This year’s Mid-Autumn Festival happened to fall on a Friday, which was convenient because it extended into the weekend, allowing us to enjoy our unfinished mooncakes. Of course, 300 years ago in China, there was no such thing as the weekend respite, so most people would have appreciated even just a brief celebration together with family at night after a hard day’s work.
This changed in 1735, however, when Prince Hongli ascended the throne as the Qianlong Emperor. From this time onward, subjects of the Qing empire enjoyed a holiday on Mid-Autumn because the Emperor’s birthday, the so-called Wanshou Jie or “Longevity Festival,” happened to fall on the thirteenth day of the eighth month in the lunar calendar – just two days before Mid-Autumn. Thus, Mid-Autumn became a holiday for the first time. That is, it was a time of rest for everyone except the servants at the Imperial court who had to work extra hard to make sure Qianlong celebrated his birthday to his satisfaction and in a manner befitting the Emperor. And these celebrations would not be complete without the Qianlong Emperor’s mother.
Birthdays with the Empress Dowager
Qianlong’s birth mother was the Empress Xiaoshengxian of the Niohuru clan, Consort Xi of the Yongzheng Emperor. In recent years, Xiaoshengxian’s biography had been the subject of several popular television dramas. She entered into court service as a gege when Yongzheng was still a prince. She began to receive special favour after giving birth to Prince Hongli, who was intelligent and beloved by both his father, Yongzheng, and grandfather the Kangxi Emperor. Later, she was bestowed the rank of Noble Consort only after the passing of Yongzheng’s first empress.
After ascending the throne, Qianlong elevated his birth mother as Empress Dowager Chongqing. Until her death at the age of 86 in 1777, the Empress Dowager enjoyed all the luxuries of the world. Qianlong had a profound emotional bond to his mother and took her on his excursions without fail. Empress Dowager Chongqing surely ranks among the most fortunate empresses in Chinese history.
Following the custom set by his predecessors, Qianlong would organise an imperial hunt at Mulan in Chengdu every autumn. He did this from his sixth year of his reign until he surpassed age 80, when he was no longer able to travel long distances. The ritual of the hunt commemorated the martial prowess of the Manchu founders of the dynasty. Consequently, Qianlong spent most of his birthdays in Chengdu and typically celebrated Mid-Autumn Festival and the imperial hunt together.
On his birthday, Qianlong would rise early and pay his respects to the Empress Dowager. Only afterward would he proceed to the Great Hall to receive well-wishes from his ministers. Then he would invite his mother to his celebratory banquet, at which he formally announced the beginning of the Mid-Autumn holiday and festivities. He typically spent most of the following few days with his mother until the sixteenth day of the eighth month, when he left for the hunting grounds at Mulan.
Born in the Year of the Rabbit
Around Mid-Autumn, Qianlong used a special set of porcelain ware bearing the pattern of the fragrant osmanthus. Aside from the timing of his birthday, the Emperor’s fondness for the Mid-Autumn Festival was also due to his having been both born and enthroned during the Years of the Rabbit. Moreover, he considered the Chinese myth of the Jade Rabbit arising in the east auspicious for the longevity of his rule. When it came time to conduct offerings to the moon, Qianlong had palace servants prepare fresh flowers and spreads of fruit and cakes at the altar in advance of his performance of the rituals and his prayers.
Naturally, the mooncakes used for an Emperor’s rituals had to be specially prepared. In the eighth month of every year, before Qianlong travelled north, the palace kitchen in Beijing had to send “one large mooncake weighing ten jin for the Emperor’s offering to the moon, two three-jin mooncakes, and one hundred and fifty two-inch gift mooncakes.” These three types of mooncakes served different purposes. The giant mooncake was an offering to the moon. After the ritual, it was preserved and not eaten until New Year’s Eve, some three months later. The two three-jin mooncakes were consumed during Mid-Autumn. One of them was cut into two halves. The other was presented whole to the Emperor in a gold box carved with dragons, but he only took a symbolic bite from it before distributing the rest to his consorts and empresses. The small mooncakes were sent back to Beijing and given to consorts, empresses, princes, and princesses remaining in the palace. The various other offerings were distributed among the servants and guards.
Back in Beijing, every member of the Imperial family received a stack of zilaihong, mooncakes that a red crust. It was customary for the Emperor, during a brief resting interval of the offering ritual, to have a host of small dishes were placed before him, although he had already had dinner. “[Qianlong] used green jade plates to serve fifteen dishes and servings of wine in the rustic style, seven main dishes, eight servings of sweets… [the court] presented shredded duck meat mixed with bird’s nest, hang-roasted duck meat, five-spice chicken, smoked wild chicken and chicken feet, lotus root and peas, rustic deep-fried dough, mooncakes; and five hot stir-fried dishes. Then [the court] presented the consorts and others one box of rustic sweets each.” Perhaps because it was already late, this list included only cold appetizers but no hot main dishes or staples. Nonetheless, the array of dishes is shockingly long, and it seems impossible for the Qianlong Emperor to have truly eaten everything offered to him.
Moon-viewing and composing poetry were indispensable parts of Mid-Autumn festivities at the Qianlong Emperor’s court. Although the Emperor himself wrote several poems in praise of the full moon every year, they cannot be said to be of high literary quality. Fireworks and other lively displays also took place at his court for the enjoyment of younger people. Later when age prevented the Qianlong Emperor from visiting Chengde for Mid-Autumn, there would be a maze competition held in his honor at Yuanmingyuan, and the Emperor would personally award the winner. Holding lanterns, palace servants would try to find their way out of the Wanhuazhen Western-style maze. Seated above, Qianlong must have had a remarkable vantage of the bright steadfast moon in the night sky and below it the flurry of lanterns casting about like shooting stars. As always, spreads of delicacies were placed before of him, while his children and grandchildren frolicked at his feet, and his empresses and consorts stood by his side.
These festivities took place every autumn year after year, until the Qianlong Emperor passed away at the age of 87 as Emperor Emeritus of the Qing dynasty.