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Peabody Essex Museum Peabody Essex Museum
Salem, MA
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Peabody Essex Museum (PEM)
161 Essex Street
Salem, MA 01970
978.745.9500 | 866.745.1876 
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www.pem.org

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Exhibitions:

Empresses of China’s Forbidden City


Events

Empresses of China’s Forbidden City
August 18, 2018 through February 10, 2019

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) debuts ​Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, ​the first major international exhibition to explore the role of empresses in China’s last dynasty––the Qing dynasty, from 1644 to 1912. Nearly 200 spectacular works, including imperial portraits, jewelry, garments, Buddhist sculptures, and decorative art objects from the Palace Museum, Beijing (known as the Forbidden City), tell the little-known stories of how these empresses engaged with and influenced court politics, art and religion. On an exclusive U.S. tour, this exhibition is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see rare treasures from the Forbidden City, including works that have never before

been publicly displayed and many of which have never been on view in the United States. Coinciding with ​the 40th anniversary of the establishment of U.S.-China diplomatic relations, the exhibition is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts; the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Freer|Sackler), Washington, D.C.; and the Palace Museum, Beijing.

A leader in preserving and promoting Chinese art and architecture, PEM honors over 200 years of U.S.-Chinese commercial and cultural exchange through its renowned collection and exhibition program. Working closely with its partnering organizations, PEM presents this unprecedented exhibition in order to celebrate the vibrant legacy of cultural dialogue between these two countries.

With an international team of experts, exhibition co-curators Daisy Yiyou Wang, PEM’s Robert N. Shapiro Curator of Chinese and East Asian Art, and Jan Stuart, the Melvin R. Seiden Curator of Chinese Art at the Freer|Sackler spent four years travelling to the Forbidden City to investigate the largely hidden worl​d of the women inside. Delving into the vast imperial archives and collection, their fresh research unveils how these women influenced history as well as the spectacular art made for, by and about them. “This exhibition establishes a new model for future international research and museum collaborations,” says Shan Jixiang, director of the Palace Museum.

REVEALING THE HIDDEN WORLD OF THE EMPRESSES
China’s grand imperial era––the Qing dynasty––was a multiethnic and multicultural state founded in 1644 by a small northeast Asian group who came to call themselves “Manchus.” These conquering rulers adopted the Forbidden City in Beijing as the seat of the government. The Manchu ruling house differed from their populous Han Chinese subjects by language, history, and culture. In the Qing dynasty, Manchu customs prohibited foot-binding and encouraged women to learn to ride and hunt. In general, Manchu women enjoyed more freedom and rights than their Han Chinese counterparts.

While the Qing imperial court was strictly patriarchal and hierarchical, a few empresses stood out and helped shape the long history of the dynasty. The empress headed the imperial harem and could influence the emperor. She was regarded as the “mother of the state” and a role model for all women​.Presiding over the state ritual promoting silk production, empresses honored women’s vital role in the econ​omic health of the state through textile production.

While the emperor-centric Qing imperial court recorded only skeletal outlines of the empresses’ lives, only recently have historians begun to fill in a more complete picture. Exhibition curators were able to reconstruct their rich and active lifestyles from the lavish art produced by the Qing co​urt. Sumptuous objects showcased in this exhibition include the largest assemblage of imperial

textiles and jewelry that have ever traveled to the U.S. from the Palace Museum. These works demonstrate how Qing dynasty empresses projected authority ​through what they wore, from stunningly embroidered socks to splendid dragon robes​.

“We are very proud to reclaim the presence and influence of these empresses, about whom history has largely been silent,” says Daisy Wang, PEM’s curator for this exhibition. “The exquisite objects related to the empresses give us a better understanding of these intriguing women. Further evidence found in court archives and other historical sources help illuminate their hidden, but inspiring lives.”

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