The legend of the Emperor's "fragrant concubine" from the western territories

The legend of the Emperor's "fragrant concubine" from the western territories

In 1882, the eighth year of Emperor Guangxu of Qing's reign, the Commandant of Barkol (a man by the name of Shakedulinzhabu) was sent by the Qing Emperor to join a Russian envoy on a surveying and mapping expedition along the Qing-Russian border. The results of these surveys, including the distribution of mountains, waterways and roads, were then compiled into a work entitled Illustrated Journal of Borders in Southern Xinjiang. This book not only documents the cartographers' daily itinerary — it also features illustrations of important landmarks along the way. Thanks to the book's highly visual format, we can develop a clear idea of what these landmarks looked like at the time.

Image 7 is the Borkol Commandant's representation of the region of Kashgar during the reign of Emperor Guangxu. This map has a north-up orientation. The red box in the center of the image (southwest of the two other boxes) is the Han Chinese settlement of "Kashgar", in modern-day Shule County. The illustration in the smaller of the two boxes in the top-left corner has been labelled huicheng or "Muslim city"; it was known during the Qing dynasty as the "Old City of Kashgar" and is the location of modern-day Kashgar. These cities are both represented using city gates. To the northeast of the Old City is a vaulted building enclosed by courtyard walls, labelled "Mausoleum of the Fragrant Concubine".

Image 7: The "Mausoleum of the Fragrant Concubine" as shown in the Illustrated Journal of Borders in Southern Xinjiang from Emperor Guangxu's reign

Image 8: Exterior of the "Mausoleum of the Fragrant Concubine" in Kashgar (taken in July 2012)

If we compare this illustration with the photo of the actual mausoleum, in Image 8, we can see that the commandant's technique was fairly realistic; the illustration has more or less the same shape as the real thing.

At the end of the 90s, the poetic name of the "Fragrant Concubine" was on the lips of TV viewers all throughout China owing to her appearance in the Taiwanese TV show My Fair Princess. The show recounts the love affair between the playboy Emperor Qianlong and this mysterious woman from the "western territories". While My Fair Princess was written by one of Taiwan's most famous romance novelists, Chiung Yao, the character of the Fragrant Concubine is not Chiung's original creation — she merely added a few romantic embellishments to a well-known tale. It also bears noting that My Fair Princess is far from the first artistic adaptation of the story: since as early as end of the Qing Dynasty, to the post-imperial rule of the Kuomintang, and in the early days of Communist China, the story was popularized thanks to a number of novels and Peking operas. Chiung Yao's depiction of the Fragrant Concubine in My Fair Princess was no doubt inspired by existent works of literature and art. From the label "Mausoleum of the Fragrant Concubine" on Image 7, we can ascertain that, by the reign of Emperor Guangxu in the late Qing Dynasty, the romantic name "Fragrant Concubine" was already in use, while her mausoleum was already a relatively famous landmark among locals.

In July 2012, I visited the Mausoleum of the Fragrant Concubine in Kashgar (pictured in Image 8) and learned from my tour guide that it is an ancestral burial site. It was said that, after his beloved concubine passed away, Emperor Qianlong chose, out of respect for her religious customs and love of her hometown, to send her all the way across China to rest peacefully in her ancestral tomb. While it's certainly a moving tale, my guide interspersed it with certain historical facts and citations that proved the truth is not quite as romantic. 
The fact of the matter is that the legend of the Fragrant Concubine is a work of fiction. However, the character of the Fragrant Concubine was based loosely on a true historical figure: Consort Rong, Emperor Qianlong's only concubine of Uyghur descent.

Consort Rong was born in the 12th year of Emperor Yongzheng of Qing's reign (1734). She moved into the palace at age 27, during the 26th year of Emperor Qianlong of Qing's reign (1761). In the 33rd year of his reign (1761), Emperor Qianlong granted Lady Rong — then aged 34 — the title of "Consort". According to the stipulations of the Qing Court, the Emperor had, in addition to the Empress: "one imperial noble consort (huangguifei), two noble consorts (guifei), four consorts (fei), six concubines (pin), as well as an unspecified number of noble ladies (guiren), attendants (changzai) and respondents (daying)." From this stipulation, it is easy to see that Consort Rong had a fairly high status in the palace. In Image 9, we can see Consort Rong wearing jifu ("auspicious garments"): a sartorial register reserved for grand ceremonies and celebrations. This is one of only a few extant portraits of the consort.

Image 9: Consort Rong in ceremonial garb

Not only was Consort Rong the only concubine of Uyghur descent in Emperor Qianlong's imperial harem — she was the only Uyghur concubine in the more than two centuries that make up the Qing Dynasty's history. What led this woman from the "western territories" to marry into the imperial palace, all the way on the other side of China? To find the answer, we must first discuss Consort Rong's distinguished background.

