The documentary Diana: In Her Own Words was aired in Britain last Sunday, ahead of the 20th anniversary of the death of the Princess of Wales, on August 31.

The film presents several new revelations about Diana’s life, one of which was how she went “sobbing” to her mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth, once she was certain that her marriage was “loveless”.

Of course, Diana and her husband, Prince Charles, eventually separated, but her divorce settlement and some of the royal privileges she retained would have made many a high-born lady in imperial China seethe with resentment and envy.

The majority of royal marriages in China were arranged transactions orchestrated for the purpose of forming political alliances, consolidating power or producing a suitable male heir. While a handful of arranged marriages might have blossomed into genuine affection between man and wife, most did not.

In a society where polygamy was acceptable, the emperor or prince could simply marry other consorts if his wife did not please him or bear sons. In contrast, the empress or princess could do nothing but share her husband with other women, even as she found hollow consolation in her status as the “original spouse”.

Divorce would be worse. At best, the woman would be sent back to her own family. But in the case of an empress, or any other woman who had been “blessed” by an emperor’s favour, she’d spend the rest of her life under house arrest in the palace. Or simply be killed outright.