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The extraordinary life of the Chinese writer and personality who danced the two-step at the Forbidden City and learned to love the elderly empress feared and hated by the rest of the world.

While reading Isadora: A Sensational Life, Peter Kurth’s 2001 account of the twentieth century’s most influential dance reformer, I encountered a reference to 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 by this writer, including her recollections of Duncan’s barbed commentary on the needlessness of the clothes women were forced to wear by custom and the overtures from men they were forced to endure for the same set of sexist reasons.  For all her youth, and considering she came from a culture to which Western dance and Duncan’s special take on it were foreign territory, Der Ling seemed remarkably aware of both Duncan’s farsighted feminism as well as her artistic genius, another factor that intrigued me.

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Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling
by Grant Hayter-Menzies
 
The first critical biography of one of the 20th century's most enigmatic personalities
Published in January 2008 by Hong Kong University Press

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To view HKUP's listing, click here

To view listing in the University of Washington Press's Spring 2008 catalog, click here.

China Radio International interview in Beijing by Su Xiaowei on Tuesday, April 8

Link to podcast of Hong Kong University Library Reading Club presentation, April 10, 2008 (scroll down)

CBC Radio interview on North By Northwest, with Sheryl MacKay and Dave Carlin

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Later on, when I read Dragon Lady, Sterling Seagrave’s 1992 biography of Empress Dowager Cixi, I met Der Ling again, and discovered that while making an effort to rehabilitate the maligned Empress Dowager Seagrave also addressed the denigration (by many of the same sources) of this woman and her contributions to late Qing historiography.  Seagrave’s book led me to find and read all of Der Ling’s books, along with her several published articles.  Through chance references to her in the memoirs, diaries and travel writings contemporary with her timeframe of late-Qing, early-Republic China that I read subsequently, I occasionally found doubts about her facts (or the way in which she related them) and especially about her title, and realized from the beginning that Der Ling was nothing if not a figure of controversy. Daughter of a Manchu aristocrat, granddaughter of a Boston merchant, educated like a boy in the Confucian classics, a baptised Catholic blessed by the hand of Pope Leo XIII, a woman who donned chic Western fashions in China and her ceremonial court robes in the United States, and wife of an American soldier of fortune...  Der Ling was a fascinating human battleground of warring identities, a victim of the hallucinogenic effects of too much publicity, much of it prompted by Der Ling herself, and a figure whose life provides a glimpse into one woman’s experience of living not just between two cultures—that of China and the West—but among many worlds: social, religious, moral, political.

 

I knew I had to tell her strange, complex, fascinating story.

Princess Der Ling in 1939
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 Grant Hayter-Menzies, biographer of Princess Der Ling, grant_menzies@yahoo.com