Imagining Empresses17 min read

Tobie Meyer-Fong reviews the exhibit Empresses of China’s Forbidden City

An older woman with a strong nose, auspicious ears, finely arched brows and a tight, subtle smile looks out from the cover of the exhibition catalog of Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912. She wears a richly embroidered blue vest over an imperial yellow robe, both decorated with sinuous dragons. Soft sable fur trims her hat, collar, and the distinctive hoof-shaped cuffs of Manchu imperial costume. An abundance of pearls from the Manchu homeland completes the ensemble. Her attire denotes status and ethnic heritage, and hints at the possibility of power. Her gaze suggests the opportunity for a direct encounter.

The woman thus portrayed is the Empress Dowager Chongqing, mother of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-1796). He lavished her with famously extravagant displays of filial piety. He built a new residence for her within the Forbidden City, the Palace of Longevity and Health. Her wish to travel ostensibly justified imperial tours to the empire’s most glamorous destinations; her birthdays occasioned some of the Forbidden City’s most fabulous celebrations. A Jesuit painter rendered her features in formal portraits, including this one. Her death led to the systematization of rituals honoring deceased empresses, and to the collection of formal portraits created for such purposes. Her appearance on the cover of the catalog is simultaneously regal and tantalizing. She seems approachable, compelling, perhaps kind; and yet, she remains remote. She cannot be known in her own words; her deeds and thoughts are refracted through her son’s writings and court documents. Her visage provides a guiding metaphor for an exhibit and catalog that seek to bring viewers closer to the real lives, social agency, and political power of the women who resided in the Qing palace – even, or especially, when such proximity remains elusive.

Empresses situates court women in relation to the beautiful things that they wore, touched, and used, and the spaces in the Forbidden City that they inhabited. In featuring portraits, robes, jewelry, religious items, and objects embodying the exquisite craftsmanship of the Qing court workshops and the eclectic taste of 18th-century emperors, the exhibit and catalog hew to the pattern of earlier international exhibits featuring items from the Forbidden City. Such shows have not been few: 67 international venues have hosted single-source shows featuring objects from Beijing’s Palace Museum between 1974 to 2004; 35 of these produced catalogs. The trend shows no sign of abating.  

The Forbidden City has, especially in the last decade, become a prestige brand, both within China and overseas, actively promoted as a tourist destination, a museum, a  publishing house, a movie and TV set, and an icon denoting – and promotingdreams of wealth, power, and a glorious tradition. Domestic promotional efforts have intensified of late. Glitzy television programs centered on national treasures and palace conservators seek to attract young Chinese consumers by blending contemporary cool with “traditional culture.” The Forbidden City also remains one of the very small number of household names in Chinese art and history with which to attract museum audiences overseas. At home and abroad, the Forbidden City cultivates a persistent allure.

The Forbidden City has become a prestige brand, an icon denoting – and promoting – dreams of wealth, power, and a glorious tradition”

The current show at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., produced in cooperation with the Peabody Essex Museum (which first hosted the exhibit) and the Palace Museum, brings a fresh focus on palace women to this lineage of Forbidden City exhibitions. The exhibit and catalog tap both popular and scholarly interest in stories of female agency and empowerment. They coincide with renewed interest in Qing empresses and consorts, sparked most recently by the wildly popular costume soap opera fantasy, The Story of Yanxi Palace. They are also grounded in several decades of scholarly attention to women’s history and literature. In the catalog’s magnificent color plates, often several per page, and in the galleries, viewers encounter the faces of Qing court women in formal visage portraits used to venerate empresses as ancestors, in pictures of Qing emperors and their consorts at leisure, as participants in grand events such as weddings, birthdays and Southern Tours, in allegorical images of past exemplars, and in renderings of seasonal events and customs. Readers and visitors alike will be dazzled by the array of imperial robes, jewelry and religious icons. They also will encounter a surprisingly tender poem written in grief on antique paper by the Qianlong Emperor to honor the memory of his deceased empress, and an elaborate reliquary he ordered to be made in honor of his mother. While the catalog and exhibition text emphasize “stories and lives” and promise to redeem these women from their previous invisibility by providing a window into their experiences, the five women who feature most prominently represent exceptions that, in grand magnification, reveal how very little is known about the rest.

