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V&A/RCA History of Design (MA)

Ally Ho

Empress Dowager Cixi – How Burial Garments Reflect Afterlife and Buddhism.

This dissertation explores the displays of Empress Dowager Cixi's burial garments, tracing their journey from creation to their exhibition in 2020. The research aims to examine how these displays have utilized ideas surrounding Qing Imperial Court rituals associated with death and the afterlife. The central focus is on understanding how Empress Dowager Cixi's inner faith is portrayed through her mortuary dress.

The purpose of this study is to explore the fascinating journey of Empress Dowager Cixi's burial garments, from their creation to their exhibition, and examine how they shed light on the beliefs and rituals surrounding death and the afterlife in the Qing Imperial court. By closely examining these garments and their historical context, we can unravel the intricate tapestry of religious and cultural symbolism intertwined with Empress Dowager Cixi's final resting place. This essay also aims to provide a captivating glimpse into the intricate world of Qing Imperial Court rituals surrounding death and the afterlife. Through looking into the design history, explore the multifaceted journey of these garments, examining their significance and the ideas they embody within the context of Qing Imperial Court culture.

This study contributes to the fields of design history, religious studies, and cultural anthropology, shedding light on the interplay between fashion, religious beliefs, and court rituals during the late Qing dynasty. By examining the burial garments of Empress Dowager Cixi, we delve into a realm where aesthetics, spirituality, and cultural practices intertwine, offering valuable insights into the vibrant tapestry of Chinese history and the enduring legacy of one of its most enigmatic figures.

Biography, as a research approach, focuses on the life and experiences of an individual or a specific group of individuals to gain insights into their impact, contributions, and interactions within a particular historical and cultural context. In the case of this research, the biography approach is applied to examine the life and journey of Empress Dowager Cixi's burial garments, offering a unique lens through which to explore the broader themes of design, culture, and spirituality.

Chapter one, "Pre-Life of the garments & Cixi’s death," delves into the background of Empress Dowager Cixi, who was not only a prominent figure in Qing Dynasty China but also a fashionista of her time. We will explore her influence on fashion trends and her penchant for incorporating elements of Buddhism into her personal style, shedding light on the intersections of religion and fashion during the era.

Within the broader context of Buddhism in China, the second sub-chapter explores the spiritual beliefs and practices that shaped the Qing Imperial Court's rituals surrounding death and the afterlife. This section will examine how Buddhism permeated various aspects of court life, including its influence on fashion and garment design. By examining funeral costumes in China, we will gain insights into the symbolic meanings attached to specific clothing choices during mourning rituals.

Chapter Two, "Life as graveclothes in the tomb (1908-1979)," focuses on the posthumous journey of Empress Dowager Cixi's burial garments. We will delve into the significance of Qing Dongling, the Eastern Qing Tomb, which houses her mausoleum, as well as the unfortunate incidents of looting and the subsequent opening of her tomb. Through an analysis of historical records, we aim to reconstruct the narrative surrounding the grave robber Sun Dianying and the impact of these events on the preservation of the burial garments.

In Chapter Three, "New journey as an exhibit (1979-2023)," we explore the transformation of Empress Dowager Cixi's burial costumes into museum exhibits. This section examines the challenges and methodologies involved in the preservation and conservation of these fragile garments. We will also explore the significance of their exhibition at the China National Silk Museum, as well as the broader context of late Qing Imperial tomb garments, drawing connections between design, history, and the evolving perception of cultural heritage.