Princess Der Ling

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Yü Derling, Princess Derling
Born 8 June 1885
Wuhan, Hubei, Great Qing
Died 22 November 1944 (aged 59)
Berkeley, California, U.S.
Spouse Thaddeus C. White
Full name
Yü Der Ling
Father Yü Keng

"Princess" Der Ling (Chinese: 裕德齡, pinyin: Yù Délíng) (1885 – 1944) was a Hanjun bannerwoman, the daughter of Yu Keng (Chinese: 裕庚. Wade–Giles: Yu Keng. Pinyin: Yù Geng). Her father was a member of the Hanjun Plain White Banner Corps (正白旗), and according to his daughter he was a Lord. This is of some doubt. After serving as Chinese minister to Japan, he was appointed minister to the French Third Republic for four years in 1899. He was known for his progressive, reformist views; for his determination to educate his children, including the girls, in western schools, which was highly unusual in their generation; and for his unvarying support of the Empress Dowager Cixi. In 1905, Yü Keng died in Shanghai. Yü Keng's story is told in the movie Dai noi kwan ying. According to Der Ling's biographer, Der Ling's mother had an American father and a Chinese[clarification needed] mother. However, in the book, whatever her background, she is repeatedly referred to by other people as a Manchu.

Yü Keng's daughters Der Ling and Rong Ling (1889–1973, the future Madame Dan Paochao of Beijing) received a western education, learning French and English, and studying dance in Paris with Isadora Duncan. Upon their return to China, Der Ling became the First lady-in-waiting to the Empress Dowager Cixi, as well as interpreting for her when she received foreign visitors. Der Ling stayed at court until March 1905. In 1907, Der Ling married Thaddeus C. White, an American. Der Ling had a brother, Xunling (ca. 1880–1943), who studied photography in France and later took the only photographs of Empress Dowager Cixi still in existence.[1]

Using the title of Princess, which would create controversy for her in both China and the United States in the future, Der Ling wrote of her experiences in court in her memoir Two Years in the Forbidden City, which was published in 1911. She states in her book that the status of Princess, which the Empress Dowager had given her, was valid only within the palace. As the Guangxu Emperor, who was under a form of house arrest, never confirmed the title, it was not valid in the outside world. Two Years provides unique insights into life at the Manchu court and the character of the Empress Dowager Empress, a world that ended abruptly with the 1911 revolution that overthrew the Manchu or Qing dynasty. Der Ling continued to write and published seven more books.

Princess Der Ling, a.k.a. Mrs. Thaddeus C. White, died in Berkeley, California, as a result of being struck by a car while crossing an intersection. She had recently taught Chinese at University of California, Berkeley.[2]

Der Ling was not a member of the Qing royal family. Although Der Ling claimed to be an ethnic Manchu, her father Yü Keng was actually a Han Chinese Bannerman[3] and not part of the ethnic Manchu Banners.[4] Her father was not royal but was a bannerman, just as Der Ling claimed she was a Manchu while she was actually a Chinese Bannerwoman.[5]

A biography of Der Ling, Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling, by Grant Hayter-Menzies, was published in January 2008 by Hong Kong University Press.

Memoirs and writings[edit]

Princess Der Ling beside Cixi

After Cixi's death in 1908, Der Ling professed to be so angered by what she saw as false portraits of Cixi appearing in books and periodicals that she wrote her own account of serving "Old Buddha", which she called "Two Years in the Forbidden City". This book appeared in 1911, just before the fall of the Qing dynasty, and was a popular success.

In this book, Cixi is not the monster of depravity depicted in the popular press and in the second and third hand accounts left by foreigners who had lived in Beijing, but an aging woman who loved beautiful things, had many regrets about the past and the way she had dealt with the many crises of her long reign, and apparently trusted Der Ling enough to share many memories and opinions with her.

Der Ling would go on to write seven more books about this relatively brief period in her youth when she had been close to the centre of failing imperial Chinese power, and sharing this personal history and her habit of promoting herself and her writings caused most of her family to turn against her. All of this has made it difficult to assess Der Ling's contribution to late Qing historiography. But the fact remains that she was the first woman of Cixi's own ethnic background to live with and observe her and then write about what it was like; if many of Der Ling's recollections smack of the every day minutiae of a court that thrived on details and form, her writings are no less valuable for focusing on them, particularly as life within the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace was a closed book for most people in China, let alone in the rest of the world. It was misunderstanding of much of what emanated from the throne that created so many of the problems Cixi has been wholly blamed for.



Magazine pieces[edit]


  1. ^ Power|Play: China's Empress Dowager, exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, September 24, 2011–January 29, 2012
  2. ^ "Princess Der Ling Dies in Berkeley of Car Injuries" (obituary). Los Angeles Times, November 23, 1944.
  3. ^ Kenneth James Hammond; Kristin Eileen Stapleton (2008). The Human Tradition in Modern China. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 90–. ISBN 978-0-7425-5466-5. 
  4. ^ Grant Hayter-Menzies (1 February 2008). Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling. Hong Kong University Press. pp. 6–. ISBN 978-962-209-881-7. 
  5. ^ Grant Hayter-Menzies (1 February 2008). Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling. Hong Kong University Press. pp. 17–. ISBN 978-962-209-881-7. 

External links[edit]