Concubinage is an interpersonal relationship in which a person engages in an ongoing sexual relationship with another person to whom they are not or cannot be married to the full extent of the local meaning of marriage. The inability to marry may be due to multiple factors such as differences in social rank status, an existing marriage, religious prohibitions, professional ones (for example Roman soldiers) or a lack of recognition by appropriate authorities. The woman in such a relationship is referred to as a concubine.

The prevalence of concubinage and the status of rights and expectations of a concubine have varied between cultures as well as the rights of children of a concubine. Whatever the status and rights of the concubine, they were always inferior to those of the wife, and typically neither she nor her children had rights of inheritance. Historically, concubinage was frequently entered into voluntarily (by the woman or her family) as it provided a measure of economic security for the woman involved. Involuntary or servile concubinage sometimes involved sexual slavery of one member of the relationship, usually the woman. Unlike ancient cultures, Christian Europe opposed concubinage, regarding any sexual relations outside of a monogamous marriage as sinful. Nevertheless, sexual relations outside marriage was not uncommon, especially among royalty and nobility, and the woman in such relationships was commonly described as a mistress. However, the children of such relationships were counted as illegitimate and were barred from inheriting the father's title or estates, even when there was an absence of any legitimate heirs.

While various forms of long-term sexual relationships and co-habitation short of marriage have become increasingly common in the Western world, these are generally not described as concubinage. The terms concubinage and concubine are used today primarily when referring to non-marital partnerships of earlier eras. In modern usage, a non-marital domestic relationship is commonly referred to as co-habitation (or similar terms), and the woman in such a relationship is generally referred to as a girlfriend, lover or (life) partner.

In Asia

Concubinage was highly popular before early 20th century all over Asia. The main function of concubinage was producing additional heirs, as well as bring males pleasure. Children of concubines had lower rights in account to inheritance, which was regulated by Dishu system.

After that, even concubinage has been legally banned, the relationship between mistresses and their men are highly affected by it.


Consorts and children of the Qianlong Emperor, Qing dynasty, 18th century
Portrait of a concubine, by Chinese painter Lam Qua, 1864

In China, successful men often had concubines until the practice was outlawed after the Communist Party of China came to power in 1949. The standard Chinese term translated as "concubine" was qiè 妾, a term used since ancient times, which means "female slave". Concubines resembled wives (Chinese: ; pinyin: ) in that they were recognized sexual partners of a male family member and were expected to bear children from him. Unofficial concubines (Chinese: 婢妾; pinyin: bì qiè), are of lower status, and children of her are considered illegitimate. In English the term concubine is also used for what the Chinese refer to as pínfēi (Chinese: 嬪妃) "consorts of emperors", some of very high rank.[1]

In premodern China, it was illegal and socially disreputable for a man to have more than one wife at a time, but he could have concubines.[2] At first a man could have as many concubines as he could afford, however, from the Eastern Han (AD 25–220) onward, the maximal number of concubines a man could have was limited by law. The higher ranking and the more noble an identity a man possessed, the more concubines he was permitted to have.[3]

A concubine's treatment and situation were highly variable and were influenced by the social status of the male to whom she was engaged, as well as the attitude of the 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.”[4] Besides, wives were married with dowries but concubines were not. Concubines could be taken without any of the ceremonies used in marriages. And neither remarriage nor a return to her natal home in widowhood were allowed.[5]

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 wife's children but was still better than illegitimate children. And the child of a concubine had to show filial duty to two women, their biological mother and legal mother–the wife of their father.[6] Allegedly, concubines were occasionally buried alive with their masters to "keep them company in the afterlife".[7] After the death of a concubine her sons would make an offering to her, but these offerings were not continued by her grandsons, who only made offerings to their grandfather’s wife.[8] Until the Song dynasty (960–1276), it was treated as a serious breach of social ethics to promote a concubine to a wife.[5]

In Qing China (1644–1911), the status of concubines improved: it became permissible to promote a concubine to wife, if the 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. Tablets for concubine-mothers seem to have been more commonly placed in family ancestral altars and genealogies of some lineages listed concubine-mothers.[5]

Despite the limitations imposed on Chinese concubines, history and literature offer examples of concubines who achieved great power and influence.

