The Empresses of China that lived in the Forbidden City is a historic topic that wasn’t well know to me. I am glad that I had the chance to visit the Sackler|Freer Gallery of Art to learn more.
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 created by the men in their lives to honor them. The women were highly regarded despite having a back-room voice.
Daily Life was Not Trivial
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 to live in the Forbidden City, the ceremony hey held when she first entered the Forbidden City, and her daily duties. 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 of gifting to the next generation, 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 had expectations of actually contributing to society.
Gifts of Honor
I learned that empresses were expected to take long walks, travel throughout the country and sometimes abroad, continue to learn philosophy, diplomacy, mathematics, and the arts. Some even rode horses competitively. They understood the world outside of the forbidden city and did discuss state affairs with the Emperor and others. 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.