POWER | PLAY: China’s Empress Dowager



SC-GR-249, detail

The Qing court took on an unprecedented level of diplomatic engagement after the Boxer Rebellion, an attempt to improve relations with key foreign nations. This strategy included presenting photographic prints of Cixi as diplomatic gifts.


Photograph of Portrait of Tzu-Hsi (Cixi), Empress Dowager of China

Imperial-size gelatin silver print photograph with hand-applied color. Courtesy of Blair House, The President’s Guest House, United States Department of State, BH-2009.0001

This large painted portrait was delivered to Washington, DC, in 1904 as a gift for President Theodore Roosevelt. The image’s surface is lavishly tinted, with minute details highlighted in brilliant gold paint. The effect is one of regal authority, while the subject’s close proximity and direct gaze lend a sense of personal affinity—perhaps just the combination Cixi believed would be most effective in communicating with a fellow head of state.



The Empress Dowager Cixi (detail)

1903. The Alice Roosevelt Longworth Collection of Photographs from the 1905 Taft Mission to Asia. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, A2009.02

In the summer of 1905, a group of congressmen and their families traveled on a three-month diplomatic tour of Asia, led by Secretary of War William Howard Taft. Among the most publicly notable members of the Taft Mission was President Roosevelt’s daughter Alice (1884–1980). Much was made in the press about the meeting between the young, glamorous daughter of the president and the aged symbol of the conservative Qing court.

In her 1933 autobiography, Alice described her meeting with Cixi in vivid detail, but placed more emphasis on receiving this photograph of the Empress Dowager the following day. “A troop of cavalry clattered down the street to the Legations,” she recalled, “surrounding an imperial yellow chair in which, by itself, was the photograph.” This dramatic presentation indicates that, rather than mere memento, the photograph was intended as an extension of Cixi’s imperial presence.

Diplomatic Women

group of diplomats and court staffLadies and children of the diplomatic corps before going to the audience of the Emperor and Empress Dowager of China, detail

Photographer unknown. January 1902. Silver collodion print. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, A2010.06

In a bold step, starting in 1902 Cixi hosted a series of social gatherings at the palace for the ladies of the legations, based on the assumption that women would be more amenable to appeals of friendship. Less than two years had passed since the legation quarters had been bombarded by Boxers and imperial troops, and resentment toward the Qing court and Cixi in particular still ran high.

But the effectiveness of this strategy soon became apparent. Cixi’s graciousness at social functions was duly reported to the press, making a positive impact on her international reputation.

Sarah Pike Conger

Cixi and Sarah Pike CongerEmpress Dowager Cixi with women of the American Legation

SC-GR-249, detail.

The woman holding Cixi’s hand is Sarah Pike Conger (ca. 1843–1932), wife of the American minister to Beijing. Conger wrote movingly of Cixi’s many virtues in newspaper articles and books.






Overview | Explore the Exhibition: Throne | Private Moments | Tableaux: The Power of Play | Cixi’s Popular Legacy