The catalog’s introduction and seven essays strive to locate female agency in the imperial household. The authors have scoured visual, archival, and material evidence in an effort to demonstrate that these women amounted to more than possessions or prisoners. Readers learn about the triennial selection process whereby members of the conquest elite, mainly Manchus and Mongols, sent teenaged daughters to the palace for evaluation and possible selection. Other women, the daughters of bondservants under the conquest elite, entered the palace as maids through an annual process. Some of them rose in the hierarchy by bearing sons; several even became empresses dowager when their sons ascended the throne. Empresses dowager in theory occupied the highest position in the court; the emperor ritually deferred to his mother.

Empresses patronized a wide range of religious institutions and professionals. Court women had access to art and furniture and utensils of exceptional quality. Their gender did not preclude their use of extraordinarily beautiful and valuable things. But with notable exceptions, both very early and late in the dynasty, they were constrained from involving themselves in political matters. For all of the scholarly research, we mainly see empresses through the eyes and words of others – or imagine them in relation to the clothes they wore or the objects they touched.

We mainly see empresses through the eyes and words of others – or imagine them in relation to the clothes they wore or the objects they touched”

Consort Ling, mother of the Jiaqing emperor, later known as Empress Xiaoyichun (Wikimedia Commons)

The catalog and the show assemble much useful information about the physical, ritual and social structures inhabited by empresses during the Qing – and the exhibit puts the accoutrements of their lives on magnificent display. Yet the careful and thorough marshalling of facts cannot fully dispel the imaginative associations that have trailed these women from their time to our own. During the Qing and immediately after, the Forbidden City and its denizens were the subject of frenzied and fantastical imaginings of heroism, sex, violence and wealth. Qing court women have symbolized ethnic, gendered, ideological and geographical difference. Images of court women have been mobilized as symbols of Qing virtue, of Manchu power and Han Chinese submission, as the implied audience for moral exhortation, as signifiers of political power wielded properly, as symbols of Manchu decadence and Han virtue, or as symptoms of Oriental despotism and thus the persistent vestiges of an ancient form inappropriately lingering in a modernizing world, as material legacy of a glorious and luxurious past, and as microcosm of an amoral and ferociously competitive society.

Founded by conquerors from the northeast, the Qing court maintained architectural, symbolic, and ideological continuities with the Ming Dynasty, retaining, for example, the Forbidden City itself as their palace. But maritally, sartorially and institutionally, the court manifested a developing repertoire of difference from the Han majority, codified in law and customary practice. As the catalog vividly shows, Qing empresses and court women gave physical form to Manchu-Han difference, in both real life (where they coded as “Manchu”) and fantasy (where they might be dressed to embody “Chinese” submission). Women in the Forbidden City dressed and styled their hair according to elaborate Banner styles; Chinese style clothing and hairstyles were in principle forbidden, although repeated reminders of the need to enforce the prohibition suggest its repeated transgression. As women of the conquest elite, they had three piercings in each ear and wore matched triple-earrings in the Manchu fashion. Unlike Han Chinese women, they did not bind their feet and instead wore high platform shoes, examples of which can be seen in the show. Yet, paintings of women in the Qing court sometimes imaginatively depicted court women wearing a fanciful approximation of Han Chinese style (referred to euphemistically as “ancient costume”), as was the case in 12 gorgeous life-sized images of Prince Yinzhen’s consorts, which feature prominently in the exhibit and in Jan Stuart’s catalog essay.

These pictures follow the generic conventions for paintings of beautiful women by professional painters prevalent in Jiangnan cities (south of the Yangtze River), including erotically charged symbols like paired animals and butterflies. They also recognizably portray objects from the palace collection and incorporate examples of the future Yongzheng Emperor’s calligraphy and seals. The paintings display the power of the court through the strategic presentation of collected objects and auspicious signifiers, while symbolically transposing the costume and style of the beautiful Jiangnan courtesan into the palace. These paintings depict the prince’s consorts reimagined in a fantasy of material wealth and perhaps also transgressive eroticism imaginatively situated between Ming and Qing – Jiangnan and Beijing.

