Exhibit Brings Qing Empresses back to Life

April 4, 2019
Editor: Wei Xuanyi

A kingfisher blue crown with phoenix design is one of nearly 135 objects at the exhibition "China's Forbidden City, 1644–1912" at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington on Saturday. The exhibition, which runs through June 23, explores empresses' lives during the Qing Dynasty. [Zhao Huanxin / China Daily]


Looking into a mirror, a young woman with slender hands at court in the Forbidden City fits a hairpin into her stylish hair, followed by jewelry in the shape of a butterfly and a silver flower. Nearby, a servant takes a book from a ceiling-high shelf.

It's just a glimpse into the daily routine of an empress from China's last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The life-sized depiction, painted in the second half of the 18th century, is on exhibit at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington.

The painting, which embraces the dual virtues of the ideal empress — beauty and erudition — is one of nearly 135 objects made for, by and about the Qing emperors' ladies on view on the Mall through late June.

Most of the objects come from the Forbidden City, now known as the Palace Museum, in Beijing. Some of the artworks have never before been exhibited in the US.

"I've worked for nearly four years on the exhibition 'Expresses of China's Forbidden City, 1644 to 1912,'" said Jan Stuart, curator of Chinese art at the Freer|Sackler. "We are thrilled to be able to shine a spotlight on the previously understudied realm of the Qing empresses and help people understand their complex and dynamic roles at court."

Organized jointly by the Freer|Sackler, the Palace Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, the show is part of an array of activities celebrating the 40th anniversary of the establishment of China-US diplomatic relations.

Through imperial portraits, narrative paintings, furnishings, jewelry, costumes and religious art, the exhibition reveals and fills in little-known details about the world of these mysterious women. It shatters the stereotypes by showing the empresses' influence in multiple spheres, including religion, art and politics, according to a museum press release.

One of the exhibits features a small jade massage roller, used by imperial ladies to enhance their complexions. Dressing well and adding enhancements like jewelry were considered expressions of conjugal devotion and the wife's duty to please the emperor and attract his attention in the hopes of bearing a son, Stuart said.

The show focuses on five of the two dozen or so Qing empresses: Xiaozhuang (1613–1688), Chongqing (1693–1777), Xiaoxian (1712–1748), Ci'an (1837–1881) and Cixi (1835–1908).

A centerpiece of the exhibit is an 80th birthday portrait of Empress Dowager Chongqing, mother of Emperor Qianlong, who showed his mother deep filial devotion, presenting her with an enormous number of treasures for birthday presents and trying to visit with her every single day, often to take her counsel.

The fact that empresses were able to compose poetry and read in their leisure, and that an emperor would at times go to his mother or his wife to discuss weighty matters of state "helps us understand that these women were educated, they were thinkers," Stuart said.

It was important for the Qing dynasty rulers to maintain their own Manchu ethnic heritage, but at the same time demonstrate to the population that they understood, assimilated and followed the most crucial Chinese values, including respect for one's parents and elders, she said.

"So, with these objects, it is our hope that people will take away an understanding of what the general obligations, expectations and successful accomplishments were of the Qing empresses, and take away a love for Chinese art," Stuart said.


(Source: China Daily)

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