POWER | PLAY: China’s Empress Dowager

Tableaux: The Power of Play


group of women in dressCixi with attendants in front of Paiyunmen, Summer Palace, Beijing, 1903
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Cixi was an enthusiastic advocate of theater arts. She commissioned new libretti and updates of traditional dramas, and she organized a personal acting troupe composed of court eunuchs. In this group photograph, Cixi assumes a theatrical pose.

Love of Theater

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This is perhaps the most enduring yet enigmatic of Cixi’s photographic portraits. She gazes into a mirror while placing a flower in her hair—a pose that may represent her love of theater. A pivotal scene in the Ming dynasty play The Peony Pavilion features the heroine, Du Liniang, gazing at her own beauty in a mirror as her maid adorns her hair with a flower. In recorded versions of the play, this scene is strikingly similar to Cixi’s portrait.

Mei Lanfang as Du Liniang in The Peony Pavilion, 1960

Portraying Piety

group of women in gardenCixi with attendants on Zhonghai Lake, Beijing, 1903
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In one series of images—taken in the summer of 1903 at Zhonghai, a lake west of the Forbidden City—Cixi adopts the role of Guanyin, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion. She sits near an array of potted lotuses, before a painted backdrop of the Purple Bamboo Grove of Guanyin. Her attendants adopt the guises of the bodhisattva’s attendants.

Cixi’s portrayal of herself as a divinity may seem egotistical to modern audiences. However, new research has shown that, at the end of the fifteenth century, some Chinese women dressed and styled their hair like Guanyin as a show of piety. Rather than trying to personify the bodhisattva, Cixi was participating in a popular act of devotion.

Broad Benevolence

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In front of Cixi is a bronze vessel with a slip of paper that states “Ningshougong” (Palace of Tranquil Longevity). Ningshougong was a complex built within the Forbidden City for the retirement of the Qianlong Emperor (reigned 1711–99) and later given over for Cixi’s use. As Cixi highly respected Qianlong’s legacy, the label was meant as homage to the late ruler.

Rising out of the bronze vessel is the character for longevity, stylized into a wisp of smoke. High-resolution scans reveal three previously unreadable characters on top of this one. Together the characters spell Guangrenzi, or “Broad Benevolence,” which was Cixi’s title conferred by a major Daoist temple in Beijing.

The theatrical references, political allegiances, religious titles, and symbols of longevity establish these scenes as more than casual photo shoots. Cixi was using the camera to record the values of the imperial court. The photographs also emphasize her own religious and political legitimacy during the court’s final years.