Cixi’s subversion of gender roles isn’t found in texts, but in art. In the Chinese tradition, the most important person is depicted as the largest figure in a painting. In one work showing Cixi playing chess with her son, she is tellingly shown as bigger than the emperor.
Cixi deeply understood the power of images. At the dawn of the 20th century, invasive foreign powers seeking an “open-door” policy in China threatened the Qing empire. Cixi cannily began to cultivate relationships with foreign diplomats, especially their wives. She sent weekly gifts to Sarah Pike Conger, the wife of an American ambassador. Conger convinced Cixi to let an American painter, Katharine A. Carl, create her portrait. “For Westerners to see the real her rather than a dragon lady—that’s the kind of press she got at the time—was quite a coup,” Wang explained. She caused a revolution in Chinese court portraiture when she had an official portrait of herself exhibited at the World’s Fair.
For the first time, the public was invited to not only know of the empress’s great power, but to gaze upon her powerful visage. It was a transgressive moment of significant cultural sway, a “coming out” for the hidden female leaders of China’s Forbidden Palace. The curators likewise hope that the exhibition will inspire other scholars of history, Wang said, to pay attention to women’s lives. “There’s a lot to be uncovered.”