Fear Not the Label, Hear the Dragon Ladies Roar

Last weekend over a million women marched on the US capital and world’s major cities the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration to protest against Trump’s repeated racist and misogynist comments, including his threat to meddle with women’s reproductive rights, which, regardless of the marches around the world, he made true the first day in office by reinstating the “global gag rule” to ban NGOs from, among others, providing abortion assistance.

 

That in 2017 women still have to fight for our rights, in a country as developed as the United States, is tragic. That the women who marched earned nicknames, like “nasty women”, is pathetic.

 

Strong women have gotten the myriad of bad nicknames. In Asia, “dragon lady” and “tiger mom” have been thrown around. But what if it took a handful of dragon ladies to transform Asia’s largest country into modernity?

 

Cixi was born to a medium-rank government official father in China’s last imperial dynasty Qing (1644-1911), who started off in the low rung of Emperor Xianfeng’s harem. European countries were actively pursuing entrance into China that time, against which Emperor Xianfeng, raised in 5000-year-old antiquated belief that China was the best country the world revolves around, chose to engage in long wars that only ended in bitter defeats. Raised by a father who welcomed daughters’ opinions, Cixi offered counsel into opening up on equal footing, only to offend the xenophobic Emperor. If Empress Zhen hadn’t interfered to soothe the Emperor’s ego, or Cixi hadn’t given birth to the Emperor’s first son in April 1856, which propelled her as the highest consort only second to the Empress, China’s course might’ve run very differently.

 

It was right after the Emperor’s death in August 1861 that Cixi made her moves. With the young prince under her care, 25-year-old Cixi strategized to earn her and 24-year-old Empress Zhen not only equal titles of Dowager Empress but also the official seal on behalf of the crown prince. That she, with limited education, in the era when women simply served as birth vessels, managed to pull it off by recruiting allegiance from her forward-thinking brothers-in-law to outmaneuver the Board of Regents, men from elite family with decade-long Confucian training, shows her inherent ability to read and lead people.

 

Cixi didn’t see foreign interest in Chinese silk and tea as a stealing of China’s treasures, yet as an opportunity to trade off with other things her people needed, including rice. She installed Robert Hart, a 28-year-old British literati as Inspector General of Chinese Maritime Customs, whose diligence and honest work would multiply Chinese revenue for future decades. Cixi also built Tangweng College and put American missionary W.A.P Martin to modernize the education for mandarins who’d only been trained in classic Confucian. She promoted open-minded officials like Earl Li to key positions.

 

Women can’t handle pressures? Cixi constantly battled criticisms from her own court, which she chose to manage democratically. When it was time to squash armed uprising, she listed the help of 30-year-old American adventurer Frederick Townsend Ward to set up a modern army, before later investing for Chinese navy overhaul and the country’s first railroads.

 

Perhaps borrowing from scholar Sun Tzu’s wisdom to understand thy enemy, Cixi sent out China’s first representative to the West, hiring Harvard Law graduate Anson Burlingame for the job, one of his visits which was chronicled by Queen Victoria, then the monarch of world’s largest empire. One of Burlingame’s accomplishments was securing a treaty with the United States that dictated a better treatment over Chinese migrant workers who’d started arriving in California.

 

I read a study somewhere that shows when you give power to a woman, she’ll invest in education and human well-being. You want to read how Cixi personally prove the study, Jung Chan’s critically-acclaimed 2014 biography can detail it all.

 

Child emperors grew up and died, Empress Dowager Cixi, backed by Empress Dowager Zhen, continued to steer China forward, indirectly made it possible to transfer into constitutional monarchy and later a republic. Interestingly, a republic led by open-minded elite like Dr. Sun Yat Sen and General Chiang Kai Shek who both were married to the strong-willed and Western-educated Soong sisters.

 

For almost a century before Mao’s 1940s rise, China’s pivotal turn into modernity was orchestrated and assisted by strong women. They had to be strong, for society wasn’t willing to give them room. They had to wield with conviction, because otherwise nobody else would’ve passed them the baton. They had to think twice as smart and work twice as hard, just to receive half of compliments reserved for their male counterpart. Cixi was portrayed inaccurately (hello, fake news) by an English biographer and her tomb was desecrated by Republican soldiers. The Soong sisters were called hapless society girls. In 2016 Taiwan’s first female president Tsai Ing Wen was mocked “imbalanced” as a childless singleton. A century after being branded “nagging iron-jawed angels” for demanding voting right, American women promoting equality are called “nasty” by the establishment, that they simply had to march again.

Against the politics among countries, women worldwide, despite having come a long way, still have a long way to go. If it took dragon ladies of China to welcome modernity, maybe it takes iron-jawed dragon ladies worldwide to obtain equality. Fear not the labels, ladies, for history shows it’s up to us women to get our rights. The march continues, hear the dragon ladies roar.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/01/27/urban-chat-fear-not-label-hear-dragon-ladies-roar.html

 

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