Traditional LIfe in China: Ruling

A Unique Being

Illustration showing the back of a winter court robe worn by the Emperor. Museum no. 820-1896

Page from 'The Illustrated Regulations for Ceremonial Paraphernalia of the Present Dynasty' showing the back of a winter court robe worn by the Emperor. Museum no. 820-1896

The emperor of China was the source of all power. Although statesmen and administrators supported the emperor in governing the country, he was at the head of the hierarchy, the highest authority in the land. There was no possibility of challenging imperial power, short of overthrowing the dynasty. In this respect China differed from Islamic or Christian states. For example, the popes of medieval Europe argued with the rulers about who was the most important.

"Li Xu reverently memorializes:
My servant brought back by secret palace memorial on 2/15. After I opened it, I read Your Majesty's vermilion endorsement…Public opinion in the South holds that the governor-general never sold any zhu ren degrees [qualifications for provincial officials], but because the governor was too suspicious and hated the governor general, he went to far as to impeach him. Now both of them have been discharged. Although the governor is an honest official, he often failed to make clearcut decisions. Therefore too many people were arrested when he handled disputes. The governor-general never took any money. He is also very able and quick-witted. All of the people love him in their hearts, and the localities [under his jurisdiction] have all benefited [from his good administration]. This is the nature of the public comment on this issue. I therefore report to Your Majesty according to your secret instructions…
The vermillion endorsement written by the emperor reads:
Continue your secret inquiries; and report your findings swiftly."

Letter from a Chinese official to the Emperor, 1712, from the memorial by Qi Sule (died 1729) who held office as Director General of the Grand Canal, in the Imperial Commands as corrected in vermillion (Zhupi yuzhi) printed in 1732, held by Cambridge University Library and translated by Oliver Moore.

The Chinese term for the emperor of China was 'Son of Heaven', and he was considered to be the sole link between heaven and earth. The emperor's unique status was emphasised in many ways: he used a special word for 'I' which nobody else was allowed to utter, he wrote in red ink while his courtiers used black, he alone faced the south while his subjects faced north and knelt down low before him. For the most part, the emperor led a secluded life and did not often leave the Forbidden City, the palace complex in the centre of Peking. The emperor's unequalled position and his large and complex bureaucracy were the two most important means by which it was possible to maintain power over such a large territory.

"On tours I learned about the common people's grievances by talking with them, or by accepting their petitions. In northern China I asked peasants about their officials, looked at their houses, and discussed their crops. In the South I heard pleas from a woman whose husband had been wrongfully enslaved, from a travelling trader complaining of high customs dues, from a monk whose temple was falling down, and from a man who was robbed on his way to town of 200 taels of someone else's money that he had promised to invest - a complex predicament, and I had him given 40 taels in partial compensation. But if someone was attacked in an anonymous message then I refused to take action, for we should always confront a witness directly; and if someone exaggerated too stupidly, then too I would not listen. A man swam toward by boat in Hangzhour with a petition tied around his neck, shouting out that he had a certain enemy who was the number-one man in the world for committing evil acts - and I simply had my retainers ask him, 'Who then is number two?'"

The Emperor goes on tour, about 1700, from Spence, JD Emperor of China: Self-portrait of K'ang-shi, Jonathan Cape, 1974. (with permission of Peters, Fraser, Dunlop). 

A particular shade of yellow was reserved for the clothes of members of the imperial family and only the emperor himself was permitted to display a set of twelve ancient and rather puzzling motifs on his robes. The twelve imperial symbols were the sun, moon, stars, mountains, dragon, pheasant, the fu pattern, axe, two sacrificial cups were representations of monkeys and tigers, water weed, fire and grain. They are often small and hard to pick out. The clothes the emperor wore were laid down by law. Pictures of his formal outfits, along with other imperial regalia, were set out in a guide. This guide even includes six different raincoats and sou'westers.

"Prohibitions on the Use of Utensils: in the twenty-sixth year of the Hongwu reign [1393] it was decreed that Dukes, Marquises and officials of the First and Second Ranks might have wine pots and wine cups of gold, and for the rest use silver. Officials of the Third to Fifth Ranks might have pots of silver and wine cups of gold, while those of the Sixth to Ninth Ranks might have pots and cups of silver, for the rest making use of porcelain or lacquer. Items of woodwork should not make use of cinnabar, gilt or painted gold decoration, or of carvings of dragons or phoenixes. The common people should have pewter wine pots, wine cups of silver, and for the rest use porcelain or lacquerware. Couches, screens and window lattices of variously coloured and decorated lacquer belonging to officials should not be carved with dragon designs or be of vermilion lacquer decorated with gold. Military officials and officers should have bows and arrows of black lacquer or painted gold decoration."

Status symbols, 1587, from Ming shi or Ming history, published in the early eighteenth century but based on sixteenth century sources, translated by Craig Clunas and quoted in Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China, Polity Press, 1991.

Throne of the Emperor Qianlong, China, 1775-80. Musuem no. W.399-1922

Throne of the Emperor Qianlong, China, 1775-80. Musuem no. W.399-1922.

The throne of emperor Qianlong (right), who ruled from 1736 to 1795, was almost certainly commissioned for the Tuanhe Travelling Palace in the Nan Haisi (Southern Ponds) hunting park immediately south of Beijing. The palace was one of several temporary abodes of the emperors of the Qing dynasty.

