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B: Bloodline

Emperor Guangxu

The 1963 publication Clan, Caste and Club by American anthropologist Francis LK Hsu sums up the three most important groupings in the social strata of China, India and the United States respectively.

Defined by bloodline, the concept of clan is so adhesive in Chinese society that the proverb mendang hudui advises that people should marry someone with matching social status or from a similar clan. The saying derives from the design of a traditional courtyard house in Beijing: the stone bearings on both sides are called mendang, while the wooden pins above the door for hanging lanterns are hudui. There were strict codes on how to design and install these features (only the emperor’s house at the Forbidden City was allowed to hang four hudui, for instance). The phrases’ implication for marital choice was the need to wed someone of similar ‘design’, i.e. status.

Why bloodline matters

While commoners could strive to raise their own status by studying hard and taking part in the imperial exams (see A for Analects), nobility was a matter of bloodline.

During most of the Han Chinese dynasties, an emperor would pass on his throne to his eldest son. This system of primogeniture sometimes resulted in incapable rulers, but it tried to minimise political struggles within the royal family.

The Manchus did not stick to the same rules when they took control of the Middle Kingdom in 1644. That created a major problem for Kangxi, the fourth emperor of the Qing Dynasty and one of the most fertile monarchs in Chinese history.

On the throne for 61 years (he died in 1722), Kangxi had more than 50 children, of which 35 were male and 24 survived long enough to be considered as potential heirs to his throne.

While Kangxi was sizing up which of his boys would be the best candidate to succeed him (and ensure the royal family’s longevity), the princes (and their mothers and other political allies) embarked on some of the most vicious leadership purges in Chinese history, plotting to oust or kill each other. A number of them died mysteriously, some were exiled, and Kangxi was forced to imprison several of his sons for life.

The saga has inspired countless novels and dramas. It is also a reason why plots about scheming concubines (consorts of the polygamous emperors) have been such a popular television genre – although they have been discouraged by the current government for promoting undesirable values.

How to ensure the purity of the royal bloodline?

Another bloody power struggle at the royal court meant Kangxi’s great-great-great-grandson Guangxu wasn’t survived by a single son (Guangxu died in 1908 aged 38). The Qing throne thereupon passed to his 24-month old nephew Puyi (the last emperor of China).

The declining fertility of the Qing emperors is annother interesting topic, with economics weighing heavily as a factor. When Guangxu took over, the Qing empire was already on the wane. He simply could not afford as many concubines as Kangxi, who had at least 55. Guangxu had only three, and two of these he didn’t even like because they were used by the Empress Dowager Cixi (the de facto power behind the throne at the time) as spies to watch over him.

The large number of wives that emperors such as Kangxi kept in the royal household could also present problems for the purity of the imperial bloodline. Huge amounts of labour were needed to keep the palace running and serve the emperor’s army of concubines. The emperors preferred to keep their women away from temptation, which was why eunuchs were often trusted as monitors of the royal harem. In the early Ming Dynasty, for instance, more than 10,000 eunuchs were said to work in the Forbidden City (the home of the emperors after 1421).

Kangxi also asked his eunuchs to keep detailed records of when and how long he spent in bed with each of his concubines. The result was arguably the most detailed sex diary in human history.

Are bloodlines important these days?

The imperial era ended more than 100 years ago and the royal bloodline vanished with it. However, the descendants of the revolutionary leaders of the Communist Party of China (CPC) have their own lineage, enjoying great influence and prestige.

Many hongerdai, or ‘second generation red’, have taken prominent positions in political and business circles. As an example, Chinese President Xi Jinping is the son of Xi Zhongxun, one of the CPC leaders who survived the Long March to become one of the founders of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Being a hongerdai doesn’t guarantee a climb to the summit of political and economic power. Nevertheless this ‘clan’ enjoys its own special status, based on their bloodline (notably they are known too in common parlance as ‘princelings’).


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