A life between worlds

From right: Young Empress, Lady Yu, her daughters Der Ling and Rong Ling, the Empress Dowager Cixi

When she was mortally injured by a hit and run driver outside the University of California, Berkeley in November, 1944, the police report gave her name as Mrs. Elizabeth Antoinette White. But on her death certificate, her husband insisted on adding: “Also known as Princess Der Ling.”  She died virtually forgotten - we may assume the clerk who had to make her Chinese name and title fit the tiny space on the California death certificate grumbled over the task. But her entertaining and insightful writings, as well as her desire to build bridges between east and west, still have much to teach the present about China’s past and its future.


A memoirist, ranconteur, and a European-educated, multi-lingual Asian woman who gleefully crossed all the lines of cultural expectations both oriental and occidental, Princess Der Ling was a unique character on the stage of late Qing and early Republican China.  A favorite lady-in-waiting to the Empress Dowager Cixi, she became that hated woman’s greatest apologist and defender; and after moving to the United States in the late 1920’s, Der Ling sought through her seven books, numerous articles and lectures to create understanding of China and Chinese history, while at the same time showing that a true daughter of China could live western like the best of them.


Der Ling, as a personality more than as inside chronicler of one of the most secretive courts in history, has been floating at the margins of Qing dynasty history and historiography for some thirty years.  She has appeared in almost as many media as the empress dowager she tried to make the world understand: as a supporting character in Li Hanxiang’s 1976 film, The Last Tempest (speaking with a pronounced American accent), in Sterling Seagrave’s blockbuster 1992 biography of Cixi, Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China (Knopf)-in which Seagrave makes an effort to rehabilitate not just Cixi but Der Ling-and most recently in a University of Edinburgh thesis by Dr. Shiou-yun Fang, Images, Ideas, Reality (2005). In addition, Der Ling’s account of being a student in Isadora Duncan’s early dance classes in Paris form a strong part of the core of Peter Kurth’s acclaimed 2001 biography Isadora: A Sensational Life, and is in fact where I first discovered Der Ling the person and the writer.


Mr. and Mrs. Thaddeus C. White

Painting of Der Ling and Cixi by Bertha Lum, 1933

For Bertha Lum's portrait of Der Ling, click here

Der Ling's personal seal

With most of her books long out of print and her once ubiquitous face vanished from the news columns, Princess Der Ling [1885-1944] is known to few people today.  Yet this writer and cross-cultural celebrity has as much to say about today’s congruence and collisions of East and West—in terms social, political, historical and cultural—as she did over 80 years ago.


Like that of Puyi, China’s last emperor, whom she first knew as an infant at the court of his imperial relative, Empress Dowager Cixi, and would later try to help when his creditors came calling, Der Ling’s life writ large touches on issues broader than even the vast Chinese landscape where she was born.  Through the courage of this Western-educated Manchu woman, who shocked Peking society dancing the Charleston, who fascinated gullible New Yorkers by appearing at the opera in imperial Manchu court garments, a vista opens on an international cultural history of the early- to mid-20th century. 


Der Ling’s first and most famous book, Two Years in the Forbidden City (1912), which appeared the year the Manchu dynasty fell, glitters with the glamour of a lost world, and served as an apologia not just for the ex-dynasty but for its most reviled ruler, the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), the woman Der Ling had served as court lady, translator and surrogate daughter from 1903-1905.  With the disintegration of the Romanov empire five years later, and the dispersal of its uprooted aristocrats and intelligentsia through the world, a culture of the displaced celebrity launched this self-promoting Asian woman with the tissue-thin title (and an American grandfather she never acknowledged) on a flood of general fascination with throneless royalty and exotic pretenders.


My book is the first to deal with Der Ling as a phenomenon of the fragmented, delirious era in which she lived, putting her recollections to the test while maintaining my opinion that her memories of the last great Asian court and its society have much to teach us about the period, the people and East-West relations. PartI deals with Der Ling’s beginnings, from her birth in Peking in June 1885 to her upbringing by her diplomat father in Tokyo and Paris and her Western education; Part II covers Der Ling’s summons from Paris to the imperial Chinese court by the Empress Dowager Cixi and her experiences of learning to know, fear and love this much-misunderstood woman; and Part III deals with Der Ling’s authorship of her seven books and a critical appraisal thereof; her marriage to an American and move to America, where her mystique flowered in an atmosphere of fascination with all things oriental and then died out almost as totally as it had flourished.

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Grant Hayter-Menzies, biographer of Princess Der Ling,