Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644–1912

The lives of the Qing dynasty empresses offer a compelling tale of opulence and influence as told in this first-ever, in-depth exhibition of the subject. Their vital presence over the 260-year course of the Qing is brought to light through an unprecedented assembly of spectacular objects. Featured are royal portraits, paintings depicting court life, seals and symbols of imperial power, Buddhist sutras and other objects of religious devotion, along with costumes, jewelry, tableware, and furniture that were used by the empresses in the imperial complex known as the Forbidden City.

The empresses’ significance in shaping Qing history is told through the objects made for, about, and by them. Dispelling a common misapprehension that the women were passive figures, the exhibition breaks stereotypes of them as being merely glamorous or subservient wives. Instead, these women frequently traveled, rode horses, and performed myriad royal duties, from playing a dynamic role in the imperial family to being praised as the “Mother of the State.” Many empresses expressed ambition, displayed intelligence, and some challenged protocol—even the tradition that “women shall not rule.” The exhibition allows us to see how the empresses exerted influence in the arts, religion, politics, and diplomacy. By reclaiming multiple dimensions of their lives, we also direct attention to the broader issue that women’s accomplishments are too often left untold.

Most of these artworks are from the Palace Museum, and many have never been exhibited outside of China. This extraordinary exhibition, accompanied by a major catalogue, is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts; the Freer|Sackler in Washington, DC; and the Palace Museum in Beijing, China.

Buy the catalogue.

Explore this exhibition

painting of the empress if yellow decorated dress with large headdress and jewelry against a dark green-blue background

Empress Dowager Cixi. Katharine A. Carl (1865–1938). China, Qing dynasty, 1903. Oil on canvas with camphor wood frame. Transfer from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S2011.16


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, DC; and the Palace Museum in Beijing.

Generous support provided by

Liu Dan 劉丹
The Henry Luce Foundation
National Endowment for the Humanities
E. Rhodes & Leona B. Carpenter Foundation
Bei Shan Tang Foundation
The Richard C. von Hess Foundation

Additional support provided by

The AMG Foundation
Eaton Vance Investment Counsel
The Coby Foundation
Blakemore Foundation
Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo
Quan Zhou and Dr. Xiaohua Zhang
Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund
Skinner, Inc.
Ellen Bayard Weedon Foundation
Sandra Urie and Frank Herron
Robert N. Shapiro

Empresses Leadership Council

Shirley Z. Johnson, Lead Co-Chair
Susan Pillsbury, Lead Co-Chair
Liu Dan 劉丹, Co-Chair
Anonymous, Co-Chair
The Honorable Pamela H. Smith
Mandarin Oriental
American Friends of the Shanghai Museum
Diane Schafer and Jeffrey Stein
Susan L. Beningson and Steve Arons
Michael and Winnie Feng
Brian and Lucy Conboy
Nancy Lee
Ruth Ann Kurzbauer
Eriko Masuoka
Lois S. Raphling
Lisa Jorgenson
Iris and Larry Miller

Honorary Committee

David Skorton, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution
Dame Jillian Sackler, D.B.E.
Sana H. Sabbagh
Lisa Ling, Producer, Journalist, and Actress
Lucy Liu, Artist, Director, Actress, and UNICEF Ambassador
Amy Tan, Author
Yue Sai Kan 靳羽西, TV Producer and Presenter, Author