The little boy is the clear star of this lavish Chinese court painting, but I am more interested in the woman in blue who sidles up to him from behind a latticed screen window. According to a yellow tag later affixed to the artwork, his name is Yongyan, the future seventh emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1636-1912). But her identity remains debated—her name was never added to this scene.
This anonymity speaks to an unsurprising tragedy: Chinese court records share little about the lives of women who lived in the Forbidden City, the center of imperial governance from the Ming to the Qing Dynasties. Instead, scribes—all men, of course—worked to ensure that history would remember every detail of an emperor’s daily routine.
But these imperial women left behind a rich material record that offers glimpses of their experiences behind the high palace walls. Recently, I visited a monumental survey of objects made for and about Qing Dynasty empresses on display at the Freer|Sackler gallery in Washington D.C. through June 231. The history surrounding me was moving, a string of stories of restricted freedom and female agency told through clothes, household items, and artwork—including one painting attributed to the powerful Empress Dowager Cixi, who left a trace of her thumbprint in ink.
Some scholars believe the demure woman next to Yongyan is his mother—an imperial consort known as Ling, just one of the many wives of the Qianlong Emperor, the fifth ruler of the Qing. If this is true, the painting is a sobering reminder that a woman’s most important duty in the Forbidden City was to bear sons, to ensure the imperial lineage. Every son had an equal chance to become an emperor, no matter a mother’s status in the hierarchical imperial harem (which was divided into eight ranks, at the top of which sat the empress). Fertility, then, was a woman’s most powerful tool to rise in rank; it was also a weapon she could wield against another.
Knowing this, it’s impossible to think these women were empowered by today’s standards. Yet, even within this patriarchal structure that stripped them of many freedoms, I learned how some were able to cultivate rewarding lives and exercise power in subtle ways. Empresses, in particular, commanded respect, and as their past possessions show, they were supremely pampered, relatively well-traveled, and involved in several cultural activities. Some even influenced court culture by counseling the emperor. In the face of oppression, they found small ways to persist.
It was arduous enough—and probably traumatic—to get inside the Forbidden City2, a name that refers to the emperor’s control over who gets to enter his domain. Every three years, an official draft summoned girls from elite families to the Forbidden City to join the imperial harem. Averaging around 13 years old, they were carefully examined and chosen for their health and beauty—as if they were simply flowers, or fresh fruit.
An empress was picked as the cream of the crop, a decision that was effectively made by the empress dowager (the emperor’s mom). She entered the palace through a colorful and ritual-filled affair that commemorated her new status not just as the emperor’s wife, but as imperial property. For the journey from her natal home to her new residence, she was popped into a palanquin painted bright yellow—a color reserved for the imperial elite. This boxy vehicle was also decorated with a beloved Chinese symbol, the phoenix. The mythological bird was a key symbol of the empress, being a creature believed to bring prosperity, wisdom, and order to the world.
I notice that in some narrative paintings, the empress is represented only by the palanquin; her body is never depicted. This is a fitting absence, considering that empresses are essentially invisible to the general populace. In a way, the palanquin is also a cage for the phoenix.
After the wedding, the bride entered a hall known as the Palace of Earthly Tranquility to spend her first of many nights with the emperor. “Forbidden” can also refer to the emperor’s control over who was allowed to leave his domain, and she was no longer allowed to visit her natal home.
When I visited my parents last month, I found a speckled stone seal I had misplaced years ago. It can only be mine: my Chinese name is carved into its base. The cool cylinder is small but it has a satisfying weight to it, perfect for leaving my trace in ink. Now I think about how I probably received it around the age a young Qing empress would have received hers—in her early teens, during her wedding rites.
Empress Xiaoke, the consort of the final ruler of the Qing, left behind this solid gold seal, which weighs nearly 40 pounds. A lot of that heft comes from the double-headed dragon crouching on it, a fierce symbol of her new power. I hold my seal as a reminder of where I come from. For Xiaoke—who was 16 when she wed—the seal was more of a certificate that formalized her role as ruler. Mine reads 温美恩; hers, simply 皇后之寶—Seal of the Empress.