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.[7] 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 would all be taken as selection criteria.[9]

Lady Yehenara, otherwise known as Empress Dowager Cixi, was arguably one of the most successful concubines in China's history. Cixi first entered the court as a concubine to the Xianfeng Emperor, and gave birth to his only surviving son, who would become the Tongzhi Emperor. She would eventually become the de facto ruler of Qing China for 47 years after her husband's death.[10]

A display of concubinage is 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 own 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, developed distorted personalities, being children of concubine. Tanchun insisted that the brother of her father's wife Madam Wang, instead of the brother of Concubine Zhao is her uncle, and strive to be excellent in the girls to overcome her inferiority. Wang Xifeng stated that occasionally nobles seeking marriage would value the bride from her Dishu (being born by wife or concubine) status. Jia Baoyu himself has an unofficial concubine Hua Xiren, whom he had first sexual encounter with, but remain deep spiritual love to his cousin Lin Daiyu and intend to marry her.

Contemporary China

The concept of men having relationships with one or more concubines has seen a comeback since modern China has prospered. Mistresses are often viewed as concubines, which is inferior to the wife.

The women called er nai, unofficial concubines in 21st century, typically say they feel fine about exploiting their youth, beauty and wombs for the sake of earning money and protection from their men,[11][12] and not having to live with the primary wives any more as in the past. One-child policy in China Mainland also pushed those men with power and wealth to pursue a male heir.

In romantic novels written for females in 21st century, concubinage and harem of emperors are emphasized in novels which set in ancient background. Children of concubines have a much inferior status than in actual history, which is intended as a plot. Novel types zhai dou (residential intrigues) and gong dou (harem intrigues) shows secret schemes of concubines and wives, as well as their children, to access power. Empresses in the Palace, a gong dou type novel and TV drama, shows great success in 21st century China and contemporary women learn schemes from it to succeed in their work place.

Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan

Hong Kong officially abolished the Great Qing Legal Code in 1971, which makes concubinage illegal. Stanley Ho of Macau took his "2nd wife" as his official concubine in 1957, and his "3rd and 4th wife" retain no official status.[13]


See also: Ōoku

Before the Meiji period, when monogamy was not legally adopted, concubinage was common in nobles.[14]The purpose of concubinage was mainly for the production of male heirs, as well as for the sexual pleasure for males. In the Imperial House of Japan the son of a concubine often had a chance at being an emperor. Yanagihara Naruko, a high rank concubine of Emperor Meiji, gave birth to Emperor Taishō, whom was later legally adopted by the wife of Emperor Meiji, Empress Haruko.

Even in merchant families concubinage was occasionally used to produce heirs. Asako Hirooka, a female entrepreneur born as a concubine's daughter, who had worked hard to let her husband's family survive after the Meiji Restoration, lost her fertility after giving birth to her only daughter Kameko. Despite that, she and her husband got along well, her husband had to take Asako's maid servant as his concubine, fathered three daughters and an only son with her. Kameko herself, as the child of wife, still married a noble man matrilineally and carried on the family name.[15]


Joseon monarchs also have a harem which contains concubines of different ranks. Empress Myeongseong managed to have sons, preventing sons of concubines getting power. Children of concubines often have lower value in account of marriage. A daughter of concubine cannot be the wife of a wife-born son of the same class. For example, Jang Nok-su is a concubine-born daughter of a mayor, who was initially married to a slave-servant, later a high-rank concubine of Yeonsangun.


Before 1935, the family law listed three kind of wives - official wife, minor wife and slave wife.[16]

In Pagan Europe

Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, the practice of keeping a slave concubine (Greek: παλλακίς pallakís) was little recorded but appears throughout Athenian history. The law prescribed that a man could kill another man caught attempting a relationship with his concubine for the production of free children, which suggests that a concubine's children were not granted citizenship.[17] While references to the sexual exploitation of maidservants appear in literature, it was considered disgraceful for a man to keep such women under the same roof as his wife.[18] Some interpretations of hetaera have held they were concubines when they had a permanent relationship with a single man.[19]

Ancient Roman concubinae and concubini

For more details on this topic, see Marriage in ancient Rome § Concubinage.

