The only western account on the Empress Dowager Cixi’s death ritual – despite some casual notes by members of the diplomatic body – was provided by the London Times correspondent G. E. Morrison, who gave a detailed eye-witness description of the funeral procession in 1909.
Attr. to Theophile Piry, Funeral Procession of Emperor Guangxu, Pekin, May 1909 (detail)
Photography was forbidden, this group of twelve silver prints comes from the circle of Theophile Piry (1851-1918), and could be attributed to this diplomat and master of the Imperial Post Office, a known amateur photographer.
The composition and general aspect of the twelve pictures confirm the hypothesis of unofficial unauthorized snapshots of the Emperor Guangxu’s funeral procession in May 1909.
The washing, clothing and encoffining of the corpse as well as placing the coffin in a palace of the Forbidden City were the first steps of the standard ritual sequence…
Since the intervals between the encoffining ceremony and the final placement in the imperial cemetery varied in length and thus could be extremely long, it was common in Qing times to transfer the imperial coffin after the first ceremonies to a hall on Coal Hill, the Shouhuang Dian or the Guande Dian, where about 50 coats of lacquer would be applied to the coffin. The obligatory daily libations and the special sacrifices were continued in front of the coffin until the final removal to the cemetery.
Along with the public notification of death there were also issued the mourning regulations, which – in case of a late empress or empress dowager – were fundamentally the same as those in case of a late emperor, differing only in the length of application.
Within these general comments only one of those regulations need be mentioned in detail to point out the striking significance of Cixi’s mourning regulations and the alterations connected therewith: While at the demise of an emperor it was common to use the blue seal instead of the official red one during a hundred-days’ period, in case of a late empress the use of the blue ink could not extend beyond twenty-seven days…
The last dynastic death ritual at the Qing court in accordance with the Collected Statutes was the funeral of her late Majesty, the Empress Dowager Cixi… the regulations were altered later to make the Empress Dowager’s funeral an unprecedented event.
Another fact created an unprecedented problem to those who were in charge of organizing the death ritual: Never during Qing times, had there occured two imperial deaths so close together, so that the officiate in charge had to memorialize simultaneous ceremonies.
According to an officiai announcement, the Empress Dowager Cixi died on November 15, 1908, at the hour of the sheep (1-3 pm). She died in the Yiluan Dian at the Xiyuan west to the Imperial Palace. A blackly shining pearl was put into her mouth which – as the tradition goes – was supposed to retard decomposition, so that the soul of the dead on its way to return might find an intact body for revival.
After the washing and clothing of the corpse, on the same day, the remains of the late Empress Dowager were brought to the Imperial Palace for the death rites. The day after, at the hour of the dragon (7-9 am), the corpse was placed in a doublé coffin, of “Gold Thread Fragrant Cedar Wood“, jinsi nannui, a special sort of wood from Yunnan province which was known for its imperishable nature and its pleasant smell.
The period of public mourning throughout the empire was a hundred days during which all commoners were forbidden to shave their heads. Places of entertainment were closed, music was forbidden. There was a one-month ban on marriage.
As for the members of the imperial family, there was a twenty-seven-months’ ban on marriage; members of collateral branches and high Manchu and Chinese officials, to the third rank had to observe a one-year’s ban on marriage, other festivities and music were banned for twenty-seven months.
Manchu and Chinese officials from the fourth rank down to the lowest were allowed to arrange marriages after a period of hundred days, festivities and music were banned for one year. As to the members of the Eight Banners in the capital and to the officials in the provinces, marriages, other festivities and music were interdicted for hundred days.
While during the period of primary mourning the princes and officials at court had to assemble three times a day before the libational altar, after the transfer of the coffin in a hall on Goal Hill only once a day, the princesses and ladies at court assembled three times a day during three days and then only once until the celebration of the “First Sacrifice“, echuji. During the twenty-seven-days’ primary mourning the princes and officials lodged in their Yamen and practiced dietary and sexual abstinence.