During China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911), the Lunar New Year took on a distinct flavor: the ruling caste were ethnically Manchu rather than Han Chinese, but seasonal celebrations combined elements of both cultures.

So just how did the Qing court observe the Lunar New Year?

It started by putting away the Emperor’s jade seal and other imperial seals to signal the start of the holiday at end of the year.

Other ministries and local departments followed suit until “seal reopening” ceremonies on the Lantern Festival. The time until the reopening varied from year to year, determined by the imperial observatory. During the reign of the Kangxi Emperor, Lunar New Year lasted 27 days.

The imperial prerogative wasn’t fun and games. According to dynastic records, Kangxi resumed work in his office after just a single day of rest on New Year’s day.

This appeared to be the practice of other Qing emperors, whose imperial pens were not put away like their seals. The emperor banqueted his ministers at noon the day before New Year’s – a custom that spanned from the beginning to the end of the Qing.

Modesty above grandeur

According to custom, festivities went into high gear with the ascent of the Kitchen God, marked by the 23rd day of the last month of the year. Offerings by the population were made starting that day until New Year’s eve, with citizens preparing sundries, cleaning their dwellings and trying on new clothes.

On New Year’s Eve, Qing emperors customarily feasted at the imperial palace in Beijing. While the Qianlong Emperor’s 40-course meal consisted of both hot and cold dishes, Daoguang's was more modest with one "imperial banquet" said to consist of four dishes and one soup. The gathering itself was a rare event in which the Emperor could sit down under one roof with members of the imperial family for a meal.

Shamans, gods worshipped by Manchu emperors

On New Year’s Day, Qing emperors performed religious rites of tangse to honor shamans, who were believed to possess supernatural powers and acted as mediums capable of communicating with spirits common to tribes in northern and central Asian steppes. Qing emperors also made sacrificial offerings to Guan Yu, the Shakyamuni Buddha and Avalokiteshvara.

On the following day, piglets were ceremoniously sacrificed and eaten without salt or spices, a dish appetizingly known as “white flesh, bloody guts” (白肉血腸).

Only a week off for princes

Children of the court couldn’t just laze their new year’s holidays away. Attaching great importance to education and martial spirit, princes and their children were granted only a week off, compared to the 27 days set aside for imperial officers. They were expected to study and compete in winter sports that included skating and a Manchu version of ice hockey.

Other competitions included buku, a form of wrestling, and other performances that fulfilled the role of both military training and entertainment.

Athletes in the midst of a buku competition Credit: Unknown court artist @Wiki Public Domain

Wine and verse

The Qing court also hosted banquets for the enjoyment of poetry composed by imperial ministers. Such “Millennial Banquets” were held in the reign of Kangxi, Qinglong and Jiaqing. Kangxi also invited women, retired Han civil servants and others, ordering princes to pour wine for them and compose poetry in their honor.

We can see that Lunar New Year’s celebrations during the Qing included quite a bit of work — even back then, working overtime already seemed ingrained into the administrative psyche.

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An unabridged Chinese-language version of this article can be found here.

Editor: Morley J Weston