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Empress and Mrs. Conger, The

The Uncommon Friendship of Two Women and Two Worlds

Grant Hayter-Menzies

Publication Year: 2011

The story of two women from worlds that could not seem farther apart—imperial China and the American Midwest—who found common ground before and after one of the greatest clashes between East and West, the fifty-five-day siege of the Beijing foreign legations known as the Boxer Uprising. Using diaries, letters and untapped sources, The Empress and Mrs. Conger traces the parallel lives of the Empress Dowager Cixi and American diplomat’s wife Sarah Pike Conger, which converged to alter their perspectives of each other and each other’s worlds.

Published by: Hong Kong University Press, HKU


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xi


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pp. xiii-xv

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pp. 1-4

Sarah Pike Conger came to China in 1898 a middle-aged woman from Iowa who knew nothing of China’s people or its culture. Yet she left seven years later one of the nation’s most sympathetic defenders. A survivor of the Boxer Uprising, one of history’s greatest clashes between East and West, Sarah stretched out a hand...

I - Eagle and Dragon

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1 - Farmer’s daughter

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pp. 7-16

Born on July 24, 1843, in the Chinese year of the water rabbit, Sarah Jane Pike was reared in a place and in circumstances as far from imperial Asia as it was possible to be—the pre-Civil War American Midwest, amid the grass roots simplicity and devout Christian faith of Ohio and Illinois farming communities....

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2 - Mother of China

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pp. 17-25

China had not had many friends among the presidents of the United States, and the current executive, William McKinley, was not one to deviate too radically from tradition. In the past the American government had operated on the premise of never giving something for nothing. Since the American trading ship Empress of China first dropped anchor ...

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3 - High walls

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pp. 27-38

On June 23, 1898, the Congers’ steamer put in at Shanghai, where they were whisked off to the Foreign Settlement. This area west of the famous waterfront Bund was crowded with what were the tallest buildings in China and vessels from a dozen nations were moored along its bank. The settlement stretched along the Huangpu River and inland to the west, centering around the Shanghai Race Club and fashionable Bubbling Well Road. The French had...

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4 - Chinese Christians

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pp. 39-49

Almost four years before the Congers’ arrival in Beijing, in November 1894, the Empress Dowager Cixi, then in her third year of retirement, was presented with a gift which, as one of her biographers puts it with pointed understatement, “is supposed to have led indirectly to very important developments.”1 Following the lead of the missionaries...

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5 - Daws in peacock’s feathers

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pp. 51-58

When the Congers returned from the Great Wall, the Beijing air was already pungent with an incendiary collision of emotions, all roused by the decrees issued by the Guangxu emperor. Anxiety and excitement, hope and fear, increased with the number of reforms implemented, and spurred on both factions...

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6 - Imperial audience

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pp. 59-65

“The wives and the ladies of the diplomatic corps had never been recognized,” wrote Eliza Scidmore, “during the thirty-eight years that Legations had been established at Peking.” That was about to change. On the frigid morning of December 13, 1898, Sarah and the wives of six other foreign ministers were up and primping before the sun had risen. They had been invited...

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7 - Christmas in Beijing

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pp. 67-76

If American Thanksgiving, with its enshrinement of family togetherness at the time of harvest, was one celebration in which the Chinese could theoretically enjoy a shared interest, Christmas was another matter altogether. It honored, after all, the birth of Jesus, the god of the foreigners most missionaries...

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8 - Unlocking the gates

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pp. 77-88

Sarah began to wander deeper into Beijing in the winter and spring of 1899, where she discovered a site which fascinated her more than any of the palaces or temples: the Imperial Observatory.1 The movement of stars and planets and the bright patterns of the constellations had been of interest to Sarah since childhood—from the flat Midwest plains, she...

Plate Section

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9 - Gathering storm

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pp. 89-99

While Sarah was celebrating the brilliant China of the past, the Empress Dowager Cixi was looking to a murkier future, via human instruments of a vintage pre-dating the bronze altazimuths at the Beijing Observatory. Just as Cixi had not been averse, at first, to the Guangxu emperor’s reforms, she had not...

II - Battle in Beijing

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10 - Shadow Boxers

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pp. 103-126

Aside from being thoroughly American (born in Washington, D.C., no less), Dr. Robert Coltman was the antithesis of Sarah Conger. If she saw the poetry of China, Coltman only had eyes for prose. A long-time resident in China, who had learned the language fluently, and far better acquainted than Sarah with Chinese customs common and arcane, Coltman...

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11 - Siege

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pp. 127-147

There were only two ramps to the top of the Tartar City wall, both open to the sky. But Sarah’s dislike of walls that restrained her view of the world outweighed, for the moment, the very real danger of exposing herself atop them. Late on the night of June 18, when it was dark enough for them to be safely concealed, she and Edwin, accompanied by guards, went up to the wall behind the US legation...

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12 - Survival

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pp. 149-178

The risks Sarah ran to bring supplies back from the American compound were not slight. Sarah and Edwin went together one morning to gather what they could from the legation. An intrepid photographer, Sarah was walking around the ruined courtyard taking pictures, when “a shell from the big gun on the wall to the west end of [the gateway],” which she had just been snapping...

III - Saving Face

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13 - Loot

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pp. 181-199

The topography that made Beijing prone to miserable dust storms in the spring also left the city vulnerable to biting north winds in the winter. The afternoon of January 7, 1902 was no exception. But chilled air glittering with Gobi Desert grit did little to detract from an occasion that, despite the ravages of weather and war, was nothing less than splendid—the formal return to Beijing of...

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14 - Reconciliation

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pp. 201-219

Cixi began her new lease on the throne by keeping her word. Before returning to Beijing, she had issued an edict stating her intention to invite not just the foreign ministers but their wives to audiences at the palace, and so she did. A few days after the court’s return to Beijing, the Guangxu emperor received the credentials...

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15 - Sisterhood

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pp. 221-230

It was obvious to Sarah, if not to many others in her circle, that the dowager was a hapless victim of gossip and sensationalist journalism created by people who knew nothing about her. She concluded that if people could just see Cixi as she did, they would feel about her as Sarah did. Sitting with Cixi and...

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16 - Portrait of a woman

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pp. 231-248

Katherine Augusta Carl was born in New Orleans in 1865, the daughter of Captain Augustus Carl, who had died in the Civil War. Her mother, a relative by marriage of Sir Robert Hart, became president of the Tennessee State Female College in Memphis, and it was there that Kate received her education. Not content with becoming a teacher, Kate went to Paris...

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17 - Forbidden cities

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pp. 249-261

Perhaps it was in the great Lama Temple in Beijing where Sarah had her most significant epiphany regarding the lot of Chinese women. While attending a Buddhist service there, she had looked around and been surprised to find herself the only female in the temple. Her reaction was not just that of a woman used...

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18 - Letters to China

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pp. 263-278

Through 1905 and into 1906, Edwin had still planned to fulfill his ambassadorial obligations to Mexico—there was even talk of his running for governor of Iowa. Edwin’s brother, Universalist minister Dr. E. L. Conger, lived in Pasadena, California, which is where the Congers themselves moved shortly after returning from China. It was there their new troubles began, starting...


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pp. 279-304


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pp. 305-315


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pp. 317-325

E-ISBN-13: 9789888053704
Print-ISBN-13: 9789888083008

Page Count: 364
Illustrations: 40 b/w illus.
Publication Year: 2011