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Imperial Masquerade

Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling

Grant Hayter-Menzies
With a foreword by Pamela Kyle Crossley
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 444
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  • Book Info
    Imperial Masquerade
    Book Description:

    Daughter of a Manchu aristocrat, granddaughter of a Boston merchant, educated like a boy in the Confucian classics, a baptized 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, Princess 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 Eurasian woman's experience of living not just between two cultures - that of China and the West - but among many different worlds: social, religious, moral, political. Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling, the first biography of one of the twentieth century's most intriguing cross-cultural personalities, traces not only the life of Princess Der Ling, in all its various transformations, but offers a fresh look at the woman she lionized and, ultimately, betrayed - the Empress Dowager Cixi, to whom, like Der Ling, many legends have been affixed over the past century. The book includes photographs, some never before seen, taken by Der Ling's talented photographer brother, Xunling, and now in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., clarifying Der Ling's very real affection for the ruler feared before the Boxer Uprising and hated after it, and showing a side of Cixi that many who approach her with preconceived opinions may find intriguing if not revelatory. The book also depicts the changing worlds of Paris, Tokyo and the other international stages of Der Ling's development as woman and as mystery, and deals with the many teachers who made her who she was: Isadora Duncan, Sarah Bernhardt, the Empress of Japan, her own broad-minded father, American society figures like Barbara Hutton, and most of all, the Empress Dowager Cixi, who knew all about being several different people at once. A resident of Sidney, British Columbia, Grant Hayter-Menzies has served as art and music critic for newspapers and magazines from the U.S. Pacific Northwest to the Eastern seaboard and in Western Canada. He is a former board member of the Northwest China Council in Portland, Oregon. Grant's first book, a long-awaited biography of American stage and screen comedienne Charlotte Greenwood, was published by McFarland & Company in May 2007.

    eISBN: 978-988-8052-39-4
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xv-xviii)
    Pamela Kyle Crossley

    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. It may be that. Der Ling is commended to the historian’s attention not for her literary efforts but for her true oeuvre, her performance. She was handed scraps cut from fin de siècle Paris and ancien regime Beijing, from an American ancestor...

  5. Preface
    (pp. xix-xxvi)
    Grant Hayter-Menzies
  6. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xxvii-xxviii)
  7. Part I

    • 1 “The marriage, I believe, was a love affair …”
      (pp. 3-14)

      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 the age of ten. He and China were governed by his aunt the Empress Dowager Cixi, a vigorous, intelligent, shrewd and luxury-loving woman of fifty who had started as a low-ranking concubine of the Xianfeng Emperor and ended as Empress Dowager. Her love-hate relationship with the West...

    • 2 Culture clash
      (pp. 15-22)

      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 up the children’s differences, those traits that Yu Keng intended to nurture.

      Yu Keng’s protectiveness included keeping his children apart from the turmoils big and little that ranged across...

    • 3 “A noisy family of English-speaking children …”
      (pp. 23-34)

      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 yamen, Zhang was a curious mixture of progressive and traditional China. A descendant of high-ranking Chinese magistrates, Zhang not only achieved the prestigious jinshi degree in the state examinations but did so by focusing his essay...

    • 4 Beijing to Tokyo
      (pp. 35-42)

      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 (possibly Li Hongzhang, who owned many such properties in Beijing), “a magnificent place,” Der Ling remembered, but a lonely one for her.

      After her father departed next morning for an unexplained and...

    • 5 Samurai in pinstripes
      (pp. 43-54)

      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 began instituting changes in government. They started with a representative Diet, moved on to manufacturing, laying the foundations for Japan’s great role as an importer of goods; and then dealt with society, that of both court and commoner....

    • 6 Chrysanthemums and politics
      (pp. 55-68)

      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 setting. Baroness Shidzue Ishimoto remembered going to the O-Hama for the cherry blossom festival as a young student from the Western-style Peeress’ School. The vast park was enclosed by stands of old pine trees, which parted on the south side...

