Concubinage (/kəŋˈkjuːbɪnɪdʒ/) is an interpersonal and sexual
relationship in which the couple are not or cannot be married. The
inability to marry may be due to multiple factors such as differences
in social rank status, an existing marriage, religious or professional
prohibitions (for example Roman soldiers), or a lack of recognition by
appropriate authorities. The woman in such a relationship is referred
to as a concubine (/ˈkɒŋkjəˌbaɪn/), and occasionally so is a man
in such a relationship.
The prevalence of concubinage and the status of rights and
expectations of a concubine have varied among cultures, as have the
rights of children of a concubine. Whatever the status and rights of
the concubine, they were always inferior to those of the wife and
typically neither she nor her children had rights of inheritance.
Historically, concubinage was frequently entered into voluntarily (by
the woman or her family) as it provided a measure of economic security
for the woman. Involuntary or servile concubinage sometimes involved
sexual slavery of one member of the relationship, usually the woman.
Nevertheless, sexual relations outside marriage were not uncommon,
especially among royalty and nobility, and the woman in such
relationships was commonly described as a mistress. The children of
such relationships were counted as illegitimate and were barred from
inheriting the father's title or estates, even when there was an
absence of legitimate heirs.
While forms of long-term sexual relationships and co-habitation short
of marriage have become increasingly common in the Western world,
these are generally not described as concubinage. The terms
concubinage and concubine are used today primarily when referring to
non-marital partnerships of earlier eras. In modern usage, a
non-marital domestic relationship is commonly referred to as
co-habitation (or similar terms), and the woman in such a relationship
is generally referred to as a girlfriend, mistress, fiancée, lover or
1 In Asia
1.1.1 Contemporary China
1.2 Hong Kong, Macau
2 Greco-Roman Antiquity
2.1 Ancient Greece
2.2 Ancient Roman concubinae and concubini
3 In Abrahamic traditions
3.1 In Judaism
3.1.1 In ancient Judaism
3.1.2 In modern Judaism
3.2 In Islam
3.2.1 Pre-modern times
3.2.2 Modern times
4 In the United States
5 See also
7 External links
Concubinage was highly popular before early 20th century all over
Asia. The main function of concubinage was producing additional heirs,
as well as bringing males pleasure. Children of concubines had lower
rights in account to inheritance, which was regulated by the Dishu
Consorts and children of the Qianlong Emperor, Qing dynasty, 18th
Portrait of a concubine, by Chinese painter Lam Qua, 1864
In China, successful men often had concubines until the practice was
outlawed after the
Communist Party of China
Communist Party of China came to power in 1949. The
standard Chinese term translated as "concubine" was qiè 妾, a term
used since ancient times, which means "female slave". Concubines
resembled wives (Chinese: 妻; pinyin: qī) in that they were
recognized sexual partners of a male family member and were expected
to bear children from him. Unofficial concubines (Chinese: 婢妾;
pinyin: bì qiè) are of lower status, and children of her are
considered illegitimate. In English the term concubine is also used
for what the Chinese refer to as pínfēi (Chinese: 嬪妃) "consorts
of emperors", some of very high rank.
In premodern China, it was illegal and socially disreputable for a man
to have more than one wife at a time, but he could have concubines.
At first a man could have as many concubines as he could afford,
however, from the Eastern Han (AD 25–220) onward, the maximal number
of concubines a man could have was limited by law. The higher ranking
and the more noble an identity a man possessed, the more concubines he
was permitted to have.
A concubine's treatment and situation were highly variable and were
influenced by the social status of the male to whom she was engaged,
as well as the attitude of the wife. In the
Book of Rites
Book of Rites chapter on
“The Pattern of the Family” (Chinese: 內則) it says: “If there
were betrothal rites, she became a wife; and if she went without
these, a concubine.” Besides, wives were married with dowries but
concubines were not. Concubines could be taken without any of the
ceremonies used in marriages. And neither remarriage nor a return to
her natal home in widowhood were allowed.
The position of the concubine was generally inferior to that of the
wife. Although a concubine could produce heirs, her children would be
inferior in social status to wife's children but were still better
than illegitimate children. The child of a concubine had to show
filial duty to two women, their biological mother and legal
mother—the wife of their father. After the death of a concubine,
her sons would make an offering to her, but these offerings were not
continued by the concubine's grandsons, who only made offerings to
their grandfather’s wife.
In ancient times, concubines were allegedly buried alive with their
masters to "keep them company in the afterlife". Until the Song
dynasty (960–1276), it was treated as a serious breach of social
ethics to promote a concubine to a wife.
