The Legend of Princess Der Ling
Publication Year: 2008
Published by: Hong Kong University Press, HKU
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
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Der Ling is one of those figures who have been sifted out of the pure sand of respectable history. Two Years in the Forbidden City, her memoir of life in attendance on the self-caricaturing Empress Dowager Cixi, her eunuchs, dogs and toys, is usually brushed off as a historically illiterate farrago of poorly remembered vignettes and ill-considered comment...
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While reading Isadora: A Sensational Life, Peter Kurth’s 2001 account of the twentieth century’s most influential dance reformer, I encountered a Chinese woman named Princess Der Ling who as a teenager had studied with Isadora in Paris between 1899 and 1903. Kurth quoted several piquant remarks on Duncan made...
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1 “The marriage, I believe, was a love affair ...”
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In 1885, when the future Princess Der Ling was born, the Chinese empire was like a once-priceless blue and white vase — repeatedly fractured and repaired, it now tottered, as on an unsteady curio shelf, on the verge of radical reform. The Guangxu Emperor, aged fourteen, had been nominal emperor of China since...
2 Culture clash
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Growing up in an unusual household in remote Shashi seems to have given Yu Keng’s children a sense of perpetually being on stage. Yet while they were encouraged to feel proud of their uniqueness, the sisters and their brothers were also highly protected — in their classroom, in the walled garden, and by their parents, from too close contact with the things and people whose homogeneousness was most apt to point...
3 “A noisy family of English-speaking children . . .”
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It was Yu Keng’s unusual view of educating his daughters not only in foreign languages but in the Chinese classics, as well as the fact that his family did not live with him in the yamen residence, that brought about a visit of enquiry from the Viceroy of Hubei, Zhang Zhidong. In his fifties at the time of his visit to Yu Keng’s Wuchang...
4 Beijing to Tokyo
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As it turned out, Yu Keng’s mansion was not to be the place where the family would live during their stay in the city. What Der Ling describes as a half-European, half-Chinese compound of 175 rooms had been lent to a friend of the family’s, who despite a half year’s forewarning was still not ready to leave it. So the family was lent the house of another acquaintance...
5 Samurai in pinstripes
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The Japan and the China of 1895 could not have been more opposite, starting with the troublous subject of reform and modernization. When Mutsuhito, the Meiji Emperor, came to the throne as Japan’s 122nd emperor (according to Japan’s founding myth) in 1868, he and his powerful regents ended over two centuries of peaceful but cloistered Tokugawa shogun rule of Japan, and immediately...
6 Chrysanthemums and politics
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Each spring, a festival of cherry blossoms was convened at the O-hama Detached Palace, also known as the Shinjuku Palace (in autumn, a chrysanthemum party was held at the European-style Aksaka Palace). The O-Hama Palace had pleasure gardens dating from the period of the Tokugawa shoguns, in which they had enjoyed picnics and other outdoor amusements amid the carefully cultivated...
7 Back to China, forward to France
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Li Muchai did get something for his pains. Despite his treatment of Yu Keng, when it came time for Yu Keng’s ambassadorship to wind down, he offered to recommend Li to the post at Tokyo, and the recommendation resulted in Li’s appointment. In part, it is possible Yu Keng did this to quiet the denouncers at the Boa...
8 La ville lumi
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“The Chinese Legation at Paris was located in an excellent apartment house on Avenue Hoche,” wrote Der Ling; and the five story structure, with its classical pilastered façade, was excellent from without in all respects.1 With its broad, high rococo-paneled reception rooms hung with massive chandeliers, the Chinese Legation should have provided a fitting welcome to Yu Keng, his family...
9 Chinese powder keg
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It was miscommunication about the fate of the man who had been a kind of Gallic Cassandra in the Legation Quarter just prior to the Boxer violence that put Yu Keng, his staff and family in danger, in faraway Paris. The French minister in Beijing, Stephen Jean-Marie Pichon was a plump, excitable little man with a snobbish wife, who was given to what the high-nosed British scoffed at as typical overwrought “Continental...
