Meals for Emperors
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 (the Hall of Supreme Harmony), Baohe Hall (the Hall of Preserving Harmony), Qianqing Palace (the Palace of Heavenly Purity), and the Ziguang (Purple Light) Pavilion 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 (the Hall of Mental Cultivation), Chonghua Palace (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 7 a.m. 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 (the Hall of Grand Virtue).” And, “at about 2 p.m. 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.

The Qing Dynasty emperors ate two formal meals a day: breakfast after 6 a.m. and the second meal after 12 or 2 p.m. Besides the two formal meals, there was c cocktail and snacks, usually after 4 p.m., 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 were present, the silver plate would change color.

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, not they. It was thus evident that the emperors, once they were enthroned, regarded everyone as their enemy and isolated themselves totally.

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.”

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 s simple mixture, 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 emperors’ diets in the Qing Palace were roughly divided into two periods, with the dividing line being Qianlong’s reign. First, 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 and the Lush Green Garden near Beijing, and the Tang Spring in Zunhua. 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; and 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.

The diversity of foods in the Qing Palace was clearly evident in the emperors’ daily menus. Following are examples of menus prepared for Emperor Qianlong:

Example one: On the 1st day of the 10th month in the 12th year of Qianlong’s reign, His Majesty (Emperor Qianlong) took his late meal in the eastern warm room of the Zhonghua Hall at a Japanese – lacquer dinner table. He was served bird’s nest, shredded chicken, shredded mushrooms, shredded smoked meats, shredded cabbage and cashew nuts, and a pink bowl of eight delicacies – bird’s nest, duck, sliced smoked meats, pork leg, cabbage, chicken wings, pig stomach, and mushrooms. The two courses were cooked by Zhang Dongguan.

Courses of chicken with Chinese cabbage, stewed pig’s offal, hotchpotch (a thick stew of meat, vegetables, and potatoes), a soup, tender duck, shredded pheasant, and pickled vegetables were served in bronze enamel bowls.

Afterward, chive sprouts sir – fried with shredded dried venison were offered in the Imperial Temple along with roast venison hors d’oeuvres, lightly fried chicken slivers, cold mutton, and courses of pork and mutton for sacrificial offering, both on silver plates. Other dishes included rice cakes, small cakes, and small buns served on yellow plates; folded milk skins served in a silver bowl; sacrificial cakes on a silver plate, bean flour mixed with butter served in a silver bowl; honey in a small purple dragon dish; lala (porridge) with bean paste served in a gold bowl; pickles served in a sunflower enamel box; cold dishes with southern flavors; spinach; mutton soup with a poached egg and vermicelli; turnip soup; pheasant soup; and radish with osmanthus flowers served in enameled copper dishes decorated with a birthday peach surrounded by five bats to symbolize prosperity and longevity. Spoons, chopsticks, and napkins were prepared. A bowl of round – grained glutinous rice, as usual, was served in an enamel bowl with a gold cover.

Example two: On July 28th in the 35th year of Qianlog’s reign, at about 6:15 a.m. His Majesty asked for breakfast and took it in the Yangxin Hall (Hall of Character Cultivation) at about 7 a.m. A lacquer table was laid and Chief Director Wang Cheng brought him eight courses.

Bird’s nest with shredded duck meat, stewed chicken with mushrooms and sweet beans, sweet duck, smoked duck and mushrooms without soy sauce, hotchpotch of duck meat – half cooked with soy sauce and the other half cooked without soy sauce, pork stewed with wine, spiced mutton, bird’s nest with smoked chicken, hors d’oeuvres of roast duck, peaches stuffed with duck meat, deep – fried cakes, steamed chicken, stewed roe deer meat, steamed rolls shaped in bamboo knots, small buns, pickles served in a silver sunflower box, four courses of cold dishes served on silver plates, a course of longevity noodles, (brought in by Wang Cheng), and cooked round-grained non-glutinous rice.

