The Concubine in the Well

The Concubine in the wellIf the walls of the Forbidden City enclosed a dazzling Court presided over by enlightened emperors, they also-down the centuries-hid the innumerable plots, intrigues and betrayals char were played out in the struggles for power. It is said that the Forbidden City is a graveyard of souls; within its tortuous precincts, inexplicable deaths and suspected murders were almost a familiar feature of Court life. There were always, at one time or another, the conflicting interests of pretenders, concubines, eunuchs and ministers to be resolved, especially when questions of succession were involved, or when weak emperors-either because of extreme youth or sheer incompetence-could be manipulated by self-seeking regents and corrupt officials.

The method of exterminating rivals by secret murder was employed with particular frequency, even finesse, by the Manchu Empress Dowager Cixi. This venal and selfish woman, who was supreme ruler of China for nearly half a century (1861-1908), has been regarded with such horror and fascination that, in the popular mind, the facts of her life have become blurred by legend.

As a young woman, Cixi entered the palace as a low-ranking concubine to Emperor Xianfeng (reigned 1851-61). On producing a son, she was promoted to Concubine of the First Grade, and skilfully charmed the emperor until she held him in thrall. On the emperor’s death, she continued her scheming to eliminate her rivals and eventually achieved such considerable power that she was in a position to have herself and Empress Ci’an declared as regents during the minority of Emperor Tongzhi, her five year-old son. (Even Ci’an was eventually disposed of, by poison it is rumored, in 1881.) When Tongzhi came of age, Cixi, instead of relinquishing her power, thwarted his attempts to be with his wife and encouraged him in a life of debauchery, which no doubt hastened his death at the age of 18, leaving no heir.

In flagrant defiance of succession laws, Cixi then contrived to put her infant nephew, whom she adopted, on the throne as Emperor Guangxu. She ruled in his name, ‘behind a silk screen’, until he reached maturity and she ostensibly retired to the Summer Palace in 1889, Nevertheless she continued to meddle in Court affairs. In 1898, in the wake of China’s humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, Guangxu launched the abortive Hundard Days reform movement that was to cost him his freedom. He was kept in semi-captivity by Cixi, who emerged from retirement to assume supreme control of the government once more.

At the height of the chaos following the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion, the Empress Dowager was to commit one of her most ruthless murders. The date was 15th August 1900. At the Lime all of Beijing was in alarm as the Allied troops approached to relieve the besieged legation quarter of foreigners. In the Forbidden City, the Empress Dowager made ready to flee to the western city of Xi’an. Donning the dark blue cloches of a peasant woman, Cixi cut her long lacquered nails and dressed her hair in Chinese style. She summoned the young emperor to prepare by torchlight for their immediate departure in three horse-drawn carts.

At the last moment, the Pearl Concubine (Zhenfei), who was the emperor’s favorite, appeared before Cixi and audaciously proposed that either the emperor be allowed to stay in Beijing or chat she be allowed co accompany him to the west.

Like the Empress Dowager, who had been a concubine herself, this spirited young woman was not given to showing respect or submission to her superiors.

She had frequently interfered with Cixi’s plans by giving the emperor contrary advice. Now, it must have appeared to the Empress Dowager, the Pearl Concubine had finally over-reached herself.

According to one account, Cixi lost no time in giving orders to her trusted eunuchs, who swiftly wrapped the concubine in a carpet and carried her off, over the young emperor’s objections, to the rear of the palace, where they threw her down a well. Her body was recovered a year later and temporarily buried in afield in the city’s western suburbs. Later she was laid to rest in the concubines’ grave, near Emperor Guangxu’s mausoleum, in the Western Qing Tombs.

The well is still there, inconspicuously marked by a small Chinese plaque, in a tiny courtyard in the northeastern corner of the Imperial Palace, by the Palace of Peaceful Old Age. A few Chinese tourists are usually clustered around it, trying to figure out how the eunuchs could have forced someone down so small an opening.

The final mystery surrounding Cixi was the strange coincidence of her death with that of emperor Guangxu. It is alleged that Cixi, adamant that the emperor should not outlive her, gave orders from her deathbed for him to poisoned, but that is just one more sinister intrigue that will never be proved.

The Temple of Heaven grounds open daily at 7.00 a.m. and close at dusk. Admission is five yuan to the park, 35 yuan for a comprehensive ticket that allows admission to all the park’s sights.


Situated in Fayuansi Qian Jie off Niu Jie in the Xuanwumen district, this temple is in the southwest quarter of the city. It was built by the Tang emperor, Taizong, in AD 654 in memory of troops killed in a battle with the Koreans and has been restored many times since. Two pagodas used to stand beside the temple, but they were destroyed by fire in the middle of the Tang period. It was at Fayuansi that Song Minister Xie Dieshan, brought under guard by Yuan troops to Beijing, chose to starve himself to death rather than submit to the Mongols.

The Fayuansi comprises six courtyards planted with lilac trees. In the past, the temple was obliged to lay on a series of vegetarian banquets every spring for local dignitaries, for it is an age-old Chinese custom to spend a convivial evening wining and dining with crowds of friends on the pretext of admiring the season’s new blooms.

The present occupants belong to the Chinese Buddhist Theoretical Institute, and the temple buildings now provide accommodation and classrooms for a number of novice monks. The temple is open daily from 8.30 a.m. to 11.00 a.m. and 1.30 p.m. to 4.00 p.m.

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