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Car Fit for an Empress Dowager

Empress Dowager Cixi's 1901 Duryea Surrey
Duryea Motor Wagon Co.; Reading, PA
January 1902 advertisement for the Duryea Surrey.
Climb In
Empress Dowager Cixi is arguably the most influential figure in late dynastic China. Coming from humble beginnings as a low-ranking concubine for the Emperor, she managed to leverage a legitimate heir to the throne into becoming the regent—and later public ruler—of China. While much of the debate surrounding her has painted her character in a nefarious light, her personal objects tell a more complex story. Especially in her later years she was a proponent of modernization. Part of this interest included a curiosity in Western technological advances, seen in the many clocks and other marvels gifted to her over her lifetime.  Of all her Western machines, one stands out: a customized 1901 Duryea Surrey given to her by the wily General Yuan Shikai.
Duryea Surrey
The Duryea Motor Wagon Co.  was founded by Charles and J. Frank Duryea in 1895. While they might not now be a common household name, the brothers are credited for creating the first ever American-made gasoline-powered automobile in 1893. In the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th Century, their Reading, Pennsylvania factory produced some of the highest quality vehicles on the market. Every car manufactured in Reading was hand-made and personally tested by a member of the Duryea family for quality assurance. Beginning in the early 1900s Charles’ daughter Rhea Duryea was the company’s intrepid test driver. Every car had to survive the winding road from the plant to the top of Reading’s Mount Penn, not an easy feat for early automobiles. To accomplish this the 1901 Duryea Surrey had a three-cylinder, 10-horsepower engine with a top speed of 25 miles per hour. With the addition of this model’s customized canopy, Empress Dowager Cixi’s car weighs around 900 pounds.
Reenactment of the Empress Dowager riding in her car.
There is anecdotal evidence that the Empress Dowager’s use of the car was complicated by royal etiquette. Having a chauffeur sit before the Empress may have been taboo, in which case driving the car would have required he operate the vehicle while on his knees. This might lend credence to stories such as that of China’s first automobile accident. The court chauffer, Sun Fuling, had been rewarded with a bowl of rice wine prior to a drive around the palace gardens. Intoxicated and with poor visibility, Fuling was unable to see a eunuch come from seemingly nowhere, and he accidentally ran him over. However much the car was used, when the Empress’ health deteriorated, it was left in one of the abandoned rooms of the Summer Palace.
Disuse and Refurbishment
Detail of the car's step plate. The last part
of the car bearing the Duryea name.

Less than four years after Cixi’s death the Chinese Revolution of 1911 put an end to the Qing Dynasty. During this tumultuous period the Summer Palace became a home to artists, writers, and scholars, but her car fell into utter disrepair. The upholstery became tattered, the canopy fell through, and the headlights disappeared altogether. It was not until after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976 that the car was rediscovered and an effort was made by the experts at the Summer Palace to restore it to its original glory. As this was during the height of the Cold War, information sharing between China and the United States was difficult. Despite a step plate with Duryea clearly written on it and the general shape being telling of the manufacturer, the prevailing theory on the car was that it was an early Mercedes-Benz. When replacement parts for the car were procured for its restoration Duryea had long since closed its doors. Rather than refit the car with Duryea parts, other antique parts had to be acquired meaning that much of the original vehicle has since been replaced.
The Long Drive Home
Since its restoration the car has become a popular attraction at the Summer Palace. Its old-timey look and the scandalous anecdotes surrounding it have consistently drawn crowds. For the first time in the 116 years after it was given to the Empress Dowager, thanks to the Bower’s Museum’s Empress Dowager Cixi: Selections from the Summer Palace, the car has finally travelled back to the country where it was made. As much as any object in the exhibition, this 1901 Duryea Surrey illustrates the Empress Dowager’s interest in Western culture; a personal escape for a Dowager Empress who spent her life steering China towards a brighter future.
The Empress Dowager's car on display at the Summer Palace.
The Bowers Museum’s Empress Dowager Cixi: Selections from the Summer Palace opens this Sunday, November 12. For more information click the below image!
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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