SALEM — The impressive gold “stupa,” a dome-shaped Buddhist shrine, weighs a colossal 237 pounds. Encrusted with coral, turquoise and other semi-precious gemstones, it glistens and commands your attention as you walk through the sensational “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City” exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum.
A tribute to Empress Dowager Chongqing, who died in 1777, by her only son, who would go on to become emperor, the shrine contains a few locks of Chongqing’s hair, which was believed to ensure her rebirth. This is the first time it has traveled outside of China, thanks to a partnership fostered by PEM, the Palace Museum/Forbidden City in Beijing, and the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., where the exhibition will move to after this closes in Salem in February.
Exhibition co-curators Daisy Yiyou Wang, PEM’s Robert N. Shapiro Curator of Chinese and East Asian Art, and Jan Stuart, the Melvin R. Seiden Curator of Chinese Art at the Freer|Sackler, spent four years traveling to the Forbidden City to investigate the largely hidden world of the women inside. This is the first major international exhibition to explore the role of empresses in China’s last dynasty (the Qing dynasty, 1644 to 1912). Nearly 200 works, including imperial portraits, jewelry, garments, Buddhist sculptures, and decorative art objects, tell how these empresses engaged with and influenced court politics, art and religion.
The exhibition, which coincides with the 40th anniversary of the establishment of U.S.-China diplomatic relations, focuses on three key figures of opulence and influence: Empress Dowager Chongqing (1693-1777), Empress Xiaoxian (1712-1748) and Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908). Their life experiences revolve around six core themes: imperial weddings, power and status, family roles, lifestyle, religion, and political influence. This is a celebration of three amazing women.
A 16-foot oil portrait of Cixi is another standout. Jan Stuart said Cixi directed the American artist Katharine Carl to create an image of a youthful and benevolent ruler to express her good will to people in America at a time when U.S.-China relations were prickly. After it was displayed at the 1904 World Expo in St. Louis, Cixi gave the painting to President Theodore Roosevelt, who in turn donated it to Smithsonian. A recent conservation project has restored the painting to its original vibrancy. This is its first public display in the U.S. since the 1960s.
Also fascinating is the heart-wrenching “Elegy For the Deceased Empress,” handwritten by the lovesick Qianlong emperor after his wife and soulmate, Xiaoxian, who was 15 when she wed the then prince, died at age 36. An empress’ main duty was to have a son; this couple lost two sons in infancy. She also nursed the emperor through a long illness and earned widespread respect by those inside and outside of the imperial family. The emperor writes of his tortured soul and questions how he can go on without the woman who provided “22 years of your loving kindness” by his side.
You will truly love these empresses and this exhibition at Peabody Essex Museum, which has long been a cultural partner with its counterparts in China and throughout the world. Most exhibitions of this type have focused on the emperors; this time it’s the women’s turn.
“Empresses of China’s Forbidden City” is at the Peabody Essex Museum through Feb. 10, 2019.