Powerful Portraits Capture China's Empress Dowager

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Intrigue! Riches! Sex! Some violence! Not the latest movie plot, but a story that lurks in the background of some 100-year-old photographs of The Empress Dowager — once the most powerful woman in Asia. The mostly black-and-white photos languished for decades in the archives of the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Now, they are on display and give a glimpse of Old China at a time when today's China is the picture of modern power.

Cixi — pronounced tsuh shee — ruled China for 43 years. When she died in 1908 at the age of 73, she left behind neither crown, nor scepter, nor throne — it wasn't the Manchu way — but she did leave behind plenty of photos of herself looking very grim.

"The notion of smiling in front of the camera would have been absolutely unallowable at the time," says David Hogge, the Freer Gallery archivist who unearthed the photos from the archive.

But it wasn't just the camera that made her look so dour — if her reputation is accurate, Cixi (perhaps the original "Dragon Lady"?) was not exactly the smiley type.

"She was blamed for murders, for killings, for greed, for graft — for all of the problems that beset the court at the time — which were many," Hogge says.

After a long rule — 1644 to 1912 — The Qing court (also called the Manchu court) had become a mess. Riddled with factions, incompetence and economic, political and military conflicts, Hogge says, Cixi's court was headed for extinction.

"This was the last of the imperial dynasties of China," he explains. "This was the end of 2,000 years of imperial reign."

If anything held it together it was this shrewd sour-faced woman, who was the de-facto ruler of 400 million subjects, from the 1860s until she died early in the 20th century. Nobody — except maybe Cixi herself — could have imagined what she would become when she showed up at court at the age of 17 — the daughter of country people who lived just outside Beijing.

"She was actually a very beautiful low-level concubine who caught the eye of the emperor and got pregnant with the only son, and therefore when [the emperor] died, she reached a position of tremendous power," Hogge says.

A very carefully worked out system brought Cixi, among others, to the emperor's attention. "Every year, all of the select young women of the Manchus were brought into the court as potential candidates," Hogge says. The most politically advantageous concubines — right family, right faction — made the final cut. Looks — and fertility — didn't hurt, either.

Not only was Cixi the only concubine to produce a son with the emperor, she was the only concubine — out of dozens — to produce a child at all. Much remains unknown about these ancient matters, but how she got the chance to procreate is the subject of juicy rumor.

"The story is that she was able to bribe her way into the bedroom basically by giving gifts to the right eunuchs who really controlled things," Hogge says.

No matter how it happened, when the emperor died in 1861, Cixi, having given birth to the emperor's only heir, became the power behind the throne. The teenage concubine turned into Empress Dowager.

Now, at the Freer Gallery, her power is on display in a series of life-size photographs, framed on gallery walls and mounted on looming stands. The pictures were taken as part of a campaign to improve Empress Dowager's reputation.

In the photos she's decked out in silk robes embroidered with butterflies, dragons and flowers — and she's dripping with gems and pearls. And her fingernails! Her pinky and ring fingers are adorned with 6-inch-long gold nail protectors that could certainly help her make a point; they're claw-like and scary.

She's bedecked from head to toe: She wore a headdress encrusted with pearls and stones. (Click here to see it up close.) Her hair was sometimes full of jade hairpins and flowers. On her feet — which are not bound (again, not the Manchu style) — she sports 6-inch-high bejeweled platform shoes. (Click here to see a close-up of that fancy footwear.)

The Empress Dowager has been portrayed many times in film — from Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987), to Nicholas Ray's 55 Days at Peking (1963). And there are many Chinese films as well. The stories and legends about her have persisted long after her death in 1908 and the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911. It's not difficult to see why: "She was the last powerful figure in that whole dynastic reign," Hogge says.

The exhibit at the Freer is called "Power Play: China's Empress Dowager." The portraits will be on view until the end of January. The exhibit also includes some pictures made for personal use — not public display — portraits that show a kinder, gentler ruler.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


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