Xiang Fei in European Armour
China, Italy (1760)
National Palace Museum, Taipei
Portrait Week on medievalpoc is drawing to a close, and I wanted to share what is possibly the most fascinating piece of art I have come across during my exhaustive research. The images of this painting are ones I lifted from embedded PDF documents, and only low-quality photos and reproductions exist online. Some version appear to have been somewhat altered, with lightened skin and different angles to the swaggering pose:
This is a portrait of the semi-legendary Fragrant Concubine, (unreciprocated) beloved of the Qianlong Emperor circa 1759, painted by Jesuit Missionary Painter at the Chinese Imperial Court, Giuseppe Castiglione, also called Lang Shining. Although art historians like to claim the origin and authorship of this portrait is “shrouded in mystery”, many sources are discounted because they are not white or Western enough.
The Fragrant Concubine is is a figure who blends history with legend in a way that has yet to be unraveled. She is said to have been an Uighur. The Uighurs are a Muslim Ethnic group concentrated in the Northwestern Chinese Province of Xinjiang (“New Territories”), an area that reaches into Central Asia and that was not incorporated into Qing China until the eighteenth century. According to legend, after the glorious defeat of the Uighurs in Altishahr in 1759, the triumphant Manchu general Zhahui returned to Beijing with war booty, including the remarkable consort […] said to emit a natural fragrance and became known as the Fragrant Concubine.
Although given to the Quinlong Emperor as a concubine, she resisted any intimate contact with him and carried small knives in the sleeves of her clothing in order to revenge the loss of her homeland. But he emperor was so entrances with her that he is said to have built a Muslim mosque and bazaar just beyond the southwest corner of the Beijing Palace…and a tower just inside the walls from which she could supposedly ease her homesickness by watching her fellow Muslims conducting business and going to the mosque.
(Mungello p 68, 69)
Although Mungello casts aspersions on whether or not Fragrant Concubine’s story is verifiable [because legends romanticize her death], he readily admits that records prove a woman named Rong Fei entered the imperial harem in 1760, died a natural death in 1788, and her tomb was found an excavated in 1979. In additional commentary on the painting itself, he asserts
The portrait of the Fragrant Concubine in Western Armor presents a masquerade of a strutting male pose characteristic of numerous portraits of European monarchs. This probably reflects the European origins of the painter. However, why this military pose should be applied to the Fragrant Concubine…is a question that art historians have yet to answer.
Despite Mungello’s assertions that “feminists” made overmuch of Rong Fei’s story, historical documents prove these aspersions to be false; Rong Fei did in fact receive special favors aver other concubines; the Muslim enclave outside the Palace was real.
Mungello’s determination that Xiang Fei’s resistance to the emperor’s sexual advances are fictional due to records of the daughter she bore flied in the face of Uighur sources that demonstrate proscription in their faith of marriage to non-Muslims, and how that played a role in her resistance.
As for this portrait, according to some sources it is Rong Fei who commissioned this portrait (and possibly another), she herself dictating the armor and the military pose. This painting was displayed in a bathhouse among ten legendary beauties painted by Guiseppe Castiglione in 1914, causing a popular sensation.
According to James A. Millward, there is a second portrait painted by Castiglione of Xiang Fei in European armor riding with the Emperor.Through exhaustive research, I was able to find a poor reproduction embedded in a PDF, which I lifted and attempted to restore a bit:
Unfortunately, according to Kwangmin Kim, the only extensive writing on Rong Fei/Xiang Fei and the origin of these portraits remains untranslated into English.
Evidence is suggestive that this was an accustomed mode of dress for Xiang Fei, and allusions to the untranslated documents make it clear that this woman was a focal point and mediator between the Han Chinese and the newly conquered Muslim territories. Her contributions to China and specifically the Uighur are also recounted in Uighur oral traditions as well as historical documents and the untranslated texts by Yu and Dong (1985).