In the 12th century, the Chinese imperial palace was on a mountain called Phoenix Mountain located on the edge of West Lake in Hangzhou, the capital. The palace was destroyed in 1276, after the fall of the dynasty. However, in China, people tend to preserve traditions. So, their homes are both familiar and provide a continuity with the past; and Chinese palaces exemplify this tendency.
Architecture of the Forbidden City
We can learn what medieval palaces looked like by studying the Forbidden City in Beijing. While the Forbidden City is modeled on previous palaces, it is much larger. It has 980 buildings and covers 180 acres. It is said to have 9,999 rooms.
A visitor would first enter the gate in the wall surrounding the palace; he would see that it was not a house at all, but a great complex designed to house families. There were many rectangular halls that faced south to catch the warmth of the sun and the blessings of fire. The halls made of wood for good luck surrounded various courtyards and gardens, and since fire was always a hazard of wooden buildings, the roofs were ceramic, and they often sported fish on the eaves to ward off fire.
This is a transcript from the video series The Middle Ages around the World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Seclusion of Women
Visitors would not expect to meet the wives and concubines of the emperor (nor of any wealthy person’s household, for that matter). The women were secluded to remain in the inner rooms. New brides entered the household, never to leave again and to live in obedience to their mothers-in-law. A wife had no status until she bore a son, and her only hope for an improved life in the future was to become mother of an emperor or lord of the land.
After a satisfying hours-long feast accompanied by music, the emperor (or other wealthy host) retired to his own quarters in the compound. The men seldom stayed with their wives. The man slept among his cushions and furs, surrounded by his servants, who slept on the floor of his room.
Differences from the West
Unlike in the West where fashions changed rapidly, wealthy Chinese proudly wore the kind of voluminous layers of robes that had been popularized during the Tang dynasty (and probably earlier). Societies that preserve old ways of dressing likewise proudly preserve their heritage, and that gives legitimacy to their present. The Confucian insistence on respect for elders caused people to respect the past.
However, the Chinese did at times accept one innovation from the West: chairs.
Unlike people in the Middle East or India and South Asia, the Chinese embraced both sitting on the floor with cushions and at times providing chairs and higher tables. They seem to have imported the idea of chairs sometime in the early Tang dynasty (probably in the 7th century), and they were called barbarian couches in recognition of their origins outside China. Probably throughout the Middle Ages, chairs were reserved for the powerful or perhaps the old.
The Chinese ate almost everything—especially animal protein—and the more elaborate the feast, the more exotic the dishes. Servants brought in an array of dishes that were placed on low tables for people to reach in and sample with their chopsticks.
Cooks used all kinds of ingredients many westerners find shocking. Recipes from as early as the Tang dynasty (which became the model for subsequent cooks) reveal the astonishing array of foods. Pork was the most popular meat, but northerners also ate camels (especially the hump, carefully boiled), boiled bear, bamboo rats, sea otters, or nicely fried flying cockroaches. In the south, cooks prepared elephants (slain with poison arrows), monkeys, and every kind of snake. Python hash flavored with vinegar was a delicacy. They ate all fish, from poison puffer fish (that needs careful preparation even today) to horseshoe crabs boiled into a sauce.
People loved all kinds of fruits, and farmers imported mangoes, figs, citrus fruits, and many more. There were many more delicacies, but this list gives an idea of the array of foods that graced their tables.
Chopsticks began to be widely used in China at the beginning of the Middle Ages, in about 400 CE. Before that, people used knives and spoons as they did in the West, but there were a couple of reasons for Chinese adoption of chopsticks.
We know that the abundant harvests of rice caused a population boom, but there was a shortage of satisfying protein. Cooks began to chop meat into small pieces to make it go further. These small pieces also had the advantage of cooking quickly, saving fuel.
The spread of Confucian ideology also promoted the use of chopsticks: The sage (who was a vegetarian) believed that knives had no place at the table because the blades reminded people of the slaughterhouse and its violence, and he believed that would interrupt the gentle mood that was to prevail at the meal.
Choice of Drinks
The Chinese gave a lot of attention to the water they drank: One medical text described the virtues of 26 different kinds of water, from rain to water found in pig troughs (which would heal snake bites if applied to the wound). They also added fruit juices to flavor the various waters.
From the 6th century, tea was a popular drink at the tables of the wealthy. Of course, the Chinese also enjoyed alcoholic beverages which were offered at the table. While they had imported grapes for wine, it remained a rare treat.
The real drink of choice for the men from the Tang dynasty until today was rice wine. This was fermented grains—millet in the north and rice in the south—and it took skilled brewers to make this. These rice wines were often flavored with things like black pepper or fruit juices.
Common Questions about Palace Life in Medieval China
The Forbidden City has 980 buildings and covers 180 acres. It is said to have 9,999 rooms.
Wealthy Chinese of the Middle Ages wore the kind of voluminous layers of robes that had been popularized during the Tang dynasty. This was their way to proudly preserve their heritage, and give legitimacy to their present.
The drink of choice for the men was rice wine. This was fermented grains—millet in the north and rice in the south—and it took skilled brewers to make this. These rice wines were often flavored with things like black pepper or fruit juices.