Concubinage was an institution practiced in ancient Rome that allowed a man to enter into an informal but recognized relationship with a woman (concubina, plural concubinae) who was not his wife, most often a woman whose lower social status was an obstacle to marriage. Concubinage was "tolerated to the degree that it did not threaten the religious and legal integrity of the family".[20] It was not considered derogatory to be called a concubina, as the title was often inscribed on tombstones.[21]

A concubinus was a young male slave sexually exploited by his master as a sexual partner (see homosexuality in ancient Rome). These relations, however, were expected to play a secondary role to marriage, within which institution an adult male demonstrated his masculine authority as head of the household (pater familias). In one of his epithalamiums, Catullus (fl. mid-1st century BC) assumes that the young bridegroom has a concubinus who considers himself elevated above the other slaves, but who will be set aside as his master turns his attention to marriage and family life.[22]

In Abrahamic traditions

The Israelite discovers his concubine, dead on his doorstep - by Gustave Doré

In Judaism

Among the Israelites, men commonly acknowledged their concubines, and such women enjoyed the same rights in the house as legitimate wives.[23]

In Ancient Judaism

The concubine may not have commanded the same respect and inviolability as the wife. In the Levitical rules on sexual relations, the Hebrew word that is commonly translated as "wife" is distinct from the Hebrew word that means "concubine". However, on at least one other occasion the term is used to refer to a woman who is not a wife  specifically, the handmaiden of Jacob's wife.[24] In the Levitical code, sexual intercourse between a man and a wife of a different man was forbidden and punishable by death for both persons involved.[25][26] Since it was regarded as the highest blessing to have many children, wives often gave their maids to their husbands if they were barren, as in the cases of Sarah and Hagar, and Rachel and Bilhah. The children of the concubine often had equal rights with those of the wife;[23] for example, King Abimelech was the son of Gideon and his concubine.[27] Later biblical figures such as Gideon, and Solomon had concubines in addition to many childbearing wives. For example, the Books of Kings say that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.[28]

Illustration from the Morgan Bible of the Benjamites taking women of Shiloh as concubines.

The account of the unnamed Levite[29][30] shows that the taking of concubines was not the exclusive preserve of Kings or patriarchs in Israel during the time of the Judges, and that the rape of a concubine was completely unacceptable to the Israelite nation and led to a civil war. In the story, the Levite appears to be an ordinary member of the tribe dedicated to the worship of God, who was undoubtedly dishonored both by the unfaithfulness of his concubine and her abandonment of him. However, after four months, he decides to follow her back to her family home to persuade her to return to him. Her father seeks to delay his return and he does not leave early enough to make the return journey in a single day. The hospitality he is offered at Gibeah, the way in which his host's daughter is offered to the townsmen and the circumstances of his concubine's death at their hands describe a lawless time where visitors are both welcomed and threatened in equal measure. The most disturbing aspect of this account is that both the Levite and his (male) host seek to protect themselves by offering their womenfolk to their aggressors for sex, in exchange for their own safety. The Levite acts in a way that indicates he believes the multiple rape of his unfaithful concubine is preferable to the violation of the virginity of his host's daughter or a sexual assault on his own person. In the morning, the Levite appears to be quite indifferent to the condition of his concubine and expects her to resume the journey, but she is dead. He dismembers her body and distributes her (body parts) throughout the nation of Israel as a terrible message. This is considered outrageous by the Israelite tribesmen, who then wreak total retribution on the men of Gibeah and the surrounding tribe of Benjamin when they support them, killing them without mercy and burning all their towns. The inhabitants of (the town of) Jabesh Gilead are then slaughtered as a punishment for not joining the eleven tribes in their war against the Benjamites, and their four hundred unmarried daughters given in forced marriage to the six hundred Benjamite survivors. Finally, the two hundred Benjamite survivors who still have no wives are granted a mass marriage by abduction by the other tribes.

In Modern Judaism

In Judaism, concubines are referred to by the Hebrew term pilegesh (Hebrew: פילגש). The term is a loanword from Ancient Greek παλλακίς,[31][32][33] meaning "a mistress staying in house".

According to the Babylonian Talmud,[23] the difference between a concubine and a full wife was that the latter received a ketubah and her marriage (nissu'in) was preceded by an erusin ("formal betrothal"). Neither was the case for a concubine. One opinion in the Jerusalem Talmud argues that the concubine should also receive a marriage contract, but without a clause specifying a divorce settlement.[23]

Certain Jewish thinkers, such as Maimonides, believed that concubines were strictly reserved for kings, and thus that a commoner may not have a concubine. Indeed, such thinkers argued that commoners may not engage in any type of sexual relations outside of a marriage.

Maimonides was not the first Jewish thinker to criticise concubinage. For example, Leviticus Rabbah severely condemns the custom.[34] Other Jewish thinkers, such as Nahmanides, Samuel ben Uri Shraga Phoebus, and Jacob Emden, strongly objected to the idea that concubines should be forbidden.