I learn how empresses made their own marks in other ways. One day, as a charming legend describes, the empress Leizu was drinking tea when a cocoon fell from a mulberry tree into her cup and a thread slowly unraveled. Mesmerized by the fiber, she began domesticating silkworms, thereby initiating the spread of sericulture. Leizu, now known endearingly as “Silkworm Mother,” is also credited with inventing the silk loom.
Centuries later, during the Han Dynasty, Empress Mingde established a mulberry garden at her palatial residence. Future queens and consorts at the Forbidden City also revived ancient ceremonies and promoted the rearing of silkworms—a critical sector of the empire’s economy. They hand-fed mulberry leaves to the white bugs. They offered sacrifices to the Altar of the Silkworm Deity, honoring Leizu and setting an example for their subjects. Through this woman-led culture, empresses essentially reinforced their role in the state’s welfare.
An empress had a duty to remain virtuous—or at least, appear so—which could only have been exhausting. Sericulture was one way they could perform good behavior, but history also remembers certain imperial women as role models for some pretty bold, badass-for-the-time moves. One of my favorite objects in this exhibition is a 12-panel screen commissioned by the Qianlong emperor. Made for his mother, Empress Dowager Chongqing, it features a dozen scenes of empresses who played important, perhaps unorthodox roles in imperial affairs. Qianlong also wrote poems praising each one. Below is a sampling of the scenes he describes; they are reminders that powerful men rarely work alone.
Empress Zhangsun (601-636) of the Tang dynasty advises the emperor to accept criticism without punishing speakers.
Noble Consort Xu Hui (627-650) of the Tang dynasty remonstrates the emperor not to be self-indulgent or overly ambitious.
Empress Dowager Du (circa 902-961) cautions the emperor to rule according to the highest ethical standards.
Empress Cao (1016-1079) of the Song dynasty serves as regent for the emperor when he was ill (later retiring when his health improved).
One of the most compelling findings of the exhibition’s co-curators, Daisy Yiyou Wang and Jan Stuart, is that objects owned by empresses were as well-crafted and valuable as the emperor’s possessions. This is another sign of these women’s authority, they argue. No expense, and no luxury was spared in producing even a device like this enamel massager, which an 18th-century empress used to glide over her face and other parts of her body. The most Instagrammable roller to rule them all, this one was decorated with auspicious flowers like peonies and daylilies to express hopes for beauty, joy, and of course, fertility.
Today, YouTube is filled with clips of white beauty vloggers testing face rollers, most made of jade (fake and genuine) or trendy rose quartz. Never forget that elite Qing women were the true pioneers of this skincare routine.
“I have been mothering the state and enjoying the respectful care [of the emperor] for 42 years … Three grand celebrations were held for my birthdays. Now the great state is unified, and I enjoy a family of five generations … As I revel in many blessings and good fortune in old age, I have no more regrets.” — Empress Dowager Chongqing, 1777.
I gaze upon the larger-than-life portrait of Chongqing, who spoke these words on her deathbed at the age of 85. In this ornate painting, she is unmistakably a queen, perched on a golden throne and bearing the weight of a crown with phoenixes and pearls. But to me, she also has the immediate look of a matriarch. I cannot help but think of pictures of my grandmother, who often wanted to be photographed only when she felt she looked her best: made-up and dignified. When I see Chongqing’s serene, weathered face, I see a subtle fierceness and I remember my grandmother’s pride—in herself, in us, her heirs, and in not wanting us to ever see her as anything but strong.
Chongqing entered the palace as a maidservant and survived as the longest-living empress in Chinese history. At 18, she ascended the imperial ranks after giving birth to the future Qianlong emperor. The two were close: Qianlong not only showered her with gifts but also often turned to her for advice. When I read her final words, it is difficult for me to accept them as completely true—does anyone really die with no regrets? But I think her statement represents a yearning not unlike that of my grandmother: to be remembered as a carer, a woman who believed that to give and nurture is one of life’s worthiest duties.
