Dancing Modern China
Volume 4, Cycle 3
The dancer will not belong to a nation but to all humanity.
—Isadora Duncan (1903)
While the attention of modernist scholarship to literary cultural circulation has begun to include late-Qing China, there remains something extraordinary if not surreal about the notion of a Manchu princess performing Duncanesque “Greek” dance before an admiring Empress Cixi and the assembled ladies and eunuchs of her court. Derided in the Western press at the time as a passing “impulse” of the “fickle” Dowager, even now the story of Yu Rongling’s performance challenges inherited perceptions of a rigidly archaic Qing court, inviolate from the assaults of modernity.
In its direct emergence from encounters between Asia and the West, modern dance (or art dance, aesthetic dance, or Greek dance as it was variously known) is perhaps of all the arts the most exemplary of the transnational traffic and cultural exchange characteristic of early modernism. What is more, attention to dance challenges the current centrality of poetry in discussions about China’s significance in modernist studies. Yu Rongling (1882–1973) acknowledged now by Chinese dance historiography as “the first Modern Dancer of China,” was the daughter of the high-ranking Manchu diplomat, Yu Keng, who served as Chinese Minister to Paris from 1899 to1903. It was during this period that his daughters took dance classes taught by Isadora Duncan.
On June 16, 1904, (that most serendipitous date for modernism), some fifteen months since she and her sister Yu Derling, newly returned from their father’s posting had been appointed Ladies-in-Waiting to the Empress and honoured with the dynastic title Junzhu (which translates as “princess”), Rongling gave a gala presentation in the courtyard of the Hall of Longevity in Peking’s reconstructed Summer Palace. She was to perform three dances especially requested from her repertoire by Cixi herself. First a traditional Chinese Ruyi dance in Manchu dress (ruyi is a jade mascot meaning good fortune), then a tarantella in a yellow Spanish gown and red tasselled shawl, and finally a “Greek” dance for which she wore an ancient Egyptian style costume. She was accompanied both by court musicians of Peking Opera and a Western orchestra brought from Tientsin (Tianjin).
On the face of it Cixi’s “impulse” to engage with Western dance forms might be seen to illustrate in reverse the fascination with “the other” that drove Anglo-European modernism’s turn to the Orient. Close attention to the particular geo-political context of Yu Rongling’s experience however, enhances our recognition that dance in its early modernist expression was more reciprocal and multidirectional than simplistic binarism allows. I will argue here that the mutual borrowings of modern dance were facilitated in large part by its nascent development under the patronage of international networks of a ruling-class cosmopolitan elite.
Dance as Diplomacy
Miss Nellie Yu-Keng . . . speaks English and French. . . . She is described as extremely pretty and possessing all the charm and grace of a modern Parisienne. [She] can hardly fail to be a popular acquisition to diplomatic society
—New York Times (1903)
The widely-travelled daughters of Cixi’s avidly reformist Minister for Foreign Affairs, Yu Keng (1895–1903), were uniquely positioned to serve as cultural go-betweens, as the New York Times observed, and as was confirmed by the flurry of positive press attention the elder daughter, Rongling, received during a period when China’s global reputation had been much damaged by reports of the Boxer Uprising (1899–1901).
Their mother, Louisa Pierson, was the daughter of a Boston-born American merchant in Shanghai and his Han Chinese wife. That the Yus’ own interracial marriage was also a love match is in itself indicative of Yu Keng’s remarkably liberal beliefs, according to which he would raise his daughters. The Yu siblings, described somewhat disparagingly by Sir Robert Hart as “a noisy family of English-speaking children,” were fluent also in Japanese and French. As upper-class Manchus, the sisters, like their two brothers, were schooled in Western arts and literature as well as the Chinese classics which, as Rongling would later recall, prepared them well “to be hostesses and something of feminine diplomats.”
