Veiled World of Qing Empresses Revealed in Smithsonian’s Freer|Sackler Exhibition “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644–1912”

March 5, 2019
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Empresses Exhibition at Freer and Sackler

Empress Xiaoxian, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period, 1777, with repainting possibly in 19th century, Ignatius Sichelbarth (Ai Qimeng) [China (born in Bohemia), 1708–1780], Yi Lantai (active about 1748–1786), and possibly Wang Ruxue (active 18th century), hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, Peabody Essex Museum, gift of Mrs. Elizabeth Sturgis Hinds, 1956, E33619. Photo by Walter Silver/PEM.

“Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644–1912” will be on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery March 30 through June 23. This major international exhibition, the largest at the Freer|Sackler in more than a decade, explores empresses’ lives during the emperor-centric Qing dynasty. Despite the empresses’ accomplishments and status, they are largely missing from Qing court history. Through imperial portraits, narrative paintings, furnishings, attire (jewelry and costume) and religious art, the exhibition reveals and fills in the little-known details about the world of these women and how they were able to influence court history in many spheres, including religion, art and politics. Nearly 135 objects made for, by and about the empresses will be on display, bringing these women out of the silence that history imposed upon them.

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the establishment of U.S.–China diplomatic relations, the exhibition is organized by three institutions, the Smithsonian’s Freer|Sackler, the Palace Museum in Beijing and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The majority of the objects come from the Palace Museum in Beijing, also known as the Forbidden City, and include rare treasures that have never been on display in the U.S.

“The Freer|Sackler is honored to host this spectacular exhibition, which gives visitors a rare glimpse into the world of these women and forms part of an important international partnership,” said Chase Robinson, The Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art. “We look forward to sharing all the exhibition has to offer—from glorious images and objects to fascinating stories and deep cultural insights.”

The Qing dynasty founded in 1644 by the Manchus, a group from northeastern Asia, was a multiethnic and multicultural empire. The Manchu rulers adopted the Forbidden City in Beijing as their center of governance and main residence. Manchu women possessed more rights than their Han Chinese counterparts, and they were encouraged to ride horses, practice archery and hunt alongside men. The Manchu empresses were also learned, appreciated art and supported religion at the court.  

Manchu emperors had multiple wives, but only one empress at a time. All the imperial wives were selected from the descendants of the conquering elite—those who helped to overthrow the Chinese Ming dynasty and establish the Qing. Each wife pledged total allegiance to the imperial family when she entered the palace. Some empresses used their intimate relationship with the emperor to exert influence on him and how he shaped Qing dynasty history.

Through the beautiful objects in this exhibition, including imperial robes, jewelry and portraits (many of which have never left the Palace Museum before) visitors will be able to look behind the walls of the Forbidden City and discover the sumptuous lives of five empresses, who represent much about the experience of being an imperial woman. Out of the approximately two dozen Qing empresses, the exhibition focuses on five: Empress Xiaozhuang (1613–1688), Empress Dowager Chongqing (1693–1777), Empress Xiaoxian (1712–1748), Empress Dowager Ci’an (1837–1881) and Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908).

Each of these empresses helped shape the Qing dynasty, leaving a lasting impact and legacy. The five women were religious patrons, art collectors, managers of family affairs and advisors to the emperor.

Empress Xiaozhuang was the mother of the Shunzhi emperor and grandmother of the Kangxi emperor, each of whom ascended the throne as a youth. She was crucial in helping guide them. Faith was deeply important to her and through her promotion of Tibetan Buddhism she helped shape the religious history of the Qing dynasty.

Empress Dowager Chongqing entered the palace as a servant and was promoted to a third-rank consort of the prince who became the Yongzheng emperor. At 18, she bore her only child, a son who would eventually ascend to the throne, becoming known as the Qianlong emperor. He greatly respected and doted upon his mother and promoted her to Empress Dowager and honored her with the title “Sage Mother.”

Empress Xiaoxian was genuinely adored by her husband, the Qianlong emperor whom she married at the age of 15 when he was still a prince. She was well respected as a manager of imperial family affairs, but died tragically at age 36 and no one would ever replace her in Qianlong’s heart. Mourning his wife, the emperor brushed a poem revealing his intense affection. This poem is a rare treasure that will be on display in the exhibition.      

Empress Dowager Ci’an was the empress and widow of the Xianfeng emperor. She was childless, but her position and rank made her the “formal” mother of the Tongzhi emperor who was born to a lower-ranking consort, soon to be known as Empress Dowager Cixi. When the young boy ascended to the throne at 6 years old, the two women allied, instigated a coup to gain political power and ruled together as co-regents. Ci’an was known for more traditional motherly values. In contrast, Empress Dowager Cixi applied her intelligence, networking skills and ambition to become the most powerful empress in the Qing and arguably in all of Chinese history. Cixi challenged the tradition of “women shall not rule.”

"For me, this exhibition is the exciting culmination of nearly four years of extensive research and collaboration with my co-curator, Daisy Yiyou Wang from the Peabody Essex Museum and many dedicated staff at the Palace Museum in Beijing,” said Jan Stuart, the Melvin R. Seiden 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. We hope we have lifted the veil obscuring the empresses’ world.”

A multi-author, full-color catalog distributed by Yale University Press features a series of essays focusing on the multidimensional role the empresses played in shaping Qing court history and the artwork associated with their lives. An accompanying website will provide insights into the lives of these spectacular women, from an overview of the palace of Empress Dowager Chongqing to decoding the symbolism of two exquisite robes. It will also include resources to learn more about the Qing dynasty, particularly for children and educators.  

In addition to public programs, on March 30 from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. the Freer|Sackler will hold an opening day celebration to honor both the exhibition and Women’s History Month. There will be curator talks, performances and food and art activities for all ages.  

“Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644–1912” is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, the Smithsonian’s Freer|Sackler in Washington, D.C., and the Palace Museum in Beijing. Support for this project is provided by Liu Dan, Henry Luce Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, E. Rhodes & Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, Bei Shan Tang Foundation, the Richard C. von Hess Foundation, Mars Inc. and Mandarin Oriental.

About the Freer|Sackler

Asia meets America at the Freer|Sackler, the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art. Located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., our museums serve as an international crossroads and a global destination. We care for one of the world’s most important collections of Asian art, with more than 40,000 objects dating from the Neolithic period to today. Masterpieces from China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, the ancient Near East, and the Islamic world are complemented by a significant group of American artworks, including the famed Peacock Room. Drawing from its rich collections and scholarship, the Freer|Sackler’s renowned exhibitions inspire you to celebrate differences, transform perceptions and spark connections.

We invite you to travel from America to Asia through our exquisite artworks, foundational research and dynamic programs. Through both quiet contemplation and joyous celebration, experience the Freer|Sackler’s unique ability to generate empathy across cultures.

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