The Emperor's Diet
Imperial Manchu-Han Dishes
During the Shang Dynasty, there were very strict customs regarding food rank. Each day the Son of Heaven ate three meals and the menu typically included six grains, six drinks, a hundred and twenty delicacies and eight rarities.
When the Son of Heaven ate, musicians played to stimulate his appetite. Food doctors also came to select medicinal food for the Son of Heaven. Profound philosophical thought and a thorough base of knowledge went into the emperors' diets during the Qing Dynasty. According to the ancient Chinese classic, The National Language
: The Language of the Zheng State
, dishes should not be of a single ingredient or several monotonous ingredients, but should be diverse. The diversification should not be simple mixtures, but a reasonable blending. The precise term for this reasonable blending was "harmony", which meant scientific coordination. The ancient Chinese philosophy reflected in the emperor's diets was "harmony is precious". "Harmony" meant the foods should include the five cereals and five flavors. Only by eating the five cereals plus foods with the five flavors of sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and spicy could all nutrients be obtained to stimulate the appetite and maintain good health. The diverse food and reasonable blending of ingredients were intended to achieve "harmony". The imperial meals for the emperors in the Qing Palace represented the philosophy that "harmony is precious".
The Qing Dynasty emperors did not take their meals in just one place. Often they ate where they lived, worked, or played. Banquets, feasts and dinners were given in Taihe Hall 太和殿 (the Hall of Supreme Harmony), Baohe Hall 保和殿 (the Hall of Preserving Harmony), Qianqing Palace 乾清宮 (the Palace of Heavenly Purity), and the Ziguang Pavilion 紫 光亭 (Purple Light) in the Western Garden (the South and Central Lakes, where the headquarters of the Chinese government is located today). The emperors took their daily meals in Yangxin Hall 養心殿 (the Hall of Mental Cultivation), Chonghua Palace 重華宮(the Hall of Double Glory), or the Imperial Library.
These details are clearly recorded in the archived imperial diets of the Qing Palace General Office of Internal Affairs.
The following was recorded about Emperor Qianlong.
"At about seven in the morning, on the 30th day of the ninth month in the 12th year of Qianlong's Reign, His Majesty (Emperor Qianlong) took his breakfast in the Hongde Hall
宏德殿 (the Hall of Grand Virtue).
" And, "at about two in the afternoon, on the first day of the 10th month, His Majesty took his late meal in the eastern heated room of Chonghua Hall.
" On the same day, "His Majesty asked for a dinner of 15 courses with wine, wild game, and fowl to be served on red porcelain plates in Yangxin Hall.
He selected three different places for his meals in just two days.
During the Qing Dynasty, the emperor had two proper meals each day, breakfast (usually at between six and seven in the morning) and lunch (between twelve and two during the day). Besides the two formal meals, there was cocktail and snacks, usually after four in the evening, the exact time and menu as ordered by the emperor.
At meal time the emperor ordered his bodyguard to summon the meal. The senior or junior officials in the imperial kitchen immediately ordered the eunuchs to set the table in the hall where the emperor wanted the meal served. The eunuchs then brought the dishes prepared according to the menu the emperor had ordered and placed them on the table according to the strict rules.
The emperors were always afraid of being murdered and did not trust even their closest attendants or bodyguards, much less the officials and eunuchs in charge of the imperial meals. Therefore, when the dishes were put on the table, the emperors did not immediately eat. First they took a small silver plate and inserted it several times into each dish. It was believed that if poison was present, the silver plate would change colour.
Even when the silver test was negative, the emperors still had fears so they asked the waiting eunuch to taste all the dishes. If there were poison, the eunuch would get poisoned. It was thus evident that the emperors, once they were enthroned, regarded everyone as their enemy and isolated themselves totally. The eunuchs would test the emperor's food with silk utensils and taste a few mouthfuls to guard against poisoning. It was only when they were sure that there was nothing irregular that the emperor would start eating. Standing to one side, the eunuch who served the food would watch the emperor's eyes. If the emperor looked at any dish, the eunuch would quickly take it to the emperor's side.
The Qing Palace had a rule that "food shall not exceed three mouthfuls", which is to say that the emperor would not eat more than three mouthfuls of any food. The purpose of this rule was to stop people knowing what type of food the emperor liked, in order to prevent people from poisoning his food. In addition, it was to safeguard the emperor against indigestion (they were worried that if the emperor ate too much of the food he liked he would have indigestion) and becoming partial to certain food.
Thus when the emperor ate, although there were abundant delicious food available, he could only eat a little of the food that he really liked and his meal could not be enjoyed to the fullest. The emperor usually ate by himself, and although he could summon the empress, concubine, prince or princess to eat with him, he would focus strictly on the meal while eating, unlike a commoner who could happily eat with his family, talking and laughing at the same time. After the emperor had eaten, the leftover food would be given to the concubines and ministers.
