Power|Play: China’s Empress Dowager

From the 1860s until her death, the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) was the dominant political figure of China’s Qing dynasty (1644–1911), acting as regent to two successive emperors. During her reign, the Qing court came to be regarded as conservative, corrupt and incompetent. The situation worsened after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, when Cixi was accused of encouraging the killing of foreigners and Chinese Christians. Her reputation plummeted in China and worldwide.

Detail, The Empress Dowager Cixi; China, Qing dynasty, 1903-1904; Glass plate negative; SC-GR 254.

Detail, The Empress Dowager Cixi; China, Qing dynasty, 1903-1904; Glass plate negative; SC-GR 254.

In response, the Qing court initiated measures to improve the Empress Dowager’s image. Along with inviting foreign visitors to receptions at the palace, these efforts included arranging for a series of photographic portraits of Cixi, some of which were presented as diplomatic gifts. Taken by a young photographer named Xunling (ca. 1880–1943) between 1903 and 1904, the series comprises the only surviving photographs of the Empress Dowager. The Freer|Sackler Archives contains 36 of Xunling’s original glass-plate negatives, which form the basis of this exhibition, Power|Play: China’s Empress Dowager, on view through Jan. 29, 2012.

Though dismissed as emblems of Cixi’s vanity and the Qing dynasty’s extravagance, the photographs became an enduring symbol of the dying reign and helped form the “dragon lady” persona seen in films throughout the 20 century. But closer examination of the photographs reveals many of them were crafted as part of a strategic diplomatic and public relations campaign. Analysis of carefully placed symbols found within these images has provided new insight into the Qing court culture, as well as the Empress Dowager’s public and private life.

Cixi first wanted her photograph taken in a setting that replicated the reception hall, as if she were in formal audience in order to convey her authority and legitimacy as head of state.

The photographs in the Throne series feature the Empress Dowager alone before a standing screen, with an overhead banner proclaiming her full title. Despite this repetitive composition, the images display surprising variety. Cixi adopts a vivid array of poses, costumes, and props, each with a different meaning and objective.

SC-GR-262, detail.

Private moments
Among the glass plates in the Freer and Sackler Archives are nine small negatives showing Cixi and her attendants, mostly among the snowy gardens of Wanshoushan (Longevity Hill), the central hill of the Summer Palace. Many photographs in this series have never been published and are presented for the first time in Power|Play. They were not distributed or used as gifts. These images were likely intended for Cixi and her attendants’ personal enjoyment, rather than the Qing court’s diplomatic efforts.

The most frequently visible of Cixi’s assistants are the photographer’s sisters, Deling (1885–1944) and Rongling (1882–1973), and their mother, Madame Yugeng (dates unknown). The early history of the family is fairly obscure. We do know that Xunling’s father was made ambassador to Tokyo in 1895 and to Paris in 1899. The Yugeng children grew up exposed to an international array of languages, arts, and societies. Deling and Rongling, for example, studied acting under Sarah Bernhardt and dance under Isadora Duncan, while Xunling pursued photography.

Under the Boxer Protocol of 1901, Cixi and her court were required to hold direct audiences with foreign ambassadors and visiting dignitaries. The court rushed Yugeng and his family home from Paris to help. The Yugengs’ fluency in foreign languages and knowledge of Western propriety made them critical to Cixi as intermediaries and translators, and as advisors in etiquette and diplomatic protocol.

Cixi is flanked by the photographer’s sisters, Deling and Rongling. Behind them is their mother, Madame Yugeng.SC-GR-259, detail.

Cixi is flanked by the photographer’s sisters, Deling and Rongling. Behind them is their mother, Madame Yugeng.SC-GR-259, detail.

Popular legacy
Soon after their production, copies of Cixi’s photographs were sold in the streets of Chinese cities. Qing officials may have encouraged their distribution, or they may have been unable to prevent them from leaking out. In any case, the portraits did little to improve Cixi’s reputation. In the West, the image of a female ruler in theater garb merely confirmed the suspicion that the Qing court was too out of touch to endure in the modern era.

Theater poster for Deling and Cixi, 2006.

Theater poster for "Deling and Cixi," 2006.

Cixi fared even more poorly in cinematic works. Chinese films, such as Sorrows of the Forbidden City (1948), depicted her as a scheming harridan who suppresses the emperor and murders innocent concubines. In Hollywood, over-the-top characterizations of the Empress Dowager as a wicked Asian “dragon lady” became a staple, culminating in such performances as Flora Robson’s “yellow face” rendering in the 1963 film 55 Days in Peking.

Popular culture is still struggling with the historical image of Cixi. Only in the last few decades of film, theater, and television has a more complex version of the Empress Dowager emerged. In the darkly haunting cameo by Lisa Lu in the Bernardo Bertolucci film The Last Emperor (1987), viewers are presented with a still-menacing but more humane Cixi. In Li Lianying, the Imperial Eunuch (1991), she is a nuanced and even sympathetic figure. Though still portrayed as xenophobic and selfish, Cixi now is seen with a vulnerable and empathetic side as well.

Posted: 26 September 2011
About the Author:

The Torch relies on contributions from the entire Smithsonian community.