During the Qing China (1644–1911), the status of concubines
improved. It became permissible to promote a concubine to wife, if the
wife had died and the concubine was the mother of the only surviving
sons. Moreover, the prohibition against forcing a widow to remarry was
extended to widowed concubines. Tablets for concubine-mothers seem to
have been more commonly placed in family ancestral altars and
genealogies of some lineages listed concubine-mothers.
Imperial concubines, kept by emperors in the Forbidden City, had
different ranks and were traditionally guarded by eunuchs to ensure
that they could not be impregnated by anyone but the emperor. In
Ming China (1368-1644), there was an official system to select
concubines for the emperor. The age of the candidates ranged mainly
from 14 to 16. Virtues, behavior, character, appearance and body
condition were taken as selection criteria.
Despite the limitations imposed on Chinese concubines, there are
several examples of concubines who achieved great power and influence
in history and literature. Lady Yehenara, otherwise known as Empress
Dowager Cixi, was arguably one of the most successful concubines in
China's history. Cixi first entered the court as a concubine to the
Xianfeng Emperor and gave birth to his only surviving son, who would
become the Tongzhi Emperor. She eventually become the de facto ruler
of Qing China for 47 years after her husband's death.
A display of concubinage is in one of the Four Great Classical Novels,
Dream of the Red Chamber
Dream of the Red Chamber (believed to be a semi-autobiographical
account of author Cao Xueqin's family life). Three generations of the
Jia family are supported by one notable concubine of the emperor, Jia
Yuanchun, the full elder sister of the male protagonist Jia Baoyu. In
contrast, their younger half-siblings by
Concubine Zhao, Jia Tanchun
and Jia Huan, developed distorted personalities, being children of
concubine. Tanchun insisted that the brother of her father's wife
Madam Wang, instead of the brother of
Concubine Zhao, is her uncle and
strive to be excellent in the girls to overcome her inferiority. Wang
Xifeng stated that occasionally nobles seeking marriage would value
the bride from her Dishu (being born by wife or concubine) status. Jia
Baoyu himself has an unofficial concubine Hua Xiren, whom he had first
sexual encounter with, but remain deep spiritual love to his cousin
Lin Daiyu and intend to marry her.
The concept of men having relationships with one or more concubines
has seen a comeback since modern China has prospered. Mistresses are
often viewed as concubines, inferior to the wife in status.
The women called er nai, unofficial concubines in the 21st century,
typically say they feel fine about exploiting their youth, beauty and
wombs for the sake of earning money and protection from their
men, and not having to live with the primary wives any more as
in the past. The one-child policy in Mainland China also pushed those
men with power and wealth to pursue a male heir.
Emperors' concubines and harems are emphasized in 21st-century
romantic novels written for female readers and set in ancient times.
As a plot element, the children of concubines are depicted with a
status much inferior to that in actual history. The zhai dou
(residential intrigue) and gong dou (harem intrigue) genres show
concubines and wives, as well as their children, scheming secretly to
access power. Empresses in the Palace, a gong dou type novel and TV
drama, has had great success in 21st-century China.
Hong Kong, Macau
Hong Kong officially abolished the
Great Qing Legal Code in 1971,
which makes concubinage illegal.
Stanley Ho of Macau took his "2nd
wife" as his official concubine in 1957, and his "3rd and 4th wife"
retain no official status.
See also: Ōoku
Before monogamy was legally imposed in the Meiji period, concubinage
was common among the nobility. Its purpose was to ensure male
heirs. For example, the son of an Imperial concubine often had a
chance of becoming emperor. Yanagihara Naruko, a high-ranking
concubine of Emperor Meiji, gave birth to Emperor Taishō, who was
later legally adopted by Empress Haruko, Emperor Meiji's formal wife.
Even among merchant families, concubinage was occasionally used to
ensure heirs. Asako Hirooka, an entrepreneur who was the daughter of a
concubine, worked hard to help her husband's family survive after the
Meiji Restoration. She lost her fertility giving birth to her only
daughter, Kameko; so her husband—with whom she got along well—took
Asako's maid-servant as a concubine and fathered three daughters and a
son with her. Kameko, as the child of the formal wife, married a noble
man and matrilineally carried on the family name.
Joseon monarchs had a harem which contains concubines of different
Empress Myeongseong managed to have sons, preventing sons of
concubines getting power.
Children of concubines often have lower value in account of marriage.
