The Pearl Cape

The photo above, taken sometime between 1902 and 1904, is of the Empress Dowager Cixi of China. Holding her hand is Sarah Pike Conger, wife of the American ambassador to the Qing court. The photo is extraordinary for a number of reasons, but first, let’s talk about those pearls.

Empress Dowager Cixi in the pearl cape. This photo is retouched; Cixi, in her late 60s, was thrilled to learn about retouching.

Cixi is wearing the famous pearl cape of her own design. According to Der Ling, the English-speaking lady in waiting who translated for Cixi, the cape contained “3,500 pearls of perfect shape and color.” Mind you, these were natural pearls: modern techniques for culturing pearls hadn’t been invented yet. If this cape still existed—if it hadn’t been looted from Cixi’s tomb in 1928 along with all her other favorite jewels—it would be worth an astronomical amount of money.

Never mind what it cost. Imagine what it weighed. Each pearl was said to be as big as a canary egg, or roughly the size of a peanut M&M. They look smaller than that to me. But there were 3,500 of them. Here’s an unscientific reckoning:


There are 321 pearls of various sizes in the photo above. With their clasps, they weigh over a pound and three-quarters. So Cixi’s cape, with nearly eleven times as many pearls, might have weighed 16 and a half pounds. When you consider that her fur-trimmed court robes—and that enormous Manchu headdress—were also quite heavy, you have to admit she was one strong little woman. She was nearly 70 when these photos were taken.

Here I need to pause to say that Cixi was not the dragon lady you may have heard she was. During her long reign, which began in 1861, she was vilified in the foreign press as a cruel despot who hated all “foreign devils.” She was portrayed as such by the foreigners themselves, who were attempting to carve up China and claim its natural resources. But in actual fact, Cixi brought the vast empire of China into the modern age. Quoting from the jacket copy of Jung Chang’s superb biography of Cixi, which draws on many previously unavailable sources,”Under her the ancient country attained virtually all the attributes of a modern state: industries, railways, electricity, the telegraph … It was she who abolished gruesome punishments like ‘death by a thousand cuts’ and put an end to foot-binding … She inaugurated women’s liberation and embarked on the path to introduce parliamentary elections to China.” She didn’t succeed in all this; but she was as important to China as Elizabeth I was to England or Catherine the Great to Russia.cixishoes

Back to the pearls. Even her shoes dripped with them, as in the photo above. What you’re seeing are platforms attached to each shoe in the center of the sole—high heels, but in the middle of the foot. Qing Dynasty rulers were Manchurian, and Manchu women like Cixi did not bind their feet. These platforms were designed to resemble the tiny shoes of the Han Chinese women—most of China’s female population—who did.

When I’m feeling like I own too much jewelry, I like to think about Cixi, who not only owned a vast store of it, but felt it was part of her job to give it away. How much jewelry did she have? Der Ling, the English-speaking lady in waiting, offers this description of the room where her jewels were kept:

“This room was covered with shelves on three sides from top to bottom, on which were placed piles of ebony boxes all containing jewels….Her Majesty pointed to a row of boxes on the right side of the room and said: ‘Here is where I keep my everyday jewels….The rest are all jewels which I wear on special occasions. There are about three thousand boxes in this room and I have a lot more locked up in the safety room, which I will show you when I am not busy.'”

Qing Dynasty hair ornament worn by an emperor’s wife, now in the Palace Museum, Beijing

What was in those “everyday” boxes? The first item Der Ling saw was a hair ornament, “a most beautiful peony made of coral and jade, and each petal trembled like a real flower.” Perhaps it looked something like the hairpin above.

Now back to the photo below and at the top of this post. It is extraordinary because of what came before. Cixi had made a disastrous decision in 1900 when she chose to support the Boxer Rebellion, a violent anti-foreign and anti-Christian uprising. When the Boxers laid siege to the foreign quarter in Peking, an eight-nation alliance invaded China and defeated them. Cixi and her court were exiled to Xian, a thousand kilometers away, for a year. But she remained firmly in command, and all over China, people remained loyal to her.

Cixi was filled with genuine remorse, says Jung Chang: “She saw that her policies had led to war and atrocities, with hundreds of thousands of casualties.” She not only took full responsibility, she issued decrees signaling a new policy of “learning from the West”: “The Empress Dowager enjoins her people that only by adopting what is superior about the foreign countries can we rectify what is wanting in China.”

After Cixi returned to Peking, she reached out to the foreign diplomats and their wives, particularly Sarah Conger, who had endured gunfire and starvation during the Boxer siege. Conger writes, “She took my hands in both of hers, and her feelings overcame her. When she was able to control her voice, she said, ‘I regret, and grieve over the late troubles. It was a grave mistake, and China will hereafter be a friend to foreigners.’ … And then taking from one of her fingers a heavy, carved gold ring set with an elegant pearl, she placed it upon one of mine; then from her wrists she took choice bracelets and placed them upon my wrists.” Thus began an important friendship.

Jewelry diplomacy. It really works.

Empress Dowager Cixi and Sarah Conger in a public gesture of friendship. Conger is wearing an ornament (jade, I’m guessing) in the shape of one of the lucky gourds Cixi liked to grow. It must have been a gift from her.


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