Thoughts of an Empress

by Bridget — November 19, 2012


I’ve been working on a design project these days (more details about that later) that has me researching Chinese History during the Qing Dynasty. I’ve been scouring the internet for images of the Empress Dowager Cixi (pronounced She-Zee) & the Boxer Rebellion which ended up bringing a league of Westerners (dubbed the Eight-Nations Alliance) into China and dividing some of it up in pieces.

Now this is a chapter of history that I wasn’t exactly familiar with but after my days of research I’ve seen horrible images of crazy things. War is horrible and humans make it even worse. But I digress.



The Empress Dowager Cixi was a woman who took control after the death of her husband (hence the term dower in her title) when the title of Emperor was passed to her young son. Then, upon her son’s untimely death, she went against the rules and appointed her nephew to the throne. In this way, she was still able to rule the empire. Stories persist that she spent too much of the country’s money on frivolous things such as parties, palace decorations and the royal gardens instead of investing enough money in the country’s defense.

Her nephew, the Guangxu Emperor, was greatly influenced by his favourite concubine Consort Zhen. It is said that she was interested in foreign influences of politics, economics, photography, etc., and she was an advocate for change within the Chinese system. As you can imagine it didn’t really end very well for any of these characters as China began to fight within their own walls about how the country should be ruled and how much (if any) foreign influence should be allowed.

In 1900, as the anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion worsened, the Eight-Nation Alliance swept in, wreaking terrible havoc on the way, beheading Chinese Boxers be it man, woman or child, torturing and raping on the way. Certainly nothing like superheroes of any sort. Eventually they captured the imperial palace of Beijing and then proceeded to divide up parts of China and impose a very large tax to be paid off over many years.

Luckily, possibly because of the Western influence within the palace, there are numerous photographs of Cixi and her imperial court. There are many incredible photos of her where they’ve set up carefully arranged scenes. It’s a little slice of Empress propaganda. It’s Cixi at her most wonderful and powerful; she’s wearing her best clothes, surrounded by her finest things. My absolute favourites are the ones of her being paddled along in the lake of lotuses. Simply stunning – and a tad insane.

So now, I continue to ponder all of this and how it fits into my designer world. I imagine I’m conceiving something splendid, something whimsical and fairytale-like in essence. I feel happy but also stressed about an imposing deadline, but I’m hoping I’ll be able to deliver a magical world where a fantastical tale can be spun like a silkworm spinning a cocoon. Wish me luck in my love/hate world of designing for the stage.

This image conceived by Bridget Steis.


MIT. Empress Dowager and The Camera, by David Hogge;   First image & all black and white images from this source.

Wikipedia. Empress Dowager Cixi;,
Eight-Nation Alliance

Encylopedia Britannica. Boxer Rebellion;


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