Nellie Yu Roung Ling

Nellie Yu Roung Ling (Chinese: 裕容齡; pinyin: Yù Rónglíng; Wade–Giles: Yü Jung-ling; 1882 – 16 January 1973), also spelt Nelly,[1] was a Hanjun Plain White bannerwoman and dancer, who is considered "the first modern dancer of China".[2] She was the younger daughter of Yu Keng [fr] and Louisa Pierson, the other one being Lizzie Yu Der Ling. Although not a member of the Qing imperial family, Roung Ling was given the title of "commandery princess [vi]" while serving as a lady-in-waiting for Empress Dowager Cixi.[3]:268 She was also known as Yu Roon(g) Ling, especially in the works of her sister Der Ling.[3]:267 She was referred to as Madame Dan Pao Tchao after her marriage to the General Dan Pao Tchao (唐寳潮; 1887–1958), and Princess Shou Shan, a title appeared on the cover of her 1934 historical novella about the Fragrant Concubine (Hsiang Fei), which Sir Reginald Johnston claimed she never used.[4]:xii

Nellie Yu
Yü Roung Ling
Princess Shou Shan
Madame Dan Pao Tchao
Commandery princess of Qing dynasty
Nellie Roungling Yu.jpg
Nellie Yu in Paris, 1900.
BornNellie Yü Roung Ling
1882 (1882)
Tientsin, Qing Empire
Died16 January 1973(1973-01-16) (aged 90–91)
Beijing, China
SpouseDan Pao Tchao
FatherYu Keng
MotherLouisa Pierson
SignatureNellie Yu Yü Roung Ling Princess Shou Shan Madame Dan Pao Tchao's signature

Early lifeEdit

Roung Ling in butterfly dress during her performance of Rose and Butterfly in Paris, 1902.

Born in an upper-class family, to a Chinese father and a Chinese-American mother who was the daughter of an American naval officer.[5] The Yu sisters, like their two brothers Charles Yu Hsingling and John Yu Shuinling, received Western education in American missionary school—then an almost unheard-of proceeding amongst high Manchu officials—and were fluent in English.[6][7] The British diplomat Sir Robert Hart described them as "a noisy family of English-speaking children, were fluent also in Japanese and French".[4]:52 She was also well versed in poetry, especially E. B. Browning's works.[8]

In 1895, Roung Ling's father Yu Keng was appointed minister to Japan, he later took his family there.[9] It was in Japan she discovered her vocation for dance, where she gave an impromptu performance of a Japanese dance Tsurukame [ja] (crane-tortoise) she had learned from a servant, before the assembled Japanese dignitaries.[10]

In 1899, Roung Ling left for France with her father for taking up his new post as minister-plenipotentiary to the French Third Republic. In Paris, she was placed in charge of the sisters of the Sacred Heart Convent School (ancien Couvent du Sacré-Cœur) located at 77 Rue de Varenne.[9][4]:83

Roung Ling in 1902. "The stamp of western culture which she received in those early years causes her today, in Parisian costume which she frequently wears, to be mistaken for a French woman." — San Pedro Daily News[9]

The Yu family quickly adopted Parisian fashion, a media coverage at the time reported that all the children of Minister Yu Keng "wear European costume and follow the fashions closely", and called Roung Ling "a charming Chinese girl who is Parisian in all but name".[2] The New York Times wrote, "[Der Ling and Roung Ling] are adorably pretty, and they dress in the European style with a finish and skill to which something of Oriental charm is added which makes them the cynosure of all eyes when they enter a drawingroom [sic]".[11]

The Yu siblings led a cosmopolitan life in Paris, they socialised, frequented the theatre and performed at their parents' parties. The weekly magazine Armée et Marine reported that the four children of Minister Yu Keng "superbly performed" the English comedy in three acts, Sweet Lavender,[2] at a soirée organised by their father.[1]

The Yu siblings at the fancy dress ball their parents gave to celebrate Chinese New Year in 1901; from left: Commandant Armani as Francis I of France, Lizzie Yu Der Ling as a doll in the fairy tale, Charles Hsingling as Napoleon, Nellie Yu Roung Ling as Prince Charming, and John Yu Shuin Ling as Pluto.

