|The Hall of Imperial Supremacy 皇极殿 (Huángjí Diàn) is also translated by the Palace Museum as the Hall of Norms of Government. It was built in 1689 during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and was called the Palace of Peace and Longevity (Ning Shou Gong) but was renamed in 1776. It was part of a general renovation that occurred that year. The Hall of Union was built in the same year. The name for the hall comes from the Book of History and means that the "Emperor sets the supreme rules." Thus, both translations are accurate but emphasize different aspects of the concept. I prefer Hall of Norms of Government, but mostly because it is a unique name within the vocabulary of the imperial palace.
The Hall of Imperial Supremacy was redone in 1802 and again in 1884. It is nine bays wide and five bays deep. The Hall of Supreme Harmony, which it resembles, is eleven bays wide and five bays deep. A bay is a segment defined by four columns. The double roof is designed in what is called the thatched roof style. In 1796 Emperor Qianlong handed the throne over to his son and a few days later held a banquet for 1,000 elderly men in this hall to symbolize his own retirement from active governance.
The Hall of Imperial Supremacy was popular with Empress Dowager Cixi 慈禧太后 (Cíxǐ Tàihòu, 1835-1908), and she celebrated her 60th birthday here. On her 70th birthday she received foreign ambassadors here. Her body lay in state in this hall before her funeral.
Cixi was the regent ruler of China from the time of the death of the Xianfeng Emperor 咸豐 (Xiánfēng) in 1861. She was his concubine and the mother of the next emperor, the Tongzhi Emperor 同治 (Tóngzhì, 1856-1875), who was only six when he became the new emperor. When she was Concubine Yi 懿貴妃 (Yì Guìfēi), Cixi had given birth to the only son and heir. She automatically became Empress Dowager when her son assumed the throne. Within days she and the Empress made a compact to take control of the young emperor and of China, supplanting the council of eight ministers and princes who were supposed to act as regents.
Cixi was a fascinating figure who lived during a time that created images and stereotypes in the Western mind and literature. While most history concentrates on the clashes between the east and the west, there was also a fascination on a broad social scale with the both the Chinese and Indian cultures. Chinese design, philosophy, history, and art permeated the Victorian Age.
The growth of literacy and the popular press, both newspapers and books, meant that more people were aware of and exposed to Chinese culture. At the same time it meant that a picture was drawn from a limited number of sources of a complex culture. After the Boxer Rebellion it was all too easy to paint a picture of the evil queen who single-handedly hatched nefarious plots. It sold newspapers, but at the expense of the complexity of the situation and the forces in China during that time. Interestingly, most people in China with whom I have discussed the period accept Cixi as some sort of vain power hungry witch.
Sterling Seagrave (Dragon lady: the life and legend of the last empress of China. New York: Knopf, 1992.) gives another picture of a woman struggling to maintain a way of life and keep China together as strong forces within the country threatened to tear it apart. The internal problems were those that faced all dynasties of the past: corruption, loss of power at the local level, financial inequality, high-taxes, gross expenditures on luxuries, and a military that was fractured with little central control. Add to that the external threat from Japan, and to a lesser extent, the European powers and you have the conditions that led to the triumph of the Qing Dynasty in 1644.
One of the greatest threats from the West were the ideas that made their way to China. While Americans and Europeans were fascinated with Chinese culture, the Chinese were likewise fascinated with the West. Art, literature. poetry, and philosophy made its way into the literate segments of the society. The ideas presented were foreign indeed. As happened in the West, the ideas stimulated new forms and influenced a surge in creativity. Through history, ideas have always benefitted from cross-cultural exposure. They grow and change and become new. It happened during the Tang Dynasty when the Silk Road brought in new ideas and cultural beliefs. But that happened gradually, by camel. It also happened while the dynasty was at its greatest strength.
The Qing Dynasty was on the wane. The Confucian scholars who had been trained to read the classics and rule by them were well prepared to do things as they had always been done, but were unable to adjust to changing conditions. Toward the end of the 1800s more and more schools abandoned the classics for a more modern approach to education.Young men no longer aspired to a life of service in the bureaucracy; there were many more interesting opportunities elsewhere. Those in power didn't respond well to the devaluation of their life-long beliefs and culture. They became defensive.
Economically the country was overtaxed. The distribution of wealth was such that little was put into production. Most was geared toward opulence and show. If you don't repair roads, the farmer can't get to market, the farmer can't sell his goods, and the farmer can't pay taxes. The coffers emptied. The small bright spot was the foreign trade taking place in the cities and ports. Unfortunately that was seen as a threat rather than an opportunity by most. Many Chinese achieved great wealth in Shanghai, Canton, Fuzhou by recognizing and participating in the boom. But the government wasn't there to create the systems to spread the wealth by providing the infrastructure and regulation that would bring some of the wealth to that poor overworked farmer.
Cixi tried to hold the country together politically: balancing one group of relatives against another, suppressing rebellion with militia, curbing and restraining changes that would threaten the way things had always been done. The people around her were the princes of the tribes of the Manchus who supported the status quo. Even those who supported reform and change did so from the limited understanding of political power. Their tools were not fit to heal what had become a bankrupt government and country. They were all trapped within the culture and the walls of the Forbidden City.
Last update: January 2010
© Marilyn Shea, 2009