Ultimate homes are more than habitations; they are personal theaters conceived to evoke a mood, make a statement. This is particularly true of the world’s most extravagant residences, its palaces, whose majestic interiors have been designed to serve as backdrops to every imaginable form of political drama—as Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi was doubtless aware when, in December 1898, she broke with tradition by inviting a group of ladies from Beijing’s foreign diplomatic corps to tea on one of history’s most beguiling stages, the Forbidden City.
Encompassing nearly 8 million square feet, the imperial palace complex—with its massive courtyards, fragrant gardens, and brilliant glazed rooftops—would certainly have impressed the wives of the ministers from France, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Japan, and the United States, who arrived at the gates in sedan chairs. They entered the imperial domain on foot and boarded a small train. Sarah Conger, wife of the American minister, recalled, “Eunuchs dressed in black pushed and hauled [the train] to another stopping place, where we were received by many officials and served with tea.” After this respite, they were escorted into the throne room and “ushered into the presence of the Emperor and Empress Dowager.” Surrounded by magnificent wood carvings and elaborately dressed ladies-in-waiting, Tzu Hsi greeted her guests, while her nephew, Emperor Kuang Hsu, stood behind her. The dowager empress was the sole object of attention. “Her face glowed with good will,” Conger noted. “There was no trace of cruelty to be seen.”
The absence of malice in Tzu Hsi’s features must have perplexed and even disappointed the ladies. In spite of her nephew’s title, the former concubine of Emperor Hsien Feng was widely believed to hold the reins of imperial power and was said to rule “from behind the curtain.” Though her 5-year-old son had become Emperor Tung Chih upon her husband’s death, the task of governing was entrusted to a council of eight regents; at the same time, Tzu Hsi and the senior dowager empress, Tzu An, each received a seal investing them with a measure of imperial authority. This precarious arrangement enabled the cunning junior dowager empress to ally herself with the ambitious Prince Kung and effect a coup in 1861 that resulted in the dissolution of the council and execution of some of its members. By issuing edicts in the name of her son and, 12 years later, in the name of her nephew Kuang Hsu, the lowborn Tzu Hsi maintained her position as the de facto sovereign of China for almost half a century. From behind the throne, she suppressed reform movements and, largely to distract the populace from China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War at the end of the 19th century, stoked xenophobic sentiments. Her reactionary stance naturally made her unpopular among the international legations, and rumors circulated depicting her as a dragon lady who relied on torture, poison, and sexual intrigues to keep the empire in her grip. In fact, it was to dispel reports that she had drugged and imprisoned Kuang Hsu on an island pavilion in a lake adjoining the Forbidden City that she arranged her tea party.
Despite the lavish banquet and exquisite surroundings, Tzu Hsi’s stagecraft faltered. Lady Ethel MacDonald, wife of the British minister, described the emperor as a “sad-eyed, delicate-looking youth showing but little character in his face,” while an editor at the London Times objected to the very idea of “European womanhood” entering the dowager empress’ den of iniquity, where the wives would be subjected to the “ribald jests of Palace Eunuchs.” Relations between the foreigners and those who lived in the Forbidden City continued to deteriorate, and in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion (which culminated in the massacre of Christian missionaries and a siege of the Legation Quarter), the Forbidden City was invaded by foreign armies, forcing Tzu Hsi and her court to flee. She would return to Peking Beijing in 1902 and, in a second effort to appease the international community, host yet another tea party—but to no avail. Although the massive palace had survived the assault intact, the Qing Dynasty, which collapsed four years after Tzu Hsi’s death in 1908, was little more than an imperial house of cards.
CORRECTION: An article in the March 2010 issue (“From the Robb Cellar,” page 46) should have stated that Marchesi di Grésy has owned the Martinenga wine estate since 1757. A caption in the same issue (“Ghost Rider,” page 76) should have identified the location of a pictured Phantom EG as the Brooklands circuit.