Only the emperor was seated during the five or so hours he held court every day with his ministers, shown in “Remonstrating with the Emperor”, a late 15th century to early 16th century work by Liu Jun. Photo: Heritage Images via Getty Images
by Wee Kek Koon
by Wee Kek Koon

‘Work from home’ for Chinese emperors wasn’t as fun as you might think: a Qing dynasty ruler’s day

  • A typical day for a Qing emperor began with predawn ablutions, followed by morning lessons, greeting his mother and finally breakfast – all before 7am
  • Post-lunch hours were easier, when could he pursue hobbies such as reading, painting or writing bad poetry, before summoning a consort to ‘ready him for bed’

For many people who have had to work from home, the main difficulty is keeping to a schedule conducive to productive work. Those with a predilection for strict daily routines will have no problem with unsupervised WFH arrangements. For others, whose natures are given to procrastination, the struggle is real.

The Chinese emperors of old also worked from “home”. While their homes were literally palatial, offering material comforts most of us cannot even begin to imagine, their daily lives weren’t really much fun.

The daily schedule for the emperors of China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1912), was gruelling. A typical day began at 4am, when the emperor would be woken up by his attending eunuchs. After his predawn ablutions, assisted by a retinue of servants, he would begin his morning lessons in the study.

Young or old, Qing emperors spent their early mornings learning or engaging in tutorials with the greatest scholars and best brains in the realm, who had to get out of bed even earlier to reach the palace on time.

Compared with China’s royal couples, Prince Philip’s marriage was a rarity

After hitting the books for a couple of hours, and if the empress dowager was still living, the emperor would go to her compound in the palace to greet his mother or stepmother before he had breakfast.

After the morning meal, the most important business of the day would start at around 7am. For the next five hours or so, the emperor held court with his ministers, discussing, debating and deciding upon the affairs of state. Only the emperor was seated; the rest had to stand. There were breaks, thankfully, for court officials to rest, eat or relieve themselves.

After five punishing hours, the emperor would dismiss his court and retire for lunch, which like breakfast was a grand production with a fixed menu set by the dynasty’s founders and palace tradition. Epicurean emperors, tired of eating the same things every day, would get their attendant eunuchs to source the latest food fads or other tasty morsels from outside the palace.

Post-lunch hours were free and easy: the emperor could take a nap, perambulate in the palace gardens in the company of women, of whom there were many in the palace, or pursue hobbies such as reading, painting or writing bad poetry. This was also the time to deal with any urgent reports. At 5pm the emperor paid his respects to his forebears in the ancestral shrine in the palace, a mandatory daily ritual.

The evening meal was an informal affair during the Qing dynasty. Some emperors skipped it altogether; others had snacks or joined their favourite consort for a light meal in their apartments.

Unlike today’s princesses, those in imperial China rarely made headlines

After dusk, when the rest of the country was resting or preparing for bed, the emperor would be up until late at night, working on the many reports submitted from all over his empire and writing comments, commands and commendations in vermilion ink.

An hour or so before bedtime, the emperor might summon one of his consorts or even his empress to “ready him for bed”, but she had to leave after they were done. As a security measure, the emperor slept alone.

Routines and habits varied between different periods and dynasties, and industrious and indolent emperors. Those who envy the “fit for a king” lifestyle see only the luxury and baubles, but ignore the stress, restrictions and monotony that came with the job. For most of us, WFH is much easier and more pleasant.