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Drama was not only the main form of entertainment for emperors and the imperial families. From Qianlong onwards, it also became an indispensable part of palace ritual. There were no definite boundaries between different ritual dramas, as far as the imperial rites were concerned. They can be divided into three types: (1) Routine ritual dramas, dramas for auspicious rites, and dramas accompanying felicitous rites. Auspicious rites were state sacrifices offered at the suburban altars and the ancestral temple, in which emperors offered sacrifices to Heaven, Earth, ancestors, and the pantheon of deities. Felicitous rites included celebrations of festivals, birthdays, marriages, and the confirmation of imperial titles. (2) Dramas celebrating military victories, associated with martial rites, and special dramas performed in the presence of foreign visitors, part of the protocol rites. In the latter case, the audience was often entertained with colourful and lavish performances on the theme of foreign delegations paying tribute to the might of the Chinese emperor. (3) Drama for less formal occasions, though even here the guest lists and the seating arrangements had to be decided before the event, the only exceptions being informal evening entertainment in the emperor’s private quarters. No records of the attendees are extant for the early Qing, but from the records of foreign delegations we know that in Rehe only Manchu aristocrats and officials and Mongolian princes were in the audience, and no Han Chinese. In Peking, Chinese officials were in the audience, but they were in separate rooms from the Manchus and the others. This practice continued until the late Qing. Chapter Two Drama, Occasion, and Audience* 58 Ascendant Peace in the Four Seas The Three Grand Festivals In the Qing court, the most important festivals were known as the sandajie 三大節 (the Three Grand Festivals). They were the New Year, the Emperor’s Birthday, and the Sacrifices at the Temple of Heaven at the Winter Solstice.1 The Grand Audience took place on these three occasions,2 and dramas associated with those festivals went on for as long as five or six hours. Celebrations started at 5:00 a.m. and continued until mid-afternoon. The drama performances usually started at 6:00 a.m., beginning with ritual drama, and followed by drama of a more entertaining nature. The precise time of the performance of each drama was indicated on the programme, so that the emperor could choose a particular time to attend. Some ritual dramas performed during banquets were much shorter, only lasting about 15 minutes. Banquet dramas were usually performed during breakfast and the noon meal. From the Daoguang period onwards, banquet dramas were sometimes required during the evening meal (wanyan chengying 晚宴承應). These were more private affairs and the dramas, of a more entertaining nature, were performed on the small stage in the inner court. All performances had to be finished by 5.00 to 7.00 p.m. Ritual dramas had nothing to do with the personal interests or tastes of the emperor. According to actors who performed in the palace, Cixi did not usually attend the ritual dramas.3 Xianfeng once cancelled the ritual drama altogether on a particular festival and replaced it with a more entertaining programme.4 However, this does not seem to have been a common practice. The Winter Solstice As Angela Zito has pointed out, “Many scholars of Chinese imperial ritual have remarked that, since the Han dynasty, Sacrifice to Heaven had come to eclipse ancestral rites in importance.”5 Since the Song, the Winter Solstice was the day appointed for the emperor to offer sacrifice to Heaven.6 In order to purify himself, the emperor abstained from meat for three days. On the eve of the sacrifice, he performed the prescribed ritual oblations and spent the night in a special room inside the Temple of Heaven. The Grand Ceremony began before dawn. According to records for 1822, Daoguang finished the ceremony by 6:35 a.m., and 2 | Drama, Occasion, and Audience 59 returned to the Chonghuagong 重華宮 to divest himself of the special vestments used on such occasions, a blue chaofu 朝服 court attire.7 At 6:45 a.m., he had breakfast, during which two special banquet dramas were performed: The Chief Minister of the Imperial Stud Explains the Rites (Taipu chengying 太仆承應) and The General of the Imperial Insignia Inspects the Arrow (Jinwu kan jian 金吾勘箭).8 The first story was about Chief Minister Song Shou 宋綬 (991–1040), who was very knowledgeable about ancient rituals. He was ordered by the emperor Song...


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