The Extreme Makeover of Empress Dowager Cixi

China’s Empress Dowager commissioned portraits—now on display at the Sackler Gallery—in an attempt to polish her public image

Empress Dowager Cixi strikes a pose
Empress Dowager Cixi strikes a pose Photo courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Empress Dowager Cixi is known historically as one of the most powerful women in the world. When China’s Emperor Xianfeng died in 1861, Cixi’s son Tongzhi—Xianfeng’s only male heir—became emperor, and she rose from the low status of concubine to a regent. Though born to a low-ranking officer in 1835, she would eventually serve as regent for her nephew Guangxu, as well, and ultimately reigned as sovereign to more than 400 million people for more than 45 years.

During the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, Cixi (pronounced TSUH-see) sided with the Chinese insurgents, who killed Chinese Christians and foreign diplomats. And, for it, her international reputation was tarnished.

In 1903, the Empress Dowager gave a photographer, named Xunling, a challenging assignment: to improve her image. The result is a curious series of portraits—the only surviving of the empress. The Palace Museum in Beijing holds most of the photographs. But the Smithsonian is fortunate enough to have a cache of 36 of Xunling’s glass-plate negatives in its collections. The Freer and Sackler Galleries purchased the negatives following the 1944 death of Deling, Xunling’s sister and a former personal attendant to Cixi. For the first time, 19 of the portraits are on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in the exhibition, “Power | Play: China’s Empress Dowager,” through January 29.

The exhibition organizes the portraits, thematically, in the galleries. There are photographs of the Empress Dowager taken in a temporary studio in the courtyard of her private residence within the Summer Palace, as well as photographs of diplomatic receptions and portraits she gave as diplomatic gifts. (One, a large hand-tinted portrait, is on display. It was sent to Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. His daughter Alice received a print in 1905.) There is a section devoted to more private portraits of Cixi and her attendants. And, another gallery highlights photographs of dramatically staged theatrical scenes with the empress, her attendants and her eunuchs.

At a recent preview of the exhibition, David Hogge, head of the archives at the Freer and Sackler galleries and curator of the show, shared stories about the photographs that he came across in his research. Hogge pointed out the Western influences in a series of portraits of Cixi in her courtyard. In one, for instance, there are pyramids of apples—fruit enjoyed more in the Western world than in China—and a French Louis XIV pedestal table—”subtle markers that mark her as a cosmopolitan ruler,” he says. Cixi appears to be taking a cue from Western portraiture and is seated in a more relaxed pose in another. The empress dowager “may have been behind the curve when it came to political reform, but she was ahead of it when it came to using the medium to control her image,” Sean Callahan, professor of photography at Syracuse University, told Smithsonian magazine writer Owen Edwards, for a story he recently wrote on the photographs.

Hogge was perplexed by another pose she takes in two of the 19 photos exhibited. She holds a flower to her hair and a mirror in her other hand. But, with some help from outside experts, he figured out that the pose mimics the heroine in a scene in a Ming dynasty play called The Peony Pavilion. To those who knew the play, it would reference longevity, presumably for both the empress and the Qing dynasty.

In an interesting extension, visitors to the exhibition can watch a compilation of footage from films about the empress in a final room. The cinematic depictions of Cixi are largely informed by Xunling’s photographs. She is a rather wicked character in 55 Days in Peking from 1963, and yet in The Last Emperor (1987) and Shadow Magic (2000), she is portrayed as being more humane. In a way, the gradual softening of Cixi on screen begs the question: Was her public relations campaign a success in the end, nearly a hundred years later?

In an upcoming film series, the Freer and Sackler will be showing the following films in full at the Freer Gallery of Art’s Meyer Auditorium:

The Empress Dowager – Friday, September 30, 7 p.m.

The Last Tempest – Sunday, October 2, 2 p.m.

55 Days in Peking – Friday, October 7, 7 p.m.

Shadow Magic – Sunday, October 9, 2 p.m.

The Last Emperor – Friday, October 14, 7 p.m.

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