China’s Empress Dowager, Cixi, is resurrected in D.C. exhibit

WASHINGTON — Cixi, the Grand Empress Dowager, led China for more than half a century until her death in 1908.

In 1903, she opened up to one Western influence: photography.

The Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., has a new exhibit of rare photographs of Cixi made from glass plate negatives, titled “Power | Play: China's Empress Dowager.”

Cixi was the “defacto head of state” for the Qing court, says curator David Hogge, and the pictures were taken after the (1898) Boxer Rebellion.

The photographer was a Manchu nobleman, Xunling, who grew up in Tokyo, then Paris, where he learned to use a camera. Some of the pictures were taken at the Imperial Summer Palace outside Beijing between 1903 to 1905.

Hogge says that, in 2008, he pulled out a set of glass plate negatives “to catalogue” and found treasures.

The 36 negatives, 19 of which are on display, show Cixi (pronounced TSUH-see) in formal studio settings as well as more informal settings such as her gardens. She would have been nearly 70 when they were taken. The negatives are printed on large aluminum panels, allowing stunning details to be seen.

The formal court pictures are laden with symbolism. In one, she sits on the throne in a dragon robe “which was a sign of imperial legitimacy” with a Belgium carpet underfoot, a French pedestal to one side and towering stacks of apples.

There are the traditional Chinese elements as well — elaborate gold fingernail covers studded with jade, and stiffly embroidered gowns. In one photograph, she wears the Manchu “horseman stilts,” complete with strings of pearls and bells. Despite the common perception of China’s binding women’s feet, toward the end of her life Cixi banned the custom

The court pictures were likely used “with the intention of showing her legitimacy,” says Hogge. “First of all, as a female ruler, she was always questioned as to whether she was really fit to rule.”

Cixi commissioned the pictures partly to shape her image, which was held in low regard after she backed the peasant Boxers in their zeal to rid China of foreign influence — which led to the death of thousands of foreigners and Chinese

The Qing court fled to the interior of China during the rebellion. In 1900, the Boxers attacked the foreign legations holding them under siege until an international force of soldiers from the U.S., England, Russia, France, Italy and Japan relieved them. The siege was depicted in the 1963 film “55 Days in Peking.”

In 1902, Cixi invited the wives of the diplomatic community to tea, charming them with “jades and brocades and fur gifts,” says Hogge. The men were not invited since they “were extremely bitter since they were being shot at” during the Boxer Rebellion. The upshot of the visit was a positive molding of the foreign perception of Cixi — the women returned raving about “what a lovely woman she was.”

Cixi was fascinated by Chinese opera and theater. In one photograph she sits on a barge with courtiers dressed as characters in the classic opera “The Legend of White Snake.” In another, she is surrounded by her troupe of elaborately dressed eunuchs, who often acted in the plays. Several photos show her with her attendants, who included the photographer Xunling’s two sisters, one of whom, Deling, brought the negatives to the U.S. in the 1920s.

Cixi’s image has changed over the last century. Reviled as an evil “dragon lady,” her reputation has become more nuanced over time. A film covering the differing perceptions of Cixi is included in the exhibit.

Most controversial, at that time, were pictures of Cixi dressing up as Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. “You think of the Empress Dowager who was blamed for usurping the throne, for killing foreigners and Chinese, for all of China’s woes at this time, having the temerity to dress her up as the Bodhisattva of Compassion. What an inappropriate comparison,” says Hogge. “However, in the context of the Qing court tradition, there is a very strong tradition of taking on the attributes of a Bodhisattva who you most want to emulate. It is not a comparison, it is an aspiration.”

“Power | Play” runs through Jan. 29, 2012, at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington.


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