Harem of Nguyen Dynasty is a very interesting topic which not only ignites curiosity from Vietnamese but also from foreign visitors who visit Hue Citadel everyday.
These might be your questions about Vietnamese harem system: What exactly is it to be a wife or a concubine of Emperor? How can a lady become one? What were the benefits a lady of Emperor possibly received as a wife or concubine?
In order to provide you a close look to life in Hue Forbidden City, this article will give you some amazing facts about the Harem of Nguyen Dynasty you can not find in any Vietnam guidebook.
BRIEF NOTE ABOUT NGUYEN DYNASTY AND ROLE OF WOMEN
Nguyen Dynasty is the last dynasty of the feudal period in Vietnam. They ruled in an interesting time when Vietnam society was transitioning from monarchy system to modern colonization by France and later on, the America. They lasted for 143 years (1802-1945) with 13 descents of Emperors.
Notable Achievements of Nguyen Dynasty
Vietnam Southern Reclamation
The Empire of Nguyen was well-known for their great contribution to Vietnam territory. Because they were the great Empire who ended long-lasting civil war in Vietnam in 19th century and shaped the official map of Vietnam nowadays.
As the matter of fact, the Vietnamese still inherit many of their political acclaims over the South of Vietnam. One of the most notable achievement is the fertile Mekong delta. It was quickly a part of Vietnam during their reign of power, under the rule of Minh Mang Emperor.
A part of that, many of that also came from military power and the joined-in lordships. As further as the Nguyen Emperors went, the more wives and concubines they gathered in the harem.
The Royal Architecture: The Made-in-Vietnam structures
Firstly, their distinctive royal architectures are widely seen in the city of Hue, from Royal Palace to a large number of Mandarin houses.
Consequently, one of their most outstanding built heritages is the Hue Citadel, which was established by Nguyen Anh (also known as Gia Long Emperor).
It’s nowadays the most-visited attraction in Hue city.
Finally, you can read more of a very detailed article about the Hue Citadel here before planning a visit to Hue.
Visiting Hue for the first time, check out Top 4 Places to Visit in Hue, Vietnam for history-lovers.
A distinctively Confucianism-led Society
They also laid a social system where…
“The schools are where men of talent can be found. Wanting to follow the example of the former kings, I have established schools in order that learned and talented men will arise and the state may thus employ them”.Emperor Gia Long
Never seen in Vietnam history, a country was thriving distinctively under the reign of Nguyen, from education, art, music, cultural exchange and so on.
Role of Women during Nguyen Empire
According to Confucianism, there are five hierarchical roles in Vietnam society: Emperor, Mandarin, Father, Son and Woman.
Thus, woman role is the last in the system and often seen as secondary. Moreover, each role will follow a set of strict rules given by the Emperor. Regardless their social status, in many Confucius schools, loyalty is trait that is highly emphasized by Emperors and the high class groups.
Although one man can have as many wives as he can. However, woman can only have one husband. Even when her husband passed away, she must stay widowed to take care of her son.
Specially, one can not debate enough of the importance of Nguyen Harem. Moreover, many notable women in the Harem of Nguyen Dynasty set outstanding examples of beauty and talent. Thus, without these ladies, Nguyen Dynasty was not as soulful when learning about them.
Let’s learn how their rankings lay out and their daily jobs in the Forbidden city.
EARLY ESTABLISHMENT OF NGUYEN DYNASTY’S HAREM
Firstly, all grades of Royal Court during Vietnam feudal history had it own titles and regulations. Thus, their costume design and salary will speak for their ranks. Moreover, it’s not the exception in the Harem of Nguyen’s. As the matter of fact, each emperor had their special concubine scale which clearly showed his many women’s positions.
Because many official documents written about the Harem regimen under the Nguyen Dynasty has been remained sufficiently up to this day. Hence, these help to explain an interesting small society within the Hue Forbidden city itself.
These are most common terms in the Harem of Nguyen:
- Firstly, “Rank” such as Phi (meaning wife) and Tan (meaning concubine). “Phi” is obviously having higher rank than “Tan”.
- Secondly, “Honor” such as Quy (meaning treasure), Minh (Intelligence), Kinh (Respectfulness), …
Gia Long Foundation
First of all, Gia Long Emperor was the first to apply these lady’s rankings in his own empire. Having learnt of similar harem model by Minh Dynasty (China) and Le So empire (before Vietnam establishment), he kept the most basic part ( having rank and honor for his ladies) while altered its order in his own creativity.
Minh Mang Revision
The Harem of Nguyen Dynasty underwent two important changes: the first and foremost occurred under the Gia Long Empire’s rule and the second change happened in Minh Mang Emperor reign. Furthermore, he added more ranks and created more honors. Specially, Minh Mang also changed the hierarchy order of some honors.
After Minh Mang period, concubines’ honors were slightly modified, however, it basically stayed in the same order as of Minh Mang’s scale.
Finally, Jing Dynasty (China) also had great influence on Nguyen Imperial family. Moreover, they tended to choose the most beautiful Chinese words as the honor titles of each concubine. Thus, many Nguyen Emperors also applied this rule to their ladies.
Nguyen Harem’s Duty
According to Tim Doling in “Exploring Hue”, hundreds of women were forced to spend their lives in the Imperial City as royal concubines (Ba Phi). In addition, each one of them had their designated place in the Forbidden city according to their ranks. Specially, the Dowager Empress (Mother of Emperor) was in charge of supervising training for these ladies while The Empress was to day-to-day control them.
