Since working on this exhibition I have asked myself more than once: what did a Chinese emperor do to govern a country with a population of a hundred million (that was the figure when the Manchu took over as ruler of China in 1644).
The Manchu was a minority people who led a nomadic life outside the Great Wall before they seized power. They did not build the Forbidden City – they simply inherited it from the previous dynasty, the Ming. It was in the Palace of Supreme Harmony that the first Manchu emperor, Shunzhi, ascended the throne. He wore a yellow court robe on that occasion.
The Palace of Supreme Harmony was the grandest building in the Outer Palace. Three times a year, namely on New Year’s Day (some time in January/February), Winter Solstice Day (in December) and the emperor’s birthday, all the state officials gathered there to express their good wishes for the emperor and the country (which amounted to the same thing). The emperor would host a banquet for them afterwards.
Court assemblies on a smaller scale took place at the Doorway of Heavenly Purity, the threshold that separated the Outer Palace from the Inner Palace. These were policy-making meetings attended by top-ranking officials. The meetings started at daybreak in spring and summer, and at 7 a.m. in autumn and winter. The frequency of these assemblies was decided by the emperor himself. Historians would use such frequency to judge whether a certain emperor was diligent or lazy.
Some emperors were indeed more diligent than others, but no living soul in the entire country dared make such a remark. It was left to posterity to judge whether a certain emperor was a good or poor sovereign, and the job of the historian was to faithfully record what each emperor did and said.
Historians have been unanimous in their praise for Emperor Kangxi, the second ruler of the Qing dynasty. He ruled China for 61 years, from 1662 to 1722, and was the longest-reigning emperor in the entire Chinese history. He also had the greatest number of wives (54 in total) and sons (36 in total). One should not, however, jump to the conclusion that he spent all his time and energy with his concubines. Quite the contrary. Kangxi worked long hours, could tell the capable ministers from the flatterers, and had an insatiable appetite for knowledge – including European inventions. Jesuit missionaries, mostly scientists, were invited to serve in his court.
Informal sleeveless coat worn by Emperor Kangxi while at leisure
His grandson, Emperor Qianlong, lived to an older age than Kangxi. When Qianlong reached the age of 84 he had been emperor for 60 years. He decided to abdicate, because he did not want to out-do his illustrious grandfather. There were very few Chinese emperors who abdicated, still fewer who did so voluntarily. Qianlong’s abdication was a sign of filial piety for his grandfather. But he did not really trust his own son and successor, Emperor Jiaqing, whom he kept under his thumb for a further four years.
Emperor Qianlong wearing ceremonial armour
The most ‘unfortunate’ emperor was Daoguang, because he was on the throne when China lost a war for the first time ever – the Opium War in 1840. In Britain jubilant Victorians had heard a lot about this defeated kingdom, but no one had ever seen an image of the Chinese emperor. Samuel Kidd, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at University College, London, captured the British people’s imagination by supplying a watercolour in his 1841 publication. Only after 150 years has it become known that the watercolour was a mass-produced ‘tourist item’ from Canton, and that the sitter bears no resemblance to the man on the dragon throne at that time.
Frontispiece of the book by Samuel Kidd, China