“Going Public”: Portraits of the Empress Dowager Cixi, Circa 1904

Author: Cheng-hua Wang
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Through an examination of both oil portraits and photographs of the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), this essay explores the visibility and publicity of portraits of political figures in the last years of China’s imperial history. There are two main issues of concern here. First, the essay discusses how Cixi assumed the role as head of the ‘Great Qing State’ in international diplomacy and politics by using portraits of herself as a public representative to construct a coherent image of her own. Second, the study investigates a new form of political self-fashioning that centered on portraiture, and that emerged in public space in the forms of publication and exhibition. This self-fashioning was tested in public space, which was now conducive to the formation of public opinion, the manipulation of which did not always lie in the hands of political figures such as Cixi.

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