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The Fragrant Concubine: An Unsolved Legend

Is this Qing Dynasty beauty's story real, or is it just the fantasy of hopeless romantics?

06·15·2012

The Fragrant Concubine: An Unsolved Legend

Is this Qing Dynasty beauty's story real, or is it just the fantasy of hopeless romantics?

06·15·2012

It has been said that the Fragrant Concubine’s beauty was like no other. With her, she carried an alluring, sensuous scent, free from lavish perfumes and powders. Tales of her exquisiteness reached the Qianlong Emperor’s ears. Hungry for her beauty, the Manchu monarch demanded that she be brought to him safely.

Xiang Fei- better known as the Fragrant Concubine

As Burhanad-Din’s control over Altishahr (southern Xinjijang) was eventually lost to the Qing conquest in 1755, the young concubine Xiang Fei (香妃) was stripped from her home and her husband. Forced to endure a long and arduous journey to the Emperor’s palace, the concubine bathed in camel’s milk and had daily butter rundowns to preserve her pure fragrance.

When Xiang Fei reached the Imperial City, she was greeted by a doting Qianlong. Showering her with extravagant gifts, the Emperor hoped he could woo the exotic creature. Hami melons and narrow-leaved oleaster (沙枣 shāzǎo) were given as a token of his appreciation. But the young woman would not stir. Patiently, Qianlong built her a hall against the southwestern wall of the imperial city and established a small Muslim community, complete with a new mosque and bazaar. The emperor hoped that when the concubine gazed out the window, she would see the Muslims and feel at home. Still, she did not stir.

This is where the legend becomes confusing. Romance historians claim that Xiang Fei sealed her happy ending when the emperor installed a jujube tree bearing golden fruit from her hometown in the palace gardens. The concubine broke her defiant silence and promptly fell in love with the emperor. However, other historians and the Uyghurs have offered different, mismatching versions of the Fragrant Concubine’s fate –– making the legend undeniably questionable.  Did Xiang Fei come to her senses and fall into the emperor’s arms? Or did she, in fact, dig her own grave?

Uyghur Muslims insist that Xiang Fei was a dangerous woman, harboring vengeful thoughts and a heart of stone. According to them, she boasted to maids that she intended to seek revenge for her lost country and husband. For this purpose, Xiang Fei carried tiny daggers in the sleeves of her robes. Soon, the Empress Dowager Niuhuru became concerned for her son’s safety. One day, the emperor left the palace to attend ceremonial duties. Choosing to sneak in a word or two, the empress confronted Xiang Fei in a corner and demanded that she behave like a proper concubine. When the young woman remained defiant, the empress “granted her the favor of death”. Through word of mouth, the Emperor eventually realized something was amiss and galloped back to the palace. As he rushed to the concubine’s bedroom, he realized his mother stood in his way. The door remained locked, while Xiang Fei was given privacy to strangle herself with a silk scarf.  When Qianlong was finally allowed in, it was too late. The famed beauty was dead. Only the mysterious scent remained, hovering over her corpse.

Uyghur's version of the Fragrant Concubine, 'Iparhan' published in Sarqi Turkestan Awazi (Voice of Eastern Turkestan)

A key question to ask here is this:  Is the tale of the fragrant concubine merely a work of histroical fiction or is there truth in the legend?  Documents discovered in the Number One Historical Archives in Beijing offer some insight on the matter. A young woman was indeed inducted into Qianlong’s harem in the second lunar month of 1760 under the name He Guiren. Imperial household records show details of her diet, place at the table, gifts received, promotions in the harem hierarchy, funeral ceremony and the dispensation of her property after death. These were all highly ritualized activities and suggested that a Muslim concubine walked the halls of the Imperial palace.

Yet was this He Guiren the same Fragrant Concubine who committed suicide in defiance of the Qing Dynasty? Yes, a Uyghur Muslim concubine existed and may even have had her portrait painted by one of the Jesuit court artists. There is also evidence to suggest that Qianlong’s poems were influenced by his intoxicating infatuation with the young woman. But He Guiren’s life differed in several respects from the Xiang Fei tale. The Muslim concubine fulfilled her expected sexual role and did produce a daughter. She was not strangled or forced to commit suicide by the Dowager Empress (whom He Guiren outlived by 11 years) but died a natural death.

The details surrounding the Fragrant Concubine remain unclear to this day. Maybe the question we should really ask is whether Qianlong’s concubine  truly carried a special fragrance with her,  or whether this detail, perhaps like many others, was conjured up to keep alive public interest in oft-ignored historical investigations.