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Imperial Banquets and the Emperor's Meals in Qing China

by Renqiu Yu

Food in History

Summer Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(2) page(s): 13, 14, and 24

In 1691, the Manchu Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 CE) was petitioned by the Commander of the Gubeikuo Pass to repair the Great Wall. Originally built durring the Warring States Period (475 - 221 BCE) and the Qin dynasty (221 - 206 BCE), and largely reconstructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE), the Great Wall was intended to help protect China against Mongols and other aggressive northern nomadic peoples. The emperor’s reply to the Commander was simple and unambiguous; the Great Wall did not provide an effective defense, and it would be costly and unwise to repair such a colossus, which stretched for several thousand li and required garrison forces.

The emperor believed that he had found a more effective means of dealing with the threat posed to China proper; it was by winning the loyalty of his potential adversaries conferring imperial titles upon them and inviting them to imperial banquets. By pleasing their tongues and stuffing their stomachs, Emperor Kangxi felt he could build a line of defense 'more impregnable than the Great Wall.'

Emperor Kangxi thus affirmed and renewed the important role imperial banquets played in Chinese diplomacy since the earliest days of the empire. Following the practice of the Qing dynasty founders, he married off a large number of Manchu princesses to the Mogul beile (princes), who were delighted to enter into these marriage relations for political, economic, and strategic reasons. Once they became members of the Manchu imperial family through marriage, they also received titles of honor from the emperor. Now, not only allies but in-laws, the Manchu rulers could count on their Mongol relatives to fight other hostile Mongols.

Indeed, it was with the support of these Eastern Mongols that the Manchus were able to pacify the Western Mongol tribes and greatly extend China’s territory in the first half of the eighteenth century. To reward the loyal Mongols, Emperor Kangxi frequently visited them north of the Great Wall, conferring imperial titles upon them, and presenting them with many gifts. Due to their vulnerability to smallpox, widespread south of the Great Wall, the Mongols were seldom invited to Beijing. The special privilege of attending the Qing imperial banquets in the magnificent capital was restricted to the small number of Mongol khans and princes who had acquired immunity to the disease. The rest had to be entertained in the steppe.

After giving many huge, sumptuous banquets in honor of his Mongol guests as well as attending numerous Mongol dinner parties in the grasslands, Emperor Kangxi felt the need to receive these nomads in a proper imperial setting. He ordered the creation of the Imperial Summer Palace at Rehe (Bishu shangzhuang at Chengde). Throughout the eighteenth century, during the summer and early fall of almost every year, the Mongol khans and princes were invited to join the imperial hunting parties and attend imperial banquets.

The idea of turning potential enemies into in-laws and dinner party guests had long been a dream of the ancient Chinese empire. But Kangxi’s grandson, Emperor Qianlong (1711 - 1799 CE) who ruled from 1736 to 1796CE) and was an ambitious, energetic, and often boastful young man, was quick to point out the Manchu dynasty’s distinctive achievement in empire-building and territorial consolidation. Under his grandfather’s brilliant leadership as well as his own, the Manchu accomplished far more in these areas than had the Han and Tang dynasties, traditionally regarded as the most powerful and prosperous dynasties in Chinese history. To convince subsequent generations, Qianlong ordered the compilation of books and gazetteers, and he directed artists, poets, and historians to celebrate the banquet scenes in their writings and paintings.

The emperor, himself, wrote many complacent poems praising Manchu achievements. He took pains to justify the banquets as a creative adaptation of conventional Confucian practices in the interest of winning the good will of the inner Asian peoples and building an imperial order.

