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The Life of An Emperor

Mandate of Heaven

Tianming, or the Heavenly Mandate (天命), was ancient political and religious doctrine that bound the dynasties since ancient times to rule over China. The mandate, which represents the natural order of the universe requires a “just ruler of China” be the “Son of Heaven of the Celestial Empire.” The mandate was not just a justification for rule, it actually bound the emperor to the nation, in some ways that were beyond his control.

The Mandate of Heaven is often compared to the divine right of kings in Europe, there were similarities, but there several major differences.

As in European divine right, the Mandate of Heaven essentially stated that heaven/god gave the ruler power and authority.

Under the Mandate of Heaven, any individual in Chinese society could be the emperor. Whether common or noble or birth, the only requirement was that he be fit to rule.

Much of ancient China focused on balance, and the emperors’ rule was no exception, the emperors were responsible for maintaining the Heavenly Mandate. If they lost governance, by being overthrown or excised from power, their subjects believed they lost the mandate. Another belief was that natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, and famines were signs of heaven’s displeasure with the emperor, and that heaven had withdrawn the mandate. In the case of heaven withdrawing the mandate through natural disasters, the people viewed rebellion as a justified means for changing leadership.


Emperor Qianlong

Emperor Qianlong

By 500 BC, Confucius was already saying that “reputation spread faster than the mail.” China has had an advanced post system for official and unofficial communications for thousands of years. Messages could leave the Forbidden City and make it to the far-flung parts of the empire within one week.

Good emperors kept extremely busy as well. Many went to school early in the morning in childhood, and in adulthood served apprenticeships for various Chinese departments and ministries, like the department of agriculture or defense. When they had learned governance and other skills, they would return and serve as the emperor. Usually it was only when a dynasty had begun to decline would there be emperors who didn’t leave the Forbidden City.

Finally, the emperors were just one person, and ancient China was enormous. Many laws and orders came from a cabinet of scholar-ministers. These people had to pass the top exam in the country in order to become political officials, and in some cases the cabinet could choose not to execute the emperors orders. These ministers also had tests every 3 years to determine their competence- those who were deemed unfit were removed from office.

There was also a Ministry of Rules whose sole job was to watch the emperor and ministers and determine that what they did was appropriate and within the law. They made sure that officials avoided corruption, and that the emperor must issue written apologies to be posted publicly in each city for failures of governance and natural disasters.

Holding Court

Hunting for Pleasure

Hunting for Pleasure

The emperors held court within the Forbidden City. In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) the Emperor would hold morning court at the Gates of Supreme Harmony- the front/main gate of the Forbidden City. Although court held was largely perfunctory, the emperor would discuss state affairs with his ministers in order to demonstrate his diligence and commitment to the Mandate of Heaven.

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), court was held at the Gate of Heavenly Purity, the gate to the Inner Court of the Forbidden City.

In both cases, the ministers, officials, and heads of state would wait in a kneeling position to speak to the emperor. The emperor sat on a golden throne and heard them, and then issued his decrees.

Additionally, upon the doors of the gates the emperor’s decrees and orders would be promulgated. Posts would be made in writing for the ministerial visitors to see and then disseminate.

Concubines and Conjugal Life

Emperor and Empress

Emperor and Empress

Typically, an emperor would have one wife- the empress- and many other lovers, typically called concubines. Concubines, ladies in waiting, consorts, and palace maids were all brought to the attention of the court by either their status or beauty. As many emperors had little activities outside of the Forbidden City, they relied on others to find consorts and concubines. The concubine would officially be recruited to court to entertain the emperor and bear him sons. Unfortunately, the concubines who entered the palace lived in a gilded cage. They were not allowed to leave without permission, and could not see their family or friends on the outside.

Although most emperors had at most dozens or even hundreds of concubines, most emperors (Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty supposedly had 40,000) had thousands available to them at all times. Because there were so many consorts and concubines, most barely had contact with the emperor at all, so they would occupy themselves with crafts like sewing, make-up, and developed friendships with other concubines. The emperors also had male consorts, known sometimes in China as “passion of the sleeve.”

Entire imperial clocks and documents were dedicated to the emperor’s sex life. The rotation of sex partners on an orderly and timely basis was seen as important to the proper functioning of not just the emperor, but all of Chinese society. These sex-rotation schedules were organized according to the lunar calender, the rankings of the concubines, and numerology.

Some emperors kept the names of their favorite concubines and consorts on jade tablets. When the emperor wanted said individual, he would leave that tablet turned over on a table in the imperial palace. When a eunuch saw the tablet, he would go to the woman, watch her disrobe so that he could be certain she had no weapons. Next, the eunuch wrapped her in golden cloth and carried her to the emperor, since she could not walk, having bound feet.

In-depth Forbidden City Tour with China Travel

Take your time to enjoy the One-Day In-Depth Forbidden City Tour with China Travel:

  • Our English-speaking expert guide will lead you to explore this largest imperial palace in the world and give you comprehensive explanations with pictures.
  • You will see all highlights and discover the hidden history of Chinese imperial life.
  • This in-depth Forbidden City tour takes about 5 hours while common Forbidden City tour only lasts about 2 hours.
  • In the afternoon, you’ll visit Jingshan Park to have a bird's eye view of the Forbidden City and watch sunset.