I notice a clear pattern in these paintings of Qing imperial women: they rarely reveal their footwear. This is because imperial etiquette dictated that they kept their feet hidden under long robes, among many other sartorial rules. But it is true that you can tell a lot about a person by their shoes, and those of empresses reveal that they were active, mobile women. Unlike elite members of Han Chinese, the Qing did not believe in binding feet to make them more petite. Instead, imperial women would slip on regular-sized boots with thick soles, ideal for walking in gardens, accompanying the emperor on boat tours, and riding horses. Some even participated in deer hunts, right alongside men. In other words, their footwear helped them explore the world beyond the confines of the Forbidden City.
At times, an empress’ feet floated several inches above the ground, propped up by platform shoes. These literally elevated her and conveyed her high status, although I can’t imagine they were easy to walk in. In a dismissal of decorum, Cixi often revealed her platforms when seated, as depicted in some paintings and photographs.
Cixi defiant and bold. The empress dowager served as China’s de facto ruler for nearly five decades and goes down in history as the most powerful—and controversial—woman in the Qing Dynasty. When her son Tongzhi was crowned emperor at the age of six, she plotted a coup to overthrow his regents and become his advisor. Twelve years later, when the emperor died, Cixi picked her four-year-old nephew to succeed him. Once again, she maintained a hold over Qing politics, ignoring officials rules that empresses could not rule directly.
She seemed to do whatever she wanted. Emperors alone held the power to commission royal porcelain, but Cixi ran the imperial kiln, ordering designs and reviewing painter’s sketches. In her portraits, she not only shows off her shoes but wears a robe with a band near the elbow—a detail that usually appears on an emperor’s robe. She also understood the power of images: in 1903, she commissioned the American artist Katharine A. Carl to paint her portrait, in which she wears a powerful yellow robe, with nine phoenixes flying around her head. Imperial images were supposed to be kept behind the walls of the Forbidden City, but Cixi had her oil portrait sent to the 1904 St. Louis Exposition to publicize her reign.
It occurs to me that most of us perceive the lives of imperial women through mythologies of them. Specifically, we are in love with the countless TV shows that see the potential of these histories for clever dramas filled with complicated plotlines and over-the-top characters. Take Story of Yanxi Palace, which follows a Qing palace maid who survives scandalous harem incidents to become a favorite of the emperor. It is reportedly the most Googled show of 2018—and why not? It is already alluring to think about how these women lived despite the constraints of the time; it becomes addicting to watch elaborately styled stories unfold on screen.
When I was a kid I often time-traveled to the Qing Dynasty by watching Huan Zhu Ge Ge, or My Fair Princess, apparently the most commercially successful Mandarin-language series ever produced (it launched the career of Fan Binbing, China’s most famous—and now controversial actress). The ‘90s comedy-drama centered on a commoner whom the emperor mistakenly recognizes as an official princess. Its protagonist, Xiao Yan Zi, was defiant, big-mouthed, and fearless. She detested the rigid court protocols. She was terrible at reciting idioms. She didn’t hesitate to tell lies. “How suffocating,” she would sigh, upon learning about a new rule. She was one of my earliest heroes.
Real princesses and empresses of the Qing were probably not this outspoken. But they were not silent, either. Seek out their stories: they are often ones of power and, at times, resilience, and they can be inspiring, even today.
1.Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912 is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem Massachusetts—where it debuted—the national Palace Museum in Beijing, and the Freer|Sackler. At this location, it sprawls across the Sackler Wing, which is stamped with the Sackler name. There’s a strange, invisible thread to history here: the Sackler family, who owns Purdue Pharma, is responsible for today’s opioid crisis, and protestors are rightfully calling for museums to stop accepting their donations. Considering China’s own fraught, painful past with opium—in fact, the Opium Wars occurred during the Qing—this collaboration becomes deeply ironic.↩
2.The complex in Beijing now houses the Palace Museum, which owns almost 200 of the objects on view—most of which have never before been seen in the United States.↩