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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?

Well-known for his diligence, Emperor Kangxi was on throne for sixty years (1662-1722), and his region was among the longest in the world.

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.

“Emperor Qianlong in Grand Military Parade” – Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) inspected his Manchu army every three years. This picture was painted in 1739, the fourth year after he ascended the throne. In the painting, Emperor Qianglong is dressed in military uniform made for Manchu emperors, though used here as a ritual dress. The painting was produced by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), a famous court painter in the Qing Dynasty.

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.

“Picture of Palace of Heavenly Purity, where Qing Dynasty emperors met with officials and foreign envoys. The words on the horizontal plaque reads “Just and Honorable.” It was written by the early Emperor Shunzhi (1638-1661). The plaque later became well-known as the emperor hid the name of his intended heir to the throne on the back.

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.”

““Emperor Qianlong’s Southern Inspection Tour” (detail). In his lifetime, Emperor Qianlong did his southern inspection tour six times. He personally juxtaposed these tours with his westward military expansion as the two most important deeds in his lifetime. Whereas the western expansion enlarged the Empire’s territory, the southern inspection tours effectively strengthened the connections between the Manchu rulers and the Han literati, advancing economic and cultural developments within the Empire.

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.

Article : Wei Zhang
Translation : Amy Lien
Photo : New San Cai

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