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Staging Sovereignty: Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) and Late Qing Court Art Production


Empress Dowager Cixi was the last formidable imperial woman of dynastic China and the de facto ruler of the Qing Empire between 1862 and 1908. Her significance in modern Chinese politics is well studied, but the matriarch's encompassing engagement in art remains understudied. This dissertation examines concentrically Cixi's avid participation in portraiture, attire and daily accessories, painting and calligraphy, as well as imperial garden palaces, to illuminate her self-expressions in visual and material cultures. I argue that Cixi utilized the notion of court art as a symbolic realm of sovereignty and adapted prior Qing rulers' patterns of representing authority to visualize the power she exercised. As such, the late Qing court art organizations were at her service to stage her performance as a female ruler.

While adopting the visual language of imperial portraiture to represent her authority, the strategic choices of subjects and motifs in the portrait maintained the sitter's womanly identity. In the realm of decorative arts, Cixi manipulated the production of imperial porcelain ware to assert her role as a ruler, but she imprinted a touch of feminine taste in the porcelain by using designs that shared similar color schemes and patterns with those on imperial women's attire. In comparison, the matriarch's performance of the high arts operated differently. Cixi displayed the fondness and capability to participate in the gentlemen's arts. She also spared no effort to model after the painting and calligraphic works of earlier Qing emperors to make an intimate connection with the imperial genealogy. The most ambitious dimension of her patronage lies in the empress dowager's renovation and reconstruction of the imperial space, whose apex was the reconstruction of the Gardens of Nurtured Harmony, which was transformed into an arena of female agency.

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