The deaths of the five concubines: Gender and social perspectives

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Wu Fei Temple (五妃廟), or the Temple of the Five Concubines, commemorates the five concubines who collectively committed suicide with Prince Ningjing (寧靖王) in the face of the collapse of the Dongning Dynasty in 1683. Their deeds became an everlasting symbol of chastity and loyalty to both their husband and the dying Ming court. This dramatic event also attracted much attention and gave rise to considerable literary works during the Qing Dynasty, resulting in a layered image of the Five Concubines that takes shape after a long process of accretion. This paper takes an historical approach to the study of the Five Concubines. From a methodological point of view, it emphasises the distinction between historical sources and literary ones. The purpose is to deconstruct the layered images of the Five Concubines while strictly basing its historical reconstruction on primary sources. In terms of historical interpretation, this paper comes up with a new perspective that emphasises the social causes of their deaths. Instead of dying voluntarily, I argue that the decision to kill themselves was more likely to be driven by the social pressures created by an accidental combination of the patriarchal system and the biological, political, and socio-economic circumstances immediately prior the collapse of the Dongning Dynasty. The paper concludes with a discussion on the gender history in late imperial China and the issue of agency of the Five Concubines.
五妃廟紀念明鄭覆亡之際,隨同寧靖王朱術桂自盡的五位姬妾,為臺灣的著名史蹟。集體殉節使五妃成為忠貞節烈的象徵,也使其成為歷久不衰的文學題材,形成了層累造成的五妃形象,而既有研究也以文學分析居多。不同於既有研究,本文是以歷史學為依歸,在方法論上強調一手史料與二手材料的區別,同時結合文獻史料、考古資料以及史蹟文物,重建五妃的歷史。在歷史解釋層面,本文也挑戰了五妃自願從死的傳統觀點,改以外在環境壓力解釋五妃之死。本文考證出明鄭滅亡之時五妃的年齡,推論年齡、國破與家亡三個因素的結合,是五妃所面臨的生存難題。最後,本文也討論五妃殉節所展現的生命價值追求、明寧靖王的家庭責任,以及鄭氏家族與皇明遺老的關係。期許本文能對性別史、社會史以及南明史帶來新的認識。 Copyright © 2018 Hong Kong Museum of History and Department of History of Hong Kong Baptist University.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCollected essays of To the Seas and Beyond, an International Conference on the History of the Maritime Silk Road
EditorsClara Wing-Chung HO
Place of PublicationHong Kong
PublisherHong Kong Museum of History
Publication statusPublished - 2018


Hong Kong
Cause of Death
Literary Works
Historical Sources
Imperial China
Historical Reconstruction
History of museums
Primary Source


Lei, C. (2018). The deaths of the five concubines: Gender and social perspectives. In C. W.-C. Ho (Ed.), Collected essays of To the Seas and Beyond, an International Conference on the History of the Maritime Silk Road (pp. 207-222). Hong Kong: Hong Kong Museum of History.