Meiji's formal wife. Even among merchant families, concubinage was occasionally used to ensure heirs. Asako Hirooka, an entrepreneur who was the daughter of a concubine, worked hard to help her husband's family survive after the Meiji Restoration. She lost her fertility giving birth to her only daughter, Kameko; so her husband—with whom she got along well—took Asako's maid-servant as a concubine and fathered three daughters and a son with her. Kameko, as the child of the formal wife, married a noble man and matrilineally carried on the family name.
Joseon monarchs had a harem which contained concubines of different ranks. Empress Myeongseong managed to have sons, preventing sons of concubines getting power.
Children of concubines often had lower value in account of marriage. A daughter of concubine could not marry a wife-born son of the same class. For example, Jang Nok-su was a concubine-born daughter of a mayor, who was initially married to a slave-servant, and later became a high-ranking concubine of Yeonsangun.