Queen Elizabeth I tried to make contact with the Emperor of Ming China at least three times between 1583 and 1602 in the interest of setting up trade, for “we are borne and made to have neede one of another, & . . . we are bound to aide one another.” Although none of her letters ever reached their destination, her appetite for China ware must have been encouraged by a gift of fine porcelain in the 1580s, a luxury imported to England via the Portuguese and Dutch.
Imagine instead if Elizabeth I (1533-1603) had been writing to another female ruler who was not quite her contemporary, the first Qing empress, Xiaozhuang (1613-1688). The Qing Dynasty began when a group of outside tribes, led by the Manchu, conquered Ming China beginning in the 1630s, and established their new dynasty in 1644. When reporting on this event, the great Atlas Chinensis translated by John Ogilby (1671) adds a marginal note pointing out the coincidence of “The Monarch of England, and Empire of China . . . chang’d at once” (398), referring to the English Civil War in 1644.
Explore related exhibitions:
⇒ Freer | Sackler (2019, on view March 30–June 23): Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912
⇒ Folger Shakespeare Library (2009): Imagining China: the View from Europe, 1500-1700
⇒ Folger Shakespeare Library (2003): Elizabeth I: Then and Now
Female Power and Leadership in China and England
Xiaozhuang and Elizabeth I would have found many similarities in their court cultures and much to talk about. Like Elizabeth, Xiaozhuang was a woman with intellectual and political interests. When her five-year-old son succeeded his father as Emperor, she attained the most powerful female position of Empress Dowager, negotiating marriage alliances between Mongols and Manchus and closely mentoring her grandson when he became Emperor at the age of six. Elizabeth shrewdly handled her cabinet of male politicians and fostered foreign alliances, though she tended to discourage marriages by her ladies-in-waiting. While Elizabeth was known for her frugality, the Empress seems to have been a bit more generous, donating personal funds to famine relief and commissioning a priceless 50,000-leaf Kanjur Sutra written in gold ink.
Religion was important to Xiaozhuang. She is credited with helping to bring Tibetan Buddhism to China and fostering it in her Palace of Compassion and Tranquility, where the Great Buddha Hall was set aside for worship. While Elizabeth was circumspect about her own devotions, she was always seen as the savior of Protestantism in England. During her long reign, the church became well-established after the rocky transitions between the previous monarchies of Protestant Edward VI and Catholic Mary Tudor.
It is interesting to see that foreigners viewed the women of both England and China as having a certain sense of freedom. When Frederick duke of Wirtemberg visited England in 1592 he noted that “the women have much more liberty than perhaps in any other place.” Similarly, in his Conquest of the Empire of China (1670), copied from a Portuguese source, Juan Palafox y Mendoza comments that the “Tartarian” (the Manchu), unlike the Chinese women, “when they pleased walked about the Streets in the Cities and Towns, and in the Countrey into the Fields. They ride on Horseback . . . .” Indeed, the Empress Xiaozhuang, who was a Mongol, would have grown up horseback riding, and riding and hunting were sports practiced by subsequent empresses as well as by Elizabeth I. A woodcut in Gascoigne’s Noble Art of Venerie (1575) shows Elizabeth engaged in deer hunting, while the colorful painting below it depicts a Chinese emperor hunting with one of his consorts:
Royal Robes: Jewels, Silk, and the Phoenix
The presentations of queen and empresses were formal, rich, and symbolic, their dresses or robes stiff with embroidery. Elizabeth favored black and white in her clothing, but also various shades of red, such as carnation, russet, or orange-tawney—as seen in the “Sieve” portrait at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Red, denoting “joy”, was also an important color in the outfits of Chinese empresses, as in this later court hat trimmed with phoenixes. Though she wore gold embroidery, Elizabeth tended not to wear yellow, a color frequently found in the robes of empresses.
The phoenix appears often as a decorative motif in clothing (including head- and footwear), jewelry, and accessories such as fans, censers, and personal seals belonging to the empresses. As the Atlas Chinensis (1671) reports, “The Chineses [sic] have this Bird in great veneration, so that the figure of it is frequently seen among them, both in their Paintings, Tapestry, Weavings, and their Imbroyderies of Gold, Silver and Silk.” The mystical phoenix, which revived from the ashes of its funeral pyre, had special significance for Elizabeth I as well. Poets called her “the Phoenix of our daies,” and “that princely Phenix rare.” In his 1633 emblem book, Henry Hawkins described the phoenix as “the Alpha and Omega of his kind, the first and last, because alwayes the same.” Thus the phoenix is sometimes seen with Elizabeth’s motto “Semper Eadem” (“Always the Same”) as in this detail from an engraved portrait in the book:
The motto, along with a golden phoenix, pearls, and rubies, appeared on a jewel given her as a New Year’s present in 1585 by one of her courtiers. The jewel is probably similar to one she wears on her breast in a portrait painted about ten years earlier, symbolizing chastity and rebirth.
Along with the phoenix, pearls were a favored jewel as seen in this and many other of her portraits. They were found frequently in necklaces, earrings, and hair pieces worn by both Elizabeth I and the Chinese empresses.
The silk industry in both countries supplied much of the fabric and threads used for luxurious outfits. In China, the empresses honored the importance of this industry, from the feeding of silkworms to spinning and weaving, by participating in an annual ritual, begun in the medieval period and revived in the 16th and 18th centuries, at the Altar of the Silkworm Deity. In Elizabethan England and earlier, silk was imported raw from Italy and spun and woven into small items by silkwomen. Though not technically a separate guild, the women operated as such. While silk fabrics were imported from the Eastern Mediterranean and Italy during Elizabeth’s time, later the English wove their own silk in Spitalfields, a district just outside London.
A Lasting Qing Legacy in England: Milk in Tea
If Elizabeth had been more successful in establishing trade links with China, perhaps the now-iconic English practice of drinking tea would have taken root earlier. Tea, which was grown and consumed in China for centuries, would have been a new beverage for Elizabeth. It was not imported into England until the mid-17th century, but the English taste for adding milk to tea came from the earlier custom of making milk-butter tea among the Mongols and others, which was popular during the Qing dynasty.
Billings, Timothy, curator. Imagining China, the View From Europe, 1500-1700: https://folgerpedia.folger.edu/Imagining_China:_the_View_from_Europe,_1500–1700 – Europeans_in_China
Ziegler, Georgianna, curator. Elizabeth I: Then and Now: https://folgerpedia.folger.edu/Elizabeth_I:_Then_and_Now
Empresses of China’s Forbidden City 1644-1912
Exhibition at the Sackler Gallery until June 23, 2019: https://www.freersackler.si.edu/exhibition/empresses-of-chinas-forbidden-city-1644-1912/
Catalog edited by Daisy Yiyou Wang and Jan Stuart. Salem, MA and Washington, DC: Peabody Essex Museum and Freer|Sackler, Smithsonian Institution. Distrib. by Yale University Press, 2019.
Peck, Linda Levy, curator. Consuming Splendor: Luxury Goods in England, 1580-1680:
Consuming Splendor: Society and Culture in Seventeenth-Century England. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Lach, Donald F. and Edwin J. Van Kley, eds. Asia in the Making of Europe. III, A Century of Advance. Book One: Trade, Missions, Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Pritchard, Earl H. Anglo-Chinese Relations During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. rpt. New York: Octagon Books, 1970.