The Empress and Mrs. Conger: The Uncommon Friendship of Two Women and Two Worlds

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The Empress Dowager Cixi


Born in November 1835 to Kueicheng, a Manchu bannerman of the Nala clan, the future Empress Dowager Cixi was given the nickname "Orchid"; and it was her manifest beauty, as well as her manifest brains, that brought the teenaged girl into the Forbidden City, first as a low-ranking concubine to the Xianfeng emperor, later as the mother of the future emperor, Tongzhi, and later still as power behind the throne, governing a nation of 400 million people. A magnet for rumor almost from the start of her career at the imperial court, Cixi is accused of everything from bilking the state treasury to pay for buildings and bijouterie; of poisoning her son, the Tongzhi emperor, and forcing his pregnant wife to commit suicide; of illegally putting her young nephew on the throne, the better to secure her own control of power, then imprisoning him when he asserted his ideas for reform of the empire; of poisoning her co-empress, Cian; and of keeping various lovers, including a false eunuch or two, none of whom were capable of satisfying her lusts.

This was the semi-legendary figure Sarah Pike Conger approached, at first with caution, later with sympathy, in December 1898, and came to know and love as a real and very much maligned woman.