Serving both to increase the emperor’s capability to produce children and to offer him limited opportunities to indulge his sexual desire, concubines could be summoned at any time to the emperor’s sight.
Above all, their most important role was to have their names on a Emperor’s Nightly List made by Eunuchs. If having Emperor’s favors or children, their ranks would be progressed, same with their status at court.
However, their lives sometimes were miserable with hope and disappointment although having to live in comfort with many servants around.
First Women in the Harem of Nguyen
As the pioneer who went on his revenge journey against Tay Son Rebels in the South Vietnam, Nguyen Phuc Anh had two great female supporters who are Tong Thi Lan (conferred as Nguyen Phi or Official Wife) and Tran Thi Dang (Nhi Phi or The Second Wife).
Read more of Gia Long’s love story here.
In 1802, after Nguyen Phuc Anh had assumed his family power, he set the capital at Phu Xuan (Hue City nowadays). He then changed the official name of the country into Vietnam (Meaning “Vietnamese people moving towards the South”).
Three years later, Gia Long declared himself “Imperial Majesty”. As a result, Nguyen Phi Tong Thi became the Empress Thua Thien of Vietnam. She played role as “the principal wife” who had the highest status and power to direct those women below her.
Harem Of Nguyen Dynasty under Gia Long
Emperor Gia Long introduced this Harem order to his women. Under his official Empress as the highest rank in the Harem, there are:
Degree of Honor
Tam phi (Three Wives)
Quý tầnHiền tần
Top Nine Concubines ranks
Lady of Bright Deportment
Lady of Bright Countenance
Bright Beauty’s lady
Lady Of Complete Deportment
Lady of Complete Countenance
Complete Beauty’s lady
Lady of Fairness
Lady of Precious Bevy
Harem of Nguyen Dynasty under Minh Mang
First of all, Minh Mang proclaimed himself as Emperor in 1820. He changed the official country name from Vietnam to “Dai Nam” (Meaning Great Nam). Moreover, Minh Mang was the most-talented Emperor of Nguyen Dynasty.
As a bright commander and conqueror himself, he was famous for a large number of concubines. In addition, there was no more “Queen Consort” title in his harem but “Hoang Quy Phi” (Imperial Consort).
In the 17th year of Minh Mang dynasty (1836), the Majesty added some new ranks and modified honors in the scale of harem, which was considered standard for his next rulers.
This is more understandable as an English Speaking visitor who love learning about Vietnamese history.
Number of ladies
Degree of Honor
Hoàng Quý phi
Nhất giai Phi
First Grade Wives
Nhị giai Phi
Second Grade Wives
Tam giai Tần
Third Grade Concubines
Tứ giai Tần
Fourth Grade Concubines
Ngũ giai Tần
Fifth Grade Concubines
Lục giai Tiệp dư
Sixth Grade Ladies
Thất giai Quý nhân
Seventh Grade Treasured Ladies
Bát giai Mỹ nhân
Eighth Grade Beauties
Cửu giai Tài nhân
Ninth Grade Talents
As seen from the table, Tam Phi is higher than Tam Tu and Cuu Tan (In Gia Long rule) or Nhat Giai Phi, Nhi Giai Phi then Tam Giai Tan (Minh Mang Rule).
Within one rank, the honors from the top are higher compared to ones at the bottom.
For example: within First Grade Titles under Minh Mang rule, Nhat Giai Quy Phi is higher rank than Nhat Giai Hien Phi.
The right structure of the name
When you address name of Emperor’s wife or concubine, this is the right structure to follow:
“Rank + Honor + name of the Lady”.
For example, although having a very structured order in the First Grade Titles (see First Grade Consort above), Minh Mang had only one First Grade Consort who was Nhat Giai (her official rank), Hien Phi (her court honor), Ngo Thi Chinh (her official given name).
Thus, when Minh Mang addressed her, he had to say: Nhat Giai Hien Phi Ngo Thi Chinh.
Harem of Nguyen under other Nguyen Emperors’ rules
First and foremost, Emperor Thieu Tri succeeded Minh Mang in 1841. He made some major changes in the honors to give to his favorite ones. For example, Cung Tan Vu Thi Nham was, at first, his favorite concubine. Consequently, she was quickly given the First Grade rank “Nhat Giai Lenh Phi” who was in charge of his Harem.
Later on, there was a Nhi Giai Thanh Phi Pham Thi Hang who bear the most numerous children for Emperor Thieu Tri. Having Tu Duc as future Emperor, she was conferred as “Nhat Giai Quy Phi” which was the highest rank in Thieu Tri’s Harem.
As a result, she overtook Nhat Giai Lenh Phi Vu Thi Nham to become owner of Emperor’s Thieu Tri Harem. What a outstanding win for her!
Subsequently, concubines rank did not change during 36-year. However, there were a few more honors for his ladies.
In turn, each Emperor can create many loving honors for their wives which totally broke all the rule their predecessor set earlier.
The End of Harem of Nguyen Dynasty
Emperor Bao Dai (rule 1926-1945) was the one who ended The Harem of Nguyen Dynasty. Born as an modern activist who spent years studying in France, the young majesty insisted on having monogamy practice in An Nam’s society.
Furthermore, he crowned Queen Nam Phuong Nguyen Huu Thi Lan as his only wife and as queen of An Nam.
Thus, the Harem of Nguyen Dynasty was no longer existed.
- Harem of Nguyen Dynasty: The Conferred Ceremony and Harem’s salary – part 2
- The Notable Women in Harem of Nguyen Dynasty – part 3 (Coming soon)
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