The “potential utility of dance in diplomacy” was perhaps first sensed by Yu Keng at an event during his earlier ambassadorial posting to Japan (1895–1899) (Ma Nan, “Dancing into Modernity,” 70). Rongling gave an impromptu performance of a Japanese dance Tsurukame 鶴亀 (crane-tortoise) she had learned from a servant, apparently without her parents’ knowledge. This so impressed the assembled Japanese dignitaries that afterwards a professional Japanese dancer was hired to give her formal training. In Tokyo, Rongling records, she studied “Japanese and English—and dancing!” and then in Paris, “French and English and dancing!”—acknowledging how “very progressive” her father was in facilitating this (Cusack, Chinese Women Speak, 21).
The Yu family took up residence at the Chinese Legation at 4 Avenue Hoche in late summer of 1899 when Paris was buzzing with preparations for the opening of the International Exposition the following spring. Rongling found herself with privileged access to this significant site of modernist cultural exchange at a particularly tumultuous moment in the history of Sino-Western relations. Just as the girls and their mother were poised to embark on a social round of salon soirées and drawing room recitals, outfitted by a French couture house in European gowns, their entrance to Parisian society was sharply curtailed by events back in China.
Among rumours of Boxer atrocities, the “fake news” that the French Minister to China, Stephen Jean-Marie Pichon, had been assassinated by Boxers in Peking provoked an hysterical response in the French press that put Yu Keng and his family and staff in immediate danger of reprisal. The Yus were confined under guard to the embassy and then removed to a villa in Geneva until events settled. As a consequence Rongling did not get to attend the Expo. She could not have failed however to be aware of the sensation caused by the appearance there of the Japanese dancer Kawakami Sada Yakko. Sada Yakko’s media coverage was extensive and adulatory, her popular celebrity swiftly confirmed by the endorsement of “Yacco” scent by Guerlain, while “Yacco” kimono-style robes-de-chambres might be purchased by mail order from the chic Parisian chain Au Mikado. Had it not been for their expeditious removal to Switzerland the Yus would undoubtedly have attended Sada Yakko’s command performance hosted by President Emile Courbet on August 19, 1899.
The significance of Sada Yakko’s triumph at the Expo was that it elevated oriental dance from the realms of the ethnographic sideshow, or exotic music-hall turn, to high art. A young Isadora Duncan, already a favourite of the wealthy hostesses of New York and fresh from her successful debut before London’s artistic and intellectual establishment, arrived in Paris that summer: “One great impression remained with me of the Exhibition of 1900,” she wrote in her memoir, “the dancing of Sada Yacco.” For the Parisian avant garde, Sadda Yakko’s “Japan” facilitated a shift from the lush orientalisms of the Symbolists to “a new Orient,” its stylized, ritualistic theatre akin to their conception of ancient Greece. At the same time, Sadda Yakko’s husband and partner Otojiro Kawakami expressed a more prosaic understanding of their company’s success in Europe—that it was directly related to their status in relation to the Chinese. Admonishing his cast not to rest on their laurels, he reminded them: “The great fame and fortune that our troupe has met with today is by no means due to our own abilities but because, as the Japanese empire won the recent war [the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895], many countries have focused their attention on Japan” (Downer, Madame Sadayakko, 175).
For China’s progressive thinkers like Yu Keng, Japan’s swift modernization since the Meiji Restoration was at once a vexing rebuke to China’s stagnation and an unavoidable role model. For most reform-minded artists and intellectuals in late-Qing China, Yu Keng among them, their exposure to Western culture was mediated via their studies in Japan and Japanese-translated works. This in itself begins to complicate a straightforward East-West binary model of intercultural encounter, as of course does any proper consideration of modernism from a global perspective. “Unofficially,” remembered Alexis Leger (the poet whose pen name was Saint-John Perse, and secretary to the French embassy in Peking, 1916–1921) Yu “devoted all his private activity to artistic and literary personalities who at that time exerted a certain influence on the Parisian avant-garde.” He “turned his Legation into a private center of culture whose influence contributed a great deal towards making orientalism [his usage simply refers to things Chinese] fashionable at a time of very hostile feelings towards China” (Perse, Letters, 347). The opprobrium suffered by China after the Boxer “outrage” had put Yu in “a difficult diplomatic position,” observed Leger, yet he had “managed to carry off the situation successfully with all the intellectual refinement, moral elegance, and tact of an old Asian aristocrat, who was remarkably open to the psychology of the Parisian milieu” (347).