In the Hebrew of the contemporary State of Israel, pilegesh is often used as the equivalent of the English word "mistress"i.e., the female partner in extramarital relationsregardless of legal recognition. Attempts have been initiated to popularise pilegesh as a form of premarital, non-marital or extramarital relationship (which, according to the perspective of the enacting person(s), is permitted by Jewish law).[35][36][37]

In Islam

Harem, by Doroshevich, c. 1905
Painting of seated women, with man standing
Women of the Harem by Jules Laurens, circa 1847

Concubines were common in pre-Islamic Arabia and when Islam arrived, it had a society with concubines. Islam introduced legal restrictions to the concubinage[38] and encouraged manumission.[39] In verse 23:6 in the Quran it is allowed to have sexual intercourse with concubines. Children of concubines were generally declared as legitimate as children born in wedlock, and the mother of a free child was considered free upon the death of the male partner.

Ancient times

Scene from the Harem by Fernand Cormon (1845–1924)

In ancient times, two sources for concubines were permitted under an Islamic regime. Primarily, non-Muslim women taken as prisoners of war were made concubines as happened after the Battle of the Trench,[40] or in numerous later Caliphates.[41] Upon rejecting their initial faith and embracing Islam, it was encouraged to manumit slave women or bring them into formal marriage.

Drunken Oriental man groping a Chinese girl
Drunken prince assaults Chinese maiden; miniature from Gulistan, Herat, 1427

Modern times

According to the rules of Islamic Fiqh, what is halal (permitted) by Allah in the Quran cannot be altered by any authority or individual. Therefore, although the concept of concubinage is halal, concubines are mostly no longer available in this modern era nor allowed to be sold or purchased in accordance with the latest human rights standards. However, as change of existing Islamic law is impossible, a concubine in this modern era, if existing, must be given all the due rights that Islam had preserved in the past.

It is further clarified that all domestic and organizational female employees are not concubines in this era and hence sex is forbidden with them unless Nikah (formal marriage)[42] or Nikah mut‘ah[43] (temporary marriage  which only Shi'ah Islam permits; some Sunni Muslims practice Nikah Misyar, or "traveller's marriage") is committed through the proper channels. Although sometimes the two are confused, mut'ah is not concubinage.

In Christianity

For the Overseers and Deacons there are no concubines in the New Testament. 1 Timothy emphasizes that church leaders should be in monogamous marriages,[44][45] that believers should not have sexual relationships outside marriage and that unmarried believers should be celibate. Marriage is to reflect the exclusive relationship between the husband (Christ) and wife (his church),[46] described as a "mystery".

In the United States

Free woman of color with quadroon daughter; late 18th century collage painting, New Orleans.

When slavery became institutionalized in the North American colonies, white men, whether or not they were married, sometimes took enslaved women as concubines, most often against the will of the woman. Marriage between the races was prohibited by law in the colonies and the later United States. Many colonies and states also had laws against miscegenation, or any interracial relations. From 1662 the Colony of Virginia, followed by others, incorporated into law the principle that children took their mother's status, i.e., the principle of partus sequitur ventrem. All children born to enslaved mothers were born into slavery, regardless of their father's status or ancestry.[47] This led to generations of multiracial slaves, some of whom were otherwise considered legally white (one-eighth or less African, equivalent to a great-grandparent) before the American Civil War.

In some cases, men had long-term relationships with enslaved women, giving them and their mixed-race children freedom and providing their children with apprenticeships, education and transfer of capital. A relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is believed to by some to be an example of this, however the DNA results are disputed.[48] In other cases, the men did nothing for the women except in a minor way. Such arrangements were more prevalent in the Southern states during the antebellum years.


Main article: Plaçage

In Louisiana and former French territories, a formalized system of concubinage called plaçage developed. European men took enslaved or free women of color as mistresses after making arrangements to give them a dowry, house or other transfer of property, and sometimes, if they were enslaved, offering freedom and education for their children.[49] A third class of free people of color developed, especially in New Orleans.[49][50] Many became educated, artisans and property owners. French-speaking and practicing Catholicism, these women combined French and African-American culture and created an elite between those of European descent and the slaves.[49] Today, descendants of the free people of color are generally called Louisiana Creole people.[49]