10 Dancing with Isadora
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Before coming to Paris in 1900, where she was wafted along on the heady breeze of French culture and first discovered what she termed “the crater of motor power,” 22-year-old Isadora Duncan had survived a California childhood of feast and famine, semi-starvation as a young hoofer in Chicago, and a hotel fire in New York, where her name first began to appear in newspapers and on the lips of astounded...
11 “The golden goddess of tragedy”
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“One of my youthful dreams was to study ballet dancing,” Der Ling wrote. Significantly enough, it was an actress who dissuaded Der Ling from switching from the Rue de Villiers studio of Isadora Duncan to the mirrored...
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For the present, Yu Keng had no objection to Der Ling performing in the little production of Sweet Lavender, which was soon to be staged at the legation. “My father thought it would amuse and interest me,” she wrote. Blinded by her dreams of following in the footsteps of Bernhardt, Der Ling also knew that performing...
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13 Empress Dowager Cixi
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It was the beginning of January 1903, and the frigid weather echoed everything Der Ling was feeling as she got into the launch and steadied herself against the choppy waters. The last Der Ling had seen, and so heartily loathed, of the China to which she was now returning were the churning yellow waters of her silt-laden rivers. Compared to these...
14 Garden of Nurtured Harmony
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Louisa and her daughters may have thought themselves prepared for anything, but the importance of the occasion seems to have sunk in, per Der Ling, when they passed through the western city gate and were saluted by a contingent of uniformed guards on the way. Beijing’s gates were normally closed at seven o’clock in the evening and not opened until...
15 Lady of the court
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Though built near and in some cases on the ruins of the Old Summer Palace, destroyed by foreign troops in 1860, and then damaged again by same following the Boxer Uprising in 1900, Cixi’s New Summer Palace was so literally new as to barely have had time for the paint to dry. Situated on over seven hundred acres northwest of Beijing...
16 Eunuchs and jewels
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Long after Der Ling and her sister got into their silk-hung beds they stayed up discussing everything that had happened during the day. One of the stranger occurrences was a confidence shared with the sisters by the eunuch who escorted them to their residence. Cixi had arranged for Louisa and her daughters to have four eunuch attendants, whose supervisor was their escort. Der Ling...
17 “A very precious child”
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Der Ling’s polite reverence to the Guangxu Emperor was her last, at least in the Empress Dowager’s presence. As she rose, she looked up to see Cixi standing in the doorway. “She looked at me in a very peculiar way,” Der Ling recalled, “as if she did not approve of what I had done, but said nothing.” Following...
18 Rumblings in paradise
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On her return to the palace, which took place over land rather than backtracking through the lake, Cixi announced she needed a nap. For Louisa and the girls, the break came just in time. “My legs were very stiff and my back was tired,” Der Ling remembered. “Foreign attire is out of the question for the Imperial Palace of Peking” — not to mention...
19 The Forbidden City
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“I began to take great interest in the Court life,” Der Ling wrote, “and liked it better every day.” With a pride in the Summer Palace’s beauty that was as much that of the artist as the empress, the dowager showed Der Ling all over the estate — one of the abiding images in Der Ling’s court memoirs is that of Cixi, sitting on her little...
20 Cat’s eyes and big feet
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Clothes were still very much on Cixi’s mind when she presided over the first garden party of the year at the Summer Palace, and the clothes that most obsessed her were, as usual, those of the foreign women who made up the majority of the guests. The list of those attending the dowager’s spring...
21 A portrait for the Empress
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For all her plain appearance and sober ways, Sarah Pike Conger was a woman of warm and appreciative affections, who said of herself “I am a seeker in China, and am interested in Chinese [things]. I recognize their beauty, then I wish to know something of the people who produced them....
22 Hungry ghosts
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As Kate Carl’s arrival date approached, Cixi returned to the business at hand with a vengeance. Because Kate would be staying in Prince Chun’s palace, the dowager sent Der Ling to the estate to oversee preparations for her stay there. She was also to select rooms for herself, her mother and her sister...