As Anne Reynes-Delobel notes, the political affairs of belle-époque Paris were conducted in its salons and drawing rooms, sites “of sociability where alliances were made consolidating the dynastic power of . . . ‘patrimonial capitalism’” and that “were also in the avant-garde of the artistic scene.” For a cosmopolitan aristocracy who spent their time between Paris, London, New York and, increasingly, the Far East, “to promote arts and letters was one way of assuring the predominance of a social and cultural model. It was also a matter of distinguishing oneself and being spoken of . . . financing a spectacle or a concert, was one way of accomplishing this.” Accordingly, at the start of 1901 Yu Keng arranged a costume party to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The headline “Paris Chinese in European Fancy Dress” appeared in the Chicago Sunday Tribune, placed not unfortuitously next to a piece about Japanese military aggression in Manchuria. “Lord Yu,” it reported, “is particularly proud of his Europeanized family.” A captioned illustration of the family singled out for praise Miss Nellie (Rongling) costumed in satin breeches “as Prince Charming” who “glided through the French dances with a grace that made her the cynosure of all eyes” (“Paris Chinese,” 9).
One source of the public fascination generated by Sada Yakko was the cosmopolitan ease with which she accomplished sartorial switches between traditional kimono and high-collared tea gown. The similarly constructed profile of Yu’s eldest daughter would play no small part in re-focusing the anti-Chinese “yellow peril” rhetoric of the Boxer era. The society columns of the syndicated press remarked on her “perfect type of Chinese beauty [which] she accentuates on occasion with the modish costume of the French woman of fashion” and on her being “as thoroughly Parisian as a Chinese maiden can ever hope to be.” Reaching for a point of reference familiar to readers, the Philadelphia Inquirer tapped into musical comedy preconceptions about “almond eyed ladies of the Orient” in a piece titled “When San Toy Gets A Chance,” observing that when Chinese maidens “have an opportunity to show that they are not mere dolls to be fed with sugar plums” they “seize it valiantly” and take part in “amateur theatricals and concerts, dance at the balls given by different legations in Paris and have their dresses made by Worth and Paquin.”
While the public endorsement of Sadda Yakko provided a vital role model for Yu Rongling, the cultural atmosphere of her father’s “Europeanized” embassy provided an enabling environment for her artistic education. A piano was installed and a teacher brought in from the Paris Conservatoire. In the spring of 1901 Isadora Duncan took a studio at 45 Avenue de Villiers, not far from the Chinese legation. She would leave Paris in late summer of 1902, thrilled to be invited by Loie Fuller (who was managing the Kawakami troupe) to “give concerts through Germany with Sada Yacco . . . whose art I admired so much” (Duncan, My Life, 77). By the time Duncan returned from this tour in the autumn, the Yus had left for an extended trip through Spain, Germany, Italy and Russia before arriving back in China in January 1903. The duration of time the Yu sisters studied with Isadora Duncan has grown in the telling. It could only have been a year at most; nevertheless this was a crucial period of pedagogical experiment for Duncan, the contemplation of which would formalize her credo in The Dance of the Future (1903). Yu Derling left a unique record of these classes, which “grew by leaps and bounds” as wealthy “pupils clamoured for lessons,” describing how her taller, more talented sister was favoured for inclusion in Duncan’s salon performances of her “Greek interpretations.”
