Imagining Empresses

Tobie Meyer-Fong reviews the exhibit Empresses of China’s Forbidden City

An older woman with a strong nose, auspicious ears, finely arched brows and a tight, subtle smile looks out from the cover of the exhibition catalog of Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912. She wears a richly embroidered blue vest over an imperial yellow robe, both decorated with sinuous dragons. Soft sable fur trims her hat, collar, and the distinctive hoof-shaped cuffs of Manchu imperial costume. An abundance of pearls from the Manchu homeland completes the ensemble. Her attire denotes status and ethnic heritage, and hints at the possibility of power. Her gaze suggests the opportunity for a direct encounter.