The Imperial Household Department

The Imperial Household Department (Neiwufu) was responsible for the costly task of provisioning the Forbidden City. It was not only in charge of managing the emperor's household affairs, court ceremonies, recruiting and employing maidservants and eunuchs, performing diplomatic duties, managing the imperial printing bureau, supervised the trade of ginseng, pearls, salt and coin copper, but also the daily upkeep of the Palace: heating, lighting, cleaning, maintenance, food and other daily provisions.

Formerly located in the southwestern part of the Forbidden City, it was founded in 1661 and run by bondservants attached to the Manchu banners who replaced the eunuchs who had managed the imperial household. The bondservants supervised a veritable army of personnel. Under the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662-1722), the size of the Imperial Household grew steadily from 402 officials in 1662 to 999 in 1722 and 1,623 in 1796.

The large number of workman and artisans who entered the Forbidden City wore belt tallies issued by The Imperial Household. In 1773, the Department issued 3,668 belt tallies that were valid for a three-year period. Apart from the workman and artisans, there were also laborers called sula in Manchu. They performed a number of jobs from moving furniture, sweeping floors, maintaining gardens and clearing snow.

A high-ranking official from the Imperial Household presided over the imperial kitchen. By the late eighteenth century, there were over three hundred chefs employed in the Forbidden City. Surviving menus reveal that imperial tastes were not purely Manchu but borrowed from cuisines across the country. Foods included chicken, venison, pork, soups, and dairy products such as butter, milk cakes and koumiss—fermented mare or camel's milk. The high-quality rice that the emperor and his family ate was not 'tribute rice,' but rice grown on imperial estates near the capital.The imperial kitchens were based in two locations. One was located outside Jingyunmen (The Gate of Flourishing). The other imperial kitchen was located south of the Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxindian) which served as the emperor's imperial kitchen.

The entire cooking process from the food selected and ingredients to whether it was chopped, sliced, and marinated and finally making contact with the oil in woks was closely supervised by an Imperial Household representative. One chef selected and washed the food and chose the ingredients before submitting them for approval by the Imperial Household. Another chef would then prepare the food which went through the same process. Only then would a third chef appear and start cooking under the watchful presence of an official from the Imperial Household. The food was then placed inside lacquered boxes, wrapped in satin napkins with dragon and cloud motifs and 'carried by a procession of eunuchs into the imperial presence.'

Every dish came with a strip of silver to ensure against any traces of poison. Just in case the strip of silver was not foolproof, a eunuch tasted every dish before it was eaten by the emperor and his family. Palace regulations forbade the emperor to have more than two servings of any one dish in case his preferences provided clues for anyone who wanted to poison him.

The charcoal used for cooking was also used to heat the palace. The huge bronze and iron vats found throughout the Forbidden City were filled with water drawn from the River of Golden Water. During the cold winter months, eunuchs wrapped these large vats with cotton padded covers and placed charcoal braziers underneath them to prevent the water from freezing. The charcoal used to heat the residential and ceremonial halls in the Forbidden City and for cooking was made from hard-grained wood produced in Yizhou prefecture in Zhili (present-day Hebei province). It was of such high quality that it gave strong fires with very little smoke. You may have noticed there are no chimney stacks in the Forbidden City.

The charcoal was delivered to a government office in the west of the capital called Hongluochang. It was cut into specified lengths packed into small round wicker baskets painted red before being sent to the Palace. The charcoal was called hongluotan (lit: 'red basket charcoal.') Palace records from the Qianlong period (1736-1795) provide detailed records in reference to the daily quota of charcoal which was issued according to rank--empress dowager, empress, imperial consort, consort, princess, prince, and imperial grandson.

So what was the daily quota for emperors like Qianlong? Perhaps there was no quota. After all, he was the emperor.


Lillian M Li, Alison J. Dray-Novey, Haili Kong, 'The Forbidden City and the Qing Emperors,' in Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007:57-61.

Holdsworth, May, 'Good Housekeeping: Domestic Matters in the Forbidden City,' The Forbidden City, Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1998: 60-71.

Don J. Cohn & Zhang Jingqing, Beijing Walks, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1992:60-61.

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