The stiff applause in the Great Hall of the People marking the seemingly smooth leadership transition in Beijing this month belied the intense “palace intrigue” behind the scenes, which had likely gone on for years.

In imperial China, succession was more certain, at least in theory: as with most monarchies past and present, it was based on the principle of male primogeniture; the oldest son of the monarch was next in line to the throne. Daughters were, of course, barred from succeeding their fathers. But this otherwise straightforward principle was complicated by the status of the prince’s mother. In polygamous households, of which the imperial family was an example, the children of the principal wife of the householder would always be considered superior – the “true line” or the “main branch” – to the offspring of secondary wives and concubines, regardless of their age.

Thus, an infant prince whose mother was the empress, for example, would have precedence over his adult halfbrother whose mother was one of the emperor’s many consorts. If the empress was childless, the son of the next most senior consort would be next in line. And as if all that wasn’t complicated enough, the emperor’s personal feelings often became entangled in the process. He might favour a particular son, or, as was more often the case, the son’s mother, and name that son his heir, creating a succession crisis that would usually turn violent.