Consort Rong was a descendent of the Khoja clan and belonged to the upper echelons of southern Xinjiang society. Khoja means "holy descendent" in Persian and specifically refers to descendants of the founder of Islam, Mohamed. During the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, it was transliterated in Chinese as huo zhe, while most historical texts from the Qing Dynasty transliterate it as he zhuo. Consort Rong — much like Hojijan and Buranidun Khoja, the leaders of the Revolt of the Altishahr Khojas — was a descendent of a leader of the “White Mountain" school of Sufiism from southern Xinjiang, Afaq Khoja. Hojijan and Buranidun Khoja were sworn enemies of the Qing army who opposed Emperor Qianlong's unification of Xinjiang. However, Consort Rong's elder cousin Tuerdu opposed Hojijan and Buranidun Khoja, and conspired with the Qing army in order to defeat them. After the revolt was suppressed, Tuerdu was commended by Emperor Qianlong for his support to the Qing empire. He and his family were thus invited to Beijing, where they were granted titles such as "Duke of Second Order" and "Vassal Lord".

Image 10: Portrait of Emperor Qianlong upon ascending the throne

Consort Rong followed her family to the imperial capital in the 25th year of Emperor's Qianlong's reign (1760). It is said that, at an imperial dinner for "ministers who had contributed to the suppression of rebellions" and their family members, the Consort Rong attracted the Emperor's attention with her exceptional beauty and sharp mind. She was immediately recruited into his harem and granted the title of "Noble Lady". From then onwards, the emperor lavished her with attention. In the 30th year of his reign (1765), Emperor Qianlong invited Consort Rong and Tuerdu to accompany him on his fourth "southern inspection tour" (nanxun), during which he would appoint generals in the southern reaches of the Yangtze River. During this inspection tour, Emperor Qianlong gifted one of his concubines to Tuerdu as a wife. Not long after, he promoted Rong from the rank of Concubine to Consort.

Consort Rong lived in the Qing Palace for 28 years, dying at the age of 55 (in 1788, the 53rd year of Emperor Qianlong's reign). She shares the Emperor's final resting place, at the Eastern Qing tombs in Zunhua, Hebei Province (shown in Image 11). On her wooden coffin are inscriptions of passages from the Quran in Arabic. These are the true-life experiences of Consort Rong.

Image 11: Eastern Qing tombs in Zunhua

After she passed away during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, Consort Rong was buried in the Eastern Qing tombs, rather than being sent back to her mazar (ancestral tomb) in Kashgar. The "Mausoleum of the Fragrant Concubine" in Kashgar (pictured in Image 8) is actually most often referred to in Qing documents as the "Khoja Clan Tomb", and is indeed the ancestral tomb of the Khojas built by Afaq Khoja, the White Mountain leader. The locals refer to this tomb as the "Mazar of the Venerable" or the "Mazar of Afaq Khoja". In important works of literature, such as He Ning's Comprehensive Record of the Muslim Frontier from the reign of Emperor Jiaqing of Qing (1796-1820) and Xu Song's Waterways of the Western Territories, the site is referred to as the "Mausoleum of the Khojas". The name "Fragrant Concubine" cannot be found in any documents from the mid-Qing Dynasty.

According to unofficial historical records, it was only by the end of the Qing Dynasty and the early years of post-Imperial China that the poetic name first appeared and became famous. Similar to the real-life Consort Rong, the mythical figure of the Fragrant Concubine was an Uyghur woman from Kashgar in the western territories, who belonged to the Khoja clan and who married into the imperial palace. Over the years, thanks to anecdotal history and word-of-mouth, the original story of Consort Rong's life was transformed into the exciting and romantic legend of the Fragrant Concubine.

One of the earliest known references to the "Mausoleum of the Fragrant Concubine" can be found in the Assorted Narrative Poems about the Western Frontier, written by Xiao Xiong in the 18th year of Emperor Guangxu of Qing's reign (1892). In this poem, Xiao writes that "the temple is rectangular, with a hollow, domed roof covered in green porcelain tiles" and that many devout followers of Islam come there to pray for blessings. Xiao's book was popularized after it was included in anthologies such as the Collected Writings of the Shaanxi School. Later, the Fragrant Concubine was depicted differently in a number of sensationalist works, such as the Unofficial History of the Manchu Qing Empire, the Anecdotal History of the Manchu Qing Empire, the Categorized Anthology of Petty Matters from the Qing Period, the Secrets of the Palace from Ancient Times until Today, An Overview of Anecdotal History from the Qing Dynasty, and the Updated Biographies of Exemplary Women. Her character was gradually elaborated into that of a mysterious woman from the western realm who had a naturally captivating scent.