Salacious tales of the emperor’s appreciation for Jiangnan women as well as his intimate nocturnal practices within the court became a hallmark of Chinese patriotic discourses resisting and remembering Qing rule, especially after the dynasty’s fall. Some of these accounts may have originated and been transmitted in the form of rumor during the Qing, but in most instances, the first written versions are of relatively more recent vintage. Originally appearing in “secret histories” or “unofficial histories” published in the very late Qing or its immediate aftermath, these stories took on an aura of historicity through frequent repetition, filling in the empty spaces in the historical record. Such stories have had remarkable durability, reappearing up to the present day in settings both predictable and unexpected. These “secret histories” often focus on titillating details of the emperor’s sex life. One famous example refers to “supper cards” – the mechanism through which the emperor supposedly selected a partner for the night – and the delivery of his choice by eunuchs – stark naked, wrapped in a comforter – to the foot of the imperial bed.

Some “secret histories” defamed Manchu legitimacy both literally and figuratively by casting doubt on imperial paternity. According to one such story, the consort who gave birth to the Yongzheng Emperor entered the harem already pregnant by her previous lover. Others cast doubt on imperial morality, portraying even the Kangxi Emperor as a lecher guilty of stealing another man’s lovely wife. This story cannot be true – due to the relative ages of protagonists – but it seems representative of a particular brand of salacious fantasy intended to feed a popular imagination hungry for examples of royal wrongdoing.  The countless tales of Qing emperors and their agents abducting southern women for the harem or using the Southern Tours as excuses for amorous adventure also are typical of this genre, many examples of which first gained broad currency in the final years of the dynasty and especially after its collapse.

To European and American visitors to China during the late Qing, the Forbidden City was, per Pierre Loti, “the center, the heart, and the mystery of China.” The royal harem to these travelers and writers signified the “oriental” character of the Qing, and symbolically aligned China with the Middle East, Southeast Asia and India – other similarly “feminized” and “exotic” spaces ripe for “penetration” by the masculine West. In some instances, it also provided “proof” that Chinese civilization had failed to advance beyond an antiquated stage of development. Meeting the Sun: A Journey all ‘Round the World, by William Simpson, an illustrator and journalist working for the London Illustrated News, provides a typical example of such florid and self-serving representations. Simpson traveled to China from England in 1873 to document the “royal wedding” of the Tongzhi Emperor, then continued onward to circumnavigate the globe. His journey took place at the peak of a global fascination with circumnavigation (Around the World in Eighty Days was published in 1873), coinciding with newly opened transportation infrastructure that made such journeys both feasible and moderately comfortable.

The royal wedding provided ample opportunity for Simpson to reflect on the differences between East and West. Because he could not enter the Forbidden City or view the principals to the grand nuptials, the Orient of imagination – and stolen glances behind the veil – would have to suffice. For example, the following flight of fancy:

A charming lady, endowed with almost every good quality of mind and person, jumps out of the dirty streets of Peking and becomes an Empress!  Four other lovely creatures also appear out of this Oriental city, and suddenly become Princesses [sic]! With this tale, as if from the ‘Arabian Nights,’ we only want a Genie to build a palace for them. Well, a new palace had been constructing in the Tartar city; it was all ready and appeared on the scene when wanted; just as if our friend the Genie had produced it.

In Simpson’s view, the wedding proved a plain and tiresome bore consisting of an endless series of rituals and parades of personnel and dowry items in closed cases.

Fantasies of the erotic exotic continued into the 20th century. In his novel, Rene Leys, Victor Segalen, a resident of China during the final years of the Qing, employs two tutors, one a Qing official surnamed Wang whose lessons center on diagrams and vocabulary lists detailing the structures and titles of Qing officialdom. The other, a uniquely gifted “half Belgian” son of a grocer, the eponymous Rene Leys, weaves tales of a city buried under Beijing – a chessboard under the chessboard, and of his adventures first as a captain in the Palace Guard and then as the Empress Dowager Longyu’s lover and the father of her child. Rene Leys’ accounts marvelously fulfill his student’s fantasy of what it might mean to know China, to “gain access… to the very heart of the center of the Within – to her.”

