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Fact Sheet: Empresses of China's Forbidden City

Released April 30, 2018

On View August 18, 2018 Through February 10, 2019

Exhibition Fact Sheet

SALEM, MA — This August, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) debuts Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, the first international exhibition to explore the role of empresses in shaping China’s last dynasty—the Qing dynasty, from 1644 to 1912. Nearly 200 spectacular works of art from the Palace Museum, Beijing (known as the Forbidden City) tell the little-known stories of how imperial women lived and engaged with court politics, religion and art. The exhibition is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts; the Smithsonian’s Freer|Sackler, Washington, D.C.; and the Palace Museum, Beijing.

Exhibition Highlights:

  • The first major exhibition to examine the active and complex role of imperial women in court life from 1644-1912 in China.
  • Fresh research reveals the stories of Qing dynasty imperial women’s influence in history, as well as spectacular art made for, by and about these women.
  • Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see rare treasures from the Forbidden City, including works that have never before been publicly displayed anywhere, and many of which have never been on view in the United States.
  • Focuses on five core themes: imperial wedding, motherhood, lifestyle, religion and political influence, featuring scenarios such as birthday celebrations, festivals and the loss of a loved one, including a poem an emperor wrote for his deceased young wife.
  • A tale of opulence and influence, nearly 200 objects from the Palace Museum include paintings, decorative arts, costume, jewelry and Buddhist art.
  • Stunning and sumptuous objects with stories include a nearly forty-pound gold seal, a sixteen-foot tall portrait of an empress dowager given by her to President Theodore Roosevelt and a 237-pound bejeweled gold shrine to hold the hair of a deceased empress dowager as an act of veneration.
  • Qing empresses did not practice foot-binding as illustrated by pairs of beautifully embroidered socks and boots. They travelled widely with emperors and some rode horseback.
  • On view at PEM for six months from August 2018 to February 2019. About 30 new objects will be rotated into the galleries in November 2018, halfway through the run of the exhibition, including magnificent paintings and robes.
  • Empresses are brought to life through dynamic design that evoke the women’s presence, and their spaces inside the Forbidden City.
  • Engaging in-gallery interactive experiences such as a station to learn about and create a Chinese imperial robe, immersive videos and opera performance
  • Bilingual (Chinese and English) labels and other in-gallery text for Chinese visitors.
  • Organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, the Smithsonian’s Freer|Sackler, Washington, D.C. and the Palace Museum, Beijing, this exhibition is a major international collaboration to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of U.S.-China diplomatic relations and the vibrant cultural exchanges between the two countries.

Exhibition Publication:
A 264-page accompanying catalogue, Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912, published by the Peabody Essex Museum and the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, and distributed by Yale University Press, will be available August/September 2018. Offering compelling insights into the material culture, activities and living spaces of Qing empresses, this fully illustrated book features over 100 spectacular works of art from the Palace Museum in Beijing—including large-scale portraits, court robes, spectacular jewelry and richly decorated Buddhist sutras—that bring the splendor of the Qing court to life. A series of insightful essays and object entries examine the fascinating ways that key imperial women engaged with art, religion and politics. This unprecedented exploration of the Qing court from the perspective of its royal women is an important new contribution to our understanding of Chinese art and history. The catalogue has been edited by Daisy Yiyou Wang, curator of Chinese and East Asian art at the Peabody Essex Museum, and Jan Stuart, the Melvin R. Seiden Curator of Chinese Art at the Smithsonian’s Freer|Sackler.

Ignatius Sichelbarth (Ai Qimeng) and Yi Lantai and possibly Wang Ruxue, Empress Xiaoxian (detail), Qianlong period (1736-1795), 1777, with repainting possibly in 19th century. Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk. Peabody Essex Museum. Gift of Mrs. Elizabeth Sturgis Hinds, 1956. Photo by Walter Silver/PEM.

PRESS IMAGES: Available upon request.

Over the last 20 years, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) has distinguished itself as one of the fastest-growing art museums in North America. Founded in 1799, it is also the country’s oldest continuously operating museum. At its heart is a mission to enrich and transform people's lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes and knowledge of themselves and the wider world. PEM celebrates outstanding artistic and cultural creativity through exhibitions, programming and special events that emphasize cross-cultural connections, integrate past and present and underscore the vital importance of creative expression. The museum's collection is among the finest of its kind boasting superlative works from around the globe and across time -- including American art and architecture, Asian export art, photography, maritime art and history, Native American, Oceanic and African art. PEM's campus affords a varied and unique visitor experience with hands-on creativity zones, interactive opportunities and performance spaces. Twenty-four noted historic structures grace PEM’s campus, including Yin Yu Tang, a 200-year-old Chinese house that is the only such example of Chinese domestic architecture on display in the United States. HOURS: Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 am-5 pm. Closed Mondays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. ADMISSION: Adults $20; seniors $18; students $12. Additional admission to Yin Yu Tang: $6. Members, youth 16 and under and residents of Salem enjoy free general admission and free admission to Yin Yu Tang. INFO: Call 866-745-1876 or visit

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., together comprise the nation’s museums of Asian art. It contains one of the most important collections of Asian art in the world, featuring more than 40,000 objects ranging in time from the Neolithic to the present day, with especially fine groupings of Islamic art, Chinese jades, bronzes and paintings and the art of the ancient Near East. The Freer|Sackler also contains important masterworks from Japan, ancient Egypt, South and Southeast Asia and Korea, as well as the Freer’s noted collection of works by American artist James McNeill Whistler.

The Freer|Sackler is part of the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum, education and research complex, which is dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge. Visit and social media at Facebook:; Twitter:; Instagram:

Established in 1925, the Palace Museum is one of the world’s most prestigious museums, welcoming 16 million visitors annually. As a national museum, it is designated as one of China’s foremost cultural heritage sites. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is located in the magnificent imperial architectural complex of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties known as the Forbidden City. The museum holds more than 1.8 million paintings, works of calligraphy, ceramics, jades, textiles and other objects from the imperial collection, representing 5,000 years of Chinese civilization in general and late imperial art and culture in particular. In recent years the Palace Museum has dramatically expanded its exhibition programs to include long-term collection installations and temporary exhibitions that feature both its collection and loans. It has played a significant role in promoting Chinese art and culture by organizing exhibitions in collaboration with institutions from more than 20 countries around the world. The Palace Museum is a leader in China in the fields of historic preservation, conservation, collection digitization, education, scholarly research and publication. As of April 2018, the museum’s social media platform has more than 9.6 million followers.

Media Contacts:
Amelia Kantrovitz | Exhibition Publicist | | 978-542-1830

Melissa Woods | Communications Specialist | | 978-542-1609