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Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912 exhibit at the Sackler | Freer Gallery of Art

I liked this exhibit because it focused on several women who had the intelligence and strength to shape political culture and history when they were not in a good position of power. Their voice was limited to the background. However, they did things that put them in great positions to make powerful changes to their country. I was taken aback to see the poetry, dedicated gifts, and other items surrounding these women by the men in their lives. The women were highly regarded despite having a back-room voice.

The Museum brought many items pertaining to these women out of their own storage to try and show what their daily lives were like because of the lack of written record. They also did a phenomenal amount of research into the Chinese culture and history to explain the women’s lives. It is well worth the time to read the writings on the signs placed throughout the exhibit as they explain how a woman was picked, how she enters the Forbidden City, and what was expected from her. For example, when an empress is chosen, she must sever all ties to her natural family, and become the property of the state. This means that all her belongings are imperial property. Hence many items were gifted to the next female when she passed away. Because of this practice it is luck that we have the items that we have today. I walked away from this exhibit appreciating that Empresses did not bind her feet and were not window dressing.

I learned that empresses were expected to walk, travel, learn, and some rode horses. They understood the world outside of the forbidden city and did discuss state affairs. The Empress was responsible for the education of her own children, performing state duties, being physically active, presiding over festivals, and fashionable living. The women are the ones that patronized the arts and allowed tolerance of diverse religions in China. And, by having a state sanctioned close relationships with their Emperor sons they were able to consult with him about political and state affairs. This relationship was promoted because a close son and mother relationship reflected a harmonious society.