Following the meal, the emperor would gargle, drink tea and eat fruit and the eunuch in charge would hand over the cards for the officials requesting an audience, letting the emperor decide who to meet. After finishing tea, the emperor would change clothes and prepare to meet the ministers.
On those days when officials wanted to present memorials or be called in, they each submitted a plate at the emperor's meal time. Princes, dukes and members of the Royal Family used red plates. Civil officials above the rank of Deputy Chief of the Court of Censors and military officers above the rank of Provincial Military Governor used green plates. Civil officials from outside the capital above the rank of Chief Prosecutor of the Provincial High Court and military officers above the rank of Area Commander used common plates.
The Memorials Office officials gave the plates to the emperor to decide whether the memorials would be presented and who would be called in. Because the plates were submitted at the emperor's meal time, the plates for calling in the officials were called "meal plates".
The emperors' diets in the Qing Palace were roughly divided into two periods, with the dividing line being Qianlong's reign. There were changes to the raw materials. During the early Qing Dynasty, most raw materials came from Northeast China. These included live and processed ducks from different parts of the country, duck eggs, edible bird's nest, fish, deer and its products, river and roe deer, bear, wild fowl, wild game, and ham. Fruits and vegetables included small root vegetables, bamboo shoots, lily, Chinese yam, and mountain pears. More red meats were eaten than cereals, vegetables, and fruits.
After Qianlong's reign, more cereals appeared in the diet. Glutinous millet, rice, and purple rice came from Jade Spring Mountain 玉泉山 and the Lush Green Garden 翠綠林 near Beijing, and the Tang Spring 湯泉 in Zunhua 遵化. Good quality rice, wheat, flour, dried noodles, and cereals came from other parts of the country.
To make sure the royalty had an abundant supply of fresh and dried fruits, all the local governments sent their specialties and fresh fruits to the palace. These included peanuts, dates, dried persimmons, and lotus seeds from Shandong, dried persimmons, lily, and preserved peaches from Henan, sweet scented osmanthus blossoms and Hami melons from Shaanxi and Gansu, oranges, litchis, tangerines, and round cardamom from Guangdong and Guangxi, tangerines, oranges, crystal sugar, areca (palms, especially betel palm) and longan from Zhejiang and Fujian, fresh fruits from Hunan, Hubei, Sichuan and Guizhou, plums, pears, hazelnuts, hawthorn berries, and grapes from Northeast China. Vegetables were bought at the market, but pickled and salted vegetables were tributes from different parts of the country.
The imperial diets included multiple nutrients, multiple flavors, and a vast number of dishes. One meal included both hot and cold dishes, meat and vegetable dishes, sweet and salty pastries, soup, thick soup and milk, pickles, rice, wheat foods, desserts, and fruits.
During the Qing Dynasty, food and drink were used to improve the emperor's physique and preserve his health. This was an ancient Chinese tradition clearly stated in the ancient Chinese medical classic, Huang Di Nei Jing
黃帝內經: "The five cereals are staple foods, fruits are auxiliary foods, meats are beneficial, and vegetables are available in abundance.
" This means that cereals, fruits, meats, and vegetables guarantee good health.
The imperial kitchen adjusted the emperors' diets with the change of the seasons. The emperors ate more light foods in spring and summer and more fatty, nutritious foods in autumn and winter. Light food increases body fluids while fatty, nutritious food increases vital energy. This conforms to the metabolic rule of the human body.
The Qing Dynasty emperors also ate food that had medicinal effects. Many records in the meal archives of the Qing Palace included the use of wines, juices, extracts, preserved fruits, and sugar. Examples are: Songling Taiping aphrodisiac wine, longevity wine, medicinal wine for old people, Zhuangyuan Wine to stimulate the spleen and kidneys, realgar (red orpiment) wine, rose extract, watermelon juice, papaya extract, pineapple extract, longan extract, peppermint tea extract, cakes with osmanthus flowers, eight – treasure cakes, ginger cakes, lily cakes, haw jam, chrysanthemum jam, date jam, glutinous rehmannia (a medicinal herb) preserved in syrup, preserved gingko, preserved fingered citron, preserved rose, peppermint, almond sweets, and walnut sweets.
These food were used to stimulate the stomach, kidneys, and appetite, reduce internal heat, reduce phlegm, nourish the body, and prolong life.
The emperors' imperial meals not only represented the Qing Dynasty's dietetic culture, they were also an important component of the Chinese dietetic culture. The meals taken by the Qing emperors were varied in content and form, followed strict rules and rites, and were based on profound cultural thoughts. They comprised Manchu dishes, Han dishes, and dishes cooked in both southern and northern styles. The food reflected the colorful, dietetic culture and multiple nationalities of the Qing Dynasty. What the Chinese eat today is mostly a continuation of the dietetic culture of the Qing Dynasty.
Edited by HappyHistorian, 07 April 2010 - 08:33 AM.