If a picture really does speak a thousand words, for Sarah Pike Conger it could do more than that—it could capture not just the image but the living soul of its subject, delivering to the discerning viewer a truth of the subject’s personality that words could never convey. In fact it was distorted words Sarah hoped to combat—the character assassination of the Empress Dowager Cixi of China that started shortly after the two women first met—when she convinced the dowager to allow a foreign artist to paint her portrait in 1904.
Wife of Edwin Hurd Conger, the U.S. minister to China, Sarah came to Beijing in 1898 a middle-aged lady from Iowa knowing nothing of the people or their culture. Yet she left seven years later one of China’s most sympathetic defenders. A survivor of the Boxer Uprising, that mob effort to rid China of foreign influence, Sarah stretched out a hand to the one person who bore the most blame for the disaster, the Empress Dowager Cixi. And Cixi, who had no reason to love any foreigner, put her hand in Sarah’s.
The daughter of a Manchu official, Cixi was born in 1835, and was selected as concubine to the Xianfeng emperor at 16. Bearing the emperor’s only son, Cixi rose in rank after Xianfeng’s death in 1861, becoming Empress Dowager when their son, the Tongzhi emperor, ascended the throne. She served as regent to him and after his early death for her nephew, the Guangxu emperor. Her bad press in the West began in 1898, when during Guangxu’s Hundred Days of Reform she discovered that his platform included plans to depose her. Cixi acknowledged that China needed reform, but not at such breakneck speed, and not at her expense. She placed the emperor under house arrest and captured some but not all of his advisors. One of these, Kang Youwei, escaped and from exile filled newspaper columns with fulminations against Cixi, charging her with every sin of depravity and misrule, including the murder of her own son, that of her co-Empress Dowager Cian, and countless other misdeeds, adding her to the list every Chinese had in his mind of imperial female tyrants of dynasties past. And of course, Cixi’s alleged connivance in the Boxer Uprising in summer 1900 put the final nail in her public relations coffin.
After Cixi’s return from exile in January 1902, when Sarah and other diplomatic wives came to the Forbidden City at her invitation, the Uprising was still fresh in the minds of their husbands, who saw Cixi and the Chinese as backward xenophobes willing to commit mass murder. These women, encouraged by Sarah, disobeyed their husbands by accepting Cixi’s invitation and opened themselves to international criticism. Their bravery was great, but Sarah’s was greater. Unlike the other women, Sarah had lived through the bullets and bombs, while filling sandbags and burying the dead. She also saw the dowager in a different light than most. It was easy to blame Cixi for fomenting the Uprising, but the truth of her involvement is far more complicated than is realized, something Sarah seems to have appreciated to an extraordinary degree for the times. “My sympathy is with China,” she wrote defiantly, at a time when such a sentiment was tantamount to treason. Not only did Sarah believe that the West had brought on itself the anti-foreign anger which powered the Uprising. She also believed it was more useful to build bridges between east and west by sitting down face to face with one’s “enemy” than to endure a prolonged standoff ringed round with the pickets of protocol. It was above all important to her to show respect, to be gracious, where no one else would. As Dr. Isaac Headland, American physician to members of the imperial court, observed:
Who can doubt that the warm friendship which the Empress Dowager conceived for Mrs. Conger, the wife of our American minister, who did more than any other person ever did, or ever can do, towards the opening up of the Chinese court to the people of the West, was because of her appreciation of the fact that Mrs. Conger was anxious to show the Empress Dowager the honour due to her position.
Sarah spoke of her reasons to another American, Bailey Willis, a young engineer in Beijing. Willis suggested that perhaps it was too soon to extend so strongly the hand of friendship to a woman who had not proven herself worthy of trust. Sarah told him she had been unable to resist when Cixi had made such a sincere and humble effort. “When the door opened a little way,” she told him, “I had either to close it or to go in and see where it might lead . . . It is not for me to say what the influence might be.” Sarah cited the personal evidence that, to her, was the only proof she needed: “If you could meet her,” she said, “and she should take your hand and look in your eye and speak to you as she has to me, you would think her sincere,” an impression shared by several other foreign ladies who met the dowager. Sarah felt that “pressing the thorns of sorrow and revenge deeper into our hearts will never lessen the sting of the horrible past nor permit us to rest in peace.” Only with “much patient work and forbearance,” she said, would the Chinese and foreigners come to an understanding and mutual appreciation beneficial to both. “If you look deeply enough in anyone,” she told her granddaughter years later, “you will find the good that is there.”
