A Day in the Life of a Chinese Emperor
China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing, was founded with a shock. In the 17th century, Manchurian warriors, hailing from the chilly northeast, breached the Great Wall and conquered the waning Ming Dynasty.
For the next 250 years, these foreigners managed to rule over hundreds of millions of Chinese by adopting Chinese culture. Under their rule, China’s territory increased threefold and the empire was widely held in awe by great thinkers of the European Enlightenment.
Early Risers and Workers
The Manchu ethnic group, comprising but a tiny portion of China’s massive population, went to great lengths to rule efficiently and harmoniously. Ruling from the Forbidden City in China’s northern capital of Beijing, Qing emperors led lives of painstaking diligence. Particularly the three greats—Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong—who presided over a 140-year period of prosperity are remembered for their personal discipline and measured dedication.
At 5 a.m., the emperor rose to be dressed. His robes were selected in accordance with the varying seasons, months, occasions, and even different times of day. Once dressed, the ruler would pray to Buddha, then spend his morning vigorously absorbing lessons in historical records passed down by his ancestors. Through constant learning, he aspired to streamline his own governance.
At 7 a.m., the emperor finished his studies and went to have his breakfast. In accordance with Manchu custom, the Qing monarchs took two major meals daily, one in the morning, the other in the early afternoon. Two departments—the Office of Palatial Affairs and the Imperial Household Department—tended to the emperor’s diet.
The greatest Qing emperors held court early, quickly, and frequently. It was during this time the emperor announced policy and gave his orders.
Officials representing different advisory bodies and government agencies would submit imperial reports, or memorials, to the emperor, which he read at breakfast. He would then choose which men to meet individually from a list of available officers provided by a eunuch, and then head to court for a one and a half hour session.
Court was only mandatory on a few days of the lunar month, but diligent emperors would hold more frequent sessions, typically starting at 9:30 a.m. Emperor Kangxi (r. 1654−1722) saw his officials almost daily.
Following the meetings, the emperor, retreating to his palace quarters, would set himself upon his paperwork. A vermillion ink pen, designated for his exclusive use, was sign of the annotations and notes he would make to imperial documents. On busy days, an emperor might stay up late into the night reviewing his executive policy.
Provided the emperor was not swamped in state affairs, he would likely spend the afternoon reading or enjoying some cultured leisure—painting, poetry, or operas. The emperors slept early—9 p.m., so that they could wake up before dawn the next day.
Education and religion were integral to the worldview of the enlightened Qing monarchs starting from the first emperor, Shunzhi, who established the tradition of daily Buddhist worship. Aside from a morning session, the emperor would spend much of the evening participating in Buddhist prayer or shamanistic rituals, passed down through his Manchurian heritage. All major rituals, such as those respecting Heaven and Earth, or soil and grain ceremonies, were sure to be attended and led by the emperor personally.
The most successful Qing rulers were also highly spiritual men who wrote much about Buddhist cultivation and philosophy. All emperors received classical educations from Chinese tutors. Even their place of residence bore the title Hall of Mental Cultivation.
Qing emperors were also accomplished artists. Qianlong (r. 1736-1795) was known for his calligraphic skill, and Kangxi, in true Confucian fashion, spent his spare time researching musical traditions from both east and west. The Manchus sponsored the arts and culture from an early period in their rule, which no doubt contributed to their success in governing the Chinese.