Empress Cixi: Scanned and Discovered

Last month, John Dillaber worked with the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives to rescan our collection of the 1903 glass plate negatives of China’s Empress Dowager, Cixi (1835 - 1908).” As regent to two successive emperors, Cixi was the supreme sovereign of the Qing court for over 45 years, and an iconic international figure in the final years of the Qing dynasty. Consequently, these extremely rare images are one of the most important collections of early Chinese photography outside of China. Until now, our best reproductions were from contact prints, which only showed rough details. Because of the uniqueness and historical importance of these images, I was determined to get as much detail and tonal depth as possible from the project. Using John’s IQSmart3, we scanned to files nearly 1 gigabyte each. At that range, pixels compete with film grain for image resolution, but the spectacular results have produced previously hidden details that reveal much about the role of photography in the late Qing court. Here is one of those discoveries. The Empress Dowager Cixi and attendants on the imperial barge on Zhonghai, Beijing, 1903-1905, by Xu Detail of The Empress Dowager Cixi and attendants on the imperial barge on Zhonghai, Beijing, 1903-1 The photograph of Cixi, her attendants and eunuchs on the imperial barge is almost festive, with varieties of props and theatrical costumes reflecting the Empress Dowager’s passion for Chinese opera. The photographer of the series, Xunling (c.1880 - 1943), was a young Manchu who picked up photography as a hobby while his father was ambassador in Paris. Documents tell that Xunling required a special indulgence to wear glasses in the Imperial Presence in order to focus the camera lens. Unfortunately, the new scans show that glasses didn’t help much; foreground figures are somewhat blurry. Nevertheless, a number of interesting features emerge. Cixi is seated before a standing screen, upon which is the title, “Guanyin of Putuo Mountain.” Cixi’s devotion to this manifestation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion is well documented, made famous by the studio photographs in which she is more explicitly immersed in the Bodhisattva’s identity. On a bronze tripod in front of Cixi is written “Ningshougong” (Palace of Tranquil Longevity), a complex built within the Forbidden City for the retirement of the Emperor Qianlong (1711 - 1799), who Cixi particularly admired and emulated, and whose palace was given over for her use. Detail of character from, The Empress Dowager Cixi and attendants on the imperial barge on Zhonghai, But what is the white thing in the foreground? Rising out of the bronze vessel is the character for longevity stylized into a wisp of smoke. Cixi was fond of the character as a decorative element, and frequently had it embroidered in gold on her costumes, so it is no surprise that it should be so prominently visible. Yet in the new scans one can make out a series of previously unreadable Chinese characters on the top of the design, which spells out Guangrenzi, or “Broad Benevolence.” Quick research reveals that Guangrenzi is Cixi’s Daoist title, conferred by the abbot of Baiyunguan a major Daoist temple in Beijing and a political base for the court’s conservative faction. So this decorative element takes on considerable significance, and in combination with the Putuoshan Guanyin screen, and the reference to Qianlong’s palace, suggests that the boating scene is more than a picnic with eunuchs in opera costumes. On the contrary, Cixi employed photography to create a calculated assemblage of intersecting references to religious and political alliances, associations and hierarchies, as she sought to maintain her own political legitimacy within the factionalized environment of the final years of Qing dynastic decline. Well worth a gigabyte scan.

David Hogge, Freer-Sackler Galleries of Art Archives

Leave a Comment

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.