Friday, August 4, 2017

Chinese Textiles from an Empress Dowager's Lady-In-Waiting

Chinese opera costume

Chinese opera costume
This third article of embroidered clothing from China is a costume worn by Mei Lanfang (1874-1961),    a star of the Beijing Opera known for his graceful portrayals of female characters. In 1949 he became director of the opera and has been credited with introducing the Beijing opera to the United States. He also served as Vice Chair of the China Federation of Literacy and Art Circles. 

This costume and the dragon robe and lady's robe pictured in the previous two posts were part of a collection of Chinese robes given to donors Elwin A. and Ruth Hoy by Princess Der Ling.  Unfortunately, we do not know how she acquired them. 

Der Ling was the daughter of Yu Keng, who served as Chinese minister in Japan and France.  Der Ling received a western education and learned to speak both English and French. When the family returned to China in 1903, the Empress Dowager Cixi invited Der Ling and her sister for a visit then asked them to stay as her ladies-in-waiting. Der Ling also served as interpreter for the Empress Dowager when she received foreign visitors.

At first, Der Ling and her sister wore European -style clothing but eventually the Empress Dowager picked a “lucky day” and declared that henceforth they would wear only Manchu clothing.  In her book, Two Years in the Forbidden City,  Der Ling tells about being presented with a new wardrobe: “The eunuchs brought in three large yellow trays, full of beautiful gowns, shoes, white silk socks, handkerchiefs, bags for nuts, in fact the whole set, including the gu'un dzan (Manchu headdress).  We kowtowed to her and told her we were very much pleased with everything she had given us.  Her Majesty...said to us 'You see I give you one full official dress, … two embroidered gowns, four ordinary gowns for everyday wear, and two gowns for Chi Chen wear (the anniversary of the death of an Emperor or Empress), one sky blue and the other mauve, with very little trimming.' ” (page 152).  We don't know if the red lady-in-waiting robe of the last post was one of these.

The Empress Dowager also conferred the honorary title of “Princess” on Der Ling.

In 1905, Der Ling left the court to accompany her father to Singapore for medical treatment.  While there, she met and married American Thaddeus C. White, an act which prevented her return to court.  She went on to write a total of eight books and teach Chinese at the University of California at Berkeley until she was killed in an accident in 1944.

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon


  1. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing these photos and research, Martha.

  2. Princess Der Ling's book is available as a free audio download at

  3. Thanks for sharing these photos and research, Martha.


  4. Thank you for sharing these remarkable objects and, of course, some of Der Ling's remarkable life. I wrote the first biography of Der Ling, 'Imperial Masquerade', published in 2008 by Hong Kong University Press (, and launched the book in Beijing and Hong Kong that year. I own several of Der Ling's inscribed books, as well as her life membership pin from the Women's Aeronautic Association.