Make time for the Empresses of China

An Imperial dragon robe made in the mid-1700s of silk and metallic-wrapped threads.

“The only person the Emperor would bow to is his mother,” says Jan Stuart, the Melvin R. Seiden Curator of Chinese Art at the Freer Gallery of Art.

That is real power.

Along with co-curator Daisy Yiyou Wang of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, Stuart spent over four years working with the Palace Museum in Beijing to bring intimate items of the elite women to the new exhibit, “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912.” They give insight into the opulent, but restricted, lives of the mothers, wives, and consorts of the Ching dynasty.

Opening March 30th at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in D.C., the exhibit is timely as this is the 40th anniversary of the resumption of relations between China and U.S. “Empresses” runs through June 23rd, 2019.

Women’s stories are not a large part of Chinese history unless associated with a man whose life was well chronicled.

“Empresses” chose to center on five different Empresses who affected or ruled the vast Chinese empire. They’re remember as Xiaozhuang, Chonquin, Xiaoxian, Ci’an and Cixi.

In 1644, the northern nomadic Manchu tribes overthrew the Ming dynasty. The Ching dynasty set up their capital in Beijing and ruled until the 20th century.

While an Emperor could have many wives as he liked in his eight ranks of consorts, there was only ever one Empress at a time. They all came from the Manchu elite.

A newly married Empress arrives at the Forbidden City

The first, Empress Xiaozhuang (1613-1688), helped promote the Tibetan Buddhism within China.

One of the ways to rise amid the ranks was to provide the Emperor a son. The Empress Dowager Chongquin (1693-1777)  was a palace servant who had a boy who became emperor. He adored and respected her to the end of her days – and beyond.

The 15-year-old Emperor married his childhood sweetheart, the Empress Xiaoxian (1712-1748.) After she died at 36, her husband wrote a long poem about his lasting sorrow at her loss. While he had other wives, none ever took her place in his heart.

The last two Empresses were a collaboration of generations. Childless Empress Dowager Ci’an (1837-1881) helped raise a boy born to a lower level consort, named Cixi. They served as co-regents until Ci’an died. Cixi was the de-facto ruler through the next generations of emperors.

Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) is probably best known Chinese empress known to the West through her encounters with the British and the Americans. She reigned until 1908.

Cixi painted by Katharine Cole, American painter

It is Cixi who dominates the exhibit since her long reign stretched into the 20th century. Entering the exhibit, you see a huge portrait in a camphor wood frame.

Painted by an American woman, Katharine A. Carl, it was  exhibited at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair. The painting was later given to President Theodore Roosevelt.

The exhibit’s last image, of Cixi, is from a glass negative photograph from the Freer collection.

The Ching Dynasty was overthrown in 1911 with the last Emperor, Puyi, abdicating in 1912.

The items on display all tell more than one story.  Embroidered birds, butterflies, dragons and other details all have deeper meanings in Chinese symbolism.

The phoenix is the king of birds and a symbol of the Empress. The peony is “king of flowers” said Stuart, meaning royalty among other things.

Everyone knew their place at the Ching court. Their clothing showed exactly what their rank and importance.

Peony embroidered on an Imperial robe

The ancestor painting of Empress Xiaoxian shows her dressed in imperial robes and a phoenix-adorned headdress. Three sets of pearl earrings dangle from her ears as a symbol of her royal state. Normally women were only permitted to wear one earring in each ear.

Empress Xiaoxian with pearl earrings

Empress Cixi knew the power of symbolism. Her platform shoes not only displayed the  symbols for longevity but have imperial phoenixes on the tips.

Empress Dowager Cixi’s shoes with phoenix heads

Jan Stuart speaks in front of the Empress Xiaozhuang scroll 

In contrast, two hundred years earlier, the  Empress Xiaozhuang is dressed in a simple brown robe. Her throne has dragons and phoenixes which indicated a satisfying, happy marriage. Her long sleeves have “horse hoof” style cuffs, mandated for Manchu royalty.




The exhibit is not all scrolls and paintings. The  athletic Manchus enjoyed hunting.

Hunting scroll with Emperor and woman companion

Socks and pair of riding boots from the late 1600s show details not seen in public. The patterns on the white socks are made by peacock feather filaments  wound around silk threads.

Silk and peacock feather embroidered socks for hunting

Two stunning hats have vibrant blue kingfisher feathers. One has small vibrating phoenixes with pearls and flowers.

Kingfisher feathers and pearls adorn an Imperial hat

Another hat has sable fur, red feathers and a towering set of metal and pearl phoenixes.

Court hat with phoenixes and red feathers

The impressive gold dragon seal of the last Empress of China, Xiaoke, was so heavy that it was left behind when she fled the palace in 1922.

It’s the personal items that humanize the women of the painted scrolls. Cixi had a small massage roller for getting rid of wrinkles. The small black and gold traveling case stands open showing small drawers and an elaborately carved mirror stand.

The exhibit’s book, “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912,” is outstanding. It is worth reading every detail, from the authors’ notes to the captioning. The color plates show clearly what the low-light of the exhibit does not. There is no flash photography allowed.

Women are getting their due this year. This is one of three exhibits on the East Coast centering around women. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has an exhibit centering around 1000-year old novel, “The Tale of Genji“. The National Geographic Society has an exhibit of Queens of Egypt.

“Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 164-1912”, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., March 30-June 23, 2019

Blue robe with porcelain embroidery


This entry was posted in 2019, Asian art, Freer Gallery of Art, Sackler Museum, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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