A daughter of concubine cannot be the wife of a wife-born son of the
same class. For example,
Jang Nok-su is a concubine-born daughter of a
mayor, who was initially married to a slave-servant, later a high-rank
concubine of Yeonsangun.
Polygamy in Thailand
Before 1935, the family law listed three kind of wives - official
wife, minor wife and slave wife.
In Ancient Greece, the practice of keeping a slave concubine (Greek:
παλλακίς pallakís) was little recorded but appears throughout
Athenian history. The law prescribed that a man could kill another man
caught attempting a relationship with his concubine for the production
of free children, which suggests that a concubine's children were not
granted citizenship. While references to the sexual exploitation
of maidservants appear in literature, it was considered disgraceful
for a man to keep such women under the same roof as his wife. Some
interpretations of hetaera have held they were concubines when they
had a permanent relationship with a single man.
Ancient Roman concubinae and concubini
Marriage in ancient Rome § Concubinage
Concubinage was an institution practiced in ancient Rome that allowed
a man to enter into an informal but recognized relationship with a
woman (concubina, plural concubinae) who was not his wife, most often
a woman whose lower social status was an obstacle to marriage.
Concubinage was "tolerated to the degree that it did not threaten the
religious and legal integrity of the family". It was not
considered derogatory to be called a concubina, as the title was often
inscribed on tombstones.
A concubinus was a young male slave sexually exploited by his master
as a sexual partner (see homosexuality in ancient Rome). These
relations, however, were expected to play a secondary role to
marriage, within which institution an adult male demonstrated his
masculine authority as head of the household (pater familias). In one
of his epithalamiums,
Catullus (fl. mid-1st century BC) assumes that
the young bridegroom has a concubinus who considers himself elevated
above the other slaves, but who will be set aside as his master turns
his attention to marriage and family life.
In Abrahamic traditions
The Israelite discovers his concubine, dead on his doorstep - by
Among the Israelites, men commonly acknowledged their concubines, and
such women enjoyed the same rights in the house as legitimate
In ancient Judaism
The concubine may not have commanded the exact amount of respect as
the wife. In the
Levitical rules on sexual relations, the Hebrew word
that is commonly translated as "wife" is distinct from the Hebrew word
that means "concubine". However, on at least one other occasion the
term is used to refer to a woman who is not a wife –
specifically, the handmaiden of Jacob's wife. In the Levitical
code, sexual intercourse between a man and a wife of a different man
was forbidden and punishable by death for both persons
involved. Since it was regarded as the highest blessing to
have many children, wives often gave their maids to their husbands if
they were barren, as in the cases of
Sarah and Hagar, and
Bilhah. The children of the concubine often had equal rights with
those of the wife; for example, King Abimelech was the son of
Gideon and his concubine. Later biblical figures such as Gideon,
Solomon had concubines in addition to many childbearing wives. For
Books of Kings
Books of Kings say that
Solomon had 700 wives and 300
Illustration from the
Morgan Bible of the Benjamites taking women of
Shiloh as concubines.
The account of the unnamed Levite in Judges 19–20 shows that the
taking of concubines was not the exclusive preserve of Kings or
Israel during the time of the Judges, and that the rape
of a concubine was completely unacceptable to the Israelite nation and
led to a civil war. In the story, the Levite appears to be an ordinary
member of the tribe dedicated to the worship of God, who was
undoubtedly dishonored both by the unfaithfulness of his concubine and
her abandonment of him. However, after four months, he decides to make
her fall in love with him again at her father’s house; he brought a
servant and two asses to show off what glory he has. Her father seeks
to keep him there until one day he refuses to remain and leaves.
hospitality he is offered at Gibeah, the way in which his host's
daughter is offered to the townsmen and the circumstances of his
concubine's death at their hands describe a lawless time where
visitors are both welcomed and threatened in equal measure.The Levite
and his (male) host seek to protect themselves by offering their
womrmfolk, both the host’s virgin daughter and his companion’s
concubine, to their aggressors for sex, in exchange for their own
safety. In the morning, the Levite tries to wake her up, but then
realizes that she is dead. He dismembers her body and distributes her
(body parts) throughout the nation of
Israel to remind them of the
blessing that God gave them of liberating them from the likewise
sexually vicious and sadistic land of Egypt, and to inform them of the
horribleness of the land of Gibeah. The sadistic rape of the concubine
is considered outrageous by the Israelite tribesmen, who then wreak
total retribution on the men of Gibeah and the surrounding tribe of
Benjamin when they support the Gibeans, killing them without mercy and
burning all their towns. The inhabitants of (the town of) Jabesh
Gilead are then slaughtered as a punishment for not joining the eleven
tribes in their war against the Benjamites, and their four hundred
unmarried daughters given in forced marriage to the six hundred
Benjamite survivors. Finally, the two hundred
Benjamite survivors who
still have no wives are granted a mass marriage by abduction by the
In modern Judaism
In Judaism, concubines are referred to by the Hebrew term pilegesh
(Hebrew: פילגש). The term is a loanword from Ancient Greek
παλλακίς, meaning "a mistress staying in house".
