To Feast In The Northern Capital, A Century Before Today

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Hulking diesel tourist busses are drawn up in front of the towering maroon gate. Though it’s still imposing, it’s worn and shabby now. Still, they come from all across China to Beijing to see it. They mill around on the dusty ground, chewing melon seeds, staring up shyly, a little stunned as guides and vendors shout at them

A century earlier, not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, the ground before the Tian An Men Gate was quiet. Just as they had for five hundred years, guards and officials monitored all who walked here. From these very walls, the Emperor’s commands were lowered in a gilded box with a phoenix lid, and there after three prostrations, they were read aloud by a eunuch from the office of ceremonial. Couriers on horseback whipped their mounts and carried copies throughout China. Thus the Emperor’s word became the law of the land. Imagine.

Now hordes of tourists line up, gawk, jostle, surreptitiously spit as they give their tickets and find themselves as they enter the gate and find themselves in the immense shadowy tunnel. The density and depth of the walls seems to press in on them. As they enter the Forbidden City, they blink, dazzled by light.

The vast spaces of the outer courts with its marble paving and ranks of white marble balustrades still cause awe, but the pavement is now cracked and the walls streaked and dirty. Weeds grow here and there, even in between the faded gold roof tiles. You won’t hear the gongs ring the hour, the changing of the guards on the walls above, the rustling of thousands of felt-soled feet rushing to do the Emperor’s business. But here and there in a smaller walled path, you hear a whisper of… something. Mobs of tourists, looking to see the excesses of those who ruled their forbears, find something else. They veer between outrage at the extravagance of the place and pride that it was their ancestors who built it. They sense that it is not the ghosts of the rulers who haunt this place; they hear the echoed whisper of servants bustling endlessly to serve the Son of Heaven.

It is then, even as one walks amid the crowds, not so difficult to imagine when it all began here. Then in the nineteenth year of the Yong Le Emperor’s reign, following the New Year’s Sacrifice at the Temple of Heaven, the New Year’s Audience was held for the first time in the vast marble Feng Tian courtyard of the Forbidden City.

Shenwumen Gate (神武门) of Forbidden City, Beijing image - kallgan
Shenwumen Gate (神武门) of Forbidden City, Beijing
image – kallgan

The bright sun blazed in a cloudless, cold blue sky as plumes of white incense rose up into the air. Red and yellow silk pennants, embroidered in gold with auspicious emblems, fluttered from the gilded rooftops. Indeed, that morning, the Forbidden City looked not like an earthly place but a celestial palace. Scarlet pillars shone like rubies, white marble balustrades glistened like pearl and golden roof tiles glowed as if they were made of sunlight. It was the dawn of a new time. Palace guards in new uniforms stood along the walls and at every gate, maintained its inviolability.

On the portico of the Great Hall, the focus of all, the Emperor sat solemn and erect on the gold Dragon Throne facing south. He did not move, His assurance, his dignity was not quite human, and he wore his gold brocade robe adorned with the seven symbols of a Son of Heaven. To his right and left sat those to be honored and before him, filling the vast courtyard, sat row upon row of his civil and military officials. With titles, gifts and promotions, the Emperor honored all the many officials who had been responsible for completing the new capital.

Nine ranks of high officials in new brocade robes and endless rows of military officers in bronze and golden armor cried out their wish for the Emperor’s longevity and that the dynasty flourish for ten thousand years. Thousands of envoys from myriad nations, all dressed in their most brilliant native clothing offered their congratulations.

The air was scented with incense and resounded with ancient songs performed on stone chimes, gongs, reeds and horns by members of the Office of Ritual Music. Dancers emerged slowly and stepped onto a vast carpet strewn with flower petals before the throne. Delicately they began their solemn dances whirling their long silk sleeves.

Thousands of servants emerged, bearing bowls and salvers of gold, silver, cinnabar, jade and pearl. The delicacies in each dish had been prepared meticulously by Palace Chefs to stimulate the clarity and brightness of the guests’ tastes. The smell of food, succulent, rich, spicy, warm joined with the rhythmic patterns of the court music and filled the air.