    • 7 Back to China, forward to France
      (pp. 69-78)

      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 Board of Censors, who (says Der Ling) in the wake of the elderly Prince Gong’s death in late May of 1898 had again impeached Yu Keng to the throne. Between him and disaster now stood only old Ronglu and the Empress Dowager Cixi....

    • 8 La ville lumière
      (pp. 79-90)

      “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 and their staff, after a journey from China which had been royal in every detail. But nothing prepared them for the disappointment they were to encounter on arriving in Paris.

      Boarding a French steamer in Shanghai, the family put in...

    • 9 Chinese powder keg
      (pp. 91-98)

      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” behavior.

      But Pichon was a friend of Bishop Favier, who had been frank with the French minister about where things were headed. The bishop had warned Pichon in...

    • 10 Dancing with Isadora
      (pp. 99-104)

      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 patrons of the dance.

      Now she was hoping to make her name in Paris, la ville lumière, though she must have first made plenty of heads turn with her dashes...

    • 11 “The golden goddess of tragedy”
      (pp. 105-112)

      “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 barre of a ballet practice room. And not just any actress but a woman who was arguably the greatest performer and personality of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — Sarah Bernhardt.

      What is perhaps fitting, considering the overt drama of Bernhardt’s life on and off the stage, is what Der Ling says was her first encounter with the actress on the day...

    • 12 Scandal
      (pp. 113-120)

      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 in a play, even if before friends, was likely to draw criticism from the conservative members of her father’s staff. She had noticed, the day of the rehearsal, when Bernhardt had beckoned to her afterward, that the wife of Yu Keng’s secretary had spirited...

  8. Part II

    • 13 Empress Dowager Cixi
      (pp. 123-128)

      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, the bright Mediterranean and even the limpid grey Seine seemed dazzlingly beautiful, full of a magic never to be recovered. (As the West-loving ex-emperor, Puyi, would confide to his memoirs, “A stick of Spearmint chewing-gum or a Bayer aspirin...

    • 14 Garden of Nurtured Harmony
      (pp. 129-142)

      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 sunup, barring certain special occasions; this was clearly one of those special exceptions. Sitting back carefully in her chair for the ride that lay ahead, Der Ling mused on what the future might bring. “We were told that probably we...

    • 15 Lady of the court
      (pp. 143-148)

      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, three-quarters of the land being covered by Lake Kunming, the palace Cixi named Yiheyuan or “Garden of Nurtured Harmony” was the dowager’s pet project from the late 1880s onward. She pursued the work with all the fury of a...

    • 16 Eunuchs and jewels
      (pp. 149-156)

      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 noticed that certain doorways had been walled over between where their pavilion was and where the emperor lived, and asked why this was.

      “He smiled,” she remembered, and said: “ ‘You will have to learn a...

    • 17 “A very precious child”
      (pp. 157-166)

      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 Cixi back into the room, Der Ling stood behind her chair while the old lady vigorously sliced through envelopes with an ivory paper knife. Perhaps this vigor, and the scrutiny she applied to the memorial contained in each, pointedly ignoring the scene...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • 18 Rumblings in paradise
      (pp. 167-174)

      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 the fact that she had been up since 5 a.m. and on her feet most of the time. Just as she was preparing to change her gown and lie down on her bed, her eunuch came...

    • 19 The Forbidden City
      (pp. 175-186)

      “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 yellow satin stool, at the apex of the white marble Jade Girdle Bridge, sipping tea as she gazed out over the lake and the palaces and pavilions that made a splash of color along...

    • 20 Cat’s eyes and big feet
      (pp. 187-192)

      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 fête gleamed with the cream of both Chinese and foreign Beijing society. Besides such court grandees as Prince Qing and other members of the imperial government, Cixi had invited all the foreign ministers’ wives, including her favorite among them, the sympathetic Sarah Conger, and one who...

