Men of China’s Qing Dynasty Chose Trophy Wives to Flaunt Their Wealth

See lavish paintings and rare jewelry at the from 18th-century China

A hanging scroll painting depicts Yinti, Prince Xun (1688-1755) and his wife.
A hanging scroll painting depicts Yinti, Prince Xun (1688-1755) and his wife. Image courtesy of the Sackler Gallery of Art

An ornate 18th-century painting at the Sacker Gallery exhibition “Family Matters: Portraits From the Qing Court,” which opens Saturday, June 11, illustrates an imperial man—his face doleful and his brow furrowed. Next to him sits a woman. Her china-doll expression is vacant, her features flat.

There’s both an artistic and historic explanation for the contrast in their facial appearances, said Stephen D. Allee, a research specialist in Chinese painting and calligraphy at the Sackler who discussed the painting during a preview tour.

The man is Yinti, Prince Xun, roughly age 60 at the time. The woman is his wife, possibly Lady Jinse, who was age 14 when she married the prince.

Allee says anonymous imperial artists painted pictures of court women without actually seeing them.  The wives and concubines were kept hidden from view. Their features were selected from sketchbooks of body parts. Choose eyes from Column A, nose from Column B and mouth from Column C, and you supposedly got someone resembling the female subject of the painting. “The women are very much not alive,” says Allee.  Instead, the Lady Jinse and the other imperial females are essentially mannequins, adorned with embroidered robes and jewelry that indicated their husbands’ rank in the court.  If a woman’s robe featured dragon paws with five claws, for example, her husband was higher in rank than the husband of a woman who wore four dragon claws.  Other indicators of a husband’s status were the number of colors in a woman’s robe, whether her beads were crossed in an X at her chest and whether she was seated on an animal skin.

As for Yinti, he had reason to look world-weary in the portrait, Allee says.  His younger brother became Emperor Yongzheng in 1722 when Yinti was away on a military campaign.  When Yinti returned, Yongzheng stripped him of his rank and imprisoned him.  Yinti was released and rehabilitated when his nephew became emperor in 1735, and he took Lady Jinse as a wife.

The Qing dynasty lasted from 1636 to 1912.  Its rulers, who originated in Manchuria, sometimes aspired to Chinese ways, while still maintaining pride in their culture.  The Manchu women wore three earrings per ear and Chinese women wore only one, says Allee.

If you look even closer at the paintings, you will see pockmarks on some complexions, a source of pride because it meant the person had survived smallpox and wouldn’t catch it again. Also, you can see, if you peer through the plexiglass protection, that mica was added to some of the robes to make them sparkle.

Of special note: Four of the portraits in the Sackler’s new show and most of the objects have never been publicly exhibited before and were specifically restored for this exhibition. Also, there is some exquisite rare jewelry made from kingfisher feathers, metal, silk and glass.

“Family Matters: Portraits from the Qing Court” is on view through January 16, 2012.

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