China Books

Princess Der Ling: Two Years in the Forbidden City


Earnshaw Books has republished the English-language memoirs of a Manchu noblman's daughter who served the Dowager Cixi from 1903 to 1905.

The "princess" had been staying in France previously and came back with the intention of improving the backwards mindset of the Empress. She failed and left in 1905.

However, her English memoirs are still fascinating. Earnshaw Books gives permission for an extract and reprint of the introduction, written by Graham Earnshaw.

Princess Der Ling's tale (德龄) was turned into an eponymous TV drama, aired in 2006 and starring Zhang Jingjing (张晶晶) as the princess. In the drama, although not elaborated in the book, there is a hint of romance between the princess and the Emperor (under house arrest) at the time, Guangxu.

A picture of Der Ling (though this could be contested) is available on Baidu.

Two Years in the Forbidden City; Introduction

by Graham Earnshaw

What a strange and evocative book this is, a unique view into the world of the Empress Dowager of China and the Imperial Court in Beijing in the early 1900s, right at the very end of the imperial era, an era that had stretched back hundreds and arguably thousands of years, and just before the whole world depicted here was about to end violently.

Two years in the Forbidden City is largely a reminiscence of the minutiae of life for one of history’s most powerful women, by one of her court attendants, a Manchu noble’s daughter by the name of Der Ling. Given the momentous events towards which China was building in those years, it is a little like writing a book on the table settings of the Titanic. That is not totally fair, and Der Ling does refer to, or allude to, the larger political context on many occasions. But the fascinating thing about the book is still the small things – how the Empress Dowager spends her time, what her favorite color is, where she keeps her jewelry, what she thinks of the dress and complexion of European women, the meals and manners. The fact that she always wanted to be a man. What emerges is a detailed portrait of the life and personality of the Empress Dowager, and at least a sense of the inner workings of the highly secretive world of the imperial palace.

There were innumerable rumors and many books in those years just over a century ago which claimed to present the inside story of the court and the Empress, who is usually known to history as Cixi (pronounced something like tsuh-see). Edmund Backhouse’s book on the subject, was exposed as a fake, and it is possible that not every detail of this book is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth either. Particularly suspicious are the long monologues that Der Ling attributes to the Empress Dowager, giving her account of major events, including the Boxer Rebellion and the coup of 1898. We will never know for sure. But the monologues are fascinating, and even in a worst case scenario, they were at least written with an intimate knowledge of the Empress Dowager and are still the closest we will ever get to hearing the old lady speak directly to us. This book really was written, in English, by a woman who spent two years living and working closely with arguably the most powerful woman of the 19th century.

Princess Der Ling (德龄) was also not a real Princess. She was born in 1885, the daughter of Lord Yu Keng who served as Chinese minister to Japan and then as minister to France for four years from 1899. Der Ling accompanied him and gained a western education in Paris. In March 1903 at the age of 18, she entered the palace as a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Dowager, and also operated as her interpreter and translator. She left the palace in March 1905 to be with her father, who died in Shanghai that year. She married an American named Thaddeus White in 1907, published this book in 1911 and died in the United States in 1948. She was definitely a Manchu noblewoman, but as Der Ling herself states, her princess status, awarded by the Empress Dowager, had no validity beyond the palace world because it was not confirmed by the Emperor, Guangxu. The Emperor had been effectively deposed in 1898, and during the years Der Ling was in the palace, his situation could best be described as being under house arrest. He was doomed to die on November 14, 1908, one day before the Empress Dowager herself died. Foul play was of course suspected.

Der Ling moved to the palace to work for the Empress Dowager in 1903 along with her sister and mother. But the title of the book itself – Two Years in the Forbidden City – is another slightly dodgy element. She did not live in the Forbidden City for two years. The Empress Dowager, says Der Ling, hated the palace in the center of Beijing and most enjoyed living in the Summer Palace to the west of the city. Second best was what she calls the Sea Palace, the series of lakes, palaces and pavilions that are now called Zhongnanhai (central south seas) – the headquarters of the Communist Party of China – and Beihai (north sea), which is today a public park. The book contains some wonderful descriptions of these palaces at the height, or at the end of the golden years.

A few words of historical background on this story. Der Ling was a member of the Manchu race, a hardy nomadic people from what is today northeast China – Manchuria – who were more closely culturally related to the Mongols to their west than to the effete farmers of China to the south. In 1644, they saw an opportunity, and like the Mongols three centuries earlier, they invaded China and set up their own dynasty. Like the Mongols before them, the Manchus were seduced by the more sedentary culture of China and largely abandoned their herder way of life in favor of Chinese ways. Cixi and Der Ling appear to have conversed entirely in Chinese, not in Manchu.

