井底之蛙

4/27/2006

Imperial Self-Images

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:04 pm

This is a picture of the Empress Dowager Cixi

Cixi

She is shown in the guise of Guanyin attended by two of her eunuchs in the guise of bodhisattvas. 1 According to Princess Der Ling, Cixi explained her motivation for having this photo taken as such..

“Whenever I have been angry, or worried over anything by dressing up as the Goddess of Mercy it helps me to calm myself, and so play the part I represent. I can assure you that it does help me a great deal, as it makes me remember that I am looked upon as being all-merciful. By having a photograph taken of myself dressed in this consume, I shall be able to see myself as I ought to be at all times.”

Liu points out that it is interesting that Cixi chose to see herself as Guanyin, a deity of confusing gender, since as a ruling empress she was also violating gender conventions.2 I find it a bit more interesting that this is the most explicit case I have seen of imperial spectacle aimed at the ruler themselves. Imperial and royal spectacle is usually studied on the assumption that the audience was the populace or the court or the citizenry or something. One obvious hard to study audience is the ruler themselves. Chinese imperial ritual was intended to constrain as much as to empower the ruler, emperors were probably aware of this, but their reaction to the ritual is hard to know.

Cixi’s was a private spectacle aimed only at herself and apparently intended to make it possible for her to always remind herself of her attribute of benevolence. It is thus an aid in a sort of Confucian (or maybe Buddhist) process of self-cultivation. It is a physical aid in self-cultivation, much like the ledgers of merit and demerit, or possibly a mandala, focusing on which is also supposed to help one attain a mental state. It seems to be something that she came up with on her own, which figures given that a proper Han court ritual would not involve Buddhism, and a Manchu ritual would, I think, not involve Guanyin.

1 From Lydia Liu’s The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making p.163

2 I’m not sure if Cixi would have seen in that way. Liu points out something that is pretty general knowledge among scholars that in India Avalokitesvara was male, and then gradually became female in China. Would this have been known to Cixi?

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