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Recap- The Forbidden City at 600: Women in the Imperial Palace, 3.17.21

Recap- The Forbidden City at 600: Women in the Imperial Palace, 3.17.21

The Forbidden City at 600 is an online series celebrating the architecture, history, design, and secrets of Beijing’s iconic Forbidden City complex, now known as The Palace Museum.

In the series’ third episode, we explored the lives of the women who lived behind the vermilion walls of the Forbidden City. Jan Stuart, top China curator at the Smithsonian, and Di Yajing, architecture expert from the Palace Museum, shared objects and spaces used by the women of the imperial court. Following that, Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, joined them in a wide-ranging conversation about life within the walls of the Forbidden City. Wang Xudong, director of the Palace Museum, opened the program with thoughts on conservation of the Forbidden City for the next 600 years. You are invited to experience the program in the videos, quotes, and images below.

Full Video of The Forbidden City at 600: Women in the Imperial Palace

Quotes From the Conversation

Wang Xudong: Sharing history and images of The Forbidden City

WX: The Forbidden City is old because it inherits 5,000 years of Chinese civilization and reflects time honored values…such as the combination of rituals and art, the harmony of man and nature, and the spirit of inclusiveness. At the same time, it is new because it has constantly changed over the past 600 years. The mutual exchange of culture has never stopped.

We see the FC at the center with its gardens and palaces.

Since the 18th century, the constant exchange of Eastern and Western cultures has brought further fascinating changes to the Forbidden City.

Over the past six centuries, the Forbidden City has nurtured an eternal vitality and charm through its all-embracing inclusive spirit. It is a World Heritage Site with outstanding universal values. On the occasion of the 600th year of Forbidden City, we had a series of commemorative events. Our aim was to promote Chinese culture through FC and allow it to be enjoyed by people of different cultural backgrounds. Chinese cultural heritage needs to embrace an international perspective and keep an open mind.

Jan Stuart: Sharing objects used by women in the Imperial Court

JS:This exhibition was created for the United States in 2018-2019. Tonight I will concentrate on the 18th century.

This woman, history reveals, she sometimes gave advice to the Emperor that he chose to follow and was recorded in the record. Much about court women is not known, but we can confidently say that the top consorts had significant roles to play in nurturing the imperial household and they held ritual duties.

*Please do not try to drag the Empress and other women into the 21st century. We must engage with them on their own terms in their own historical period.

A woman’s clothing, the number of maids, the types of food she ate were all based on where she ranked. The Qianlong Emperor had more than 40 wives at the time, so they had to vie for his attention. They were possessions, but they received respect and, in some cases, love. They were valued members of the Imperial community. All consorts were selected through a draft. The Emperor and Dowager decided who entered. The single greatest pressure on the Empress was fertility. Bearing a son was a ticket to happiness and promotion, if you come below the Empress.

Women were mobile, and not just confined to the Forbidden City. Consorts went hunting, they traveled in supervised ways…they were not locked up. Manchu women never had bound feet. Now imagine the level of luxury…these socks, which were hidden, were made with gold thread.

Here is a bedroom and living room and some everyday items used by women of the court. Many of the items have a leit-motif of fertility and family in the decorations of the palace women.

The Empress had access to the finest quality things, but they had to be bestowed by the Emperor.

These are depictions of real women in palace settings, but painted with a layer of fantasy- particularly the costumes. The clothing wraps around the women connecting them to thousands of years of virtuous women in Chinese culture.

What is in these twelve paintings corresponds to what these women possessed. What did the imperial women collect and did they appreciate art? We don’t think they collected in the usual sense. What they had as art objects were bestowed by the emperor. The women were capable of judging and appreciating art. [Some seasonal] activities included looking for plum blossoms in the snow, playing chess, swinging on swings under willow trees, and enjoying antiquities…and celebrating festivals.

Here in the tenth month, you see the activity of embroidery. Women have texts that express how creative the art of sewing was. Let’s look at these women as leading a very fulfilled life. There is still a lot we need to uncover about the agency of women, but we can say they lived enormously satisfying lives- unless of course they did not have a child!

Di Yajing: Sharing images and insights on Women’s Quarters in the palace

The Forbidden City had 1,000 buildings and 4 gardens. The FC is divided into inner and outer courts. The consorts and concubines were concentrated in the Gate of Heavenly Purity.

In the center bay you would receive concubines of lower ranks. The second and outer bays would be the sleeping areas where they enjoy a certain degree of privacy, but their behavior was still restricted by their rituals. But the scenes were different in the gardens- wandering inwards, you could forget the shackles of social order and achieve harmony of mind, and sublimation of emotion.

Contrast the pictures; you have the [more recent] on left sitting on a rock with a smile. On the right, the Dowager Cixi with a gown a serious look.

Jay Xu: On the life of women in The Forbidden City

What a rare opportunity to discuss the lives of women in Imperial China. We either know a little about the women’s life in general, or women are reduced to many simple tropes or stereotypes. So these two talks show we can have a scholarship to tell us about the essential features of women’s lives.

One thing that echoed with me was that everyone had restraints, but particularly the women were subjected to severe restrictions…despite that, the creativity and ingenuity of women in shaping the artistic tastes of court life became extraordinarily precious and of [high] value.

JX to JS: Today we can go to the Palace Museum to see the Imperial portraits. What about the other families?

JS: This idea of painting 12 women in seasonal activities, there were quite a few sets made. There were ones with the Emperor made. There are records of the Emperor sending artwork of [festival observance] to lower court women so some of [the artworks] have a didactic, moralizing value…and he could convey a message. Most of the messages were only seen of the Emperor.

JX to DY: Inside the Forbidden City, the garden had a communal and social space for Imperial ladies. As big as the FC is, it can be a very confining place. Was there any regulation for who could use the gardens and at what time?

DY: When the Emperor is in the garden, no concubine can be allowed to go in. That is key to understanding because every Emperor has many concubines- the Qianlong emperor had 42 and the Kangxi emperor had 55!

Explore our Forbidden City at 600 Playlist

See upcoming, virtual public programs at China Institute