In this last of the trilogy of short stories of the Qing dynasty Dowager Empress Cixi, we shall walk in the footsteps of ghosts. It’s time to take a look at the legacy of this remarkable woman. And, naturally enough for me, how her make-believe descendants, Katy and Clara Yehonala, found their way into my consciousness and The Butterfly Dynasty series as my amazing, but equally flawed heroes, who are setting off to change the world. Or a small part of it anyway.
Firstly, back to the good, or not so good, Dowager Empress Cixi Yehonala. We’re people of our times and Cixi Yehonala was especially so. Even today, we can stand amazed that a semi-literate sixteen-year-old girl in a patriarchal, feudal society should have achieved anything, let alone leaving an awesome legacy. Back then, how much harder could it have been. That in itself should count as moderately heroic.
I’m not about to paint Cixi as any kind of role model for today’s women. She was, after all, a Qing dynasty Empress in an age when the rough justice of the death of a thousand cuts, foot binding, nepotism, and beheadings were de rigeur in society. There seems little doubt Cixi Yehonala wasn’t overly troubled by the odd bit of arsenic poisoning, or head-lopping of rivals, to retain her power. Arguably, one or two of her social norms are unfortunately out of favour in our modern times…
We got a glimpse of her achievements in some newspapers and books around the turn of the nineteenth century into the modern era, foretelling that the coming century would see the rise of China from its medieval, myopic past. If we dig into the reasons for such reports, we begin to see her impact. On the social front, she banned tortures like the death of a thousand cuts and the horrors of foot binding. She even lifted the ban on Han-Manchu intermarriages – a hundred years before western countries allowed Catholics to marry non-Catholics. Not small things.
On a larger scale, under Cixi Yehonala’s firm hand the country built the infrastructure of a modern state, including railways and the telegraph. Coal mining began which led to the growth of private enterprise, and as a result, led to China welcoming electricity. International business for China became possible after the currency was changed from silver ingots to coinage, enabling trade with the wider world.
The road wasn’t easy. The conflicts, reparations and concessions forced on China after the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion and other battles with western powers taught her that the old order in China must be left behind. For the last decade of her life, she encouraged the modernising of China, and the gradual forming of a constitutional government, laying the groundwork for China’s modern age as a republic. She was undoubtedly a great ruler and one of the few women who have profoundly influenced the world’s history.
Twenty years before Cixi’s birth, was it not Napoleon who prophetically said, “when the sleeping dragon awakes, it will shake the world?” As we all know now, China is well and truly awake and we all hear the galloping feet of many large and small-size dragons.
Having lived there for some years, I was inspired to write a story about other unlikely heroes, born into awful periods in that same culture, who also grew into awe-inspiring women despite shaky beginnings. My first book, The Diary of Katy Yehonala became Katy’s journey, traversing time, space, mythology and cultures. The story follows Katy as she survives the tumultuous world of Mao’s revolutionary China, discovering and embracing the world beyond.
Like her Qing Dynasty ancestor, Empress Cixi Yehonala, Katy Yehonala’s life and times are not as most of us have experienced, ranging from the unimaginable horror of exile as an “enemy of the people” as a child, to travelling the world as a modern-day Marco Polo. Her journey leads her through the soaring joys and crushing heartbreaks of falling in love, the importance of family, experiencing new cultures, and being driven by destiny to a future in a new country she could never have imagined.
As a girl of her time, Katy believes the influence of destiny is woven into the fabric of her culture’s five-thousand-year history. So, with fate and optimism as guiding lights, she steps boldly into the world beyond her homeland. When times are hard, she finds silver linings, though occasionally she has to dig deep to uncover them. In happier times, she looks on in wonder at her good fortune.
When I set out to write this novel, I intended it as a story of Katy’s salvation. Also, offering a challenge for all of us to not stand by idly while terrors still exist for the world’s most vulnerable, hidden from sight in a land we know little about. In this scheme, Katy Yehonala is, in a way, the “universal woman” wanting to make a difference and embrace the humanity we all share. My view changed as I got to know her better. She has more of the determination found in her magnificent ancestor, the Qing dynasty Dowager Empress Cixi Yehonala. Katy needed a companion on her journey. She found two, one an extraordinary daughter, Clara, who became known around the world as The Jade Princess.
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Robert Barclay is an Australian author of some of the best Australian crime/mystery novels. His Australian romance novels and stories follow the lives of Katy Yehonala and her daughter, Clara, his strong female protagonists as they confront the evils of society.