Qianlong was also responsible for institutionalizing and codifying the banquet ceremonies. According to Qing imperial statutes, the banquet honoring the Mongols (and, sometimes, the Muslims or Tibetans) in the Rehe Imperial Summer Palace, was second in importance only to the grand banquet at Taihedian (The Great Hall of Harmony) in Beijing, held on the emperor’s birthdays, New Year’s Day, or the enthroning of a new emperor. It was in the same category at the New Year’s Eve Banquet for Outer Mongols at Baohedian (The Hall of Preserving Harmony) and those held in Yuanmingyuan’s Shangao Suichang Pavilion. Food and wine were displayed and served on these occasions, but the emphasis was on the emperor and the ritual. The seating and other rites observed at these grand fetes were strictly elaborated in the Qing statutes, as, for example, in the banquet ceremony in the Garden of Ten Thousand Trees at the Rehe Imperial Summer Palace is described by Sven Hedin in his book: Jehol: City of Emperors. Parts of it are as follows:

Upon the entrance of the Emperor, conducted by the officiating masters of ceremonies, the Hutuktu lamas--in embroidered dragon mantles with plain long jackets, and the khans--wearing the embroidered dragon mantles beneath jackets with breast-plates, fall to their knees outside the tent and greet him. When the Emperor has taken his place on the throne, the Hutuktus, khans, and others are conducted into the tent, where they perform the kowtow ceremony once and then go to their places.

Then the head cup-bearers enter to serve tea. When the Emperor drinks, all fall to their knees in their places and kowtow once, remaining on their faces until the Emperor has finished his tea. The Imperial Life-guard then serves tea and all receive it on their knees. After another kowtow they all resume their places.

Now the draperies in front of the side-tables are drawn aside. The Master of Ceremonies steps forward to the cup-table, and walks to the middle of the tent reverently bearing in both hands a wine-jug, the Emperor’s goblet, and a cup of gold. All rise. The Master of Ceremonies goes forward to the side-wall of the tent, and stands facing west. He pours wine into the Emperor’s goblet. The Wine-bearer, who has been chosen from the Mongol princes beforehand, first goes out of the tent to take off his jacket, then he returns and kneels, turning towards the Master of Ceremonies. All fall to their knees. The Master of Ceremonies kneels, still facing the west, and gives the imperial wine goblet to the wine-bearer, whereupon he rises and steps backward. The wine-bearer rises and walks down the middle of the tent facing the Emperor, but turns aside and kneels on the west side of the Emperor’s throne. He offers the Emperor wine; the Emperor accepts it, whereupon the wine-bearer rises and withdraws to the place where he received the wine goblet, going along the western side. Here he kneels. The Emperor drinks, while the wine-bearer kowtows and so do all the rest. The wine-bearer rises and passes down the west side to the throne and, kneeling, receives the Imperial goblet. Then he passes down the center back to his place where he kneels.

The Master of ceremonies steps forward, kneels, and takes the Imperial goblet from the wine-bearer and withdraws. Now the rest rise. The Master of Ceremonies pours wine into the gold cup and enters. Standing, he holds out the cup to the wine-bearer who continues to kneel. He receives it, kowtows once and drinks the wine. The Master of Ceremonies takes the cup and withdraws. The wine-bearer kowtows again and goes out of the tent to put on his jacket. He returns, goes to his place, sits down, and all the others sit. The emperor eats and presents delicacies to his guests. The chief butlers enter with trays of dishes. The Emperor eats meat and offers it to all.

When the meal is ended, the cup-table is carried into the tent and the Mongol musicians come in and play. Wine is carried in to be offered to the guests. The princes whose right it is to receive wine from the Emperor are led forward and kneel humbly, while the Emperor himself pours out wine for them. The others are served wine once by the Imperial Guard under the supervision of the adjutants-general (of whom the Emperor has four). Those who have received wine from the Emperor withdraw to their original places and kowtow, the rest follow their example. When they drink wine they kowtow once more. The Mongol music ceases. Picked men from the Imperial corps of wrestlers enter to compete with the Mongol wrestlers. After the wrestling bouts, acrobats enter to display their skill. When they have finished, they withdraw. All kneel in their places and perform the ceremony of the three kneelings and nine kowtows. While the guests kneel with their faces to the ground the Emperor withdraws.

It was at these banquets, Qianlong was delighted to note, that the Mongols learned to perform properly. All the Mongols invited to the Summer Palace banquets were given and required to wear official Qing robes, and, as noted in the example above, they were expected to kowtow to the emperor as several points during the banquet. In the winter of 1745, the emperor recorded in one of his poems what he perceived as awkward acts of the Khoits Mongols headed by Amursana at the title-conferring ceremony in Zhanbojingcheng Hall:

To pacify the land our empire is more than generous,
Come from afar, (the guests’) improper
performance can be forgiven.
First time at the imperial ceremony, they do not know
how to move;
But very happy they are, as new princes.

