The Past and The Present

Palace. Kingdom. Monarchy 

Laying down these words in front of you, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

Off the top of my head, immediately I think: power, prestige and royalty.

Because, by the standard definition in any dictionary, that’s what these words generally imply. They paint visions of high-ranking, powerful individuals that glide along gilded corridors of humongous palaces waited upon hand and foot by a trail of servants that are always at least a shout away.

It’s a familiar vision for some (and by some, I mean most) of us that have watched and become hooked on at least one Asian periodic drama suffused with scandalous betrayals, politics and hierarchical disputes.

Even as someone who prefers a more modern setting for my binge nights on Netflix, I will admit that I have been sucked into watching Scarlet Heart (달의 연인 – 보보경심 려) and Legend of Yanxi Palace (延禧攻略). Eyes glued to the screen, I watched as events unfolded, trust was broken, friendships were buried and backs were stabbed. 

However, the more of these I watch, the more I notice a repeated theme that is woven throughout all period dramas and is often a strong motivator that pushes it along to the climax of the series is: the struggle for power as young single women clamber over each other to become the King’s “favoured one”.

Seeing as these are period dramas, it means that these stories must be rooted in some form of truth, a reflection of our past, reinterpreted for modern audiences.

Intrigued, I dive into the Internet, because surely this is just an exaggeration, merely a show, set up and meant to induce shocked gasps, keep ratings up and producers happy… right? 

Yeah, I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

In fact, on this one rare occasion, it seems that what we see on our flat-screens have been drastically downplayed. Going through the harem selection and process is not only horrifying but also quite long-winded therefore, I will not bore anyone with the details and instead attempt to summarize them without grimacing every few seconds.

Imagine a beauty pageant… on steroids.

Women from villages in districts are brought to the Imperial Palace selected by eunuchs based on their beauty that would “satisfy the emperor and his parents”.

This was followed by rigorous tests of knowledge, invasive physical examinations and an intense obsession over EVERY.SINGLE.FEATURE. All of this until, the herd of girls were whittled down to a mere 50 women. And even then the girls were ranked. Formal titles such as “consort”, “concubine” and “attendants” were used to distinguish between them. 

No, that was not a typo. 50 women. For one emperor. Polyagymy at its finest. 

As if that wasn’t enough. You might be thinking: 

“Hey, at least there’s some form of sexual freedom given that it was a polyamorous relationship, the girls were free to sleep with whomever they wanted as long as the Emporer got what he needed when he needed it.”

Wrong again. 

The girls were governed by a set of rules and even put into a sexual rotation according to a “moon cycle” (no, it’s not that cycle.) Essentially, their lives were governed to the T, with the higher ranking concubines getting more power and thus more influence on what went on in the palace. 

I think you can see where I’m going with this right? 

Fast forward to the present. (Thank God.) 

You might be wondering… what does that have to do with women in Asian communities today? To that I say: everything. 

Being comfortable with the topic of sex in general has NEVER been an Asian parent’s strong suit.

In fact, I never had the “birds and the bees talk”, I was left to find out what I could from books and the Internet. Even after knowing the technical aspects of it, I still found myself increasingly dumbfounded because even amongst friends… we just didn’t talk about it. 

Could it be that the act of my ancestors have somehow so deeply affected my psyche that I too believe that, despite not being shackled with the burdens of giving birth to a son for an Emperor, I should be uncomfortable with my own body and immediately default to thinking that I am nothing more than a vessel meant for motherhood and childbirth? 


To all my girls stifled and haunted by such thoughts here’s my message to you: 

Let’s break the damn mould. We should not allow ourselves to be oppressed merely because we were born with a uterus. We are more than what biology has destined us to be and I fiercely believe that not just us but our daughters and the generations of powerful women we will bring up can have it all without having to step on the back of our fellow women on the way. 

Article by Ashley Lim

One Comment Add yours

  1. Jessica Tahir says:

    I love article like this. Speaking about the traditions and practices that were no longer executed and yet still influenced younger generations up until today. Unfortunately, generally women (past and present) are still being seen as “baby makers”. Really hope that younger and future generations will no longer being oppressed in a system like this.

    Liked by 1 person

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