By her own admission Duncan was amazed by the ease with which she was taken up in “the most impenetrable drawing rooms” of Parisian society. She was offered paid recitals at the private receptions of the French nobility and ex-pat American heiresses where artists and intellectuals mingled with foreign diplomats. Her appearances were noted in the social calendars of the international press, as were those of her “talented” pupil from China. Miss Nellie Yu would demonstrate her Greek dancing skills at another diplomatic event organized by Yu Keng which was recognized by the Paris correspondent for the Observer as “a sign of the appeasement which has come over the relations of China with Europe”:
A Chinese Fete in Paris . . . given a couple of evenings back at the Chinese legation here where Mr Pinero’s Sweet Lavender was performed in English the title role was played with great charm and extraordinary skill by the talented Miss Nellie Yu . . . it concluded with some Greek and Oriental dances very gracefully danced.
I should like very much to see her [Duncan]. I wonder if you could persuade her to come to China.
—Dowager Empress Cixi (1903) (quoted in Der Ling, Lotos Petals, 251)
In her consideration of Anglophone modernist engagement with the theatres of East Asia in the wake of Edward Said, Olga Taxidou draws our attention to an insightful distinction between literary and performative forms of Orientalism. It is the “conspicuous presence of the performer” she suggests, that “makes the intercultural encounter . . . markedly different from textual forms of Orientalism.” Unlike the textual encounter, she suggests, “the materiality of the body” points both to the “specific historical and political conditions” of a performance, and to its being an actual, singular event (Taxidou, Modernism, 123). Most productively for Taxidou (following Alain Badiou), the conspicuous bodily presence of the performer, its “liveness,” becomes “a type of lens through which the intercultural encounter is filtered,” offering “a channel into the interpretive arena of sameness rather than otherness” (123–24, emphasis added).
This notion of sameness consequent upon interpersonal recognition might be expanded into one predicated upon a recognition of sameness that arguably overrides national or ethnic distinction, namely that of class. As I have argued above, the aristocratic and diplomatic networks of a global elite who patronized an artistic avant-garde, be it Isadora Duncan in Moscow, Sadda Yakko in Paris, or Rongling in Peking, enabled performative encounters with influential audiences whose privileged status elided national difference, whose patronage confirmed the distinction of an internationally recognized artistic validity, and who had a vested interest in the “socio-political efficacy” of new dance ideas that were emerging as “embodied responses to the processes of modernization and the conditions of modernity.”
To return, then, to that “event” of June 16, 1904 at the Summer Palace in Peking. Broadly speaking, it was Cixi’s recognition of the need to restore her international reputation after her ill-advised support of the Boxers that lay behind her embrace of modern dance as a weapon in her diplomatic armory. Nevertheless, closer attention to the “presence of the body” of the dancer as a “site of modernist encounter” illuminates a complexity of interaction that more deterministic histories of Cixi have obscured. This was a period, as Frank Dikötter has shown, that despite violent dynastic upheaval was marked by a new and unprecedented openness that afforded amenable forms of diplomatic cultural exchange. Because China’s regime changes were of international consequence, this drew world attention such that the domestic import of this time of transition has been overshadowed. Most notable was the rapid formation of radical modern identities among forward-thinking Chinese.
Having learned something of Isadora Duncan’s philosophy of movement and her “Greek dance,” which, as Rongling explained to her, “can be said to be creating the new, as well reviving the old,” Cixi requested she do the same for Chinese dance. At her suggestion Rongling embarked upon a counterpart to Duncan’s project. She researched traditional Ming Chinese court dance, folk dance, and classical Japanese dance, and sourced Chinese painting and Peking Opera for movement styles, creating in her repertoire at least three “Chinese” dances—Hehua xianzi wu 荷花 仙子舞 (Dance of the Lotus Blossom Fairy), Shan wu 扇舞 (Fan Dance), and the Ruyi wu 如 意舞 (Ruyi Dance) (Ma Nan, “Dancing into Modernity,” 70). Cixi was finally taking her lead from China’s reformists for whom nation building and cultural renewal were intertwined and who, not unlike Isadora Duncan, saw the source of artistic renewal “not externally but internally . . . in China’s deep past.” This was to be a “project of national renewal through the invigoration of a native genius” (Clunas, Chinese Painting, 174). Informed by the global encounters of a Chinese cosmopolitan elite, the old China “no longer an album to be pored over dreamily, [was] on the road to transformation” (Leger, Letters, 294). Though driven by a nationalistic impulse quite antithetical to Duncan’s, it is testament to Cixi’s foresight, that dance would indeed go on to play a central role in the making of modern China.
