The early 20th-century photograph of Empress Dowager Cixi captures political spin, Qing dynasty-style
Spin doctoring—the art of turning bad news into goodand scoundrels into saints—goes back a long way. How far back is subject to debate: To the bust of Nefertiti? Roman bread and circuses? Jacques-Louis David’s heroic paintings of Napoleon? Anexhibition of photographs from the dawn of the 20th century, now at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, provides a look at spin, Qing dynasty-style.
The photographs’ primary subject is Empress Dowager Cixi, thedominant figure in the Qing court for more than 45 years until her death in 1908, at age 72. The photographer was a diplomat’s son named Xunling. Though not a charmer, even by the somber photographicportrait standards of the day, the empress dowager seemed to like the camera and imagined that the camera liked her, says David Hogge, head of archives at the gallery and curator of the show. “Shethought about self-representation, and—out of the norm for Chinese portraiture—she sometimes posed in staged vignettes that alluded to famous scenes in court theater. Sometimes she looked like a boredstarlet.”
Vicki Goldberg, a New York-based historian of photography, points out that Xunling’s style was a bit behind the times, though “there was still plenty of traditional portrait work being done.”In the West, she says, group portraits were often made for family albums; a Xunling photograph of, say, Cixi and attendants at the top of some steps in a palace garden “may have been thephotographer’s way of putting the empress dowager on a pedestal.”
By 1903, the year Cixi posed for Xunling, she needed a boost. True, she had been the de facto ruler of China since 1881, maneuvering her way out ofconcubinage by bearing Emperor Xianfeng a male heir and then engineering a palace coup. But the imperial court was isolated from both its subjects and the foreign powers then building spheres of...