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, under “Plain Questions”: “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. We will use another example of Qianlong’s diets to illustrate this point. Emperor Qianlong ate more light food in spring and summer. For example, on June 8 in the 54th year of his reign, Qianlong “took his breakfast in the Yihong Hall (Hall of Partial Rainbow) at a lacquer table on which were served a hot pot of game with bird’s nest, roast duck and roast meat; a hot pot of thick duck soup with Chinese yam; courses of wild herb salad, cold bean jelly, duck stewed with wine and cauliflower, stir – fried spinach with small dried shrimp, cooked lotus root, steamed lotus root with glutinous rice, bean curd stewed with mushrooms, sliced chicken and duck cooked with soy sauce, bamboo knotted rolls and steamed small buns, steamed buns stuffed with minced pumpkin and mutton, braised chicken with cowpea (black – eyed peas); pickles served in an enamel sunflower box; four cold dishes on flange plates; a bowl of cooked round – grained non – glutinous rice; and a bowl of boiled cowpeas.”

Emperor Qianlong ate more fatty food with a higher calorie content in autumn and winter. For example, at 1:30 p.m. on December 13 in the 54th year of Qianlong’s Reign, the emperor “took his late meal in the eastern warm room of the Yangxin Hall at a lacquer table. His meal included a hot pot of chicken with bird’s nest and pine nuts; a hot pot of chicken, smoked meats, and Chinese cabbage; a hot pot of shredded lamb stomach and shredded mutton; courses of steamed chicken with fresh mushrooms, pork fried in salt with fresh mushrooms, cold steamed chicken and mutton, cold steamed duck and deer’s tail, pork in thick gravy, shaped cakes, spiral buns with filling, steamed dumplings with minced chicken, salted pork, pickles served in a silver sunflower box; four small cold dishes put on silver plates; chicken soup with cooked rice; a thick wild duck soup with Chinese yam; and some bird’s nest soup with spinal cord.”

An analysis of the menus from the two different seasons shows that hot pot, a traditional Manchu dish, roast duck, and roast chicken were served at every meal. The other dishes changed from season to season.

The Qing Dynasty emperors also ate foods 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 foods 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 foods 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.

Our study of the imperial meals, regular meals. Snacks, imperial wines, and medicinal meals of the Qing Dynasty is an important effort to identify, continue, and develop this cuisine as well as an important task in understanding and further developing today’s dietetic culture.

As part of our study of the imperial meals of the Qing Dynasty, I would like to tell you about some of the foods the emperors ate in order to help you better understand the imperial meals and the dietetic culture.

Hot pots included:

Steamed duck, bird’s nest, and fresh mushrooms without soy sauce, duck, bird’s nest and lotus seeds; bird’s nest and wild game; stewed pork leg and grouse; stir – fried shredded pork, chicken, and kelp; stir – fried chicken slices and stewed bean curd; stir – fried chicken slices, stewed spinach, and bean curd; stir – fried chicken and quick stir – fried pork, pickled vegetable and stewed pork leg; quick stir – fried pork and stir – fired Chinese cabbage; shredded pork and bamboo shoots; duck stewed in soy sauce and duck stewed without soy sauce with Chinese cabbage; sheep’s intestimes and stomach with vinegar and pepper; Chinese yam and smoked duck with onion and Chinese prickly ash; stewed chicken and braised meat balls of three delicacies; and omelet with scallion, shredded sheep’s stomach, roast dog’s meat, and duck kidney sautéed with vinegar.

Hor’s d’oeuvres:

Steamed chicken and deer’s tail: roast duck, barbecued pork, lotus root, duck, and pork leg; stewed venison and deer’s tail; steamed chicken and stewed roe deer’s steamed chicken and deep – fried mutton slivers; roast pig; and duck with fruits.


Shredded chicken and bird’s nest, bird’s nest and shredded duck, sliced beam curd, bird’s nest and eight delicacies, sheep’s intestine and stomach, duck and broad bean, and mixed duck.

Staple food:

Cooked non – glutinous rice, small buns steamed white sponge cake, lotus leaf cake, spoon – shaped red cake, steamed wheat cake, steamed broomcorn cake, steamed wheat cake with Chinese dates, cowpeas recooked in boiling water, steamed buns filled with minced duck meat, steamed buns stuffed with minced duck and mushrooms, steamed dumplings with the dough open at the top filled with minced duck and mushrooms, steamed dumplings with the dough open at the top filled with minced chicken and mushrooms, steamed buns filled with chives, deep – fried triangular dumplings filled with minced pork, and steamed buns filled with minced mutton and pumpkin.

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