A new show about the women of Chinese royal courts at a museum in the United States highlights the growing cultural ties between the two countries
The women of the Chinese imperial court were a special group of people throughout the country's long history. As the wives of the most esteemed rulers of the land, it is easy to imagine how magnificent their lives once were, given their social standing. Yet since written records and documents focus more on the rulers, who were male, the details of the royal women's lives largely remain a mystery.
To shed some light on these untold stories of the queens, an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, United States, opened recently. Titled Empresses of China's Forbidden City, the exhibition features hundreds of spectacular objects from the Chinese court over the centuries.
"This is the first major exhibition that explores the role of the empresses in China's last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty from 1644 to 1911. In many respects, it's quite surprising that this topic hasn't been tackled before," says Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, the James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes deputy director of the PEM, during a recent media preview of the exhibition.
The exhibition, which opened to the public on Saturday, features more than 200 works including imperial portraits, jewelry, garments, Buddhist sculptures and decorative art objects from the Palace Museum in Beijing and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, many of which have never been publicly displayed before.
The result of more than four years of collaborative effort between experts from China and the US, the exhibition highlights the growing cultural dialogue between the two countries.
"This exhibition, I think quite fittingly and quite frankly deliberately on the part of the two institutions, coincides with the 40th anniversary of US-China diplomatic relations," says Hartigan.
And this legacy of cultural diplomacy is highlighted in some of the pieces on display at the exhibition.
One star work being showcased is a 5-meter-tall oil painting of the Empress Dowager Cixi, painted in 1903 by American artist Katharine Carl - the first ever female court painter in China.
The painting was later sent to the US to be exhibited at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, and was presented as a gift to US President Theodore Roosevelt the following year.
"It embodies the fact that the two countries have had a long partnership and have found many ways of working together. And we think this painting shows some of that feeling," says Jan Stuart, the co-curator of the exhibition and the Melvin R. Seiden curator of Chinese art at the Smithsonian's Freer and Arthur M. Sackler galleries.
The exhibition also comes at a time when the role of women in society has become a hot topic.