According to the Babylonian Talmud, the difference between a
concubine and a full wife was that the latter received a ketubah and
her marriage (nissu'in) was preceded by an erusin ("formal
betrothal"). Neither was the case for a concubine. One opinion in the
Talmud argues that the concubine should also receive a
marriage contract, but without a clause specifying a divorce
Certain Jewish thinkers, such as Maimonides, believed that concubines
were strictly reserved for kings, and thus that a commoner may not
have a concubine. Indeed, such thinkers argued that commoners may not
engage in any type of sexual relations outside of a marriage.
Maimonides was not the first Jewish thinker to criticise concubinage.
Leviticus Rabbah severely condemns the custom. Other
Jewish thinkers, such as Nahmanides, Samuel ben Uri Shraga Phoebus,
and Jacob Emden, strongly objected to the idea that concubines should
In the Hebrew of the contemporary State of Israel, pilegesh is often
used as the equivalent of the English word "mistress"—i.e., the
female partner in extramarital relations—regardless of legal
recognition. Attempts have been initiated to popularise pilegesh as a
form of premarital, non-marital or extramarital relationship (which,
according to the perspective of the enacting person(s), is permitted
by Jewish law).
Main article: Ma malakat aymanukum
See also: Islamic views on slavery § Sexual intercourse
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Harem, by Doroshevich, c. 1905
Women of the
Harem by Jules Laurens, circa 1847
Sexual slavery as concubinage in
Islamic sexual jurisprudence is
permitted in Islam which was not considered prostitution, and was very
common during the
Arab slave trade
Arab slave trade throughout the Middle Ages and
early modern period, when women and girls from the Caucasus, Africa,
Central Asia and
Europe were captured and served as concubines in the
harems of the Arab World.
Ibn Battuta tells us several times that
he was given or purchased female slaves.
Concubinage is permitted and regulated in Islam.
Al-Muminun 6 and
Al-Maarij 30 both, in identical wording, draw a distinction between
spouses and "those whom one's right hands possess" (concubine/sexual
slaves), saying " أَزْوَاجِهِمْ أَوْ مَا
مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُهُمْ" (literally, "their
spouses or what their right hands possess"), while clarifying that
sexual intercourse with either is permissible. Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi
explains that "two categories of women have been excluded from the
general command of guarding the private parts: (a) wives, (b) women
who are legally in one's possession". "Concubine" (surriyya)
refers to the female slave (jāriya), whether Muslim or non-Muslim,
with whom her master engages in sexual intercourse. The word
"surriyya" is not mentioned in the Qur'an. However, the expression "Ma
malakat aymanukum" (that which your right hands own), which occurs
fifteen times in the sacred book, refers to slaves and therefore,
though not necessarily, to concubines.
Concubinage was a pre-Islamic
custom that was allowed to be practiced under Islam with Jews and
non-Muslim people to marry concubine after teaching her and
instructing her well and then giving them freedom. Rationale given
for recognition of concubinage in Islam is that "it satisfied the
sexual desire of the female slaves and thereby prevented the spread of
immorality in the Muslim community." Most schools restrict
concubinage to a relationship where the female slave is required to be
monogamous to her master (though the master's monogamy to her is
not required), but according to Sikainga, "in reality, however, female
slaves in many Muslim societies were prey for [male] members of their
owners' household, their [owner's male] neighbors, and their [owner's
male] guests." Concubines were common in pre-Islamic Arabia and
when Islam arrived, it had a society with concubines. Islam introduced
legal restrictions to the concubinage and encouraged
manumission. In verse 23:6 in the Quran it is allowed to have
sexual intercourse with concubines after marrying them, as Islam
forbids sexual intercourse outside of marriage. Children of former
concubines were generally declared as legitimate as they were born in
wedlock, and the mother of a free child was considered free upon the
death of the male partner.