According the Updated Biographies of Exemplary Women, written in the 33rd year of Emperor Guangxu of Qing's reign (1907), the Qing army took a beautiful Uyghur woman as a prisoner during the pacification of the western territories, and showed her to Emperor Qianlong, who was so smitten by her that he took her as his concubine. However, the Fragrant Concubine resented the Qing army for their destruction of her hometown and people, and secretly vowed to avenge the death of her parents. Emperor Qianlong admired her tragic, noble demeanor, and sought to raise her in the palace. Once the empress found out, she waited for Emperor Qianlong to partake in a ceremony on the outskirts of the imperial capital before ordering for the Fragrant Concubine to be put to death. Upon returning to the palace and learning of his beloved's death, the emperor was utterly distraught. In this book, the author uses literary flourishes to add tension to the story of the Fragrant Concubine. Elements such as the Concubine's sense of emptiness and desire for revenge; the ruthless and powerful empress; and Emperor Qianlong's deep-seated affection are all brought to life thanks to his unique style.

Written in the third year of Emperor Xuantong's reign (1911), the "Biographies of Exceptional Women" volume of Li Mengfu's Unofficial Record from the Spring Ice Studio added new flourishes and twists to the tale of the Fragrant Concubine. According to her unofficial biography, the imperial concubine "was unrivalled in her beauty" and "naturally gave off a rare fragrance without the use of perfumes and soaps, hence the people of China called her 'Fragrant Concubine'". In this version, during the pacification of Xinjiang, Emperor Qianlong was already aware of this fragrant woman of the west. Once the wars were over, the Qing commandant captured the Fragrant Concubine and sent her to the imperial palace in Beijing. Every time she was summoned by the emperor, the concubine was utterly glacial and wouldn't respond to a single one of his many interrogations. Emperor Qianlong thus sent palace maids to convince her to be more sociable. Upon seeing the maids, the Fragrant Concubine took out a dagger and said, "My home has been destroyed and my family is dead. I resolve to avenge them with the emperor's blood. If the emperor obliges me, I will be all too happy to complete my mission." When the palace maids attempted to take the concubine's dagger, she told them that she would kill herself if they tried. They didn't dare interfere any longer. The emperor realized there was nothing he could do except treat her with tolerance. To help the concubine with her homesickness, he ordered the construction of replicas of her hometown's markets and mosques. A few years later, the empress waited until the emperor had left to take part in a ceremony at the Temple of Heaven before visiting the concubine. Asked about her plans to kill the emperor, the concubine responded: "I am incapable of exacting revenge as I had wished, but I ask to be put to death." The empress thus ordered for her death by hanging. This recount is subtler and more detailed. Emperor Qianlong's attempts to court the Fragrant Concubine somewhat resemble the story of King You trying to make his frosty concubine Baosi laugh by setting off flares that falsely alarmed his nobles of incoming attacks.

Image 12: Portrait of the Fragrant Concubine in armor

In 1914, the Portrait of the Fragrant Concubine in Armor (in Image 12) was displayed in Yudetang ("Hall of Bathed Virtue") at the Forbidden City's western gate, Xihuamen. Accompanying the portrait was an Abbreviated Tale of the Fragrant Concubine, about three hundred words long. In this portrait, the concubine wears a body-hugging set of armor and carries an ornamental sword on her hip. She has the valiant stance of a warrior and soft, delicate features.

According to research, while this portrait was indeed produced by the Qing imperial court, it actually depicts the emperor's daughter, who loved to wear armor, rather than Consort Rong or the "Fragrant Concubine". By labeling the portrait as being that of the Fragrant Concubine, the exhibition was likely attempting to cater to popular tastes. However, this was the first time that a supposed image of the Fragrant Concubine had been showed to the masses. In this sense, the portrait played a significant role in forming a distinct image of the concubine in the collective imagination.

In 1916, Cai Dongfan dedicated a significant portion of his Popular Romance of the Qing Dynasty to recounting the tale of the Fragrant Concubine. While the contextual details are all drawn from history, the plot is a complete fabrication. In this version, the Fragrant Concubine was originally the concubine of an enemy king. After the rebels in the West were defeated by the Qing army, their family members were arrested and escorted back to Beijing. Emperor Qianlong discovered the "devastatingly beautiful" Fragrant Concubine at a grand celebration of the Qing victory and decided to adopt her into the palace; however, the Fragrant Concubine was unwilling to cooperate. At the end of the story, the empress orders the concubine's execution by hanging.