The servants made offerings first to the Emperor, then to his honored guests, and then to officials in order of rank. High Palace officials received 11 courses, while those of the second and third ranks received 8 dishes a box of deep fried sweets and five pitchers of wine. Fourth Rank Officials were served five dishes, a box of fruit and 2 pitchers of wine; fifth rank officials received 3 dishes and one pitcher of wine. The guests were offered food from all across the Empire and they were sustained by it.

image - Flickr / tsc_traveler
image – Flickr / tsc_traveler

Placing the Emperor’s food in their mouths, the guests experienced directly the wealth and splendor of the vast domain that Heaven conferred on the Son of Heaven. Among the dishes they tasted that day were those from the rivers and seas: shell fish and celery, hot and sour cuttlefish soup, shark’s fin soup, shrimp and vegetables, razor clams with fermented beans, steamed sea bass with leeks, jewel sea weed, carp in wine vinegar sauce, deep fried river fish in Beijing style. From the mountains and plains came sautéed red deer, rare black mushrooms, swallows’ nest clear soup, pheasant and cloud-ear casserole, steamed fried pork, pork and lotus leaves, pork kidney with bean curd skin, chestnuts and cabbage, day-lilies and pork, jellied fish and chicken, chicken with bean curd, chicken with five spices, chicken fried with egg whites, pork with sea weed and green onions, fried eggplant, steamed cabbage and ham, oil cooked long beans, sweet and sour cucumbers, clear chicken soup with jasmine. Some dishes were in the court style such as brocade-like arrays of chicken, pork, smoked fish, sea cucumbers, bamboo shoots. Others like deep fried meatballs were dishes of peasant origin.

As the feasting began, when the food had been served and the wine poured, the Emperor offered made nine toasts and the guests prostrated in return. At appropriate intervals, other toasts were offered, and auspicious verses sung to the accompaniment of ancient dances.

At the fest’s conclusion, the Yong Le Emperor issued the following proclamation that was read aloud by a eunuch from the Bureau of Ceremonies:

“In ancient times, when the kings of the Shang Dynasty wished to seek Heaven’s favor, they would ask their ancestors to intercede on their behalf. The Kings of those times communed with the ancestral spirits by offering sacrifices and feasts. By sacrifice, the ancestors were invited and by feasts they were entertained. They called their feasts ‘entertaining the ancestors’. The ancestors were drawn into the present by the intensity of flavors. Thus the ancestors were pleased. They remained amongst the living as sustenance. They stayed amongst the living and blessed them.

“When times became degenerate and corrupt, entertainment became any pleasure involving the senses. The result was jaded instability. Entertainment was divorced from its ancient intent; the spirits of the ancestors were neglected and did not appear. They did not remain among the living. The present and the past separated, and without such blessings, social order collapsed.

Following my father, the Founding Emperor’s practice, when we offer sacrifices and give great banquets on state occasions, all will be carefully prepared. The splendor of our offerings will draw the ancestors near to us. Delicious wine and food will satisfy them. The enjoyment of all who attend will give them delight. Thus will the ancestors remain amongst us and bless us with their presence. By observing the ceremony of feasting in this way, as is said in the Book of Rites, ‘All the degrees of high and low are brought into harmony and affection.’”

At the conclusion of this proclamation, a muscular eunuch cracked a bullwhip and the guests cried out with one voice: “May this reign last one thousand years.” and prostrated to the Emperor. As the Emperor withdrew into the inner palace, giant red silk scrolls embroidered in gold with the characters for longevity and prosperity were unfurled from the roofs. Trumpets blared, chimes and gongs were struck in a tumult that shook the sky. The guests left in order of precedence. (F.W.Mote Food in Chinese Culture)

Next day, the Emperor’s proclamation was copied, lowered from the maroon tower of the outer gate in the gilded phoenix basket and distributed to the populace at large. Thus, even as accounts of the great splendor of the New Year’s feast filled the correspondence of foreign emissaries on that day, the spirit of the feast pervaded the Empire, and Beijing was woven into the fabric of history. The new capital became the center of the world.

No guest on that bright day could have imagined that such feasts, drawing ancestors into the world of food and drink, binding them in the sensuous world of the living, joining an Empire together, and uniting Heaven and Earth would end. Such feasts would become an echo and an unimaginable a dream.

No one, except perhaps an Emperor, could have endured imagining a time when puzzled, ticket buying, gum chewing crowds would shuffle distractedly on the central axis of the Emperor’s court, China’s Great Within.

This pathway was originally reserved for the Emperor alone; it was designed as the central channel in the heart of the Empire. The Emperor moved on this pathway, brought Heaven and Earth into harmony. In his name all that was delicious and sustaining was gathered, tasted and distributed to animate the world.

Now you can walk there yourself, and perhaps you just might feel a slight electric pulse deep within your nervous system. TC mark

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