Soon after their production, copies of Cixi’s photographs were sold in the streets of Chinese cities. Qing officials may have encouraged their distribution, or they may have been unable to prevent them from leaking out. In any case, the portraits did little to improve Cixi’s reputation. In the West, the image of a female ruler in theater garb merely confirmed the suspicion that the Qing court was too out of touch to endure in the modern era.
Cixi fared even more poorly in cinematic works. Chinese films, such as Sorrows of the Forbidden City (1948), depicted her as a scheming harridan who suppresses the emperor and murders innocent concubines. In Hollywood, over-the-top characterizations of the Empress Dowager as a wicked Asian “dragon lady” became a staple, culminating in such performances as Flora Robson’s “yellow face” rendering in the 1963 film 55 Days in Peking.
Popular culture is still struggling with the historical image of Cixi. Only in the last few decades of film, theater, and television has a more complex version of the Empress Dowager emerged. In the darkly haunting cameo by Lisa Lu in the Bernardo Bertolucci film The Last Emperor (1987), viewers are presented with a still-menacing but more humane Cixi. In Li Lianying, the Imperial Eunuch (1991), she is a nuanced and even sympathetic figure. Though still portrayed as xenophobic and selfish, Cixi now is seen with a vulnerable and empathetic side as well.
Related film series: Power Moves: The Empress Dowager Onscreen
Discover how China’s Empress Dowager has been depicted on film throughout the decades. This series is guest-curated by Cheng-sim Lim.