In March 1901, the Yus threw a fancy dress ball at the Chinese Embassy to celebrate Chinese New Year, at which Roung Ling was costumed as Prince Charming, her siblings Der Ling, Hsingling and Shuin Ling, were dressed respectively as a doll in the fairy tale, Napoleon and Pluto. The Chicago Sunday Tribune reported that "Lord Yu is particularly proud of his Europeanised family".[12] The Yu couple gave their daughters unheard-of freedom to enjoy European-style ballroom dancing with close body contact with foreign men. Their lifestyle caused outrage for other Manchu mission officials, the family was denounced to the throne. But the Empress Dowager liked what they were doing and waited impatiently for their return.[11]

After attending the coronation of Edward VII and Alexandra, Prince Zaizhen and his entourage were greeted by the Yu family on their return from London. Both Sir Liang Cheng and Prince Zaizhen were quite taken with the Yu sisters. Liang reported back to the court that both girls "would quite fascinate the Empress Dowager if they go to Peking". The Yu sisters liked Prince Zaizhen too, "immensely", as Der Ling remembered, he was "very handsome, well educated, and his tastes were the same as ours in many things".[4]:114 She added that while she and the prince were prone to quarrel, Zaizhen paid court to her softer, prettier sister. Liang Cheng also found himself drawn to Roung Ling,[4]:114 the two had been engaged at least as early as January 1903, but for some unknown reason, they were never married to each other.[13][5]

During her stay in Paris, apart from studying acting with Sarah Bernhardt,[14] Roung Ling also got the opportunity to study modern dance with Isadora Duncan. For the latter she improvised a few dance steps during their first meeting, Duncan was deeply impressed by her talent and decided to teach her for free;[15]:166–167 she thus became one of the first Chinese to learn Western choreography.[3]:267 In 1902, she played the part of a Loie Fuller inspired butterfly girl in Rose and Butterfly, and also danced in Greek Dance, in both of which she was well received by audiences.[3]:268 In the same year, the Yus travelled through Spain, Germany, Italy and Russia before arriving back in China in January 1903.[2]


Roung Ling in ancient Egyptian style costume for her performance of Greek Dance at Summer Palace, 1904.
Roung Ling in traditional Chinese style costume for her performance of "Ruyi Dance" (Ruyi, lit.'As You Like It') at Summer Palace.

Soon after her return to China, Roung Ling was installed as one of the court ladies to the Empress Dowager Cixi, together with her sister Der Ling. While in the court, she studied traditional Chinese dance, and integrated it with Western elements in her own way to creating a unique style. She developed from this combination a series of dance styles of Eastern aesthetic with Western technique known as "Bodhisattva Dance", "Fan Dance", "Ruyi Dance", "Sword Dance" and "Lotus Fairy Dance".[10][15]:168 She also introduced Western dance to the imperial court, she performed Greek Dance at Summer Palace in 1904, and a Spanish dance [es] on the eve of the Dragon Boat Festival.[3]:268

She had a love affair with the Guangxu Emperor, but probably in secret on account of the empress dowager's informers.[16] The French writer Marc Chadourne called her the emperor's "Saint Helena"; years later, she told the former with melancholy, that the emperor had proposed to her to be his concubine.[17]

Roung Ling temporarily moved to Shanghai in 1905 due to her father's illness.[3]:268 In 1908, she left the court after the death of the empress dowager.[18] "It is amusing now to think of those days", she recalled almost twenty years later, in 1926, "I was so young and so little that I could not possibly wear the beautiful and elaborate Manchu head dress and without it the court costume wasn't complete; so they dressed me in boy's clothes. I was glad because they were so much more comfortable to wear but still it took more than an hour every morning to have my hair dressed. We had to get up early, always by half past six or seven o'clock to be ready to go to the empress' apartments to wish her 'good morning'. [...] I always went to audiences with the empress. It was quite a long way to go in the palace; but it was easy for me in my boy's clothes to get about. I used to stand or sit on the floor behind a screen where I could hear everything, but of course I was too young to understand much of what was said."[9]

Later lifeEdit

Roung Ling in the 1920s

Shortly after the fall of the Qing Empire, in 1912, Roung Ling had married Dan Pao Tchao, a nephew of Tang Shao-yi,[8] who studied at the École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr in France,[19] and was counsellor in the office of the Republican president with the rank of general. During the Republican era (1912–1949), she was appointed Mistress of Ceremonies to President Li Yuan-hung, and the couple enjoyed a prominent position in Peking high society.[2][9] It was a happy marriage, however, she probably had a secret relationship with Saint-John Perse, a French poet-diplomat who served as secretary to the French embassy in Peking from 1916 to 1921. A few years later, she confided in Hélène Hoppenot [fr] that Perse never loved her, but she was useful to him for obtaining information from the Republic's high society.[20]

During the 1920s, she organised numerous charity performances and participated in many other charity events. In 1921, she gave a speech in English about her life in the Manchu imperial court at the Teng Shih K'ou Congregational Church, in aid of the "School for Poor Children" charity funds.[21]

