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October 27, 2018

13 Pieces of Wisdom from Imperial Concubines that are Still Relevant to us 21st Century Women.

Millennia ago, girls as young as 13 were selected into the Forbidden City, as part of a pageantry to become women for the court, filling in positions that ranged from concubines to consorts, and, at the top of the pecking order, the empress of the dynasty.

The ladies who were successfully chosen from the thousands of girls (imagine a nationwide casting) ended up spending the rest of their lives within the walls of the Forbidden City, often leading sad, isolated lives, rather than a life filled with glamour and fortune that seemed to be promised with palace living.

Beauty, physical health, family background, virtues, behavior, and character all made up the selection criteria. The main duty was, of course, to bear children for the imperial family, and every birth of a son would increase a woman’s imperial rank.

In 2018, from the lens of a third-wave feminist millennial, this explains a lot of the sexism and the male-female balance (or lack thereof) of powers that have been historically entrenched deep in the Far Eastern cultures.

It’s easy to dismiss these passages as backward society, when a woman’s value was determined by her “service.” However, the concentration of such a group of chosen women within palace walls created a very unique battleground of power, self-worth, identity, ego, and fate. It’s a game of life-or-death chess, under the pretense of harmony.

Needless to say, life within the walls of the Forbidden City had its own rules that quickly conditioned and transformed each fresh-eyed girl who entered with her hopes and dreams. This is game theory on steroids, powered by estrogen on steroids.

And the facts of human nature made sure that we are still fascinated by life back then—”Story of YanXi Palace,” a modern-day “Cinderella” tale set in Imperial China, set the single-day online viewership record in China, with a total of 530 million views—and has accumulated over 15 billion views worldwide since August 2018. To date, the drama is the most viewed Chinese language drama of 2018, and has attracted distribution of over 70 countries worldwide, and growing. We are obsessed with the drama, we are gripped by the plot and characters, and we are even going after their looks and lip color.

Part of the attraction to this story is that it imparts life lessons and advice that remain relevant today. The characters are built with modern archetypes, so that every girl in 2018 can identify with one of the girls in the show.

It might, at first, seem far-fetched to take life or love tips from imperial concubines, but, considering that their love life determined their fate, their salaries, their dynastic careers/rank/success, their families’ fates, their household staff’s size and prosperity—love is their power. It’s their ultimate wager for a gamble at life.

They risked and sacrificed a whole lot more than we do (or ever will), and what they’ve test-driven within the walls of the Forbidden City can serve as nuggets of wisdom to keep in mind as we navigate our own lives.

Because, if we were to descend into drama or become entangled in games and deception, why not take tips from those who have been through the worst and been trained the best?

  1. 想要報復一個人,最好的辦法,就是奪走她最想要的東西。
    The best revenge is to take away the one thing your enemy wants the most.
  2. 怕輸就用卑鄙手段,只會讓人更瞧不起妳。
    Using below-the-belt tactics for fear of failure will only make others look down on you even more.
  3. 善欲人見並非真善。
    Those who are publicly seen as good citizens may not truly be good citizens.
  4. 凡欺人者,他日必為人所欺。
    Those who bully others will no doubt be bullied by others in due course. In other words, what goes around comes around. Karma and karmic debt are both real. You receive what you put out.
  5. 惡人都是欺軟怕硬,你越是畏懼,他們就越是欺淩。
    The villains always bully the weak and fear the strong—the more you fear them, the more that fear strengthens them.
  6. 皇上明知道那些都是假話、可為什麼還是愛聽呢?因為假話好聽、順耳。
    The emperor clearly knows that those words are lies, so why does he still indulge in them? Because lies are easy and formidable to listen to, as they polish his ego.
  7. 要消滅流言的最好方法,就是把事情鬧大,讓眾人知道真相。
    The best way to eliminate rumors is to amplify and escalate the events, so that everybody knows the truth.
  8. 雖說流言止於智者,但這個世上本就是蠢人居多,智者沒有幾個。
    Even though they say that rumors end with the wise, the world is populated by mostly idiots—intelligent beings are few and far between.
  9. 別管這事情有多荒繆,只要有人信,那就是真的。
    Regardless of how inconceivable something appears to be, as long as someone believes it, it becomes real.
  10. 世事不會盡如人意,是人就有失敗的時候,所以你要學會耐心等待,等到你內心足夠強大,等到有一天你不再受制於人,等到天時、地利、人和。
    The world will not always be perfect. As humans, we are guaranteed to experience failures in life, so we must learn to acquire patience, until we become strong enough, until the day comes when we are no longer controlled by others, until the timing of things is just right—until the wheel of fortune lands on our side.
  11. 千萬人的唾液,我也能唾面自乾,哪怕就是讓我跪著等,我也要等下去,直到真相大白的那一天。
    The spit of thousands, even tens of thousands of misunderstood people, I can endure and let dry. Even if that means to be on my knees waiting for the air to dry off my face, I will continue to wait, until the day when truth becomes revealed. (In other words, truth will reveal itself in due course, even though the process of being vindicated will be extremely toiling. They will strip us of our dignity, but they cannot strip us of our truth.)
  12. 即使暫時的忍耐,也是為了將來的痛快。
    The temporary endurance of misfortune is both sacrifice and paving the way toward the happiness of the future.
  13. 所有的危機只要把握得好,就可以變身進身之階。
    As long as the crises are timely and cleverly seized, they can be transformed into steps both forward and upward.

In her bestselling book, Thrive, Arianna Huffington states that, “Wisdom frees us from the narrow reality we’re trapped in.”

These women arrived in the Forbidden City as young girls, and they didn’t have anywhere else to go or turn to. What many girls had dreamed of was also a life sentence, in the most cruel and unimaginable ways.

Within the palace walls, where they were forever trapped, they couldn’t escape from the games, drama, or plotting. And, under those very conditions, they evolved into soldiers.

These are the life lessons they’ve distilled from their battleground. May they be of benefit to you and yours.

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