Posted by: macusack | November 26, 2018

Review: “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City” at the Peabody Essex Museum

Through the heavy doors and into the dark gallery. Banners bearing portraits of eight women hang from the wall. Images of the eight empresses of the Qing dynasty, which lasted from 1644 to 1912. As wife of the emperor or mother of the emperor, the empress assumed a currency of influence, both with the emperor, and in her role as head of the imperial harem. These empresses, whose stories have been overlooked, occupied an elite, rarefied position in Chinese history.

I had the pleasure of visiting the Peabody Essex Museum’s formidable exhibit “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City.” The exhibit is the product of a collaboration between the PEM in Salem Massachusetts, the Smithsonian’s Freer|Sackler galleries in Washington, and the Palace Museum in Beijing. The lives of the Qing dynasty empresses have been a neglected history, as the text introducing one of the exhibit’s galleries illustrates: “The imperial court closely regulated the life of each empress to ensure she stood as an exemplar for all women, yet the male officials who wrote Qing court history recorded very little of her activities. They perceived family matters and women’s roles as less important than the state affairs the emperor managed.” Through an astounding collection of objects, exhibition curators endeavour to “tell the little-known stories of how these women influenced art, religion, court politics and international diplomacy” (Cardin).

Organized thematically, each gallery in the exhibit spoke to a different theme relating to aspects of the empresses’ lives and areas in which they held influence such as “Becoming an Empress,” “Ascending the Throne,” “Fulfilling Family Roles,” “Celebrating Motherhood,”  “Worshipping as an Empress,” and “A Rich and Active Life.” Each gallery housed objects associated with each theme as well as a specific profile on one of the empresses. The sheer number of objects, nearly 200 in total, were awe-striking in their variety, from orate headdresses meant to be “demure yet tantalizing,” to intricate hairdressing sets, dressers, robes, and paintings.


(“Festive headdress with phoenixes and peonies, Tongzhi or Guangxu period, probably 1872 or 1888–89, probably Imperial Workshop, Beijing, silver with gilding, kingfisher feather, pearls, coral, jadeite, ruby, sapphire, tourmaline, turquoise, lapis lazuli, and glass; frame: metal, wires with silk satin, velvet, and cardboard, Palace Museum, Gu59708. The Palace Museum. On view in Empresses of China’s Forbidden City.”)

Every gallery of the exhibit, nearly every object, was surrounded by visitors. The crowd was very engaged in the exhibit; discussing and raising questions with their partners, children, and grandchildren. This atmosphere of inquiry and engagement not only mirrored, but heightened my experience of the exhibit.

Representations of the empresses in the material objects straddled the line of maintaining and contesting gendered expectations. Some depictions of the empresses in the exhibit revealed empresses as icons of ideal womanhood. A series of paintings represented empresses exemplifying the traits of “filial devotion to elderly, good care of sons and grandsons, diligence, and frugality” all of which Qing imperial women were expected to embody. Other galleries and objects reflected the empresses exhibiting more individuality. Empresses, with their cosmopolitan preferences, became tastemakers in culture and keen art collectors. Empresses were also exempt from footbinding and enjoyed greater freedom and mobility, from horseback riding and archery to travel. One area of influence I found interesting was the empresses’ influence over religion. Empresses’ religious practices led the court to construct “magnificent religious buildings, scriptures, and sculptures,” which in turn “shaped the pluralistic religious traditions of the court including Buddhism and shamanism.”

Despite the plethora of objects and areas of influence, I was always aware of the empresses’ confinement. Curators provided viewers a sense of scope of the empresses’ worlds by including a large map of the Forbidden City. The map denoted the living quarters and spaces the empresses would have been able to access. The space the imperial harem and empresses occupied was a relatively small cluster in such an expensive development.

The empress’ foremost job was to produce a male heir. Objects surrounding an empress made sure she never forgot that most essential job. Personal objects such as a screen, vases, a jar, and a snuff box bore images of  “boys at play” and “mother and child” or “mother and son.”

