Life of the Emperors and Empresses in the Forbidden City (1644-1911)-I.
Grand ceremony was the most solemn activity at court. Following the Ming tradition, the Qing emperors held grand ceremonies on occasions of accession, royal wedding, coronation of empress as well as the three annual holidays: the Lunar New Year,the Winter Solstice and the emperor’s birthday, when they came to Taihedian (Hall of Supreme Harmony) to receive congratulations from the courtiers and foreign envoys.
Taihedian, popularly called „Hall of Golden Bells”, more than 35 meters high and covering an area of 2,377 square meters, is the tallest and largest of the imperial palace buildings. It stands on a three-tiered, 8-meter terrace of white marble in the center of a vast courtyard about 30,000 square meters. In the center of the hall is the throne decorated with openwork carving, mounted on a high platform with a flight of seven steps leading to it, backed by a screen and flanked by six columns entwined with dragons painted in gold. High above the throne is a caisson ceiling with gilded designs of dragons playing with pearls. The resplendent hall demonstrated the dignity of imperial authority suited to the holding of grand ceremonies.
In the morning of a grand ceremony, the terrace in front of Taihedian was lined with the procession of a guard of honour carrying nearly two hundred implements of silver and gold, wooden weapons, umbrellas, canopies, flags, banners, etc. The imperial carriage was placed outside Taihemen (Gate of Supreme Harmony), and the jade chariots and tame elephants outside Wumen (Meridian Gate); Zhong He Shao Yue (small musical instruments) consisting of bells, chimes, lutes, harps, flutes, blowing pipes, etc. were laid out in the galleries east and west of Taihedian; Dan Bi Da Yue (great musical instruments) consisting of gongs, drums, cymbals, etc. were set up in the east and west galleries inside Taihemen; the congratulatory memorials from the princes, dukes and officials to the emperor were put on the eastern table in Taihedian, and those from local officials on a table in Long Ting (Dragon Pavilion) outside Wumen. The above-mentioned preparations were managed respectively by Luan Yi Wei (the Department of Imperial Insignia), Yue Bu (the Board of Music) and Li Bu (the Board of Rites). Dressed in court robes according to their ranks, the princes and dukes stood on the terrace area, while the civil and military officials as well as foreign envoys lined up in Taihedian’s vast courtyard.
On such a day the emperor would dress in his bright yellow dragon robe and come to Baohedian by sedan chair while the bells were being rung and drums beaten on Wumen. He would then walk to Zhonghedian where he would sit in the throne to receive obeisance from his palace courtiers and attendants in the form of prostrating before him three times and kotowing nine times. Then he would enter Taihedian and ascend the throne amidst ceremonial music. The civil and military officials would all kneel down to the accompaniment of summon music and listen to a reading of the congratulatory memorials. After similar obeisance by the officials, the emperor would ascend from his throne and leave before the audience could break up.
After grand ceremony on the occasions of the Lunar New Year, the Winter Solstice and the emperor’s birthday, the emperor would retire to Qianqiggong (Palace of Heavenly Purity) to receive separate congratulations from the empress, the imperial concubines and the princes.
On the Lunar New Year, Winter Solstice or the empress’ birthday, after offering her congratulations to the emperor and the empress mother, the empress herself received congratulations in Jiaotaidian (Hall of Union) or in the palace where she lived. The empress had her own sedan chair, music and throne, and obeisance was paid to her by the imperial concubines, the ladies in waiting and the wives of the courtiers as well as the imperial princes, and the ceremonial insignia was carried and the music played by eunuchs.
(Next: IMPERIAL WEDDING)