Empresses of China in The Forbidden City

Court hat with phoenixes. Probably Imperial Workshop, Beijing, 18th or 19th century, sable, velvet, silk floss, pearls, tiger’s-eye stone, lapis lazuli, glass, birch bark and metal with gilding, and kingfisher feather, Palace Museum © The Palace Museum

Empresses of China’s Forbidden City is the first international exhibition ever to explore the role of empresses in shaping China’s last dynasty – the Qing (1644-1912).

To mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the China-US diplomatic relations, the Peabody Essex Museum, the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M Sackler Gallery (Freer/Sackler), and the Palace Museum, Beijing, have organised this long-overdue, first-ever, international exhibition that peers over the walls of the Forbidden City and discover that the roles women of the Qing imperial court could and did influence politics, art, and religion.

The exhibition contains nearly 200 spectacular works, including imperial portraits, jewellery, garments, Buddhist sculptures, and decorative works of art from the Forbidden City itself, together with those on loan from north American museums including the Peabody Essex and the Freer/Sackler.

Women in the Qing Imperial Court

Unlike modern ‘First Ladies’ in many countries, who are known to the public and who often have worthy interests and responsibilities, females of the Qing imperial court were only known as individuals within a tiny circle inside the Forbidden City. The stringent rules of ceremony, precedence, rank and tradition created a coterie of women behind the scenes, as it were, who were more like living automata than individuals. This was also the perceived case with empresses. As the Peabody Essex succinctly put it, ‘Their life experiences revolve around six core themes: imperial weddings, power and status, family roles, lifestyle, religion, and political influence’.

There was an early exception, Wu Zetian (624-705) of the brief Zhou dynasty (684-705), who was not only an Empress Consort, but was also Empress Dowager and Empress Regnant, the sole officially recognised Empress Regnant of China for more than a millennium to come.

Imperial Treasures on View

This exhibition proves to be visually staggering, not just by the large number of imperial treasures on view, but by the unimaginable quality by which they were made; they are in themselves all works of art and of quality never seen outside the Forbidden City, especially so during the Qing Dynasty – imperial robes and headdresses, jewellery of all possible sorts and materials, gold seals, banners, paintings, portraits, fans of remarkable delicacy, shoes, photographs, fingernail covers, cosmetic boxes, furniture, vessels in gold and painted enamel and religious images.

To lend the human perspective to this long-overdue exhibition, much has been devoted to three remarkable Qing-dynasty women: Empress Xiaoxian (1712-1748); Empress Dowager Chongqing (1693-1777); and Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908).

Empress Dowager Xiaoxian – Qianlong’s First Empress

Empress Dowager Xiaoxian was Qianlong’s first empress. She was born into the princely Manchu Fuca clan, which had supplied officials and ministers since the beginning of the Qing dynasty. In 1727, Lady Fuca, as she was first known, married Hongli, aka Prince Bao, the fourth son of the Yongzheng Emperor (r 1722-1735), who, on the death of his father in 1735, became the Qianlong emperor (r 1735-1796). Lady Fuca was born in 1712 and Qianlong was born 1711 and they had known each other since childhood. Two years later in 1737, as the emperor’s primary consort, she was installed as empress.

She has been described as virtuous and respected and, as friends with Qianlong since childhood, she was particularly devoted to him and, as an empress, was demure as well as frugal, ofttimes wearing wildflowers in her hair instead of jewellery. She was loyal to Confucian ideals, as was Qianlong, and as such was in charge of the women’s quarters and the imperial consorts during rites performed by the court. The rites she supervised herself were the rites of sericulture, as one of the empresses of China. They had been performed for millennia and there are paintings that depict her holding and feeding silkworms. She had urged the construction of an altar for sericulture rites and in 1744 she was the first Qing empress to officiate at these.

Xiaoxian is notable as an empress because of the mutual feelings of affection and friendship she shared with the emperor until her death in 1748 at the age of thirty-six and because of the respect and devotion she received from the entire court.

Empress Dowager Chongqing

Empress Dowager Chongqing (1693-1777) was the widowed consort of the Yongzheng Emperor to whom she bore him his fourth son, Hongli. On Yongzheng’s death, Hongli was installed as the Qianlong Emperor. As mother and son, they were extremely close and she was completely devoted to him, as was he to her with his scrupulous adherence to the Confucian principal of filial piety.

The Qinlong Emperor, from time to time, consulted with her on matters of state and personal advice and visited her frequently. She held the distinction of being included in some of Qianlong’s inspection tours, including the one to the Yellow River delta. In her later age, she was unable to accompany him and in deference, he suspended these until after her death.

Chongqing’s 60th birthday, in 1751, was a major state occasion. This birthday is considered highly important and auspicious in Chinese culture and an imperial celebration of one would have been lavish – and hers was. The road from Beijing to the Summer Palace was decorated, statewide celebration was held in her honour and Qianlong ordered the dredging of the great Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace, Qingyi Yuan. She died in 1777 at the age of eighty-six and was interred in an imperial mausoleum.

