TV shows in China today give us an impression that emperors always led an extravagant and voluptuous life.
That they were self-indulgent and possessed unbridled power over their people. Yet in history, most emperors bore little resemblance to the images presented on TV, especially those in the Qing Dynasty. Emperors were known for their diligence and devotion to duty. Then, what time did they get up to start their day?
A familiar line in Chinese operas is, “Court officials go to court in the chill of daybreak at fifth Geng, or fifth watch of the night.” It implies that they had to get up at the fourth watch to attend the court at daybreak. There were five watches each night; thus fifth watch was from 5 am to 7 am, just before dawn. By the same token, emperors of the Qing Dynasty would have to get up at 4 am to hold the “early morning court” from 5 to 7 am and to process urgent reports from the officials.
The first thing the emperor had to do after getting up was to be dressed. An emperor could not choose what he wore. There were very strict rules on the fabric, style, color and ornamentation. His rigid dress codes differed from season, month, day and even the time of the day.
After being dressed, the emperor would then pay a visit to Cining Palace, or “Hall of Consolation of Mothers” to give his mother and grandmother daily regards and show filial piety and respect. The morning greeting was routinely followed by the morning reading, during which time the emperor would read Ancestral Warnings and Instructions from his predecessors, as well as Historical Records to learn how to rule the country.
The state affairs an emperor dealt with were either routine or special matters. The former included receiving foreign ambassadors, granting approval for yearly executions of those on death row and so on, while the latter were special occasions such as coronations, the emperor’s birthday or imperial weddings.
The average lifespan of Ming emperors was 42 years, while Qing emperors enjoyed an average lifespan of 53 years. Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong of Qing Dynasty were long-lived emperors and each reigned for about 60 years.
Not only did emperors of the Qing Dynasty have a tight schedule, Qing officials were also in the habit of getting up early. Zeng Guofan, an eminent Han Chinese official and military general of the late Qing Dynasty, who served outside the Court, would get up before the daybreak, dress himself and sit for meditation for two hours. After daybreak, he would practice calligraphy by completing 100 Chinese characters in small regular script.
This diligent lifestyle was inherited from his ancestors. In the “Collection of Family Letters of Zeng Guofan,” Zeng commented, “In the past two centuries, virtuous emperors of our Qing Dynasty have made it a habit to get up at dawn, and so did my ancestors. My great-grandfather was said to be an early bird, and I witnessed my father and grandfather getting up every day when it was still dark. In cold winter, they would meditate for around two hours before dawn.”
All emperors in the Qing Dynasty were hard-working, especially those in the early Qing period. They handled state affairs diligently with total dedication. The Manchu people, with only a population of several million, were able to rule the largest Asian empire for several centuries and brought the last glory to imperial China.