The year was 1851. A pretty sixteen-year-old Manchu girl named Miss Chao entered through the Gate of Divine Prowess into the Forbidden City in Beijing as a lowly concubine to the Xianfeng Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. She was to become the most remarkable woman in history.
When the gates of the Forbidden City closed behind Miss Chao, she shut out a busy world. A world filled with family, friends, fun, shopping at the vibrant markets, and a budding romance. Her life’s destiny was to be locked within the limits of a one square kilometre area of brick-paved earth, surrounded by a crenelated wall ten metres high and as many metres thick, resplendent with palaces of unimaginable beauty. Here there was only one “whole” man. He was not her father, brother, husband, or even her friend, and a man whom she might never even see.
Here she would live as neither mistress nor servant, wife nor slave, but one of a basket of peaches which had little chance of being sampled before withering away, dried and wrinkled, in silken finery. Miss Chao emerged a half-century later as the Dowager Empress Cixi Yehonala and one of the most powerful women in history.
She had ruled more than a quarter of the world’s population for nearly fifty years, through tumultuous times in China, and had lived a life shrouded in mystery and surrounded by myths of intrigue, betrayal, murder, love, and survival.
Her race, the Manchus, had ruled China as the Qing Dynasty for four hundred years and were the last imperial Chinese Dynasty in a long warlord-inspired history. The Qing Dynasty collapsed after the death of the now daunting old Empress Dowager Cixi Yehonala in 1908, and almost faded from memory after the abdication of the last puppet Emperor, Puyi, of movie fame in The Last Emperor.
Most westerners only remember the Qing Dynasty and the most remarkable woman, Dowager Empress Cixi Yehonala, these days through such Hollywood films as this, and through blockbusters like 55 Days in Peking, wherein another triumph of American values embodied in the form of Charlton Heston, the world was made white again.
The heroic Mr. Heston almost single-handedly brought down the Qing Dynasty by defeating the Boxers, a peasant rebellion, who wanted to murder all the proselytes infesting China with their talkative Christianity, a hopeless but arguably noble undertaking.
Thus complete, the western powers carved up coastal China into colonial concessions for a more sanctioned style of rape and pillage.
The Dowager Empress Cixi Yehonala has inspired authors and movie-makers for a century and her portrayals as messiah or monster are debated in every story.
What’s the truth about Cixi? The only agreed one is that the most remarkable woman in history is in danger of having her momentous life and achievements whitewashed away by the poorly written history of the men who feared her, and had better literary agents. Let’s take a new look at Miss Chao, the young girl who became the awesome Dowager Empress Cixi Yehonala.
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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.
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