A Birthday Fit for an Empress
Discover all the essentials to host a birthday bash in the Forbidden City.
Honor Your Parents
In the United States, we often think of birthday parties as celebrations organized by families for children. Three hundred years ago, members of the imperial family in China hosted birthday celebrations for their parents as a way to honor them.
In 1751 the Qianlong emperor organized an extravagant birthday party for his mother, Empress Dowager Chongqing, when she turned sixty years old. As a personal touch, he ordered opera performances on stages—his mother loved opera—and parades with floats to entertain her. How has your family included your interests in a birthday party?
To commemorate his mother’s sixtieth birthday, the emperor ordered long handscrolls be made of this important occasion. It took twenty-nine painters nearly ten years to complete this task. When unrolled and put end to end, the four scrolls are more than 360 feet long, which is about the length of a football field. The Qianlong emperor presented these scrolls to his mother on her next important birthday—when she turned seventy.
Better with Age
Dowager Empress Chongqing enjoyed a long life. This painting offers a glance at her eightieth birthday celebration. Reaching that age brought special birthday benefits. The Qianlong emperor offered his mother presents for thirty-three days. She received gifts for only five days when she turned sixty.
Look closer to find Empress Dowager Chongqing in this large group. She sits at a banquet table above everyone else to show her importance. To her left is her son, the Qianlong emperor. His body turns toward her as a sign of respect.
Several generations of the imperial family appear in the painting. The great-grandsons and great-great-grandsons of Empress Dowager Chongqing play in front of her table. This display of an extended family living together was seen as the foundation for a healthy society during this time period.
Wear Your Birthday Best
Let the party begin! To match the extravagant birthday festivities, an empress would often wear a special robe. According to the strict dress code of the Qing imperial court, only the emperor, his mother, his wife, and other very important people could wear bright yellow. The dark blue bands with dragons and clouds above waves—at the elbows of these sleeves—show this robe was intended for a woman.
The repeated dark blue circles form the Chinese character for longevity. These wishes for a long life suggest this robe was worn on birthdays.
Including red bats in the design might seem strange, but the Chinese word for “bat” sounds the same as “vast good fortune.” Knowing this, we can now interpret the mountains and waves at the bottom of the robe as saying, “May your good fortune be as vast as the Eastern Sea and your life as everlasting as the Southern Mountain.”
A Handy Present
Look closely at the landscape on this beautifully decorated blue and gold box. Bridges and elegant buildings create a peaceful retreat. Can you find the birds flying in the sky?
This lovely box was used as a hand warmer during the cold winters in Beijing. A metal container inside safely held charcoal embers to warm cold fingers.
The special box is decorated with lacquer, a rare and expensive material. On one of his mother’s birthdays, the Qianlong emperor gave Empress Dowager Chongqing nine lacquer hand warmers to impress her. This container might be one of them. Such a comforting and exquisite gift suggests a son’s devoted attention to his mother’s well-being.
Handwritten Birthday Wishes
We all enjoy receiving handwritten notes and special cards from someone we love. In 1702 the Kangxi emperor used ink made of powdered gold to copy an important Buddhist sutra, or scripture, for the birthday of Empress Xiaohui.
Using beautiful handwriting, he carefully copied a section of the Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, an important Buddhist teaching in China. This sutra describes how not being attached to objects and material things can lead to wisdom. The Bodhisattva of Compassion, the enlightened being on the right, completes this thoughtful present.