    • 21 A portrait for the Empress
      (pp. 193-202)

      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.”¹

      This pleasant combination of kindness and open-mindedness no doubt helped endear her to Cixi, who was curious enough about the American woman to find out from Louisa that she had become a grandmother in June 1903. Sarah was almost as overjoyed at receiving the dowager’s congratulations on the birth...

    • 22 Hungry ghosts
      (pp. 203-214)

      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.

      “I want you all to be very careful not to let this lady know that you are watching her,” Cixi advised Der Ling. It must have been all Der Ling could do not to roll her eyes at the inconvenience. Considering the fact that Kate knew no...

    • 23 Imperial birthday
      (pp. 215-230)

      “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 straight rays,” he remembered, “her cheek bones were sharp and the veins on her forehead projected. She showed her teeth as if she were suffering from lockjaw”²...

    • 24 War clouds
      (pp. 231-238)

      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 Kate was not working Der Ling was free to be present at the dowager’s morning audiences, which were still held with the same clockwork regularity as at the Summer Palace; and it was here she came face to face with Yuan...

    • 25 “First-class female official”
      (pp. 239-250)

      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 topic again. “She said that the only way to make sure of me” — in other words, to keep Der Ling at court and under her control — “was to marry...

  9. Part III

    • 26 East is West, West is East
      (pp. 253-258)

      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 had to show themselves, was to be concealed from the sight of men, within separate female quarters in the family compound. They shared a similar style of bed, built over a furnace to heat...

    • 27 Flapper “princess”
      (pp. 259-264)

      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 she would also be doing so as the author of two memoirs and a biography of the Empress Dowager Cixi which had already brought her both renown and criticism, in and...

    • 28 “To others she may have been cruel …”
      (pp. 265-272)

      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 foreign artist. In June 1905, before Der Ling had left the court for good but was still in Shanghai with her dying father, the Dutch painter Hubert Vos arrived in Beijing to paint a portrait of the dowager. A native of Maastricht, Vos was a hale and hearty fifty, a...

    • 29 On the defense
      (pp. 273-282)

      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 and the Forbidden City. Intriguingly, in the book’s several editions over a period of almost twenty years, the image it offered of Der Ling changed, too: the first edition, from 1911, features...

    • 30 Scheherazade of the Hotel Wagons-Lits
      (pp. 283-294)

      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 in the company of foreigners, European and American, who had come to Beijing to see the sights and have a good time. For this, most Pekingese native and foreign-born congregated at the Hotel des Wagons-Lits, Der Ling’s home until she...

    • 31 “… she means to educate Americans …”
      (pp. 295-302)

      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 burgeoning career as writer and public speaker, had a certain bearing on Der Ling’s decision to explore the comparative security of the United States.

      Mid-decade, the Kuomintang Nationalists in southern China, led by Chiang Kai-shek, began to make their move on the northern warlords, assisted by planners from the Soviet...

    • 32 Squeeze money
      (pp. 303-312)

      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 loved power yet sat uneasily on her throne, who lived in circumstances far removed from all other women’s reality yet still was a woman like other women. Yet on the other hand, it is obvious Der Ling still...

    • 33 China reborn
      (pp. 313-320)

      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 Japanese eager to seize Manchuria from China had its birth in the ransacked chambers of the tombs of the Qianlong Emperor and the nearby one of Cixi,...

    • 34 Princess of patriots
      (pp. 321-328)

      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, the U.S. had not done much, besides its honorable posings, to deserve Old Buddha’s praise during her lifetime or for a long time after it.

      Even at the time of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, the U.S. had not shown itself disposed toward...

  10. Legacy
    (pp. 329-340)

    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 Adolf Hitler.

    Nor would she have to watch her homeland endure greater sufferings than when she was alive. China faced harder times than ever. At the time of Der Ling’s death in late 1944, Chinese were calling...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 341-365)
  12. Family Tree
    (pp. 366-366)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 367-376)
  14. Index
    (pp. 377-392)