Following the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the legend was adapted into two Peking operas: The Fragrant Concubine and The Hatred of the Fragrant Concubine. The plot of the former is even more far-fetched: in it, the Emperor only decides to conquer the peoples of Xinjiang after hearing of the concubine's unparalleled beauty. He orders the Qing army to capture her alive and bring her back to the palace, but she doesn't not comply. Ultimately, she is fatally poisoned by the empress. The Hatred of the Fragrant Concubine's plot is essentially the same as the Abbreviated Tale of the Fragrant Concubine.

In 1982, the Tianjin Peking Opera troupe staged a new version of The Fragrant Concubine, whose plot is as follows: the Fragrant Concubine collaborates with her older brother Tuerdu to help the Qing army suppress the Revolt of the Altishahr Khojas. Following the Qing army's army, they receive an invitation to the imperial capital; upon their arrival, the Fragrant Concubine is adopted into the palace. At this time, a band of soldiers in Xinjiang who had been tricked into defecting to tsarist Russia suddenly wake up to the error of their ways and ask to be allowed back into their home country. Emperor Qianlong heeds the Fragrant Concubine's advice to grant them clemency and lets them back into China. However, the treacherous minister Amu attempts to thwart them by hiring an assassin to kill the Emperor. The assassin attempt backfires and the Fragrant Concubine is framed as the traitor. The empress believes the false accusations and sentences the concubine to prison and eventual execution. Just in the nick of time, Emperor Qianlong finds out the truth, saves the concubine, and executes Amu.

Image 13: Portrait of the Fragrant Concubine

With the exception of ludicrous details such as the attempted assassination of Emperor Qianlong, the Peking opera The Fragrant Concubine is more or less true to history. Consort Rong, the woman who inspired the legend of the Fragrant Concubine, really did have a brother named Tuerdu; the soldiers who defected to tsarist Russia were probably based on the Torgut tribe that made their way back to China via the Volga River; while the "treacherous minister" Amu was most likely based on Amursana, a member of the Dzungar tribe who fought against the Qing army.

In conclusion, in extant historical documents from the Qing Dynasty, nothing indicates that Consort Rong truly had a captivating natural fragrance. In reality, she was simply an Uyghur woman who was somewhat favored by the emperor and who lived with him in relative harmony in the imperial palace. As I revised this article, I discovered to my great interest that, upon comparison, the portraits of Consort Rong (Image 9) and Emperor Qianlong (Image 10) resemble those of a husband and wife.

Through years of exaggeration and embellishment by writers and artists, the Emperor Qianlong has developed the posthumous reputation of a playboy, while Consort Rong has been molded into the seductive character of the Fragrant Concubine, a woman from the western frontier who has a captivating smell. Add to that a series of tantalizing details such as the bitter and jealous empress; the ins and outs of the imperial harem; the concubine's secret loathing of the Qing nation and her desire to avenge her family's death; as well as her languorous love affair with the emperor, and you have a scandalous drama worthy of a Harlequin novel. Without us realizing, the noble historical figure of Consort Rong has been transformed into a trope of sensationalist literature.

The real Consort Rong is buried in the Eastern Qing tombs at Zunhua in Hebei Province, while the "Mausoleum of the Fragrant Concubine" in Kashgar, all the way on the other side of China, is almost undoubtedly her family's ancestral burial ground. A popular sight among tourists, the palanquin in the mausoleum was most likely used to transport deceased members of Consort Rong's family to the burial ground. Another theory is that it was built as a monument to Consort Rong.

The truth is that our perception of many legendary historical figures is warped to a degree by artistic sensationalism, and that numerous events throughout history have been embellished to make them more palatable to mainstream audiences. This is undeniably the case of Consort Rong: only once she had transformed into the Fragrant Concubine, the exotic beauty from the West, did her story achieve legendary status.

In July 2012, when I visited the Mausoleum of the Fragrant Concubine in Kashgar, I took the time to contemplate a well-known portrait of the concubine in the flesh (in Image 13). In this portrait, the concubine wears the garments and hairstyle of a noblewoman, with a dignified expression and finely chiseled features. While the story of the Fragrant Concubine is based on Consort Rong, we cannot know who was the model for this painting. Be that as it may, we can still experience the legend of the concubine through this model's gentle gaze.

Main references:

Ji Dachun: Identifying misconceptions surrounding the Mausoleum of the Fragrant Concubine in Kashgar, "The Silk Road's Dialogue with Civilization": A Collection of Academic Discussions, 2006.

Xu Xin: The mystery of the portrait of the "Fragrant Concubine". The Forbidden City. March 2012.

Liu Xianzhao: Consort Rong in history and the "Fragrant Concubine" in art. Ethnicity Studies, June 1985.