After so many dynasties, so many centuries in which for China the world was basically self-contained with only occasional interruptions from the north and west, it so happened that it was during the Manchu dynasty that the rise of Europe finally disrupted the rhythm of Chinese history. The first Manchu emperors were strong and capable rulers, considered to be amongst the best China had ever known. The Kangxi emperor who reigned from 1654 to 1722, is revealed in the superb books of Jonathan Spence as a thoughtful and inspiring leader. The first serious contact between China and the West occurred at the end of the reign of Emperor Qianlong, who ruled from 1735 to 1795. Qianlong was a superb emperor in many ways and a poet and calligrapher of renown, but in regard to relations with Europe, he basically blew it. Lord Macartney’s mission arrived in China in 1793 armed with gifts and a proposal of equality and open trade relations. Qianlong’s reply, written before he had even met Macartney, was that the Chinese empire had no need of Europe’s toys nor its trade. Within 50 years, Europe would be back, and this time they were neither so polite nor so deferential.

The 19th century saw the gradual decline, corrosion, ossification and implosion of the Manchu Chinese state and system. The whole thing just slowly disintegrated, partly if not primarily helped along by the increasingly aggressive and arrogant approach of the Western nations. The opium wars of 1842 and 1860, the Taiping Rebellion from 1851 to 1864 and other internal uprisings, as well as skirmishes with England, France, Russia, Japan and Germany left China by the start of the 20th century as the equivalent of an old man on his death bed.

The Empress Cixi, who was effectively ruler of China from 1861 through her death in 1908, must bear much of the blame for this decline. She was born in 1835, is believed to have spent her childhood in Anhui and was accepted at the age of 16 as a concubine to the emperor Xianfeng, who died in 1861 after fathering Cixi’s child, who would become the next emperor, Tongzhi. Cixi effectively took power in the name of her son. By the time Der Ling entered the palace, Cixi was 68 years old and still confident of her power and position, in spite of the shock of the Boxer Rebellion just three years before, when she had been forced to flee from Beijing in the face of an allied force sent to relieve the siege of the foreign legations. In 1911, three years after Cixi’s death, the Manchu empire finally fell, a republic was set up, and the dramatic history of 20th China got underway in earnest.

The perception of Cixi that Der Ling conveys is this book is of an old woman who is hardly paying attention to affairs of state. She delegates most issues to the eunuchs and other trusted advisors, leaving herself free to play puerile games with the court ladies and while away the afternoons drinking tea by the lake in the Summer Palace. She seems to have had only a sketchy understanding idea of what is going on in China, and virtually no idea at all of affairs beyond the borders of China. From Der Ling’s descriptions, she seems to have been more interested in the presents and tribute she received from her provincial governors than in accurate and useful intelligence.

But throughout the book, Der Ling is extremely complimentary about Her Highness. She speaks frequently of her kindness, her concern for others, and her perceptive grasp of human nature. Der Ling says the years she spent with Cixi in the palace were the happiest of her youth. But behind the praise, the stories she tells also reveal either directly or by implication a high degree of pettiness and corruption, inefficiency and blindness to reality.

Der Ling’s references to the Emperor in particular reveal much about Cixi’s character. Der Ling says she went into the palace hoping to help guide the Empress Dowager towards reform, but as she quotes the Emperor as saying at the end of her time there, she failed. But then again, what could she, as an 18-year-old lady-in-waiting, realistically have achieved in terms of turning the course of history?

So where does this book leave us in terms of a conclusion on the Empress Dowager, the absolute ruler of 400 million people for 47 years? Certainly, Two Years in the Forbidden City is one of the key sources for making a judgment, and it is really for you, the reader, to take your own view. The value of this book in the end is that is takes a two-dimensional image of a dragon lady and makes it three-dimensional, providing a valuable level of detail in terms of truly understanding a complex human being such as the Empress Dowager.

Two Years in the Forbidden City; Chapter Two extract

by Princess Der Ling

When we reached the City gates, which were about half way between our house and the Summer Palace, they were wide open for us to pass. This quite surprised us, as all gates are closed at seven o'clock in the evening and are not opened except on special occasions until daylight. We inquired of the guard why this was, and were told that orders had been given for the gates to be opened for us to pass. The officials who had charge were standing in a double line dressed in full official dress and saluted us as we passed.

It was still quite dark when we had passed through the gate and I thought of the many experiences of my short life; but this was by far the strangest of them all. I wondered what Her Majesty would be like and whether she would like me or not. We were told that probably we would be asked to stay at the Court, and I thought that if that came to pass, I would possibly be able to influence Her Majesty in favor of reform and so be of valuable assistance to China.

These thoughts made me feel happy and I made up my mind then and there that I would do all I could and use any influence I might have in the future towards the advancement of China and for her welfare. While I was still dreaming of these pleasant prospects, a faint red line appeared on the horizon heralding the coming of a most perfect day, and so it proved. As the light grew brighter and I could distinguish objects, a very pretty view gradually opened to me, and as we came nearer to the Palace I could see a high red wall which zigzagged from hill to hill and enclosed the Palace grounds.

