Life of the Emperors and Empresses in the Forbidden City (1644-1911)-III.
Birthday celebrations were also an important ceremony of the Qing court. On the occasion of Wanshou (emperor’s birthday), Qianqiu (empress’ birthday) or Shengshou (empress mother’s birthday) Festival, celebrations would be held. The emperor’s birthday, and especially on its anniversaries of decades, was celebrated more solemnly than others.
In the Qing Dynasty, the emperor’s birthday, the Lunar New Year and the Winter Solstice were called the Three Great Festivals for which the court ceremonies were about the same. On the occasion of an emperor’s birthday, however, gifts would be offered to the emperor, butchery would be prohibited, criminal sentences would be held in abeyance for several days, and the civil and military officials would have to dress themselves in embroidered robes in accordance with related etiquette.
During the Qing Dynasty, there were two massive birthday celebrations, one on Emperor Kang Xi’s birthday in 1713, and the other on Emperor Qian Long’s 80th birthday in 1790.
On the first occasion, Kang Xi had just returned from an inspection of irrigation works at Bazhou, and all along the route from Changchunyuan (Garden of Exhilarating Spring) in the western suburbs to the Forbidden City arches and makeshift stages for theatrical performances had been set up and houses bedecked with lanterns and coloured streamers. Thousands of tables were laid out with wine and fruits for men in the streets while Kang Xi traveled in open carriage escorted by princes and courtiers. Tens of thousands of people lined the road and kneeled to greet the Emperor. Officials and provincial representatives paying obeisance to him lined the pavement from Tian’anmen to Wumen. This grand occasion was recorded in historical writings and in the paintings by Leng Mei and other court artists.
The occasion was also celebrated in the provinces with Taoist and Buddhist services, pilgrimage to famous mountain temples and resorts. New temples and imperial hostels were built specially to mark the occasion.
On the second occasion, Emperor Qian Long’s 80th birthday, a celebration was held one month ahead at the imperial Summer Resort in Chengde, which was attended by leaders of various nationalities throughout the country and foreign envoys. Afterward the emperor returned to Yuanmingyuan near Beijing. The day before his birthday, Qian Long traveled from Yuanmingyuan to Xihuamen (Gate of Western Glory) of the Forbidden City, with frequent stops along the way. It was a procession of festivity with people singing and dancing along the road to greet the emperor. On the birthday itself, the princes, civil and military officials and foreign envoys offered their congratulations to the emperor in Taihedian. Then he came to Qianqinggong to receive the congratulations of the empress, the imperial concubines, the princes and his grandsons, great-grandsons and great-great-grandsons, forming a happy gathering of family members of five generations.
A lively description of the grand occasion and the precious gifts offered to the emperor by the ministers were recorded by Liu De Rong, the Korean envoy who attended the celebrations. Liu wrote, „the ministers of defence and interior as well as the civil and military governors of the provinces vied with one another to present birthday gifts to the emperor, most of which were jade Ruyi (a symbol of good luck) that filled the hall in which they were exhibited. Cases with dozens of small gold statues of the Buddha covered with yellow kerchiefs were carried into the palace in an endless stream. There was a dazzling coral tree three feet tall, with emeralds as leaves and ambers as fruit, all fitted together by gold thread. I know not whose gift it was…” Many of these treasures are still kept in the Palace Museum.
Next to these two grand birthday celebrations in scale, there were two ceremonies for the birthday of Emperor Qian Long’s mother. When it came to the celebration of the Empress Dowager Ci Xi’s 60th birthday, the Qing Dynasty was near its end, still a lot of money was squandered on feasting, gifts, and theatrical performances.
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