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Power|Play: China's Empress Dowager

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Empress Cixi

PRIVATE MOMENTS

SC-GR-272, detail.

Among the glass plates in the Freer and Sackler Archives are nine small negatives showing Cixi and her attendants, mostly among the snowy gardens of Wanshoushan (Longevity Hill), the central hill of the Summer Palace. Many photographs in this series have never been published and are presented for the first time in Power|Play. They were not distributed or used as gifts. These images were likely intended for Cixi and her attendants’ personal enjoyment, rather than the Qing court’s diplomatic efforts.

Throne
Private Moments
Cixi with fourth daughter of Prince Qing

Fourth daughter of Prince Qing.
SC-GR-282, detail.

In many of the photographs, Cixi is shown with various ladies and eunuchs. Some were assistants who constantly attended to the Empress Dowager, helping her in every activity from dining to bathing. Many were also friends, trusted confidantes, and even valued political advisors.

The women in the photographs range from anonymous relatives to imperial consorts second in rank only to Cixi herself. The fourth daughter of Prince Qing, a secondary prince who rose to power by marrying Cixi’s cousin, was considered one of the great beauties of the court. She also was one of the Empress Dowager’s closest attendants.

Imperial Assistants
Imperial Assistants
Cixi with the photographer's sisters

SC-GR-259, detail.

Cixi is flanked by the photographer’s sisters, Deling and Rongling. Behind them is their mother, Madame Yugeng.

The most frequently visible of Cixi’s assistants are Xunling’s sisters, Deling (1885–1944) and Rongling (1882–1973), and their mother, Madame Yugeng (dates unknown). The early history of the family is fairly obscure. We do know that Xunling’s father was made ambassador to Tokyo in 1895 and to Paris in 1899. The Yugeng children grew up exposed to an international array of languages, arts, and societies. Deling and Rongling, for example, studied acting under Sarah Bernhardt and dance under Isadora Duncan, while Xunling pursued photography.

Under the Boxer Protocol of 1901, Cixi and her court were required to hold direct audiences with foreign ambassadors and visiting dignitaries. The court rushed Yugeng and his family home from Paris to help. The Yugengs’ fluency in foreign languages and knowledge of Western propriety made them critical to Cixi as intermediaries and translators, and as advisors in etiquette and diplomatic protocol.

The Yugeng Family
The Yugeng Family
Cixi and Deling

Cixi in snow with Deling.
SC-GR-271, detail.

This negative was copied from a well-worn mounted print, likely at the request of Deling, who was intent on demonstrating to American audiences her close friendship with the Empress Dowager. As an author and speaker in the United States, Deling’s reputation rested on the credibility of her tale about having once been Cixi’s favorite attendant. She no doubt cherished this portrait.

Cixi & Deling
Cixi & Deling