WASHINGTON, DC — The Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) was the last to rule China before it became a modern nation-state. Art historians produce abundant research on this period, yet the two dozen empresses and many other women of the Qing court are barely mentioned in textual evidence or analysis. Jan Stuart, curator of Chinese art at the Freer | Sackler and Daisy Yiyou Wang from the Peabody Essex Museum, along with a team of contributing researchers, scrutinized archives and imperial inventories to reconstruct the stories of five Qing empresses: Empress Xiaozhuang (1613–1688), Empress Dowager Chongqing (1693–1777), Empress Xiaoxian (1712–1748), Empress Dowager Ci’an (1837–1881) and Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908). The 135 objects in the exhibition Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912 were largely provided by the Palace Museum in Beijing. Access to these objects are extremely restricted at this Chinese institution, which means several artworks on view have not previously been available for research, have never traveled outside of China, and might not be likely to reemerge again.
The Qing Dynasty was founded by a northeast Asian group that called themselves Manchu. These conquering rulers adopted the Forbidden City in Beijing as their new seat of government but were unique from the Han Chinese subjects and the previous imperial court of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) in language and culture.
A Qing emperor had only one empress or primary wife, but could be married to many consorts. Unlike the Ming, who designated the eldest son of the empress as heir to the throne, Qing hereditary lineage was not determined by birth order or the rank of the wife. Emperors would select the son they deemed best to take the throne without constraints. Therefore, a lower rank wife could improve her status by producing sons. Indeed, as Evelyn Rawski notes in the exhibition catalogue, three Qing women ascended to the throne from the status of maidservants for birthing a future emperor.
Dr. Stuart noted in an interview with Hyperallergic that historians previously didn’t know how marriages or maternal relations were conducted. There was the presumption that these were sterile, cold unions. Exhibition research revealed unique and dynamic arrangements, including great loves, such as the union of Empress Xiaoxian and the Qianlong Emperor. Xiaoxian bore 4 sons, but fell ill and died in 1748 after the loss of their 2-year-old son. Qianlong visited Xiaoxian’s coffin 50 times in the first three months of mourning. He documented his grief and her character by writing 100 elegies on rare 11th-century paper reserved for Buddhist sutra writing, an indication of its importance.
The same emperor demonstrated that matrilineal dedication was also a virtue. Qianlong visited his mother, Empress Dowager Chongqing, every day, and when he traveled she accompanied him. Imperial diarists recorded that he conducted conversations of magnitude with her regarding a military affair and a drought. “We can speculate he likely used her advice often, but her answers are not recorded,” Stuart noted. Unless the emperor told the diarists “and mother said,” her answers were not attributed. Stuart suggests that same system of recording lent to her answers written as his.
It seems Qianlong had genuine affection for Chongqing, demonstrated through their constant interactions and his spectacular gifts, which fill the museum’s galleries. The reverence he showed his mother was also political. Filial piety was critical in Chinese Confucius culture, and it was one manner a Manchu could demonstrate how Chinese he could be.
The matriarch of the Qing dynasty was Empress Xiaozhuang. Like Chongqing, her advice was sought, but this time from her grandson the Kangxi emperor, which he verifies by stating, “I credit her with the accomplishments of my entire career.” Within the exhibition, visual hallmarks in Xiaozhuang’s portrait announce her unique position in history. Upon a hanging scroll twice the normal width, she is seated on a dragon throne with her feet and hands showing, like an emperor. Her frugal dress and Mongolian hairstyle are a record of her personal traits and signal her marriage was a strategic alliance between the Manchus and Mongols. Stuart also suspects her posture and garments were references to Xiaozhuang’s excellent horsemanship skills.
Manchurian women were more mobile than their Ming predecessors, who participated in foot binding. Qing women traveled with the emperor, rode horses, and hunted with men. The tailoring of the clothing reflects it with a closer fit, and slits on the back and sides to aid movement, compared to the loose and voluminous aesthetic of previous dynasties.
These activities were model behaviors for wives which are reflected constantly in the imperial paintings. The desirability of literate women who could educate the young princes is evident even in seductive images that include an open book nearby. These images disprove that Qing women idled behind palace walls and support the theory they were present to observe and advise how policies were crafted, partnerships constructed, and militaries mobilized.
Symbolism of matrilineal power is at its apex with Empress Dowager Cixi, who entered the court as a lower consort of the Xianfeng Emperor. The reigning Empress Ci’an never produced a child, but Cixi was lucky to bear a son who would become the Tongzhi Emperor when her husband died. A widow to the previous emperor and mother to the next, Cixi’s title improved to Empress Dowager. However, Tongzhi was too young to rule, which led to the unprecedented move in which Cixi and Ci’an staged a coup, assuming the official roles of co-regents with the authority to act on behalf of the emperor
When Tongzhi reached the appropriate age to rule, Cixi was still acting as the de facto ruler. She commissioned the painting “Empress Dowager Cixi playing Chinese chess (weiqi)” as a strange commemoration of his reign. In the scene, Cixi is seated under a towering pine tree branch, granting her the visually dynamic position in the composition and the embrace of an auspicious symbol. She also plays with the white pieces, which have a strategic advantage in the game. The painting documents a moment of transition and her assertion that she has more moves to make.
Tongzhi died of smallpox at 18 years old before he sired an heir, and Cixi named her 4-year old nephew, Guangxu, as the successor; requiring her leadership to persist. Her ancestral worship painting demonstrates how she controlled her image and intended her legacy to be shaped. Imperial ancestor portraits exist in the Hall of Imperial Longevity at the Forbidden City for an eternity of veneration and study by descendants. In this hall and in life, the convention would be clear that only four people can wear yellow: the emperor, the empress, mother to the emperor and the 1st consort. Empresses typically wear a vest and a band of blue on their sleeve in addition to their yellow garments because only the emperor could wear uninterrupted yellow. Cixi presented a keen, but subtle assertion of power with a sleeve of yellow from shoulder to cuff. Research for this exhibition uncovered a preparatory sketch for the Cixi painting on which was written “emperor.” For Stuart, it signals that people were thinking of her as such.
The exhibition is not organized chronologically, so curatorially, empresses cross paths where they never did in history. This presentational strategy is initially challenging for the viewer, but the acute focus on five lives reemerging thematically allow complicated cultural messages encoded in portraits and vessels to become highly legible. Additionally, there were many astounding discoveries made in preparing this exhibition that are downplayed in the galleries, such as a new understanding of imperial marital dowry and exceptional objects assumed to be that of the emperor, which were uncovered as property of the empress. Despite these exciting findings, we don’t know why the empresses’ writings do not exist, but we do know there is no record of the court destroying them. These magnificent artworks stand in the absence of words to reveal the importance of women in China’s history.
Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912, is on view through June 23, 2019 at Freer | Sackler (1050 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC). The exhibition was curated by Daisy Yiyou Wang, The Robert N. Shapiro Curator of Chinese and East Asian Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, and Jan Stuart, the Melvin R. Seiden Curator of Chinese Art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. In support of the exhibition, a multi-author, full-color catalog was published by the Peabody Essex Museum and the Freer|Sackler, and distributed by Yale University Press.