Friday, October 26, 2007

I wanted to name this post "Who's the Boss?" so that I could make a Tony Danza joke, but I couldn't think of a good one

I've already observed that Chinese imperial tradition seems like the most formalized of any I've encountered. And more than any other, it just seems so invasive...every part of the emperor's day was ritualized, and even personal moments were often ascribed some religious or political significance. But there was also a weird relationship between the emperor's obligations and his authority. One ritual described at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing involved a series of imperial costume changes and sacrifices that was apparently demanded by the gods, but concluded by an imperial decree that the ceremony was done. In effect, the emperor had to follow a prescribed course of action, until he announced that he didn't have to anymore.

If I was a monarch, I would probably be the laziest, worst king ever. I would just think, well, I could participate in this annoying ritual, or I could just be the emperor and declare the I don't have to anymore! Option B would always win, especially in a place like old China, where the deification of the emperor would have lent my laziness extra moral authority. I realize that the ritualization of the emperor's life is also serves as a tangible display of his significance and an instrument of control, particularly in a superstitious society. But I'd have some serious exploratory committees researching how little I could get away with doing while maintaining my authority.

When we were looking at portraits of Ming and Qing emperors at the Forbidden City, the first thing that struck me was how skinny many of them were. "Man," I declared at the time. "If I was an emperor, I'd be so damn fat." Vanity's nice and all, but around the time you're declared god-king, you can probably start accepting second helpings of dessert.

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