The American writer Grace Seton-Thompson met Roung Ling while being greeted in a public audience with President Li Yuan-hung. "The event was organised by Madame Dan, mistress of ceremonies to the president. She is also Madame President's (吳敬君) contact with the diplomatic circles in Peking", Thompson wrote in her travelogue Chinese Lanterns, "she skillfully combines the elegance of the West and the nobility of the East, forming a charm beyond imagination. [...] But, these are not all the factors that make up her personality. The 'secret' lies in her femininity from the inside out, in a warm and loving heart. Those cumbersome rituals actually take up very little of her time. She has devoted her life to charity, which has almost become a habit."[22]

In addition to charitable activities, Roung Ling was involved in English teaching projects and fashion design programme, for the latter she founded China's first women's clothing design research society.[7] Her opinion on the changing women's fashion in China contradicted a 1933 Vogue article—"Sometimes the Twain Do Meet"—which held to the belief that Western influence was the source of change in China, stating, "Chinese fashions have been completely transformed by the Manchu influence which substituted the long dress for the old-fashioned tunic blouse. This dress must be long and straight and have a stiff, high collar." She brought up the New Life Movement's opposition to Chinese women in dress that seemed too Western or flamboyant to argue that Western fashions had not yet been fully accepted by then.[23] She also acted as hostess for an exhibition of excavated textiles and robes titled Marco Polo's invitation.[24] The British writer Harold Acton acknowledged Roung Ling's pivotal cultural role in the new Republic in his book Memoirs of an Aesthete.[25]

"Madame Dan Pao-tchao, as the little convent girl of Manchu days is known today, is frankly stage-struck." — The Daily Tribune, 23 March 1926

She expressed her desire to becoming a film actress in the middle of the 1920s, but her dream was not realised.

In 1926, the American diplomat John Van Antwerp MacMurray filmed a three-minute sequence of Roung Ling performing a "Sword Dance" in front of the Temple of Heaven.[26]

Title page
Hsiang Fei: A Love Story of the Emperor Ch’ien Lung, second edition published in 1934.

In 1930, she published in English a historical novella about the Fragrant Concubine of the Qianlong Emperor titled Hsiang Fei: A Love Story of the Emperor Ch’ien Lung. A second edition was released in 1934.[27] In 1936, she wrote a foreword for the Chinese translation of Der Ling's Imperial Incense, at the invitation of its translator Chin Shou-ou [zh].[3]:268 In 1937, she performed an American dance at the Peiping Charity Fair.[28]

After the communist takeover of China in 1949, Roung Ling and her husband managed by various strategies to negotiate their survival during the early years of Mao's regime. After an interview in April 1957, the photojournalist Zhang Zudao (張祖道) gave a description of his first impression of Roung Ling which shed some light on her later life: "She has a well-featured face, no wrinkles except for the forehead. Bright eyes, fair skin, she is of well-proportioned, medium stature, with a tidy haircut with both sides tucked neatly behind the ears. A thin coat of face powder and lipstick, close-fitting black velvet dress in Chinese style with shiny antique silver buttons, making her look elegant especially in a 'workerised, peasantised and soldierised' society where the monotonous short hair for everyman, pigtails for everywoman and bluish-grey uniform for everyone."[29]

She penned a memoir titled Qinggong suoji (Chinese: 清宮瑣記; lit. 'Fragmentary Records of the Qing Palaces', or more idiomatically, 'Memoir of My Life at the Manchu Imperial Court'), which was published in 1957 recounting her early years in the imperial palace as a lady-in-waiting. Despite being a bestseller at its time of publication, the book was later severely criticised for its "propaganda of the Four Olds".[30]

At the height of the sociopolitical purge movement of Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), labelled as a symbol of "feudalism, bourgeoisie and revisionism" due to her early years in France and the imperial court, and the social status she held during the Republican era, she was dragged from her apartment and, symbolically, both her legs were broken by a group of Red Guards.[31][32] She had to live in a dilapidated single-storey bungalow because of the forcible occupation of her residence by residents' committee.[8] According to the children of her longtime friends, despite a pair of broken legs and the living condition, her composure and sense of humour kept intact. Every time they visited her, she chatted about those funny stories from her youth, and the younger generation roared with laughter.[32] She died of pulmonary infection in Peking University First Hospital, in 1973.[33]

The Dan couple had no children of their own, but left an adopted daughter, Lydia Dan (唐麗題, 1915–2002; the future Lydia na Ranong [ลิเดีย ณ ระนอง]), whose biological father was Wang Tseng Sze (王曾思, 1890–1944), the first secretary of the Chinese Legation in Paris during the 1920s.[34] Lydia married Chok na Ranong (โชค ณ ระนอง) and became a confidante of senior royals of Bangkok.[35][34] She had studied political science at Radcliffe College since 1941, then at Harvard University from 1942 to 1944.[34][36]


