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.