Women's History Resource Site

King's College History Department

Concubinage in Asia

Concubinage is a state of cohabitation that lacks the sanctions of marriage. This custom of having a mistress has been around since men and women have been on the Earth. The origins for a male to hold a concubine were for sexual pleasure and to ensure numerous children. Mostly concubines served to satisfy sexual pleasure since any children that resulted from a mistress was considered illegitimate, and unless allowed by their father, had no rights of inheritance. The rich and the ruling class almost exclusively practiced concubinage. It was popular all across Asia.

Concubinage in Meiji Japan was socially acceptable, but the Meiji Civil Code legally adopted monogamy. Men during this period turned to concubines for entertainment, emotional fulfillment, and sexual pleasure. The custom of this time that did not allow respectable men and women to associate with one another in a friendly manner, turned men to concubines. Having a concubine or concubines during this period was seen as a symbol of wealth, high status, and holding authority. A women having a lover was grounds for divorce, along with it being a criminal offense.

Women in those societies had little rights. They had the lowest places in the family and community. It was quite common for a poor father to sell a daughter to a rich man to be a concubine, to get money to take care of the rest of the family. There was also many women who were forced into being concubines simply because a rich man or ruler liked the way they looked.

Concubinage still exists today in various forms. Women are not forced into it like they were, and it is still mostly among Asian wealthy class. Having a concubine or mistress is accepted as part of the culture in Asia. The role of women is still second to that of men. Wealthy business leaders hold women today. These women are kept in separate homes or apartments today, and do not work as slaves around the house with the wife. Concubinage is not as wide spread as it once was; it is still practiced in Asia.

Annotated Bibliography

Confucianism, Taoism, and Women in Ancient China. URL: http://cedar.evansville.edu/~ss37/wc101/conftao.htm. November 3, 1998.

This web site defines Confucianism and its founder Confucius is detailed as well. This site does not discuss concubinage but it does detail the role of women in China that gives an understanding of how they are second class people. Reading the paragraphs on women and their place allows you to get a feel for why concubinage was so common during this period and was not at all disturbing to the people.

"Concubinage". Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. URL: . http://www.uia.org/uiademo/prof/f2554.htm. November 3, 1998.

This site gives a definition and describes the nature of concubinage as well as links to related terms/topics like, polygamy, forced marriage, sexual exploitation of women, and chattel slavery. This site is very small and does not provide really in depth look at Concubinage. It does say how it still exists today among the rich in Asia and Arabia.


Chandra, Shilpi."Concubinage in Meiji Japan". URL: . http://www.students.haverford.edu/east/meiji/glossary/concubinage.html. December 1, 1998.

This internet site gives a brief background on concubinage during the Meiji period of Japan. It tells of how men turned to concubines for sexual fulfillment and entertainment. It also mentions that the Meiji Civil Code legally adopted monogamy, mistresses remained common. Having a mistress was socially acceptable. A wife having a lover was grounds for divorce in this period.


Christopher, Robert C. The Japanese Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1983.

This book looks at Japan and the way they think, and why they follow the customs they do. Concubinage is not directly covered in this book. It has extensive details on the way women have been treated in Japanese culture over its history. It covers the Japanese ideas on sex and relations between the sexes. It gives a good understanding of how the practice of concubinage being tolerated because of how women were viewed.


Hane, Mikiso. Japan a Historical Survey. New York: Charles Scribner's sons. 1972.

This book details the history of Japan, looking at it socially, politically, and economically. The first mention of concubinage looks at how it was a mostly upper class tradition. Emperors had numerous concubines, and the book mentions that wealthy men followed suit. The second mention of concubinage covers the Jesuit and Christian missionaries looking down on the Japanese for this custom. This book does not offer a great deal on concubinage, but gives many details of how women are viewed by men in Japan and how the custom can go on.


Reischauer, Edwin O. Japan the Story of a Nation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publishing. 1974.

This book by Edwin O. Reisschauer looks at the history of Japan and how it was formed with Chinese influence. It details Confucianism along with women's place in Japan throughout history. This book is good for learning how a custom like concubinage would grow and develop in Japan. It describes the foundations of Confucius beliefs. It mentions Emperors and they numerous slaves that would be around them to take care of their needs, including their sexual ones.


Livingston, Jon, Joe Moore and Felicia Oldfather. Imperial Japan 1800-1945. New York: Pantheon Books. 1973.

This book looks at Japan from the beginning of the 19th century to the end of World War II. It is a study outlining how Japan developed during this period. Women's place in Japanese society is clearly spelled out as for them being beneath a male dominated society. If you understand the concept of concubinage it lets you understand how it would fit into their culture for the wealthy and ruling classes. The hardships of the poor are mentioned as with the low value on daughters leading to them being sold into slavery by fathers to help the rest of the family.


Gernet, Jacues. A History of Chinese Civilization. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1972.

Jaques Gernet details the development of the Chinese and their society up to and including the Cultural Revolution. It shows how much like the books about Japan women were of little value in the society. Concubinage is not specifically covered in the book. It details how women were sold into slavery to help the family, and much like the book by Jon Livingston "Imperial Japan 1800-1945", you get an understanding of why the system of concubinage would develop. Much like Emperors in neighboring Japan, Chinese rulers and the wealthy class had slaves. The slaves were used for work and sexual pleasure.


BACKKing's College

This page has had
Hit Counter
visitors since
4 August 2006.

URL: http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/concubin.html
Written by Austin Clark, 1998
Last Revision: 18 December 2001
Copyright © MMV Prof. Pavlac's Women's History Site
Questions, Suggestions, Comments? e-mail bapavlacATkings.edu