The conceit of bedding an empress dowager and thereby understanding the “celestial empire” enchanted several other foreign residents of Beijing in the early 20th century. Such fantasies betray an obsession with the hidden, the powerful, the female, and the erotic, and make manifest a passionate desire to “know China” intimately. Victor Segalen’s friend Maurice Roy, the apparent inspiration for Rene Leys, claimed to have had an “amorous relationship” with the Empress Dowager. In his 1943 memoir, Edmund Trelawney Backhouse logged a lurid, exhausting, exaggerated account of nocturnal adventures, both among the “multitudinous” (male) Manchu nobility and with the Empress Dowager Cixi. In this fabulist “memoir,” titled Manchu Decadence, Backhouse characterizes Cixi as a vigorous older woman, a mischievous authoritarian with kinky tastes, ravenous appetites, an unusually enlarged clitoris, and a particular hankering for foreign flesh.    

Other foreigners who met Cixi, especially women, offered alternative visions of the Empress Dowager. These included Sarah Conger, Katherine Carl, and “Princess” Der Ling – who portrayed the Empress Dowager as fickle but in some respects sweet, a modernizer with a feminine touch, kind to pets, and perhaps not unlike her contemporary Queen Victoria. Whether they see Cixi as a power-hungry sex fiend or as a fickle but kindly royal, these images more accurately reflect the desires and aspirations of their authors than they do the Empress Dowager. Cixi herself also engaged in imaginative self-fashioning: as the Bodhisattva Guanyin, as ruler at leisure, as a ruler in the High Qing mode, as a woman ruler with a special connection to foreign women, and as a constitutional monarch à la Meiji or Victoria. These visions, too, proved illusory.

In China today, political patronage, marketing, and multimedia productions have combined to ignite interest in the Forbidden City and its female inhabitants. In such settings, the Palace and its Ladies embody a national fantasy centered on luxury, beauty and territorial sovereignty in a multiethnic empire. This vision of the Qing past is of relatively recent vintage. Roughly since the turn of the 21st century, the Chinese government has promoted a new and more positive view of the Chinese past generally, and of the Qing Dynasty in particular. During the Mao years, the “feudal” past figured as a burden to be overthrown, a set of mental manacles inhibiting modernization. The Qing represented the abject culmination of a feudal past that yielded weakness, humiliation and failure. More recently, however, official representations of the past glorify its material and intangible cultural heritage as the foundation of the modern nation. Official, touristic, and popular media refer to the High Qing as a “glorious age,” anticipating a present that can be named with the same rubric.

During the Mao years, the Qing represented the adject culmination of a feudal past. Now official representations glorify its material and intangible cultural heritage as the foundation of the modern nation”

The association between palace, luxury and ladies continues. In December, consumers caused a run on Forbidden City branded cosmetics – the packaging and colors supposedly evoked porcelain and other luxury goods housed in the palace. The portrayal of the Palace as a mostly female space, imbued with emotion and dressed up with pretty costumes and jewelry, can also be seen in the publications list of the Palace Museum Publishing House, which includes titles relating to the lives and emotions of Empresses and Consorts. One such book, titled The Loves and Hates of Ming and Qing Empresses and Consorts, uses a series of imaginative character studies to reveal life’s emotionality and evanescence. The author lards these biographies with psychological speculation, poetic phrases, and details drawn from unreliable but appealing sources, especially from “secret histories.” Books like this, featuring a court painting of a beautiful woman on the cover (indeed, one of the 12 Consorts of Prince Yinzhen!), participate in a market-fascination for the mysterious lives of the ladies of the Qing court.

The current exhibit has produced new information about empresses gleaned from images, objects, archives, and storage records. It presents portraits, explicates their provenance and disposition, and spotlights the luxury items from the palace collection known to have been used by or associated with palace women. It reiterates the power of two empresses dowager: Xiaozhuang, wife of the first Qing emperor to rule China, and Cixi, a remarkable woman who ruled for nearly 50 years at the dynasty’s end, and who sought first to restore Manchu rule on the Qianlong model, and then to reinvent herself as a constitutional monarch, taking her image to global audiences by having a portrait sent to the St. Louis World’s Fair. Yet audiences will surely attend this exhibit at least in part because of the glamor – attracted by the carefully crafted reputation of the Forbidden City as a repository of glorious and consumable cultural heritage – and a long lineage of fantasy representations of a luxurious world and its privileged, and richly imagined, inhabitants. ∎

Empresses of China’s Forbidden City: 1644-1912 runs through June 23 at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. The exhibition catalog is available for purchase from the Smithsonian Institution. Header image: ‘The Empress Dowager, Tze Hsi, of China’ by Katharine Carl (Wikimedia Commons).