  • Hsiang Fei: A Love Story of the Emperor Ch’ien Lung, Peiping: The Yu Lien Press, 1930 (second edition 1934; foreword by Hardy Jowett)
  • Qinggong suoji (清宮瑣記, idiomatic translation: 'Memoir of My Life at the Manchu Imperial Court'), Beijing: Beijing Publishing House, 1957

In popular cultureEdit

  • The Yu sisters' life in the imperial court was dramatised in the 2006 television series Princess Der Ling, in which Roung Ling was portrayed by Sun Yifei.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b "Charles HSING-LING" (PDF). (in French). 14 December 2020. p. 83. Retrieved 8 February 2022. On a joué la comédie ; une pièce anglaise en trois actes a été même supérieurement interprétée par les filles de l'ambassadeur, Mlles Lizzie et Nelly Yu, et leurs frères, MM. John Shung-Ling et Charles Hsing-ling.
  2. ^ a b c d e Witchard, Anne (15 October 2019). "Dancing Modern China". Modernism/modernity. 4 (3). doi:10.26597/mod.0130. S2CID 211657946. Retrieved 4 February 2022.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Lee, Lily Xiao Hong; Lau, Clara; Stefanowska, A. D., eds. (17 July 2015). Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, Volume 1: The Qing Period, 1644-1911. Assisted by Wiles, Sue. Milton Park: Routledge. ISBN 9781317475880.
  4. ^ a b c d e Hayter-Menzies, Grant (2008). Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling (PDF). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 9789622098817.
  5. ^ a b "Miss Yu-Keng's Mistake". Humboldt Times. Eureka, CA. 12 April 1903. Retrieved 14 February 2022.
  6. ^ Princess Der Ling (1911). "Foreword by Thomas F. Millard". Two Years in the Forbidden City. New York: Moffat, Yard & Company.
  7. ^ a b Zhujiujun (22 March 2019). "慈禧的御前女官,中国第一个女芭蕾舞蹈家,晚年却被打断腿" [Lady-in-Waiting of the Imperial Court and China's First Ballet Dancer]. (in Simplified Chinese). Retrieved 6 February 2022.
  8. ^ a b c Chan, Nicholas L. (14 June 2017). 被誤認的老照片 [Misidentified Old Photos] (in Traditional Chinese). Hong Kong: Hong Kong Open Page Publishing. p. 39. ISBN 9789888466030.
  9. ^ a b c d e "Best Known of Chinese Women Movie 'Struck': Yu Roungling, Lady in Waiting to Empress Dowager, Highly Favored". San Pedro Daily News. Los Angeles. 9 April 1926. Retrieved 4 February 2022.
  10. ^ a b Ma, Nan (2015). Dancing into Modernity: Kinesthesia, Narrative, and Revolutions in Modern China, 1900-1978 (Thesis). p. 70.
  11. ^ a b Chang, Jung (26 September 2013). Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. London: Jonathan Cape. p. 323. ISBN 9781448191420.
  12. ^ "Paris Chinese in European Fancy Dress". Chicago Sunday Tribune. Chicago. 17 March 1901. p. 9. Retrieved 5 February 2022.
  13. ^ "Romance of the New Chinese Minister's Life" (PDF). The Washington Times. Washington, D.C. 25 January 1903. Retrieved 14 February 2022.
  14. ^ Midgette, Anne (16 September 2011). "Century-old portraits of a Chinese empress show an eye for good public relations". The Washington Post. Retrieved 9 February 2022.
  15. ^ a b Xiao, Huang (27 December 2021). "Alle origini della screendance in Cina: Visioni (Xiang 象) in trasformazione e forme (Xing 形) artistiche". Danza e Ricerca: Laboratorio di Studi, Scritture, Visioni (in Italian). scritture (13). doi:10.6092/issn.2036-1599/14130. Retrieved 4 February 2022.
  16. ^ "差點成為光緒妃子的中法混血女孩" [The Girl Who Almost Became a Concubine of Guangxu]. (in Traditional Chinese). 25 June 2020. Retrieved 15 February 2022.