The tops of the wall and buildings were covered with yellow and green tiles and made a most dazzling picture in the bright sunlight. Pagodas of different sizes and styles were passed, and when we arrived at the village of Hai Tien, about four li from the Palace gates, we were told by the officers we only had a short distance further to go. This was good news, as I began to think we would never get there. This village was quite a pretty country place of one-story houses built of brick, which were very neat and clean as are most of the houses in the northern part of China. The children trouped out to see the procession pass, and I heard one remark to another: “Those ladies are going to the Palace to become Empresses,” which amused me very much.

Soon after leaving Hai Tien we came to a pailou (archway), a very beautiful piece of old Chinese architecture and carved work, and from here got our first view of the Palace gates, which were about 100 yards ahead. These gates are cut into the solid wall surrounding the Palace and consist of one very large gate in the center and two smaller ones on each side. The center gate is only opened when their Majesties pass in and out of the Palace. Our chairs were set down in front of the left gate, which was open. Outside of these gates, at a distance of about 500 yards, were two buildings where the guard stayed at night.

Just as we arrived I saw a number of officials talking excitedly, and some of them went into the gate shouting “Li la, doula” (have come, have arrived). When we got out of our chairs, we were met by two eunuchs of the fourth rank (chrystal button and feather). This feather which is worn by eunuchs of the fourth rank, comes from a bird called the magh (horse-fowl) which is found in Szechuen Province. They are grey and are dyed black, and are much wider than the peacock feather. These two eunuchs were accompanied by ten small eunuchs carrying yellow silk screens, which they placed around our chairs when we alighted. It appeared that Her Majesty had given orders that these screens (huang wai mor) should be brought to us. This is considered a great honor. They were ten feet long and twenty feet high and were held by two eunuchs.

These two eunuchs of high rank were extremely polite and stood at each side of the gate and invited us to enter. Passing through this gate we came into a very large paved courtyard about three hundred feet square, in which there were a great many small flower beds and old pine trees from which hung all kinds of birds in cages. On the side opposite to the gates we had entered was a red brick wall with three gates exactly like the others; on the right and left side were long rows of low buildings each containing twelve rooms, used as waiting rooms. The courtyard was full of people dressed in official robes of the different ranks, and, after the Chinese fashion, all seemed to be very busy doing nothing. When they saw us they stood still and stared. The two eunuchs who were showing us the way conducted us to one of these rooms. This room was about twenty feet square, just ordinarily furnished in black wood furniture with red cloth cushions and silk curtains hanging from the three windows. We were not in this room more than five minutes when a gorgeously dressed eunuch came and said: “Imperial Edict says to invite Yu tai tai (Lady Yü) and young ladies to wait in the East side Palace.”

On his saying this, the two eunuchs who were with us knelt down and replied “Jur” (Yes). Whenever Her Majesty gives an order it is considered an Imperial Edict or command and all servants are required to kneel when any command is transmitted to them the same as they would if in Her Majesty's presence. Then they told us to follow them and we went through another left gate to another courtyard laid out exactly the same as the former, except that the Ren Shou Dien (audience hall) is situated on the north side and the other buildings were a little larger. The eunuchs showed us into the east side building, which was beautifully furnished with reddish blackwood exquisitely carved, the chairs and tables covered with blue satin and the walls hung with the same material. In different parts of the room were fourteen clocks of all sizes and shapes. I know this, for I counted them.

In a little while two servant girls came and waited on us and told us that Her Majesty was dressing and that we were to wait a little time. This little time proved to be a matter of more than two hours and a half, but as this is considered nothing in China, we did not get impatient. From time to time eunuchs came and brought milk to drink and about twenty or more dishes of various kinds of food which Her Majesty sent. She also sent us each a gold ring with a large pearl in the center. Later the chief eunuch, Li Lien Ying, came dressed in his official clothes. He was of the second rank and wore a red button and peacock feather and was the only eunuch that was ever allowed to wear the peacock feather. He was a very ugly man, very old and his face was full of wrinkles; but he had beautiful manners and said that Her Majesty would receive us in a little while, and brought us each a jade ring which she had sent us.

We were very much surprised that she should give us such beautiful presents before she had even seen us, and felt most kindly disposed toward her for her generosity.

There are currently 5 Comments for Princess Der Ling: Two Years in the Forbidden City.

Comments on Princess Der Ling: Two Years in the Forbidden City

Many copies of her books are available on Also recommend Kow Tow, which depicts some very harrowing times her father experienced in Paris during the height of the anti-Chinese demonstrations during the Boxer Rebellion.

small point but: "arguably the most powerful woman of the 19th century."

first thing that came to mind was that queen victoria may certainly feel impelled to argue.

"the village of Hai Tien" = 海淀, I guess. Doesn't really resemble her description 100 years later.

@mike Queen Victoria was the monarch of a more powerful nation, but Britain was already a constitutional monarchy by that stage, while China was still an absolute one. The person in charge of Britain was the Prime Minister, not the Queen.

Yes she was most powerful woman of the 19th century.If we are recommending her as a power full lady, so don't think it is matter of controversy.

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