23 Imperial birthday
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“When [Cixi] was sick she was ill humored,” Der Ling recalled, “and none of us could forget that we lived, breathed and had our being subject to her slightest whim. I am afraid that all of us thought of her then as a grim old ogre threatening our safety.”1 The magistrate Wu Yung, whose portrait of Cixi is flagrantly admiring, once saw her in a rage at an audience. “Her eyes poured out...
24 War clouds
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Moved to a makeshift studio at the Forbidden City, Katherine Carl continued to work, while Der Ling continued to pose and listen to Cixi grumble. The dowager even suggested sarcastically, when Kate asked for a room with more light, that to satisfy the artist’s whims she would have to order that the roof be taken off for her. When...
25 “First-class female official”
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It was likely Der Ling’s melancholy following the departure of Kate Carl that brought on what was to become the basis of her one significant argument with the dowager: that of marriage. The subject had come up already, when Der Ling had first come to the Summer Palace, and she had shyly evaded it then. On the anniversary of Der Ling’s first year at court, Cixi brought up the...
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26 East is West, West is East
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China and Russia, those massive cultures precariously balanced at either end of a massive continent, have always shared certain intriguing similarities. Not only have both Chinese and Russian cultures had a legacy of hiding away their women, in an effort to preserve chastity — in Russia’s case, a practice of the royal court, whereas in China any woman above the field-laboring peasant class, where women perforce...
27 Flapper “princess"
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As Dr. Sun was being laid to rest outside Nanjing, in a China which seemed to have finally been brought under control by Chiang Kai-shek, Der Ling was preparing to pull up her Chinese roots and embark for the country she had always wanted to visit, America. She would be doing so as the wife of an American and the mother of a seventeen-year-old son, Thaddeus Raymond White. And...
28 “To others she may have been cruel . . .”
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After Der Ling left the Summer Palace for good, in autumn 1905, life went on for Cixi: the picnics at the Summer Palace and the review and approval of memorials and other business, the audiences with foreigners, opera performances and games of Eight Fairies. She would also sit for another...
29 On the defense
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In Two Years in the Forbidden City, Der Ling is at her most business-like and unspeculative; the book reads in places like the dry entries in a daily appointment diary, in others with an eye-witness immediacy that conveys the comedy of Cixi’s court as well as the minor teacup tempests and the mild infiltration of major political events outside the cocooned halls and courtyards of the Summer Palace...
30 Scheherazade of the Hotel Wagons-Lits
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Der Ling, in the meantime, was doing very different things with her life — most of them unacceptable to the women of Rong Ling’s circle. While Rong Ling was playing the part of decorative general’s wife in her red-columned palace, Der Ling was taking on a more active role in Beijing society — not her sister’s high society milieu but...
31 “. . . she means to educate Americans . . .”
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No doubt the parlous state of political affairs in late 1920s China, in which a nation already fragmented by impending civil war had to also watch the back door lest the Japanese stream suddenly in (something the battles between Communists and Nationalists eventually allowed to happen), a well as her...
32 Squeeze money
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Der Ling’s first book since the 1911 publication of Two Years in the Forbidden City was Old Buddha, her 1929 biography of the Empress Dowager Cixi. While the book presents a picture of a woman both ambitious and querulous, it does not veer to any great degree from the portrait Der Ling painted of Cixi in Two Years: of a woman who...
33 China reborn
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While the Whites were absent from China in the last two years of the 1920s and the first few of the 1930s, events destructive but in themselves small were beginning to add up to the greater cataclysm of invasion by the Japanese. As the ex-Xuantong Emperor, Puyi, put it in his memoirs, “1928 was for me a year of excitement and shocks.”1 For him, the decision to throw his lot in with the...
34 Princess of patriots
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Cixi may have entertained a benevolent attitude toward the United States (or flattered the American women at her tea parties that such was her feeling), believing the United States had cut a more honorable figure in Chinese affairs than any of the other nations which had put their hands in the pie. But in reality...
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Der Ling would not see the unfolding of one of the United States’ least appetizing wartime acts — the forced internment of thousands of Japanese Americans, most from the West Coast, in camps located inland — as well as one of its greatest: the landings on the Normandy coast which came to be known as D-Day, signaling the beginning of the end for...
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Index [contains image plates]
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Page Count: 444
Publication Year: 2008