See also


  1. Patricia Buckley Ebrey (2002): Women and the Family in Chinese History. Oxford: Routledge, p. 39.
  2. Ebrey 2002:39.
  3. Shi Fengyi 史凤仪 (1987): Zhongguo gudai hunyin yu jiating 中国古代婚姻与家庭 Marriage and Family in ancient China. Wuhan: Hubei Renmin Chubanshe, p. 74.
  4. 聘則為妻,奔則為妾。The translation is by James Legge
  5. 1 2 3 Ebrey 2002: 60.
  6. Ebrey 2002: 54.
  7. 1 2 "Concubines of Ancient China". Beijing Made Easy. Beijing Made Easy. 2012. Retrieved 13 June 2012.
  8. Ebrey 2002: 42.
  9. Qiu Zhonglin(Chung-lin Ch'iu)邱仲麟:"Mingdai linxuan Houfei jiqi guizhi" 明代遴選後妃及其規制(The Imperial Concubine Selection System during the Ming Dynasty). Mingdai Yanjiu 明代研究(Ming Studies) 11.2008:58.
  10. Sterling Seagrave, Peggy Seagrave (1993). Dragon lady: the life and legend of the last empress of China. Vintage Books.
  11. "Er nai - the modern Chinese concubine".
  12. Clifford Coonan (25 August 2009). "Welcome back: Return of capitalism to China means a major comeback for the concubine". The Independent. Retrieved 12 January 2016.
  17. James Davidson. Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. p. 98. ISBN 0-312-18559-6.
  18. James Davidson. Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. pp. 98–99. ISBN 0-312-18559-6.
  19. James Davidson. Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. p. 101. ISBN 0-312-18559-6.
  20. Grimal, Love in Ancient Rome (University of Oklahoma Press) 1986:111.
  21. Kiefer, Sexual Life in Ancient Rome (Kegan Paul International) 2000:50.
  22. Catullus, Carmen 61; Amy Richlin, "Not before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men", Journal of the History of Sexuality 3.4 (1993), pp. 534–535.
  23. 1 2 3 4 Staff (2002–2011). "PILEGESH (Hebrew, ; comp. Greek, παλλακίς).". Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13 June 2012.
  24. Genesis 30:4
  25. Leviticus 20:10
  26. Deuteronomy 22:22
  27. Judges 8:31
  28. 1 Kings 11:1-3
  29. Judges 19
  30. Judges 20
  31. Michael Lieb, Milton and the culture of violence, p.274, Cornell University Press, 1994
  32. Agendas for the study of Midrash in the twenty-first century, Marc Lee Raphael, p.136, Dept. of Religion, College of William and Mary, 1999
  33. Nicholas Clapp, Sheba: Through the Desert in Search of the Legendary Queen, p.297, Houghton Mifflin, 2002
  34. Leviticus Rabbah, 25
  35. Matthew Wagner (16 March 2006). "Kosher sex without marriage". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 13 June 2012.
  36. Adam Dickter, "ISO: Kosher Concubine", New York Jewish Week, December 2006
  37. Suzanne Glass, "The Concubine Connection", The Independent, London 20 October 1996
  38. Maarif ul Quran
  39. Maarif ul Quran,
  40. Majlisi, M. B. (1966). Hayat-ul-Qaloob, Volume 2, Translated by Molvi Syed Basharat Hussain Sahib Kamil, Imamia Kutub Khana, Lahore, Pakistan
  41. Murat Iyigun, “Lessons From the Ottoman Harem on Culture, Religion & Wars,”University of Colorado, 2011
  42. "Definition of Nikah (Islamic marriage)". Retrieved 16 December 2015.
  43. Motahhari M. "The rights of woman in Islam, fixed-term marriage and the problem of the harem". website. Accessed 15 March 2014.
  44. 1 Timothy 3:2
  45. 1 Timothy 3:12
  46. Ephesians 5:31-32
  47. Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619–1877, New York: Hill and Wang, 1993, p. 17
  48. "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account", Monticello Website, Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Retrieved 22 June 2011. Quote: "Ten years later [referring to its 2000 report], TJF and most historians now believe that, years after his wife's death, Thomas Jefferson was the father of the six children of Sally Hemings mentioned in Jefferson's records, including Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston Hemings ... Since then, a committee commissioned by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, after reviewing essentially the same material, reached different conclusions, namely that Sally Hemings was only a minor figure in Thomas Jefferson's life and that it is very unlikely he fathered any of her children. This committee also suggested in its report, issued in April 2001 and revised in 2011, that Jefferson's younger brother Randolph (1755-1815) was more likely the father of at least some of Sally Hemings's children."
  49. 1 2 3 4 Helen Bush Caver and Mary T. Williams, "Creoles", Multicultural America, Countries and Their Cultures Website. Retrieved 3 Feb 2009
  50. Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619–1865, New York: Hill and Wang, 1993, pp. 82-83

External links

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