AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 374

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Session 374: Rethinking Empress Dowager Cixi through the Production of Art

Organizer: Yuhang Li, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA

Chair: Kate A. Lingley, University of Hawaii, Manoa, USA

Discussants: Evelyn S. Rawski, University of Pittsburgh, USA; Cheng-hua Wang, Academia Sinica, Taiwan (R.O.C.)

Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), the de facto ruler of Late Qing, has been at the center of controversy throughout the twentieth century. Debates about Cixi’s historical significance have focused on her contribution, or lack thereof, to the Chinese modernization process. However, the above focus has produced a one-dimensional image of Cixi. Hence, this panel stresses Cixi's contributions in drama, imperial garden design, and portraiture, in order to illuminate the Empress Dowager's participation in the dynamic cultural transformations of the late Qing period. The panelists investigate Cixi's involvement in artistic production and shed light on contrasting ways in which Cixi affirmed her sovereignty. Further, the panelists offer new perspectives on court theatre, gender identities, architecture and portraiture in late Qing China. Liana Chen identifies Cixi as a dramaturg in her transformation of imperial ceremonial drama, and Ying-chen Peng explores, along a similar vein, how Cixi inserted her personal taste into the previously male-dominated Garden of Perfect Brightness. Yuhang Li’s paper studies the pictorial self-representation of Cixi, when she dressed up as the female deity Guanyin, often making use of theatrical props, to refashion her identity through religion. We are fortunate to have the major Qing historian Evelyn Rawski and the Cixi expert Cheng-hua Wang as discussants and the pre-modern Chinese art historian Kate Lingley as the chair. Together with the panelists, the discussants and chair will bring their expertise in different disciplines and periods to shed new light on Cixi’s engagement with the arts.

The Empress Dowager as Dramaturg: Reinventing Late-Qing Court Theatre
Liana Chen, George Washington University, USA

The Qing court theatre has never been a closed cultural institution. Current scholarship emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between late-Qing court theatre and the burgeoning popular theatre in Beijing. While Empress Dowager Cixi's support and patronage of pihuang actors and theatrical troupes have played a major role in the development of the pihuang performance culture, this paper suggests that the impact of this mutual influence on the development and transformation of court drama is much deeper and more pervasive than most scholars have assumed. Through close readings of a set of new ceremonial dramas (yidian xi) commissioned by Cixi for the occasions of the birthdays of imperial family members, the present study explores the aesthetic transition from ritual to entertainment of this particular genre. As Cixi indulged in her personal fantasies, the court theatre was pulled away from the ceremonial drama's traditional ideological framework. Freed from the imperial ideology, Cixi’s new plays were given the primary goal of presenting individual characters. The dramaturgical shift from valuing mise-en-scène and choreographed pageantry to emphasizing the talents and skills of individual performers was clearly a result of the intensified exchanges between court and popular theatres during this period. The two-way traffic enabled popular performance traditions to play a major role in shaping the aesthetic development of the ceremonial programs of the late-Qing court theatre.

En-gendering Space: Empress Dowager Cixi and the Reconstruction Project of Garden of Perfectly Bright
Ying-chen Peng, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

The last empress dowager of China, Cixi (1835-1908), is one of the most significant yet controversial figures in modern Chinese history. While our understanding of Cixi’s strategies to claim power has been primarily limited to the realm of politics, her encompassing engagement with court art, a symbolic realm of sovereignty in China, remains understudied. In fact, unlike most powerful women in China who relied on indirect ways to express themselves, Cixi was actively involved in the production of court art and used it to claim her sovereignty. Through scrutinizing the reconstruction project of the Garden of Perfect Brightness in 1874-5 in which, according to extant visual materials, Cixi was directly involved in the designing phase, this paper aims to examine one of the exemplary strategies by which Cixi asserted power through negotiating between masculinity and femininity. I will argue that she carved out her own space by changing its layout to suit her needs and by decorating it with elements that evoked her persona and power. Although the project was eventually cancelled, it visualized Cixi’s ideal for the empress dowager’s palace – a space filled with feminine and auspicious expressions – and served as the prototype of the reconstruction project of the Summer Palace realized a decade later.

Oneself as a Female Deity: Representations of Empress Dowager Cixi Dressing as Guanyin
Yuhang Li, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA

In recent studies of the cult of Guanyin or Avalokiteśvara, the most influential female deity in China, scholars have primarily examined how Guanyin was first introduced from India to China and gradually feminized in the process of sinicization. However, people have overlooked how believers refashioned their own identity in response to the gendered transformation of Guanyin. My paper will study this issue by discussing the practices of the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), the actual monarch of Qing China, who had herself photographed while playing the role of Guanyin. This paper will start with an examination of how Cixi, from a young age to the end of her life, had court painters draw portraits of herself as Guanyin based on various iconographies of Guanyin. Later when photography was introduced to China, she dressed up and posed as Guanyin in front of the camera eye. By looking at this case, we can grasp how Cixi represents her body in order to participate in refashioning her identity in terms of gender and religion. Moreover, she eventually mediates the production of her image through photography, which involves new forms of spatiality. This new form of visuality underscores modern identity and inflects gendered constructions of individuality. Given that Cixi had herself represented as Guanyin during the late Qing, when China was enduring various transformations related to modern identity and gender, an examination of Cixi's representational practice will shed light on the larger trajectory of intellectual and cultural change in modern China.