Name: Banquet Seating Chart in T’ai-ho Palace 
Register No.: 038315 
Date: Ch’ing dynasty (1644 – 1911) 
Size: Height 130, width 53 cm 
Material: Paper

Among the Institute's collection of 310,000 items from the Archive of the Grand Secretariat, there is a particularly curious document. It is not an edict from the emperor, document produced in the Grand Secretariat or memorial from high official, nor is it an exquisite court paintings; it is instead a Banquet Seating Chart. It was made for the T’ai-ho Palace, the highest palace in the Forbidden City, where the emperor dined with his grandees, officials, generals and foreign ambassadors.

To understand exactly how important this Banquet Seating Chart is, and how grand the occasion had been when the banquet took place, we must first appreciate the significance of the T'ai-ho Palace.

The T'ai-ho Palace was in many respects foremost among the palaces of the Forbidden City. Its building was the highest and largest. The ridge of its roof, of course the highest point of the Forbidden City, is even higher than the Wu Gate of the city wall.

Imagine being a foreign ambassador sent to meet the Chinese emperor, coming into the outer city of Peking from Yong-ting Gate, through Chien-yang Gate into the inner city, passing already two great gateways and four smaller entrance; then through Ta-ch’ing Gate, treading the Corridor of a Thousand Steps to reach the famous Gate of Heavenly Peace, where the emperor’s palaces come into view. Next walking across the bridge over the moat and through Tiananmen Gate, you finally reach the Imperial City, maked by a grand gate with the emperor’s throne on top, although the emperor would never be here. Next you pass a square commonly known as “Wu-feng Gate,” and see the magnificent Wu Gate in front, which is the main entrance into the Forbidden City.

Inside the Wu Gate, another vast square, T'ai-ho Square, appears, and then five arch bridges across the winding Chin-shui River. Two lively bronze lions guard the magnificent T'ai-ho Gate, which is just in front of the immense and solemn Square of T’ai-ho Palace, where officials stood during the morning assembly. Passing through numerous gates, entries, bridges, enclosures and openings, and climbing up and down stairs, the passage must have been accomplanied by fits of anxiety and excitement. Finally, standing before the palace and looking up at its height of 35.05 m, we find it is as splendid today as it was in ancient times.

Considering its location, T'ai-ho Palace should be the main palace of the outer court, built with Chung-ho Palace and Pao-ho Palace on an “I” shaped white marble base, which is three-stories high. The glaze ridge of its roof is 3.4 m in height and 4,300 kg in weight. Most important ceremonies, such as the emperor’s coronation, wedding, announcement of conferring the title upon the empress, morning assembly and dispatching of troops were all held here in the Ming and Ch’ing dynasties. On New Year’s Day, Winter Solstice and the emperor’s birthday, officials gathered here and paid tribute to the emperor. It was also here that the emperor held his banquet. What an honor it must have been to be the emperor's guest!

As indicated by the record, the banquet went like this: on the day the banquet was held, attending grandees and officials were to wear court dress and wait in lines; when the Office of Etiquette led the emperor into the T'ai-ho Palace, the bells and drums installed on the Wu Gate would sound to announce his arrival, and the royal orchestra stationed in front of the Palace would start to play “The Song of Yuan-p'ing,” stopping only when the emperor sat on his throne. Then a whip would be cracked three times to guide the attendants to kowtow to the emperor. After the Emperor gave permission to the others to be seated, the feast finally began. The orchestra played different kinds of music during the banquet; agile imperial guards had been selected as dancers, wearing the best court dress to perform the Ch’ing-long dance, which originated from the Northeast of China where the Manchu had come from.

Because the banquet held in T'ai-ho Palace was more of a demonstration of courtesy toward the emperor than a gourmet feast, the food was not particularly exquisite. After the banquet, the emperor returned to the palace he lived in; other attendants cordially bid their farewell and were allowed to leave. The leftovers could be taken home if the diners wished. In one banquet held in the early period of Chi’ing dynasty, two hundred and eleven tables were served one hundred lambs and one hundred bottles of rice wine. After the forty-fifth year of Ch'ien-lung, the number of tables in the banquet shrank to one hundred and ninety-one, but still the banquet used up eighty-two lambs and eighty-two bottles of wine. A banquet at T'ai-ho Palace was the highest-ranking banquet; hence not every banquet could be held there. For example, the wedding of a princess could only be held inside Pao-ho Palace, and the birthday party for the queen had to be held in the palace where she lived.

The Banquet Seating Chart included in the Institute’s collection, whose number of seats does not match that of routine banquets held on the three major holidays, hence may have been designed for a banquet with a special purpose. By this Seating Chart, it can be determined that only officials ranked above the third class could sit inside the palace, otherwise people had to sit outside on platforms or even at T'ai-ho Square (as for foreign ambassadors). More surprisingly, even though the T'ai-ho Square provided more space, the banquet was still full of people, including the foreign ambassadors. It could not be determined whether the banquet indeed was held in winter or not; but if it was, then what would be the feelings of those officials sitting on T'ai-ho Square, enduring the freezing cold at the same time? Would the banquet still be a feast for them?
(by Chen Yan-zhi)


Bibliography:

1. 劉毅,《明清宮廷生活》,天津,天津古籍出版社,2000 
2. 王鏡輪,《故宮寶卷》,台北,實學社,2003 
3. 宇辰編著,《北京皇宮.紫禁城》,北京,人民中國,2000 
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  • Order of Seats for the Party in T’ai-ho Palace

    Order of Seats for the Party in T’ai-ho Palace 

  • Banquet Seating Chart with Chart showing Positions in the T'ai-ho Palace.

    Banquet Seating Chart with Chart showing Positions in the T'ai-ho Palace.