© 2011-2022 Photography of China
-- Written by David Hogge
Few photographs remain of the Empress Dowager Cixi 慈禧皇太後 (1835–1908), China’s notorious head of state during the final decades of the imperial era. Cixi used photographs to model perceptions of her character at the very moment photography was becoming a mass-media vehicle and the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912) was struggling to survive in a hostile imperialistic world.Following the virulently anti-foreign Boxer Uprising in 1900, many Chinese as well as foreigners blamed Cixi personally for this disaster.
In response, the Qing court initiated measures to reach out to foreign nations through personal diplomacy. Cixi invited members of the foreign legations in Beijing into the palace for luncheons, and appointed a number of Manchus who had been raised overseas to translate and help negotiate the confusing social contacts with Westerners. One of these foreign-raised Manchus was a young man named Xunling (1880–1943), the son of a former ambassador to Tokyo and Paris. Xunling had picked up a passion for photography while overseas. Upon learning this, Cixi engaged him to take a series of individual portraits and elaborate group tableaux that very much reflected her love of theater, as well as her acute awareness that photography could be exploited to change her public image and simultaneously reaffirm her authority.
[The images above are] based on 36 of Xunling's glass negatives in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. The remainder of Xunling's existing photographs are held by the National Palace Museum in Beijing, or exist only in poor quality commercial reproductions.
As such, the Freer set is an important but little known visual record of the advancement of photography as it intruded even into the reclusive inner spaces of the Qing court. There is anecdotal testimony that portraits of Cixi were made by other photographers, but Xunling’s series taken in 1903 and 1904 provides the only surviving photographs of the late Qing dynasty’s most significant political figure.
• David Hogge, “The Empress Dowager and the Camera: Photographing Cixi, 1903-1904,” MIT Visualizing Cultures
• Beisi Liu and Qixian Xu.Gugong Zhenzang Renwu Zhaopian Huicui [Exquisite Figure-Pictures from the Palace Museum] (Beijing: Forbidden City Publishing House of the Palace Museum, 1994).
• Ying-Chen Peng, "Lingering between Tradition and Innovation: Photographic Portraits of Empress Dowager Cixi," Ars Orientalis 43.6 (2013): 157-74.