A Remarkable Mother’s Residence: The Palace of Longevity and Health
Adapted from Lin Shu, “Empress Dowager Chongqing and the Palace of Longevity and Health,” in Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644–1912, ed. Daisy Yiyou Wang and Jan Stuart (Salem, MA: Peabody Essex Museum; Washington, DC: Freer|Sackler, Smithsonian, 2018), 78–87.
In 1925 the palatial complex in the heart of Beijing, known as the Forbidden City, opened to the public as the Palace Museum. Enclosed by high walls and a moat, the compound had been the home of the emperor and his consorts (wives) for more than five hundred years. Few would have ever come near, let alone venture into, the vast complex. The outer court, entered from the south, was reserved for official events. The inner court to the north housed the imperial family and members of its household.
In the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), the empresses dowager (the most senior position), empresses (the top consort and head of the imperial harem), and other consorts were assigned living quarters in the inner court. These palaces were differentiated by location, size, and furnishings to accord with a woman’s status within the imperial court. Some of the Qing living quarters still survive. One grand residence is the Palace of Longevity and Health (Shoukang gong).
Within days of ascending the throne, the Qianlong emperor (reigned 1736–95) approved architectural plans to build an elaborate complex for his mother, Empress Dowager Chongqing (Empress Xiaosheng, 1693–1777). She lived in the Forbidden City about two months each year to celebrate important annual events, such as the winter solstice, the lunar New Year, and her birthday. The rest of the time she traveled (often with her son) or stayed in another palace complex.
Seventy-five structures make up the Palace of Longevity and Health. Each section had a specific function, such as spaces for rituals, religious devotion, living and sleeping, and entertainment. For instance, the Main Hall (A) was where Empress Dowager Chongqing received the emperor, empress, and high-ranking consorts for the lunar New Year when they came to pay their respects to her. She received lower-rank consorts, grandsons, and great-grandsons on special occasions in the Rear Hall (B). Other chambers were reserved for her Buddhist devotions (D), for vernation of her late husband’s “spirit tablet” (C), and for her living quarters (E–H). An avid lover of opera, Chongqing was entitledto a small indoor theater (J), complete with a stage and a “scenic illusion” wall painting (tongjing hua).
Among the notable features of Chongqing’s life are the many splendid gifts she received from the Qianlong emperor (her son), government officials, and many others. Her palace was filled with treasures, such as hundreds of jade objects, wish-granting ruyi scepters, paintings and calligraphies, ceramics, and lacquerware. Objects of the finest quality were used as decorations, rotated according to season, and also brought out for special viewings. The Qianlong emperor presented his mother with a renowned scroll of ancient calligraphy called “Letter on recovery from illness” (Pingfu tie) by Lu Ji. This thoughtful gift shows how much he appreciated/recognizedhis mother as a connoisseur and admirer of Chinese culture. He also painted and wrote calligraphy for her, signing it in a special way to signal his high respect for her.
This information is adapted from Lin Shu, “Empress Dowager Chongqing and the Palace of Longevity and Health,” in Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644–1912, ed. Daisy Yiyou Wang and Jan Stuart (Salem, MA: Peabody Essex Museum; Washington, DC: Freer|Sackler, Smithsonian, 2018), 78–87.
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