Two days later, the Qianlong emperor hosted a feast for Amursana and his men in the Garden of Ten Thousand Trees. There, the emperor found that in their the official robes, those Khoits Mongols “seemed to have learned how to perform (at ceremony) properly.” We do not know how the Mongols responded to their treatment at Qing banquets, but the emperor firmly believed that his guests were greatly impressed by such imperial privileges as lavish music and food. In his poems, he often depicted himself at the center of the banquet, bestowing gifts and food to his appreciative audience.

Official documents indicate that imperial banquets became an important way for the Manchus to assert their supremacy over other peoples, such as the Mongols, Han Chinese, Tibetans, and Muslims. The banquets’ stylized formalities gave expression to the lord-vassal relationship between Manchu emperor and tribal chiefs. As long as these hierarchical rituals were dutifully performed, there would be peace between the Qing central government and Inner Asian peoples.

One would be disappointed if one expected to find in the codes any description of the actual food served at these grand banquets. They focus, instead, on the atmosphere and rituals. Even the foreign observers’ accounts remark only about the ceremonies. Lord Macarney, for example, the English envoy sent to open trade with China and to collect firsthand information, had the opportunity in 1793 to attend Qianlong’s birthday celebration. Normally a very sharp and careful observer (he jotted down the prices of grains and wages of porters), Macarney made no description of the dishes served but recorded this comment in An Embassy to China: “the commanding feature of the ceremony was the calm dignity, that somber pomp of Asiatic greatness, which European refinements have not yet attained.” Detailed descriptions of the dishes served at the imperial court have to be found elsewhere, which I shall discuss later.

Banquets as such--with their multiple political and moral purposes and all the rigid rules that governed them--were a burden on both host and guests. Everyone came to a meal at which the food itself was the point; how could anyone, including the emperor, enjoy the food in a relaxed manner under such circumstances? Some scholars have suggested that the food served on these occasions may not have been all that enticing to begin with. Imperial statutes specified that the main dishes had to be cooked and placed upon the tables the night before the banquet, and consumed cold the next day. Cold Chinese dishes? Such a menu certainly doesn’t sound very appetizing, but at least it allowed guests to concentrate on the correctness of their table manners and kowtows.

Commoners consequently came to imagine the emperor as a poor fellow who in theory possessed everything under the heavens but in reality was preoccupied by ritual and seldom had the opportunity to enjoy the natural pleasures of unassuming but fresh food. Folk stories to this effect abounded in the Qing dynasty. A common theme of these tales had it that, trapped in the palace and surrounded by too many and too much of all of the best preparations, the emperor was often bored and lost his appetite. On some chance occasion, however, perhaps in a tiny inn or a Buddhist temple in a remote area, he was served simple peasant cuisine (usually tofu and vegetable dishes) and was overwhelmed by the shock of genuine pleasure. These legends were handed from generation to generation. So, too, were the recipes for the dishes favored by the emperors. Having presumably tasted the best cooking in the country, they were popularly assumed to be in an advantageous position to judge quality.

One of the most popular of these narratives tells of the emperor Qianmong, who liked to walk in plain cloth with just a few men, so as to see his realm through his own eyes. On one such outing somewhere in southern China, it suddenly began to rain. The emperor and his retinue took shelter at the foot of a hill, but the rain continued steadily. Eventually, it began to get dark, and the emperor became very hungry. All of a sudden, a smell, a wonderful smell, wafted its way towards the emperor’s nose. He and his men turned around and found a beggar who was cooking chicken over a fire. Without any cooking utensils, the beggar simply cleaned the chicken, wrapped it in wet mud, and threw it into the fire. Once the mud was burned dry and began to crack, the chicken was done. Cold and hungry, the emperor accepted a piece of chicken from the generous beggar, and he claimed that it was the best food he had ever had in his whole life! Hence “beggar’s chicken” became a delicacy in restaurants all over China; today it is even found in New York’s Chinese restaurants.