The animals, plants and scenes depicted in the detailed carving have symbolic meanings. Many dragons, traditionally associated with emperors, are to be seen on the throne. Bats are a pun on the word for 'happiness' and the small round motifs are peaches, the fruit of long life. Read in combination, the symbols may be interpreted as wishing the emperor a long and happy life.

On the back of the throne there is a special combination of motifs linked together with a chain and flowers. Suspended below a bat is a jade musical chime. In Chinese the word for chime sounds the same as the word for 'good fortune'. Hanging below this are two fish, which signify prosperity and abundance. The whole rebus means 'good fortune and abundance of riches'. Finally, as you face the throne you look directly at a picture of an elephant with figures in a landscape. This has been decoded as meaning 'auguries of great peace' or 'peace reigns in the North'.

Thrones did not have the same significance in Chinese culture as in European; they had no ceremonial importance and were simply an appropriately grand piece of furniture for an imperial palace. This throne would originally have been furnished with cushions. It is possible that it was a birthday gift or it may have been commissioned when a palace in the Southern Park, ten miles south of Peking, was refurbished in 1777.


A Performer of Ceremony

Stand for a wine cup, 960-1126. Museum no. FE.1-1970

Stand for a wine cup, China, 960-1126. Museum no. FE.1-1970.

As the Son of Heaven, an emperor had to spend much of his time carrying out solemn ceremonies though vital for the well-being of the empire. These rituals took place at various sites in the capital and included the worship of elements in the universe, the gods of soil and grain, the emperor's ancestors, the philosopher Confucius, and the Patron of Agriculture.

During the Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644), there were ninety such occasions each year. Although they were not public spectacles, these rituals inspired awe among the emperor's subjects, who believed that their correct observance would ensure peace and prosperity and avert disasters. The emperor and his court were required to fast before each ceremony, which consisted of set prayers, music, stately dancing, the burning of incense, the offering of food and drink to the spirits and, at the most important, the sacrificial slaughter of animals.

These four porcelain containers (right) from the Qing dynasty were used to offer food and wine to the powers of Heaven, Earth, the Sun and the Moon at the temples dedicated to each in Peking. The vessels are in the appropriate colour for the different powers: red for the Sun, yellow for Earth, light blue for the Moon and dark blue for Heaven. The emperor wore robes of state that matched the colours of the containers.

Vessels, 1736-1820. Museum nos. C.17-1968, C.483-1910, C.526-1910, FE.99,100-1970

Vessels, China, 1736-1820. Museum nos. C.17-1968, C.483-1910, C.526-1910, FE.99,100-1970

The yellow one was one of eighty-four identical vessels used at the Temple of the Earth in north Peking to hold a variety of meat, vegetables or pickled offerings. The red one from the Temple of the Sun in the west of Peking and its pale blue compainion from the eastern Temmple of the Moon held wine. The deep blue one, again for food, si from the largest altar at the Temple of Heaven in the south of the capital. They are made in what were thought to be the shapes of much earlier bronze vessels also used in rituals of China's early history.

"The flowery awning comes out from the Meridian Gate and [the officials] kneel as it passes. At the sixth double hour [09.00-11.00] the President of the Court of Sacrifices proceeds to the Gate of Heavenly Purity to present a request for the imperial passage to the Southern suburb [ie. location of Altar of Heaven] in order to maintain a night of abstinence.

The emperor wears a dragon robe and rides in the ritual carriage in which he is borne out [of the Gate]. On arrival beneath the steps of the Gate of Supreme Harmony, he descends from the carriage and the escorts bring forward the Jade Carriage. One of the Palace officials in charge of the escorts kneels to request [the emperor] to mount the carriage. Two attendants of escorts and four chaperons set forth the stairway at the centre of the carriage front - the stairway comprises five steps - and the emperor mounts the carriage. The bearers, thirty-six men, lift the carriage.

When the carriage has set off, the two escorts charged with clearing the way lead the officials and officers flanking the carriage towards the Meridian Gate. The bell and drum are sounded. The herald orchestra takes the lead, but does not play. The carriage comes out of the Meridian gate and all the [assembled] officials kneels as it passes. Ahead, the ten Grand Ministers and the two Ministers of the Rear Watch as well as various officials of the Household Guards and the Royal Defenders, Standard Bearers and Police ride from the Gate of the Pure Yang to the gate of the Altar.

To the left and right of the imperial way they roads and alleys are all draped with cloth screens. From the Commander General down to the Regimental Commander in the Royal Defenders and their Lieutenants, all from the Regional Commanders and their Lieutenants, all stand sentry according to a roster outside the screens. They clear the roadway and turn back passers-by. They should not cause commotion.

From the right the Carriage leaves the Palace and is born to the Southern suburbs where it enters the Altar [complex] via the West Gate and halts outside the Zhaoheng Gate to the West of the Sacred Way [ie. without crossing it]. A palace official in charge of the escorts kneels to request that the Emperor descend from the carriage. The attendants of escorts and chaperons set out the stairway in front of the carriage just as in the previous performance.

Instructions for an Imperial procession in Beijing, 1759, from Comprehensive Ritual of the Great Qing commissioned in 1736 and completed in 1759, translated by Oliver Moore.

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