The Forbidden City was once synonymous with secrecy in China, where people never had the opportunity to witness the celebration and extravagance of an emperor’s wedding.
Today, we can peek into the mystery of royal weddings from the last imperial dynasty at an exhibition entitled, “Ceremony and Celebration – The Grand Weddings of the Qing Emperors,” jointly organized by the Hong Kong Heritage Museum and the Palace Museum in Beijing. It is open until February 27.
“The grand wedding was probably the happiest moments for residents in the Forbidden City,” said Joyce Ho, an assistant curator at the Heritage Museum in charge of the exhibition. “The enthronement usually followed the death of a previous emperor, so people were still mourning.”
To make the exhibition even more precious – not every emperor had the luxury of holding their wedding celebrations within the palace walls; only four out of 10 Manchurian rulers living in the palace were still single before ascending the throne – Shunzhi, Kangxi, Tongzhi and Guangxu.
The 153 rare items on display range from portraits, costumes and dowry objects to decorations. They tell a complete story about a royal wedding, offering commoners a glimpse into what it would have been like.
Illustrated Record of the Grand Wedding of Zaitian
An illustrated record of the grand wedding of Zaitian, or Emperor Guangxu in 1889 that lasted 144 days, is at the heart of the exhibition.
A team of palace artists painstakingly drew and painted every scene from all the rituals, including the betrothal ceremony and the feast that followed, the presentation of grand wedding gifts, the conferring of the empress’ title and the reception of the empress.
In the end, the celebration was recorded in a total of 89 panoramic paintings bound in a book. In China, where one of the oldest writing systems continually used could be found, it was extremely exceptional for an event to be recorded in such refined pictures.
The assistant curator, Ho, can still remember how shocked she was when she saw the paintings. “High-resolution pictures were available on the internet and from the Palace Museum’s achieve,” Ho said. “But you would never be able to see how bright the blue colours are on the paintings. If you look carefully, you can even see the silver paint for the swords.”
In today’s modern world, wedding rings are a token of one’s love. But in the Qing dynasty, the emperor and the empress received ruyi sceptres.
The long and handle-shaped gift was initially used as a scratcher, and the name means “good luck and happiness” in Chinese. It later became a popular choice of gift for the royal family and high-ranking officials in the country.
Ruyi scepters were often presented at various occasions connected to royal marriages, which explains why there were so many on the exhibition list.
The Qing dynasty has developed a comprehensive system to look for wives for the Emperor, in an attempt to ensure the reign of an empire. Girls from the ruling Manchurians and the political ally of Mongolian origin, would become Preparative Imperial Concubines at the age of 13.
The Emperor had to choose the Empress from among the concubines-to-be by handing a ruyi scepter to the one he supposedly like. (But the choices were often politically motivated marriages, just like many on the European continent.)
As the Empress was welcomed to the Palace on her Phoenix Chair, she would also hold a ruyi scepter and an apple; together they mean “safe and happiness” in Chinese.
A mix of Manchurian and Han features
The Qing dynasty royal family were Manchurian, an ethnic minority who grew up riding horses. Relations with the mostly Han Chinese people had always been a headache for these rulers, so symbolic cultural integration such as marriage was one of the methods to ease ethnic tensions.
Qing wedding rituals, for example, were largely modelled on that of traditional Confucian teachings in the Book of Rites. At the same time, Manchu culture always sneaked in the process.
For example, the Emperor would give a helmet and a duomu flask to the family of the empress-elect on their wedding day. The flask is still popular now in Tibetan and Mongolian regions to make butter tea or suutei tsai, respectively. (Not to be confused with Hong Kong’s milk tea!)
Although royal weddings are prestigious, marriages in the Qing dynasty had more to do with social and political practicalities.
Shunzhi and Kangxi who lived through the early days of the dynasty used marriage to reinforce their power with political alliances, while Empress Dowager Cixi, the (in)famous woman who led the decline of the empire, manipulated the marriage of Tongzhi and Gungxu to strengthen her own power in an attempt to monopolize state affairs.
“We always thought of the emperor as someone with the greatest power to make all the decisions,” Ho said. “But sometimes they couldn’t pick who they would marry.”