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Published: 16 September 2022

By Andy Ross

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Empress Dowager Cixi

These days the reign of Empress Dowager Cixi is seen in a much kinder light.

From 1861 until 1908, the Chinese Empress Dowager controlled the government and in her later years introduced reforms that did away with slavery and torture and strengthened the country against invasion and internal politics. While some of the reforms were short-lived, today the Empress Dowager is seen as capable and pragmatic, warm and generous, sophisticated and determined as well as politically astute and shrewd. 

In a small folder in the art collection, that was bought in Shanghai a decade or so ago, black and white photographs of the ruler are concertina'd between cloth covered boards. The photographs are some of the most iconic and well-known, depicting the concubine turned ruler in magnificent finery and costume and in luxurious surroundings, as an empress and as a goddess. Imperious in gaze, there is also a sadness evident in the later photographs. This one shows Empress Dowager Cixi as the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy while this photograph online is the colourised version of one in the folder. 

More information about the Empress Dowager can be read here and in the Smithsonian Magazine here.