Power|Play: China's Empress Dowager
Cixi first wanted her photograph taken in a setting that replicated the reception hall, as if she were in formal audience. In other words, her priority was to convey her authority and legitimacy as head of state.
The photographs in the Throne series feature the Empress Dowager alone before a standing screen, with an overhead banner proclaiming her full title. Despite this repetitive composition, the images display surprising variety. Cixi adopts a vivid array of poses, costumes, and props, each with a different meaning and objective.
Cixi’s embroidered robes are rich with traditional Chinese emblems of longevity—for herself and, by extension, for the Qing dynasty. This robe is covered with stylized longevity characters, as well as butterflies, considered a metaphor for long life.
Gold-painted longevity character. Detail from 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
Flanking Cixi are carefully stacked mounds of fruit. Cixi was not fond of incense and so used fresh fruit to sweeten the air, but these apples may have had a more important purpose. While not a traditional feature of Chinese art, the Chinese term for apple is a homonym for peace. The use of Western apples in the photos may have been a subtle message of conciliation to the foreign powers occupying Beijing after the Boxer Rebellion.
Cixi’s gold filigreed fingernail covers were traditionally worn in the Qing court, as were her “horse-hoof” shoes. While maintaining such conventions, in this image Cixi also included a French Louis XIV pedestal table, upon which rests an embroidered Indian paisley shawl. The arrangement may have refuted her reputation as an insular, xenophobic ruler.