Concubinage has a long history in China. Concubines were women who lived with Emperors but were never legally married and were inferior to spouses. An Emperor might have as many or as few concubines as he wanted, as long as they bore him a large number of offspring. The story of Consort Zhen is known to be tragic. She met her terrible and untimely conclusion in 1900, thrown into a little well near the Ningzhou Palace after an exciting and rather chaotic stint as a concubine. So, what did she do to receive this fate?
The Emperor grew a liking for her
According to one popular version of the story, Zhen was slain in a jealous rage. Jealousy was a common issue in the Forbidden Palace, and the Emperor became quite fond of Zhen. The Emperor was so fond of her that it is alleged she exploited her influence to intervene in palace operations. She had also acquired an interest in photography and had managed to sneak cameras into the palace to record life behind the walls of a city that was still closed to the outside world.
Empress Dowager Cixi intervened
Zhen sympathized with and supported Emperor Guangxu’s constitution reform efforts due to her personal friendship with the Emperor. After Empress Dowager Cixi crushed the reform, Zhen was placed under house arrest, and the Emperor was brought into captivity separately. She was confined away in a little building for two long and lonely years. Not only was she unable to communicate with the Emperor or her sister, but she was also unable to walk around the palace, making her much more of a prisoner than she was already.
While still under house imprisonment, word of the 8-Nation Allied Forces attacking Beijing arrived in 1900, and the imperial court fled to Xi’an. Consort Zhen is reported to have been brought before Empress Dowager. Zhen, believing she was going to be spared, asked the Emperor to let her stay at the Forbidden City to try to negotiate. In a fit of rage, the Empress ordered Zhen to be thrown into the little well that still exists today. Her corpse wasn’t found until a year later when she was finally laid to rest.
Although the Forbidden City’s Emperors, Empresses, and Concubines have long ago passed, the modest well stands as a reminder of the city’s past, as well as the tragic tragedy of Consort Zhen.