Qianlong: The Qing Empire's CEO

The schedules of the emperors were busy, especially if you were a man of towering ambition like Qianlong (r. 1736-95), the fourth emperor of China's last imperial dynasty. Let's call him the CEO of the Qing empire. In the eighteenth century, Qianlong or any other monarch for that matter did not own a BlackBerry or have a laptop close at hand to review documents or imperial edicts. In the absence of such devices, Qianlong’s retainers kept him up to date with the business of the empire: meetings with ministers, officials, foreign dignataries, generals, preparations for important public events and other rituals.

The emperor's time was a zone of operations in which the switchboard was always open. How could the empire function if the emperor left his official duties at 7:00 pm sharp or insisted that he not be disturbed after 10:00 pm?

Qianlong’s long reign was marked by a flowering of new writing on history and culture, major building and landscape projects, and notable imperial interventions in the arts. He was a prolific poet, a passionate collector of beautiful objects, and a patron of the theatre, and an avid tea drinker. The emperors in late imperial and their families drank green tea during the summer--Dragonwell Tea looms large among the green teas--and Pu'er in winter. Premium teas were also served at important state banquets in the Forbidden City and the compressed cakes were presented as gifts to visiting foreign envoys and dignitaries as far away as England and Russia. To get some idea of Qianlong's schedule, let's take a closer look at what Qianlong's schedule looked like on the eighth day of the first lunar month of the thirtieth year of his reign (28 January 1765). This day has been masterfully pieced together in Wang Shizhou’s One Day in the Life of Qianlong (2006) and parts of it retold with aplomb in Geremie Barmé's The Forbidden City (2008).

On this particular day Qianlong rose at 4 am, drank a bowl of iced sweetened swallows’ nest soup at 5:00 am and then made it to breakfast in the Studio of Convivial Delight at 6:00 am [1]. Nothing like a nourishing icy cold swallows’ nest soup to get the emperor revved up for the morning and to balance his primordial qi.

I can't help thinking that Qianlong drank iced swallows' nest soup not just out of preference or to balance his earthly and cosmic energies, but to contain the flames of worry and anxiety in running the Qing empire. If we comb the annals of Chinese history, we can find references to 'drinking ice' or 'ice-drinking' (yinbing) as far back as Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher who lived around the fourth century BCE. 'In the Human World' (Renshijian), the Duke of She, Zigao was about to depart on an important mission to the State of Qi. He told Confucius that he was anxious and afraid of the heavy responsibility that the King had given him:

This morning I received my orders, and this evening I’m drinking ice water. It’s as if my insides are cooking. I haven’t even got to the substance of my task yet and I’m already suffering from the imbalance of yin and yang! If I fail, everyone will condemn me. As a minister, I don’t have sufficient footing to undertake this embassy.

Barmé writes that Qianlong’s journey to the Lake Palaces for breakfast:

entailed a leisurely ride in the heated palanquin. In addition to the four eunuch bearers, eight other eunuchs carried lanterns and household objects, such as a spittoon made of gold, at the front of the procession. The palanquin left the Forbidden City via the West Flourishing Gate (Xihua Men) and to the West Garden Gate (Xiyuan Men) leading into the Lake Palaces, then travelled around the southern shore of the South Lake, past many buildings and vistas until it reached the studio of Convivial Delight which stood below the Tower for Delighting in the Moon (Baoyue Lou)…

We can also get a good idea of the emperor’s time if we look at his annual calendar schedule in 1780. From February 16 to June 11 Qianlong conducted the fifth of his six 'southern tours.' (nanxun) spending 115 days in the south. He spent another 115 days at his summer retreat in Rehe (Chengde) and about two weeks in total in the Yuanming yuan (The Garden of Perfect Brightness).

Qianlong had a burning passion for life. He was an early riser. Even in the dark mornings of a cold bitter winter, Qianlong embraced the darkness, the solitude, creating a private space and time within to fuel his confidence, optimism and stamina for the day ahead. He maintained good physical health throughout his long life and the iced cold swallows’ nest soup no doubt provided the necessary energy to kick-start his day bright and early. Like any modern-day CEO, Qianlong had to find or achieve balance. Some would argue that his reign was one of excess and self-indulgence. But the only person who can really define the concept of balance is the emperor or the CEO. Anyone driven with a burning ambition will always be pulsating to a different rhythm.

[1]. For those who want to know exactly what swallow's nest or bird's nest soup is see http://chinesefood.about.com/library/bltrivia33.htm Swallow's nest soup was also used as part of a stock or broth in dishes prepared for Qianlong's two daily meals which included stir-fried shredded chicken. See Li Yin (2008:90).

Barmé, Geremie ‘A Day in the Reign,’ The Forbidden City, London: Profile Books, 2008: 81.

Doar, Gordon Bruce ‘The Southern Expeditions of Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong,’ China Heritage Quarterly

Hamill, Sam, Seaton, J.P. ‘In the Human World’, in The Essential Chuangtzu (translated by
Hamill and Seaton), Boston: Shanbhala Publications, 1998:27.

Li, Yin Qingdai Hougong (The Qing Harem), Shenyang: Liaoning minzu chubanshe, 2008:90.

Van J. Symons "Qianlong on the Road: the imperial tours to Chengde", New Qing Imperial History: The Making of Inner Asian Empire at Qing Chengde (eds. James A. Willward, et.al.,), New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004:55-65.

Wang Shizhou, Qianlong Yiri (One Day in the Life of Qianlong), Shandong: Shandong huabao chubanshe, 2006.

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