Shia Muslims, Muhammad sanctioned Nikah mut‘ah
(fixed-term marriage, called muta'a in
Iraq and sigheh in Iran) which
has instead been used as a legitimizing cover for sex workers, in a
culture where prostitution is otherwise forbidden. Some Western
writers have argued that mut'ah approximates prostitution. Julie
Parshall writes that mut'ah is legalised prostitution which has been
sanctioned by the Twelver
Shia authorities. She quotes the Oxford
encyclopedia of modern Islamic world to differentiate between marriage
(nikah) and Mut'ah, and states that while nikah is for procreation,
mut'ah is just for sexual gratification. According to Zeyno Baran,
this kind of temporary marriage provides Shi'ite men with a
religiously sanctioned equivalent to prostitution. According to
Elena Andreeva's observation published in 2007, Russian travellers to
Iran consider mut'ah to be "legalized profligacy" which is
indistinguishable from prostitution. Religious supporters of
mut'ah argue that temporary marriage is different from prostitution
for a couple of reasons, including the necessity of iddah in case the
couple have sexual intercourse. It means that if a woman marries a man
in this way and has sex, she has to wait for a number of months before
marrying again and therefore, a woman cannot marry more than 3 or 4
times in a year.
Scene from the
Fernand Cormon (1845–1924)
In ancient times, two sources for concubines were permitted under an
Islamic regime. Primarily, non-Muslim women taken as prisoners of war
were made concubines as happened after the Battle of the Trench,
or in numerous later Caliphates. It was encouraged to manumit
slave women who rejected their initial faith and embraced Islam, or to
bring them into formal marriage.
A drunken Persian prince assaults a Chinese maiden. Miniature from
Gulistan of Sa'di. Herat, 1427
According to the rules of Islamic Fiqh, what is halal (permitted) by
Allah in the Quran cannot be altered by any authority or individual.
Therefore, although the concept of concubinage is halal, concubines
are mostly no longer available in this modern era nor allowed to be
sold or purchased in accordance with the latest human rights
standards. However, as change of existing Islamic law is impossible, a
concubine in this modern era, if existing, must be given all the due
rights that Islam had preserved in the past.
It is further clarified that all domestic and organizational female
employees are not concubines in this era and hence sex is forbidden
with them unless Nikah (formal marriage) or Nikah mut‘ah
(temporary marriage – which only Shi'ah Islam permits; some
Sunni Muslims practice Nikah Misyar, or "traveller's marriage") is
committed through the proper channels.
In the United States
Free woman of color with quadroon daughter; late 18th century collage
painting, New Orleans.
When slavery became institutionalized in the North American colonies,
white men, whether or not they were married, sometimes took enslaved
women as concubines.
Marriage between the races was
prohibited by law in the colonies and the later United States. Many
colonies and states also had laws against miscegenation, or any
interracial relations. From 1662 the Colony of Virginia, followed by
others, incorporated into law the principle that children took their
mother's status, i.e., the principle of partus sequitur ventrem. All
children born to enslaved mothers were born into slavery, regardless
of their father's status or ancestry. This led to generations of
multiracial slaves, some of whom were otherwise considered legally
white (one-eighth or less African, equivalent to a great-grandparent)
before the American Civil War.
In some cases, men had long-term relationships with enslaved women,
giving them and their mixed-race children freedom and providing their
children with apprenticeships, education and transfer of capital. A
purported relationship between
Thomas Jefferson and
Sally Hemings is
an example of this. Such arrangements were more prevalent in the
Southern states during the antebellum years.
Main article: Plaçage
In Louisiana and former French territories, a formalized system of
concubinage called plaçage developed. European men took enslaved or
free women of color as mistresses after making arrangements to give
them a dowry, house or other transfer of property, and sometimes, if
they were enslaved, offering freedom and education for their
children. A third class of free people of color developed,
especially in New Orleans. Many became educated, artisans and
property owners. French-speaking and practicing Catholicism, these
women combined French and African-American culture and created an
elite between those of European descent and the slaves. Today,
descendants of the free people of color are generally called Louisiana
Concubinage in Canada
Monogamy in Christianity
Slavery in the United States
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^ "The Rules in Matrimony and Marriage". Al-Islam.org.
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Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Retrieved 22 June 2011. Quote:
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historians now believe that, years after his wife's death, Thomas
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Hemings was only a minor figure in Thomas Jefferson's life and that it
is very unlikely he fathered any of her children. This committee also
suggested in its report, issued in April 2001 and revised in 2011,
that Jefferson's younger brother Randolph (1755-1815) was more likely
the father of at least some of Sally Hemings's children."
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