Sedan Chairs

  Sedan ChairsThe first sedan chair appeared some 3,000 years ago as a vehicle to help people cross mountains. At first, there was only a single board– no chair — because the chair was not introduced to China until about 1,000 years ago. Sedan chairs became popular during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). But they were still of quite open construction. As a result, a Tang Dynasty emperor forbade court ladies from riding in them and exposing themselves to the public. At this time, common people and even merchants were also prohibited from riding in sedan chairs.

  Although sedan chairs appeared long ago, imperial courts set strict rules for officials taking sedan chairs. During the early Tang Dynasty, Prime ministers travelled on horseback. In 840, the Tang Emperor issued an order stipulating that only the prime minister and a few senior men could travel by sedan chairs. Court officials travelling in the provinces who could not ride on horses because of illness, had to obtain court permission to take sedans. Even then, they had to pay the bearers out of their own pockets. In the following years, people added roofs and cloth screens to sedans, turning them into enclosed vehicles for travel. At first, women from rich families were permitted to travel in these sedans.

  During the early Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), some scholarly officials considered riding in a sedan chair immoral because human labour was employed in place of animals. Even with the Emperor’s permission, some senior prime ministers refused to take sedans. It was not until the Southern Song Dynasty that Emperors began to al-low most officials to travel by sedan. At that time court officials usually rode in sedans made of bamboo, while imperial family members had rattan sedan chairs painted in silver and enclosed by felt screens. Rich families would employ two to three sedans. The bride would take a redone and the bridegroom a green one. Guards of honour carrying banners, umbrellas and fans would walk in front of the wedding procession with a team of musicians blowing trumpets and other wind instruments or Playing percussion instruments.

  Later, by the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), sedan chairs were in popular use, mainly at weddings. Poor families usually hired a single red sedan for the bride.

  In the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), the imperial courts from time to time restricted the use of sedans by officials. Once sedans were identified with the usage of officials, they became symbols of power.

  In the Qing Dynasty, the imperial court even set regulations for the colour of the sedan’s roof. Gold was for imperial concubines; silver for distant princes, imperial relatives and prime ministers and tin for lower-ranking officials. The number of labourers was also regulated. Ministers travelling inside the capital could use only two bearers, orfour , when they left the city. The most grandiose sedan chairs, with a gold circular roof and a yellow silk screen embroidered with dragons, were reserved for the Emperor. Often 16 bearers were employed to carry the Emperor’s sedan. Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty usually rode in a luxurious sedan carried by 24 bearers, all of whom were about the same age and height, and dressed in the same costume.

  In feudal China, not even imperial family members dared to violate rules governing sedans. Once a Qing prince was travelling very quickly in a sedan when he saw his brother was in a sedan just in front of him. He immediately shouted at his men not to overtake his brother, but failed to stop them in time. When he returned to his residence, he and his men were beaten as punishment. The following day, the bearers were forced by the prince’s brother to walk through the streets of Beijing carrying a sedan loaded with heavy silver ingots.

  Sedan chairs gradually fell out of use after the 1911 Revolution led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen.

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