Her death produced great lamentations in Qianlong and much of the Buddhist art included in this exhibition was created for both her devotional activities and her date of death. Qianlong commissioned, for example, a 237-pound gold stupa that was encrusted with gemstones and was used as a shrine to hold locks of her hair to ensure her rebirth in the Buddhist paradise. This remarkable object is one of many Chongqing-related works of art here.

There was a very close connection between Qing empresses of China, emperors and Buddhism. Both the Ming and Qing emperors were Tibetan/Vajrayana Buddhists and Qianlong and his mother were known as being exceptionally devout.

Empress Dowager Cixi

Vis-à-vis Empress Dowager Cixi, Amanda Fiegl of the Smithsonian observed that ‘History can be a slippery substance, particularly when it comes to personalities’. In the case of Cixi, rumour, speculation, inconvenient facts and gossip merged to create, possibly unfairly, the reputation of a woman who was somewhere between Lilith and Bloody Mary.

Much of this was the result of the fraudulent and sensational statements and books of Sir Edmund Backhouse (1873-1944) who was a liar and scam artist/writer/translator, par excellence, in China during Cixi’s political control. He not only swindled the Imperial Navy out of funds for new warships (which never materialised), but he also made allegations in print that he and Empress Dowager Cixi had had an affair. This not to mean she was Snow White by any means, as she was after all, probably one of the most prominent schemers and political manipulators in Chinese history.

She entered the Forbidden City in 1852 as a minor consort to the Xianfeng emperor (ruled 1851-1861) and soon became the emperor’s favourite, bearing him a son. This later earned her the honorific name ‘Cixi’ and the title of ‘Empress Dowager of the Western Palace’. Xianfeng died in 1861 and Cixi’s five-year-old son became the Tongzhi emperor. She became Tongzhi’s regent and the most powerful woman of her time in China. When he turned seventeen, she relinquished the regency; he died at the age of nineteen and it was then that her talents as a ruthless manipulator began to show.

Emperor Tongzhi

Tongzhi had no heirs, but Cixi had a nephew. Her intentions to put him on the throne violated all rules of succession, but as the empress dowager she was all-powerful. According to fictional writings, the only possible complication to her plan was in the form of a lady named Alute, the late emperor’s first-rank concubine, who was pregnant with Tongzhi’s child. The birth of a son would permanently derail Cixi’s scheme to put her family on the imperial throne. This imperial inconvenience was soon remedied when Alute and her unborn child suddenly died. The court announced it as a suicide, but as the New York Times reported at the time, the circumstances ‘aroused general suspicion’.

The nephew was installed as the Guangxu emperor (r 1875-1908), but in practice his reign was completely dominated by Cixi. Flexing his muscles as emperor in 1898, he, supported by like-minded officials, initiated the Hundred Days Reform to change and modernise the decrepit imperial government. It was not that she disagreed with the premises, but rather that she feared the disruption caused by rapid transformation would be too disruptive to allow China to defend herself from the foreign powers. This initiative was halted by Cixi who staged a coup and had Guangxu imprisoned on an island on a very large lake that was part of the imperial gardens.

By this time foreign incursions, both diplomatic and territorial, had caused great anger; military action by a nationwide ad hoc militia known the Boxers against the foreigners had begun. Supported by Cixi, it was almost successful until the eight-nation military force turned the tables. This was yet another humiliation for China, having lost the First and Second Opium Wars and the destruction of the old Summer Palace, in 1860, by the French and British.

Photograph of Cixi With Wives of Foreign Diplomats

A photograph in the exhibition shows Cixi flanked by four white-clad wives of foreign diplomats, including the wife of the American ambassador to China holding her hand. The image can be interpreted as Cixi building a friendship with these women and showing her engagement with foreigners.

Knowing she was close to death, she enacted her final act of cruel manipulation in order to keep matters in her hands, even from beyond the grave. Story holds that on the night of November 15th, 1908, she had the emperor poisoned and appointed her grand-nephew, Aisin-Gioro Puyi
(r 1909-1912), as emperor. His story is well-known and tragic enough to be worthy of a Greek play.

The Girls in a Gilded Cage

In 1900, when Arthur Lamb and Harry von Tilzer wrote their instantly famous The Girl in a Gilded Cage, they had no idea that the largest gilded cage in the world existed on the other side of the globe. It would be in the form of almost hermetically sealed 178 acres/72 hectares, especially so for the lives of the consorts of deceased emperors as their final gilded cage was the Palace of Forgotten Favourites.

As for the contents of that gilded cage, meaning this exhibition, everything there that could be seen or touched was of such unimaginable beauty and quality that it was like a world of Chinese Fabergé. The exhibition is a slow one to view. Every item in it is so magnetic that the reluctance to leave one object to view another can slow us all down.


Empresses of China’s Forbidden City  at Peabody Essex Museum, until 10 February 2019, pem.org. The exhibition travels to the  Freer/Sackler, Washington DC  from 30 March to 23 June 2019. Catalogue Empresses of China’s Forbidden City: 1644-1912 available.