These yarns, which helped to promote certain dishes among the population in the urban centers, contained a simple truth: when one is hungry, unpretentious food is good enough. In the Qing period, and throughout Chinese history, the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people lived in hunger most of the time, and their diet was basic indeed. In a sense the emperor’s appreciation of the plain “beggar’s chicken” in the folk anecdote illustrate ordinary people’s profound resentment against the extravagant use of materials and manpower in the preparation of imperial banquets.

While it is true that the food was the center on many imperial activities and attending such ceremonies could be very burdensome, the emperors and their families were actually gourmands who enjoyed excellent Chinese as well as Manchu cuisine in their daily life. The emperor had two 'formal' meals a day; the 'early meal' was around 6 am or 7 am, and the 'late meal' was between noon and 2:00 pm. There was also an evening 'snack' around 6:00 pm.

The emperor always ate the meal by himself, unless he granted someone (for example, the empress or one of his concubines) the privilege of dining with him. At each meal several dozens of dishes--sometimes even more than a hundred were served to the emperor, who would consume only a small portion of the food and 'bestow' the leftovers as well as the untouched dishes on the imperial cohorts, princes, princesses, or his favorite officials. In return, these courtiers would compete with each other to win his attention and favor by presenting him with the best dishes prepared by their own cooks.

The Bureau of Archives of the Imperial Buttery, established in 1771, kept dated records of dishes prepared for and consumed by the emperor and his family. This Bureau was initially staffed with two directors and ten clerks and later eleven more clerks, all of whom, to judge by the huge volume of incredibly detailed accounts accumulated by the Bureau, worked diligently each day. These records (now available to researchers at the First Historical Archives in Beijing) include, among other items, all the dishes served to the emperor at each meal, the names of the chefs who prepared them, the utensils used,(their names, shape, and color), and the location where the meal was served. They also include descriptions of the dishes submitted to the emperor by the imperial family members, the regional governors, and central government officials. In case the emperor fell ill, checking these records was an important part of the imperial doctors’ diagnosing process. These records, of course, were invaluable references for imperial chefs, whose obsession it was to please the emperor.

Many of the imperial chefs were presented to the Manchu court by Han officials. The Emperor Qianlong toured the eastern and southern provinces six times during his lifetime. Wherever he went, the emperor received the finest cuisines from the local officials; if he happened to like a particular dish, it was very likely that the dish’s cook would be presented to him and brought back to the capital. Thus many outstanding chefs from different regions of the country ended up serving the imperial family in Beijing. Once they were discharged by the imperial family for one reason or another, they were hired by upper-class families or restaurants in the capital and nearby cities. Many southern cuisines were thereby brought to the north. On the other hand, northern cuisine as well as Manchu/Mongolian cooking also made their way south, as southern cooks picked up methods and skills displayed by the chefs traveling with the imperial entourage, who introduced their specialties in southern restaurants. It was through the exchange of food cultures between the south and north, a by-product of imperial southern tours which even Qianlong admitted late in life were very wasteful, that the Chinese culinary art developed.

Nowadays many Chinese dishes lay claim to origins in the period of Quanlong, or even much earlier. Large Chinese restaurant in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and New York offer services of 'royal enjoyment, commoners’ price.' Many imperial dishes are made available to ordinary customers in authentic and modern ways: authentic, in that recipes derive from the imperial archives; modern, in that they can be served very quickly. Ironically, the dishes that were most simple two hundred years ago now require more time to prepare; anyone, for example, who wants to try “beggars’ chicken” in New York City must now make reservations twenty-four hours in advance.
Renqui Yu is an Associate Professor of History at Purchase College/SUNY. This article was originally published in the Summer 1996 issue of Culturefront, a magazine of the humanities, in an issue totally devoted to food. Professor Yu has written many other publications including: Chop Suey: From Chinese Food to Chinese American Food which appeared in Chinese America: History and Perspectives published by the Chinese Historical Society of America in 1987. The article appears here in totality, with written permission of ulturefront.

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