RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Intrigue, riches, sex and some violence. Nope, not a movie, rather a story that lurks in the background of some 100-year-old photographs of the Empress Dowager. She was once the most powerful woman in Asia. The photos languished for decades in the archives of the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. They offer a glimpse of old China at a time when today's China is the picture of a modern power.
NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg went to see the mostly black and white images.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: I've always wanted to be an Empress Dowager.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LAST EMPEROR")
LISA LU: (as Tsuh Shee) I am the Grand Empress Dowager and I have lived here for a long, long time.
STAMBERG: She ruled China for 40-plus years. When she died in 1908 at the age of 73, she left behind neither crown, nor scepter, nor throne - it wasn't the Manchu way - nor a name I can easily pronounce.
DAVID HOAG: The Empress Dowager Tsuh Shee.
STAMBERG: Do it again.
HOAG: The Empress Dowager Tsuh Shee.
STAMBERG: Tsuh Shee.
HOAG: Pretty good.
STAMBERG: Not bad.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
STAMBERG: Tsuh Shee, a little like sushi, says Freer Gallery archivist David Hoag, who unearthed the lady's photos. In most of them, Tsuh Shee - it's spelled C-I-X-I, just to make it all clearer - looks pretty sour, even grim.
HOAG: The notion of smiling in front of the camera would have been absolutely unallowable at the time.
STAMBERG: Anyway, if her reputation was accurate, Tsuh Shee maybe the original Dragon Lady was not exactly the smiley type.
HOAG: She was blamed for murders, for killings, for greed, for graft, for all of the problems that beset the court at the time, which were many.
STAMBERG: After a long rule, 1644 to 1912, the Qing Court, also called the Manchu Court, had become a mess. Riddled with factions, incompetence, economic, political, military conflicts, David Hoag says Tsuh Shee's court was headed for extinction.
HOAG: This was the last of the imperial dynasties of China. This was the end of 2,000 years of imperial reign.
STAMBERG: If anything held it together it was this shrewd sour-faced woman, who was the de-facto ruler of 400 million subjects, from the 1860s until she died early in the 20th century. Now, nobody - except maybe Tsuh Shee herself - could have imagined what she would become when she showed up at court at the age of 17, the daughter of country people who lived just outside Beijing.
HOAG: She was actually a very beautiful, low-level concubine who caught the eye of the Emperor and got pregnant with the only son. And therefore, when he died she reached position of tremendous power.
STAMBERG: A very carefully worked-out system brought Tsuh Shee, among others, to the Emperor's attention.
HOAG: Every year, all of the select young women of the Manchus were brought into the court as potential candidates.
STAMBERG: The most politically advantageous concubines - right family, right faction - made the final cut. Plus, good looks didn't hurt. Not to mention good, uh, eggs.
And she was the only one to produce a male?
HOAG: Actually, she was the only one to produce anything.
STAMBERG: Is this not amazing? Out of dozens of concubines, she got lucky - or he did. Much remains unknown about these ancient Asian matters. But how she got the chance to procreate is the subject of juicy rumor.
HOAG: The story is that she was able to bribe her way into the bedroom basically, by giving gifts to the right eunuchs who really controlled things.
STAMBERG: Oh. So, having given birth to the Emperor's only heir, when the Emperor died in 1861, Tsuh Shee became the power behind the throne. The concubine who made really good in life as in film "The Empress Dowager."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE EMPRESS DOWAGER")
STAMBERG: Now, at the Freer Gallery, her power is on display in a series of life-sized photographs, framed on gallery walls, and mounted on looming stands. The pictures were taken as part of a campaign to improve the Empress Dowager's reputation.
In the photos, she's all decked out in silk robes embroidered with butterflies, dragons, flowers, plus she is dripping with gems and pearls - quite the fashion plate; the Marie Antoinette of her day. And her fingernails, pinky and third fingers adorned with six-inch-long gold nail protectors that certainly could help her make a point.
HOAG: They look like claws. They're kind of scary looking.
STAMBERG: On her feet - not bound, by the way; again, not the Manchu style - six-inch high bejeweled platform shoes.
HOAG: Covered with strings of pearls and bells and jewels.
STAMBERG: And look at that headdress she's wearing. It's like a huge bow encrusted with all kinds of pearls and stones. It sits just at the top back of her head. It's not Mickey Mouse ears. Its flattened like Mickey got in a fight.
HOAG: Lots of jade hairpins and fake flowers and sometimes real flowers.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
STAMBERG: The Empress Dowager has been portrayed in films; Chinese films, Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor," Nicholas Ray's "55 Days at Peking." And the stories, legends really, about her have persisted long after her death and the collapse of the Ching Dynasty in 1911.
Curator David Hoag says the reason is clear.
HOAG: She was the last powerful figure in that whole dynastic reign.
STAMBERG: And so, the exhibition is called "Power Play: China's Empress Dowager." Photographic portraits on view at the Freer Gallery of Art on the National Mall, until end of January. There are also some pictures made for personal use, not public display. They show a slightly kinder, gentler ruler.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: You can see the public and private Empress Dowager in all her splendor at NPR.org.
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