  17. ^ Chadourne, Marc (1935). "Belle au bois dormant". Tour de la Terre, tome 2 : Extrême Orient (in French). Paris: Plon. ISBN 9782259289399. Devant la petite île de rocaille où l'ex-empereur Kouang-Hseu, fils infortuné de la douairière, trouva avant de mourir une Sainte-Hélène sans gloire, elle évoqua avec mélancolie (« il m'avait proposé d'être sa concubine »).
  18. ^ Princess Der Ling (1936). "容齡郡主前序" [Foreword by Princess Roung Ling]. 御香縹緲錄 [Imperial Incense] (in Traditional Chinese). Translated by Chin, Shou-ou. Shanghai: Shun Pao Press.
  19. ^ "Un Saint-Cyrien Chinois". L'Illustration (in French). Paris. 23 December 1905. Retrieved 5 February 2022.
  20. ^ Meltz, Renaud (2008). Alexis Léger dit Saint-John Perse (in French). Paris: Éditions Flammarion. p. 200. ISBN 978-2-0812-0582-6.
  21. ^ Rong, Tao (1995). "记容龄谈西太后轶事" [Anecdotes about the Empress Dowager Cixi told by Roungling]. 中华文史资料文库 [Chinese Historical Accounts Series] (in Simplified Chinese). 1. Retrieved 13 February 2022.
  22. ^ Thompson Seton, Grace (1924). "IX. Overlord of Four Hundred Million". Chinese Lanterns. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co. pp. 117–137.
  23. ^ Chan, Heather (2017). "From Costume to Fashion: Visions of Chinese Modernity in Vogue Magazine, 1892–1943". Ars Orientalis. 47 (20220203). doi:10.3998/ars.13441566.0047.009. Retrieved 6 February 2022.
  24. ^ "Marco Polo's invitation". Retrieved 8 March 2022.
  25. ^ Acton, Harold (2008) [1948]. Memoirs of an Aesthete. London: Faber and Faber. p. 278. ISBN 9780571247660.
  26. ^ John Van Antwerp MacMurray (cinematographer) (June 1926). Madame Dan's sword dance (Motion picture). Princeton, NJ: Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library. Retrieved 4 February 2022.
  27. ^ Madame Dan Pao Tchao, née Princess Shou Shan (1934) [1930]. Hsiang Fei: A Love Story of the Emperor Ch'ien Lung (second ed.). Peiping: The Yu Lien Press. OCLC 23670819.
  28. ^ "北平慈善遊藝會上表演美國舞之唐寶潮夫人" [Madame Dan Pao Tchao performing American dance at the Peiping Charity Fair]. Pei-Yang Pictorial News (in Traditional Chinese). Tientsin. 18 February 1937. Retrieved 16 February 2022.
  29. ^ Zhang, Zudao (February 1999). "张祖道访问文章:女官裕容龄" [Zhang Zudao's Interview with Yu Roung Ling, the Former Lady-in-Waiting]. Chinese Photography (in Simplified Chinese). Beijing: China Photographers Association. Retrieved 8 February 2022.
  30. ^ "裕容龄:中国芭蕾第一人,被状元拒婚,晚年被打断双腿悲惨离世" [Yu Roung Ling: The First Chinese Ballerina]. (in Simplified Chinese). 16 September 2020. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  31. ^ Hayter-Menzies, Grant (1 October 2013). Shadow Woman: The Extraordinary Career of Pauline Benton. Montreal: McGill-Queen's Press. p. 120. ISBN 9780773589100.
  32. ^ a b "她才是中国芭蕾第一人!用一生诠释什么叫'最后的贵族'" [The First Chinese Ballet Dancer, the Last Aristocrat]. (in Simplified Chinese). 19 February 2021. Retrieved 5 February 2022.
  33. ^ "她曾教慈禧太后跳現代舞 晚年悽慘遭紅衛兵批鬥斷雙腿" [The Girl Who Revealed Modern Dance to Empress Dowager Cixi, Her Legs were Broken by Red Guards in Her Later Years]. (in Traditional Chinese). 27 October 2020. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  34. ^ a b c Huang, Liuling (2020). "德龄家族:近代中国文化外交的先驱者" [The Family of Der Ling: Pioneer of Modern Chinese Cultural Diplomacy]. 文史天地 [History of World] (in Simplified Chinese) (3). ISSN 1671-2145. Retrieved 11 February 2022.
  35. ^ Davit (26 March 2020). "ความลับอันสุดเศร้าของประเทศไทย" [Thailand's Saddest Secret]. (in Thai). Retrieved 12 February 2022.
  36. ^ "唐寶潮將軍夫人及女公子所扮活動圖畫" [Madame Dan Pao-Tchao and her daughter Lydia as the Kuangying Buddhisatawa and the Page]. Pei-Yang Pictorial News (in Traditional Chinese). Tientsin. 1929. Retrieved 11 February 2022.