In the Forbidden City, the emperor’s meals were plain and lonely

  • He did not routinely feast on lavish meals, but instead had a balanced and plain diet
  • Qing emperors ate alone except during special ceremonies, without even family for company
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 December, 2018, 9:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 December, 2018, 3:22pm

For the emperor, life in the Forbidden City was not as opulent as one might imagine. While each dynasty claimed the emperor was heaven’s earthly representative destined to drive the immense country forward, the emperor remained a link in a giant bureaucratic chain forced to follow rigorous protocols dictated by tradition.

He was obliged to attend meetings on matters of public interest from the early hours to rule on appropriate punishments and executions. He would also receive a steady stream of delegates to discuss policies and sign edicts. To compound his daily pressures, the emperor’s routine was supervised by eunuchs and officials who did not always have his best interests at heart.

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Feeding his majesty

One common misconception is that the emperor routinely feasted on lavish meals. His diet was balanced, but surprisingly plain. Both the Ming and Qing dynasties ate in accordance with the same principle: a diet must promote health.

The scale of infrastructure needed to provide food was immense. The imperial kitchen was composed of three parts: the main kitchen, tea kitchen and bakery. Each had a chef and five cooks, a supervisor and an accountant who procured and tracked supplies.

Menus always carried the cook’s name so that dishes could be easily reordered – and culprits could be identified if anything suspicious happened. Imperial recipes were essentially sophisticated versions of meals traditionally enjoyed by the common people.

Serving meals and palace customs

Qing emperors made it their custom to eat meals alone except during special ceremonies, without even the pleasure of family for company. Although the Qianlong Emperor sometimes invited a consort to dinner, protocol dictated that all persons, except a dowager empress, had to stand in the emperor’s presence. The empress and imperial concubines took their meals in their own palaces. The emperor's diet mostly consisted of pork, mutton and game, fowl and vegetables. All the dishes were served with covers that were removed when the emperor took his seat at the table.

Menus were drawn up in advance for each meal and submitted to the inner court minister for approval. Every menu was archived.

The table set

It included enamel bowls, plates and dishes, blue and white jade sunflower tureens and gold and silver thread embroidered napkins.

Main courses included bird’s nest soup, duck, chicken, deer tail, pork, buns, cakes, pastries or pickles. Beef was banned in the palace because it was considered a sin to consume animals that were beasts of burden.

Qing dynasty emperors had two formal meals a day. These were served on gold dishes or special porcelain manufactured in Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province.

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During the Qing dynasty, emperors did not have a fixed place or time to take their meals. The emperor would inform his guards when he wished the meal to be served and would sit down to eat wherever he happened to be at that time of day. The kitchen officials ordered eunuchs to set whichever table was in the emperor’s vicinity the moment they were informed of the mealtime.

The imperial kitchen

Located west of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the imperial kitchen had a director, deputy and assistant directors, manager, executive manager, and clerks to handle the emperor’s daily meals. In total, more than 200 officials, cooks and eunuchs were employed. The emperor’s meals were prepared separately from everybody else’s meals. The Director of the Eastern Depot cooked the meals during even months, with the Director of Ceremonial taking over during odd months.

Poison fear

The emperors lived in constant fear of assassination and could not afford to trust even their closest attendants or bodyguards, much less the officials and eunuchs in charge of meals.

When the dishes were placed on the table, the emperor would take a small silver plate and insert it several times into each dish.

It was believed that the silver plate would change colour if the food had been poisoned.

If the emperor was in any doubt, he would command the eunuch waiting on him to taste the dishes before beginning the meal himself.

Healthy habits

The Imperial kitchen adjusted the diet of the emperor according to the season. Lighter dishes were served in the summer with heavier, more nutritious meals in winter. It was believed that light food increased body fluids, while heavier meals created more vital energy.

On June 8, 1789, Emperor Qianlong took his breakfast in the Yihong Hall (Hall of Partial Rainbow) at a lacquer table. He was served: a hotpot of game with bird’s nest, roast duck and roast meat, a hot pot of thick duck soup with Chinese yam, courses of wild herb salad, cold bean jelly and duck stewed with wine and cauliflower, stir-fried spinach with small dried shrimp, steamed lotus root with glutinous rice, bean curd stewed with mushrooms, sliced chicken and duck cooked with soy sauce, bamboo knotted rolls and steamed small buns, steamed buns stuffed with minced pumpkin and mutton, braised chicken with cowpea, pickles served in an enamel sunflower box, four cold dishes on flange plates, a bowl of cooked round-grain rice and a bowl of boiled cowpeas.

On December 13, the emperor took his late meal in the eastern room of the Yangxin Hall. His meal included: a hot pot of chicken with bird’s nest and pine nuts, a hot pot of chicken, smoked meats and Chinese cabbage, a hot pot of shredded lamb stomach and shredded mutton, steamed chicken with fresh mushrooms, pork fried in salt with fresh mushrooms, cold steamed chicken and mutton, cold steamed duck and deer’s tail, pork in thick gravy, shaped cakes, steamed dumplings with minced chicken, salted pork and pickles served in a silver sunflower box, four small cold dishes put on silver plates, chicken soup with cooked rice, thick wild duck soup with Chinese yam and bird’s nest soup with spinal cord.

Medicinal food

Qing dynasty emperors ate food with medicinal properties. Many records from the Qing Palace archives still exist which mention the use of wines, juices, extracts, preserved fruits and sugar as health-giving items. These foods were believed to stimulate the stomach, kidneys, and appetite, reduce internal heat and phlegm, nourish the body and prolong life.

According to the Qing dynasty statutes, Emperor Guangxu (who reigned from 1875 to 1908) had an infirmary staff of 13 imperial physicians, 26 officials, 20 assistants and 30 doctors.

When a physician treats the emperor, he first has to make a diagnosis. A prescription is then sealed with his signature.

A memorial is written, describing the properties of the medicine and treatment. The date is recorded and signatures of the physician and eunuchs collected. This is then submitted to the emperor for approval and registered for the record.

The prescription is sent to the Imperial Dispensary for preparation. When ready, the medicine is poured into two bowls.

One bowl is tasted by the physician, the infirmary’s deputy director and the inner palace eunuch to ensure all is well. The other is sent to the emperor.

If the medicine has an unpleasant smell, differs from the prescription or comes with any mistakes on the seal, the Imperial Dispensary is punished.

This is an excerpt from Life in the Forbidden City: being the emperor didn’t equate to a life of limitless power or pleasure, a multimedia infographic