‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.