Through that half-open door lay Sarah’s boldest idea: to commission the first western-style portrait of the dowager, offering the world an image of Cixi as she knew her to be, not as illustrated papers and biased journalists depicted her. This was precedent-shattering enough, as in China portraits were only painted of people after they had died, to be placed over the ancestral altar. In addition, the picture would be executed by a woman, the American artist Katherine Augusta Carl. No foreigner had ever had such access to the imperial presence before.
Sarah knew from experience the power of a picture to evoke emotion and inspiration. Until her death in 1932 at age 89, Sarah kept near her a portrait of her son Lorentus, in which the seven year old boy is shown as he was the year of his death, gazing out at a future he would never know. Though he had died so many years earlier, Lorentus was never forgotten—indeed, when Sarah was laid to rest in Pasadena, California, where Edwin had died and was buried, the remains of Lorentus were moved there from the family plot in Iowa. In fact the death of an only son was a tragedy both Sarah and Cixi shared in common.
Cixi had first posed for formal and informal photographic portraits in 1903, when Xunling, a brother of Cixi’s lady-in-waiting, Princess Der Ling, began taking photos of her at the Summer Palace and at her Beijing retreat near the Forbidden City. For all that they are posed, some in costumed settings with Cixi in the role of Guanyin, goddess of mercy, these images are intensely revealing, particularly those that show her more or less as her real self—wandering her snowy gardens, or gazing at her aging face in a hand-mirror. They pierce the obscuring veil of Cixi’s godlike rank to show a woman of sensitivity and sadness but also determination and fortitude—and as actual representations of the woman, they are effective vehicles for bringing this most private and yet talked about imperial woman to the general public. For Sarah, whose sentimentality was of the nineteenth century even as her social justice and humanitarianism were of the twentieth, the process of capturing character was best done with paint and brush, not camera; photos to her were souvenirs of happy times with her family or her Chinese friends, but not as significant as a painted image. What she didn’t realize is that one photograph taken by Xunling, which didn’t appear until many years after Sarah’s death, would tell volumes more not just about Cixi’s humanity but about Sarah’s own fierce compassion for the dowager and for the troubled nation it was her fate to rule, than Katherine Carl’s painted portrait could ever do.
Ironically, Xunling’s photograph was developed in obscurity after the portrait was sent as ambassador to America with flags flying and a dragon-robed imperial escort. Feted at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, Carl’s portrait was later presented to President Theodore Roosevelt, while Xunling’s negative was filed away, likely never seen by any of those pictured in it. During the 1930s, it and the other negatives were almost destroyed, and were passed from hand to hand, surviving civil war China and the indiscriminate selling off of the estate of Princess Der Ling, into whose keeping they had fallen, until they came to rest in the Smithsonian Institution. They have only now emerged from that darkness to renewed interest in twenty-first century America, in a Smithsonian exhibit scheduled for fall 2011.
A few critics have rather hastily doubted that this was a true friendship. I realize many may see friendship as something more in keeping with lunching together like the good ladies of “Sex in the City”, part of the to and fro of daily life. The hit film "The King's Speech" turns on the novelty, which some may dismiss as fiction, of a king and a commoner having such a close attachment. Given the restrictions of imperial court protocol, it is astonishing that Cixi and Sarah were able to visit in person as often as they did. The record Sarah leaves of her meetings with Cixi forms a third portrait of their friendship. If some of Cixi’s gestures to other foreigners appear token, there is an authenticity and spontaneity about her actions toward Sarah that to me appear genuine. They often sat side by side in the dowager’s bedroom, comparing cultures and exchanging gifts, and Cixi showed many kindnesses to Sarah’s family in America. The dowager also paid Sarah the compliment of taking her advice, issuing a decree to permit foreign education of promising Chinese and Manchu boys, after Sarah spoke on the topic at one of their private meetings, and supporting Sarah’s suggestion that the dowager found schools for women in China. When the portrait was finally unveiled, Sarah believed it supplied the missing key to the mystery of who the dowager was. As she wrote: "True to the Chinese idea there were characters, symbols, seals and decorations. All spoke a silent, but positive language… But that which was far more to me was the Imperial woman sitting there in her strength of character. As I gazed at the portrait I could recall a sweet tone of voice, a gentle clasp of hand, a cordial smile… There is a chord in human nature when played upon by woman, that woman alone can hear and appreciate."
Nobody would claim that either Katherine Carl’s historic portrait or Xunling’s revealing photographs are one better than the other. But it has to be admitted that only through Xunling’s images do we see the dowager that Sarah knew—the gentle clasp of hand and cordial smile of the empress the world condemned as a tyrant but the woman Sarah Conger believed till her dying day was a friend. The thin red thread that the Chinese believed connected two people drawn together by fate is there, vibrant and soulful as a zither string.