As the mothers and wives of emperors, China's Qing-era empresses often wielded behind-the-scenes power. This 1760s painting depicts the consort of the Qianlong emperor and the future Jiaqing emperor in his boyhood. (The Palace Museum/The Palace Museum)

During China’s Qing dynasty, there was a draft of sorts for girls around 15 who were born to high-ranking families. Every three years, the emperor would summon these young women to Beijing, so that he could select the most beautiful, healthy and virtuous ones to be his wives. The chosen girls were married to the emperor in a midnight ceremony, and then they disappeared into a walled palace complex known as the Forbidden City. Cut off from their families and friends, these young women had one all-consuming goal: to get pregnant by the emperor and bear him a son.

This may sound like a nightmare scenario, but it does these women a disservice to think of them as victims, says Jan Stuart, co-curator of “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644–1912,” an exhibit opening Saturday at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

“A lot of us to try to judge these women by today’s standards, but they lived in a totally different time period. And despite the fact they had a lot of what we would consider serious constraints, it’s amazing to see what full and meaningful lives they lived,” Stuart says. “It gives me pride to know that wherever women are, they’ll make the best of it. They’ll figure out what they can do, and they’ll do something.”

Weighing nearly forty pounds, this large gold seal was bestowed upon Empress Xiaoke on the occasion of her wedding in 1922 to mark her investiture as empress. (The Palace Museum)

The women who lived in the Forbidden City were largely left out of China’s official records, but you can glean a lot about them from their sumptuous belongings, Stuart says. This exhibit, which brings a treasure trove of royal portraits, clothing, jewelry and other objects to D.C., offers an unprecedented look into their cloistered lives.

“There’s such beauty, such color, such detail in these objects. There’s not a drop of minimalism — the Qing dynasty is all about bling,” Stuart says. “Some of these objects have never left the Forbidden City before now.”

This 18th-century consort's festive robe features horse-hoof-shaped cuffs and a pattern of flowers and vases. (The Palace Museum)

The empress — the formal wife of the emperor — laid claim to many of the most beautiful things. Often chosen from an important or wealthy family, she was drafted into the Forbidden City as the emperor’s top wife from among his many consorts, and her role included accompanying him at state events and presiding over certain ceremonies.

Beneath the empress, the consorts were divided into seven ranks, with each consort provided food, clothes and servants according to her status. Giving birth to a son got you an automatic promotion up a level or two. If your son became the next emperor, you got to be empress dowager, the most powerful woman in China, though you’d generally stay behind the scenes.

The smooth surface of this 18th century massage tool is wreathed in a variety of flowers—including peonies, hibiscus, and day lilies—that together symbolize wealth, longevity, and fertility. (The Palace Museum)

Since any of the emperor’s wives could raise the next emperor, the system became something of a meritocracy within a dynasty, with the most able and ambitious sons — and mothers — grabbing the reins of power.

“The next heir to the throne is chosen by the reigning emperor according to what he thinks are the merits of his son,” Stuart says. “So if he has a low-ranking wife who has a son and an empress who has a son, he will actually be comparing the two boys as equals.”

Empress Dowager Cixi was the de-facto ruler of China for nearly 50 years. She was painted by Katharine A. Carl in 1903. (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Due to familial ties and the traditional Chinese value of filial piety, the empress dowager could wield significant political power through her emperor son. In fact, one empress dowager, Cixi, became China’s de facto ruler in 1861 and held on to that power for nearly five decades.

“Even though there is an official statement that ‘women shall not rule,’ she does rule. Cixi was the most powerful woman in the Qing dynasty, and one of the most powerful women in Chinese history,” Stuart says.

Cixi started as a low-ranking consort, but she gave birth to the emperor’s only male heir. The boy ascended to the throne at the age of 6, so Cixi formed an alliance with her mother-in-law and staged a coup, which allowed her to become her son’s primary adviser. When her son died at the age of 18, Cixi maintained power by installing another young emperor, her 4-year-old nephew.

This flowerpot with peonies and birds was made for Empress Cixi by the Imperial Porcelain Factory in 1875 or 1876. (The Palace Museum)

You can glimpse a little of Cixi’s power and influence through her portrait and other belongings on display in the exhibit. Only emperors were allowed to order royal porcelain, but Cixi did it anyway, and one of the pieces she designed — a flower pot with peonies and birds, stamped with Cixi’s seal of ownership — is part of the exhibit.

It was also considered unseemly for high-ranking women to have their images displayed in public, but Cixi grasped the importance of promoting her image internationally. She asked American artist Katharine A. Carl to paint her portrait so it could be exhibited at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. The resulting oil painting, part of the exhibit, shows Cixi in imperial yellow, with phoenixes in the background — fantastical creatures that alight upon the earth only at times of great righteousness, per Chinese tradition.

These platform shoes were made in China during the Guangxu period (1875–1908). (The Palace Museum)

“This was a symbol that she really liked because the phoenix is the ‘king of the birds,’ and all the other birds pay homage to him,” Stuart says.

One of Stuart’s favorite pieces in the show is a painting of a phoenix made by Cixi herself. “It’s doubly cool because it’s not just done with a brush. It’s a finger painting, and you can actually find her thumbprint in it,” Stuart says.

Cixi is a fantastic example of a woman who, against the odds, managed to put her thumbprint on Chinese history. As for the other power-wielding empresses, they were so good at staying behind the scenes that we can only glimpse their importance by considering their sumptuous belongings, Stuart says.

“One aspect of this exhibit is rediscovering or uncovering some of the significance of these women,” she says. “They were surrounded by exquisite things, with quality and workmanship on par with objects that belonged to the emperor himself.”

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW; Sat. through June 23, free.