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Cixi's drawing with her tutor's commentary in red ink.

Cixi and the Empowering of Women’s Talent in Late Imperial China

Ying-chen Peng —

2022 was concluded with ominous news from Afghanistan: the Taliban government suspended university education for all female students. It was another move to restrict women’s access to knowledge and career-building after it banned girls from returning to secondary schools in March. Regardless of the flooding condemnation from the international communities, the Taliban government refuses to budge and argues that the edict adheres to its austere version of Islam. In fact, denying women’s intellectual pursuit is not new to many patriarchal societies, such as late-imperial China, where Neo-Confucian ideology advocated that “a woman who lacks talent is virtuous.” This notion, coupled with the gendered division of female/domestic vis-à-vis male/public domain in Chinese society, resulted in a unique phenomenon: women who achieved intellectual and artistic accomplishments were mainly trained by and partnered with their family members.

The confinement of women’s potential was eventually broken open toward the dawn of the twentieth century when so many men were drawn into the Taiping civil war that critically damaged the traditional patriarchal social structure. It was a double-sided sword for women. On the one hand, they lost the male family member’s protection and were constantly at risk of physical and financial danger. On the other hand, the lack of patriarchal scrutiny also allowed many women to become the primary bread earners and gain more subjectivity and agency. Such was the backdrop against which Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) rose to the political stage. She was the de-facto ruler of China’s Qing regime for four decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She steered the country through the tumultuous time laden with domestic and international crises, but her gender and conservative stance toward China’s modernization also drew relentless criticism, creating this female ruler’s image of a “Dragon Lady.” While her role as a political figure in modern China is up for debate, scholars have a consensus about her contribution to promoting women’s talent.

Photograph of Empress Dowager Cixi and her entourage, 1905. 

Cixi was born into the Yelenala clan, a Manchu aristocratic family in Beijing. Like many of its predecessors in northern and northeastern China, Manchus gave women more physical and financial freedom, but education was not a focus for the girl’s upbringing. Such was the environment where the young daughter of the Yehenala clan grew up. However, she soon realized the power of knowledge after becoming an imperial consort. The ruling Xianfeng emperor was a man of arts, especially theatrical performance. Cixi probably stood out for her rudimentary literacy and painting skills. After giving birth to Xianfeng’s sole male heir, the emperor trusted him with office chores, allowing Cixi to read memorials.

When Xianfeng and Cixi’s five-year-old son, the Tongzhi emperor, ascended the throne in the wake of the Second Opium War, Cixi became the empress dowager, thus beginning her four decades of regency. It is pretty remarkable how a woman without formal education and a mentor learned to govern one of the largest kingdoms in the nineteenth century. She sought all possible venues. Men were forbidden from the inner court, so she studied with physicians and eunuchs who had studied before their service in the court. More importantly, she utilized the opportunity of checking on her son’s learning progress with his imperial tutors to acquire more advanced knowledge. Such determination to engage with governing techniques is vividly illustrated in an early portrait of Cixi, in which she is seated in a garden scene with an opened book on the table.

Detail of Shen Shou’s Portrait of Christ, which won a gold medal at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915.

The curvy, indirect ways by which she learned prompted Cixi’s desire to empower women in the court. For the first time in Chinese history, Cixi hired professional women court artists and offered them official ranks and salaries. Among these women artists is Miao Jiahui (1841-1918), a professional painter specializing in flower and bird subjects from the southwestern Yunnan Province. She was hired to tutor the empress dowager and served as her ghost painter. Miao’s hard work was rewarded with Cixi’s appointment to a prestigious third-rank title. Another example is embroidery artist and entrepreneur Shen Shou (1874-1921) from southern China, whose husband presented her work to Cixi in celebration of her seventieth birthday. The exquisite needlework captured the female regent’s heart and prompted an unusual appointment. Cixi commissioned Shen Shou to travel to Japan and examine the Meiji embroidery that had garnered acclaim in the West. Shen was subsequently appointed the chief instructor of the embroidery department under the Qing government’s ministry of industry and commerce. It was the first appointment of a woman civil official in China since Emperor Wu Zitian (r.690-705), the only female monarch in Chinese history! With the empress dowager’s endorsement, Shen Shou integrated the texture and shadowing of oil painting with traditional needlework to create modern Chinese embroidery. After the passing of Cixi, Shen opened a professional school and nurtured the first current generation of professional embroiders.

Site of China’s first women’s college, established in 1908.

Cixi’s enthusiasm for empowering her female subjects was in full swing toward the last years of her regency. She made investigating women’s educational institutions a primary task of the Qing envoy on learning constitutional monarchy in 1905 and 1906, and edicts of erecting schools for women were subsequently published. Although the establishment of the first official school for Manchu female students was postponed due to the resistance of Han Chinese male officials, Cixi’s endorsement of private women’s schools played a critical role in widening the public support for women’s education. Together with the effort of Christian missionary communities and the progressive gentry class, there were 512 women’s schools and 20,557 female students in China when Cixi died in 1908. That is a remarkable legacy of empowering women and a critical achievement in advancing women’s opportunities for education in modern China.

Ying-chen Peng is an assistant professor of art history at American University.

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