All Chinese emperors had a number of concubines in addition to their formal wives. Although this practice helped ensure that there would be one or more potential heirs to the throne, it also often lead to disputes over the succession. In this passage, the Italian adventurer Marco Polo describes how the great Mongol ruler Khubilai Khan selected members of his harem. Since all of the official wives had large numbers of courtiers in their entourage, rivalry within the imperial court was not uncommon.
Although some historians doubt that Marco Polo was ever in China, his account is generally viewed as a reliable description of thirteenth-century China.
Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Poloi
The personal appearance of the great Khan, lord of lords, whose name is Kublai, is such as I shall now tell you. He is of a good stature, neither tall nor short, but of a middle height. He has a becoming amount of flesh, and is very shapely in all his limbs. His complexion is white and red, the eyes black and fine, the nose well formed and well set on. He has four wives, whom he retains permanently as his legitimate consorts. . . .
When the emperor desires the society of one of these four consorts, he will sometimes send for the lady to his apartment and sometime visit her at her own. He has also a great number of concubines, and I will tell you how he obtains them.
You must know that there is a tribe of Tartars called Kungurat, who are noted for their beauty. The great Khan sends his commissioners to the province to select four or five hundred, or whatever number may be ordered, of the most beautiful young women, according to the scale of beauty enjoined upon them. . . . The commissioners on arriving assemble all the girls of the province, in the presence of appraisers appointed for the purpose. These carefully survey the points of each girl in succession, as for example her hair, her complexion, eyebrows, mouth, lips, and the proportion of all her limbs. . . . And whatever standard the great Khan may have fixed for those that are to be brought to him, . . . the commissioners select the required number from those who have attained that standard, and bring them to him. And when they reach his presence he has them appraised anew by other parties, and has a selection made of thirty or forty of those, who then get the highest valuation. Now every year a hundred of the most beautiful maidens of this tribe are sent to the great Khan, who commits them to the charge of certain elderly ladies dwelling in his palace. And these old ladies make the girls sleep with them, in order to ascertain if they have sweet breath and do not snore, and are sound in all their limbs. Then such of them as are of approved beauty, and are good and sound in all respects, are appointed to attend on the emperor by turns. Thus six of these damsels take their turn for three days and nights, and wait on him when he is in his chamber and when he is in his bed, to serve him in any way, and to be entirely at his orders. At the end of the three days and nights they are relieved by another six. And so throughout the year, there are reliefs of maidens by six and six, changing every three days and nights.