An element the exhibit made very clear was that an empresses’ influence could extend beyond producing a male heir; the relationship between emperor and his mother provided continuing influence over the court. A close relationship between emperor and mother empress dowager was “emblematic of a harmonious society that Qing rulers credited to their rule.” The objects associated with empress Chongqing (1692-1777), mother of Qianlong Emperor, revealed the closeness of her relationship with her son. Chongqing experienced good health and traveled 10 months of the year with her son into old age. On display was the travel tableware she took with her on these journeys. When Chongqing and her son were not together, she walked with a staff that symbolized his personage. Also on display was a fan Qianlong painted for Chongqing bearing the image of a daylily, a symbol of one’s love for their mother.

While the palace observed a strict patriarchal hierarchy, there was a possibility for consorts in the harem to gain some upward mobility; a mother’s birth rank was not taken into consideration when selecting which son would be chosen as the next emperor. An empress could manipulate a way to maintain power, as in the case of Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) who maneuvered a way to consolidate power and maintain her influence for nearly fifty years.

Empress Dowager Cixi’s story remains, for me, one of the most intriguing of the exhibit, as it exemplifies ways empresses mobilized their influence to beget more influence. Upon the Emperor’s death Cixi and the other empress dowager Ci’an “instigated a coup to place power directly in their hands as co-regents of the child emperor” which led to her 47 year run (1861-1908)  as “de facto ruler of at the Qing court.” During her tenure Cixi “challenged the tradition that women shall not rule, and brought radical changes to the role of women in court politics, diplomacy, and art patronage.”

The exhibit ended with an object dissimilar to previous objects — an imposing portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi. The empress received a negative public reputation for supporting a the Boxer Rebellion a “violent anti-foreign uprising which besieged the American diplomatic quarter in Beijing in 1900.” In an effort recuperate her image for Western powers (‘the soul of a tiger in the body of a woman’ as one Western newspaper described her), the empress hired American painter Katherine A Carl to paint her portrait, which she would gift to Theodore Roosevelt for display in the 1904 World Fair. In the time of photographic portraits, the empress chose the more traditional, painted portrait, perhaps speaking to the comparative power of the two mediums. By hiring an American artist, Cixi’s political acumen is as much on display as her visage. I also found it intriguing that the empress chose a female artist to present this more ‘softened’ image of herself to the public.


(“Katharine Carl, The Empress Dowager Tze Hsi, of China, oil on canvas with camphor wood frame, 1903. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Transfer from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, S2011.16.1-2a-ap.”)

I found this to be a hearty exhibit, both in terms of the materials on display and the concepts it presented. One element I found particularly interesting was how the organizers chose to end the exhibit. At the exit, a roll of unfurled butcher paper with pens and pencils sat below two questions printed on the wall reading “What do you feel are the expectations for women in power today?” and “How do you think women in power are portrayed today?” I appreciated that the curators chose to end the exhibit with these provocative, challenging questions, bringing the empresses’ experiences to a modern context. The Qing dynasty empresses dealt in complicated and precarious power. The questions reiterated for myself the sense that this exhibit is about a representation of power, as there is no written record from the empresses’ perspectives about their roles and experiences of power. The voices of the women felt at times close and distant from the material culture in the exhibit. Private objects were often not fully their own, but were imperial property. Upon the death of an empress, the objects returned to the palace, to be passed on, or melted down and made anew.

One of the excellent effects of this exhibit is that, while it illuminated aspects of the Qing dynasty consorts and empresses’ lives, it also embraced the persistence of mystery surrounding their experiences.

Curators designed the exhibit to offer visitors a view into the empresses’ world, not just a view of a world. Before entering the exhibit text printed on the wall invites viewers to imagine themselves  empresses. The theme of imagining continued throughout the galleries. At the beginning of each gallery space curators included a brief creative vignette to bring visitors closer to the empresses. The vignettes included a future consort, as young as thirteen, being transported from her family home to the palace for marriage, and an empress anxiously waiting to hear which son of the emperor would inherit the throne following the emperor’s death. These vignettes engaged the visitors imagination, something I found suited my style of exploring.

Upon leaving the exhibit I was ready to venture out and do my own research. I think this a strength of the exhibit, that it raises more questions than it answers, inspires more inquiry, invites visitors to delve deeper.


Work Cited and Credits for Images (along with their captions)

Cardin, Dinah. “Stories of Opulence and Influence.” Peabody Essex Museum, 8 Aug. 2018,

Gordon, Lydia. “2018 Exhibitions Examine Women and Power.” Peabody Essex Museum, 14 Feb. 2018,

*All other quoted material from plaques in the exhibit

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