The Riddle of Zhenfei (Imperial Concubine Zhen)
http://www.chinese.cn 16:01, September 27, 2009 CE.cn
Water wells in the Imperial Palace in Beijing mostly have small exquisite pavilions and are surrounded with white marble balustrades. However, there is a well with a small mouth and only stone brim on the west corridor of Jingqige Pavilion and inside Zhenshun Gate. This well is called Zhenfei Well.
It is said that Zhenfei was persecuted to death by Empress Dowager Cixi because Zhenfei supported Emperor Guangxu to conduct The Hundred Days' Reform. Is this hearsay true or not?
Zhenfei entered the Palace Museum in 1899 together with her elder sister-Jinfei. Soon after that, she was granted the title of imperial concubinewhose position was only second to the Empress. Empress Longyu was the niece of Cixi, but she did not get along well with Guangxu. Zhenfei was beautiful and young, lively and active, smart and clever, and was deeply loved by Guangxu. Zhenfei expected that Guangxu could get rid of the control of Cixi and took back his due power. She also hated the strict rules in the Palace. She often walked in the Palace dressed in the clothes of emperor. She also wore men's clothes in front of Guangxu like a handsome and graceful young Adonais. Those rebellious behaviors of Zhenfei which were intolerable to Cixi went against the rules in the Palace. But the excuse for Cixi to punish Zhenfei was that Zhenfei got involved in selling ranks and titles.
In Qing Dynasty, empresses and concubines could receive silver (salary) once a month with the total amount of 1000 Liang of silver for empresses and 300 Liang of silver for first rank concubines and 200 Liang of silver for second rank of concubines every year. Zhenfei's grandfather was Yutai-Governor General of Shaanxi and Gansu, and her father Changxu once held the position of Minister of Hubu (Ministry of Revenue and Sensus), and her uncle Changshan had been the commissioner of the Army in Guangzhou for as long as 12 years. Only 300 Liang of silver a year was not sufficient for Zhenfei who was brought up in such a rich family of high-level officials. In addition, she did not know how to save money, and she often bestowed eunuchs, therefore she failed to make both ends meet. So she had to find other ways of earning money. Because concubines in Palace were not allowed to contact with outside world without permission, Zhenfei asked her elder brother to help her and cooperated with eunuchs to sell ranks and titles. Outside the Palace, eunuchs were responsible for external contacts, and inside the Palace, Zhenfei was responsible for dealing with Guangxu. Zhenfei could get part of the money gained from selling ranks and titles, the remaining were divided by the other people.
Before Zhenfei set her foot in selling ranks and titles, the business was controlled by LI Lianying himself- Cixi's favorite eunuch and Head Eunuch. LI Lianying Group for selling ranks and titles was definitely not happy with Zhenfei, and the people in this group all reported against of their opponent-Zhen Zhu'er (master)-to Cixi. Cixi was angry about that. After severely scolding Guangxu, Cixi relegated Zhenfei and Jinfei to the position of Guiren (a lower level of concubine). In addition, Zhenfei was put in house arrest. After that Zhenfei and Guangxu could not meet each other. In accordance with the record in "Draft History of the Qing Dynasty: Zhuan of Concubines": "Zhenfei was disobedient to Cixi for criticizing her extravagant habit and had many requirements, thus Zhenfei was relegated to the position of Guiren". It seems that the record in "Draft History of the Qing Dynasty" referred to this event. More than 60 eunuchs related to this event were sentenced to death, and Zhenfei's elder brother fled to Shanghai for shelter. This event happened in 1894, 4 years prior to The Hundred Days' Reform (1898).
On July 20th 1900, Eight-nation Alliance was invading Beijing, and Cixi forced Emperor to flee to Xi'an with her. Before their leave, Cixi ordered Zhenfei to be taken out of prison secretly and brought in front of her. Cixi ordered Zhenfei to commit suicide by jumping into a well, her excuse was that it was inconvenient to take her along with them to Xi'an and she might cause some problems for her beauty and youth to stay in the Palace. Zhenfei refused to do so but required to see the emperor, thus Dowager Cixi finally ordered eunuchs to throw Zhenfei into a well. Since the mouth of the well was quite small, it took some effort for Cixi's leading eunuch CUI Yugui and his subordinates to throw Zhenfei into the well. The young life of Zhenfei who was only 24 years old was ended in this well just like that.
There might be true love between Guangxu and Zhenfei, and it was reality that Zhenfei used Guangxu to sell ranks and titles. But from Zhenfei's words and deeds such as her love from Guangxu left the Empress being ignored, her discontent with Cixi's involvement in affairs of the state, and her offense of rules in Palace, we can see that her tragic fate was predetermined at the moment when she entered the Palace. What had fallen into the well was not only the body of Zhenfei, but the sadness and helplessness of Guangxu-the Emperor of the state. That also represented that a dynasty was not far from falling. "The people of the ancient time had gone, But, until now, the water of Yishui still remains as cold as ever." Similarly, the people of later generations still deeply sigh in face of the ripples in that well of ancient time……