In June 1926, twenty-two years after Rongling’s dance performance at the Summer Palace, eighteen years after Cixi’s death, fifteen years after the demise of the Qing Dynasty and one year before the death of Isadora Duncan, John Van Antwerp MacMurray (1881–1960), American Envoy to the Republic of China (1925–1929), filmed a three-minute sequence of Madame Dan (Yu Rongling). She is performing a Sword Dance against the background of the walls of Peking’s Temple of Heaven. The dance was inspired by Ba wang bie ji 霸王別姬 (the heroic king’s farewell to his concubine by Mei Lanfang 梅蘭 芳 (1894–1961). Rong Ling had married General Dan Pao-tchao (唐寶潮) of the Qing Cavalry in 1912. During the Republican era, Rongling was appointed Mistress of Ceremonies to President Li Yuanhung, and the couple were prominent in Peking high society. Harold Acton would acknowledge Rongling’s pivotal cultural role in the new Republic as being informed by her “early experience of two civilizations when they were sharply demarcated.” Less appreciatively, his friend Alan Priest wrote home that “Madame Dan was given to performing terrible pseudo-Chinese and Denis shawn [sic] dances. She persists in being a professional court beauty (she must have been lovely) and talks as if she had run the empire for a decade or so.” Acton’s comments are more acute: “In a social sense,” he wrote, “she had been one of the pioneers of Westernisation but this Westernisation had gone too far for her, and she looked back wistfully to the pageantry of her youth” (Memoirs of an Aesthete, 278).
The Dans remained in China after 1949 and managed by various strategies to negotiate their survival during the early years of Mao’s regime. In 1955 Rongling was invited by Zhou Enlai to work in the Central Chamber of Art and Culture to study imperial court dance. Perhaps less strategically, Madame Dan went on to write her memoirs during the time of Mao’s “Hundred Flowers” campaign. In 1973 she was dragged from her apartment by the Red Guards and, symbolically, both her legs were broken by the Red Guards. She died in hospital aged 91.
 Isadora Duncan gave a lecture in Berlin, “The Dance of the Future” (1903), published as Der Tanz Der Zukunft, ed. Karl Federm (Leipzig: Eugen Diederichs, 1903) and then reproduced in The Dance (New York: Forest Press, 1909), 21.
 “The humiliating defeat of the First Sino-Japanese War intensified the Chinese literati’s desire for reform. In part because of savage critiques by May Fourth writers, this generation of reformers has often been dismissed as atavistic, but recent scholarship has emphasized the modernity of the late Qing” (Christopher Bush, “Modernism in East Asia,” Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, September 5, 2016).
 “French Styles The Vogue In China,” Washington Times, January 24, 1904, 27.
 On the evolution of terms to describe the various manifestations of dance that departed from classical dance after the reform initiatives of Loie Fuller (1892) and Isadora Duncan (1900), see Gabriele Brandstetter, Poetics of Dance: Body, Image and Space in the Historical Avant-Gardes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 19.
 Shih-Ming Li Chang and Lynn E. Frederiksen, Chinese Dance: In the Vast Land and Beyond (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2016), 34.
 Yu Derling (1885–1944) would be better known in the West as Princess Der Ling, author of Two Years in the Forbidden City (1911) and many other works; see Grant Hayter-Menzies, Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008).
 See Ma Nan, “Dancing into Modernity: Kinesthesia, Narrative, and Revolutions in Modern China, 1900–1978” (unpublished PhD diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2015), 77.
 “The New Chinese Minister: Expected in Washington This Week—Member of an Ancient Family and Very Wealthy,” New York Times, March 30, 1903, 9.
 For an account of how intellectuals of China’s reform period (1861–1895) rejected arranged marriages and concubinage in favour of free individual choice, monogamy and a Western model of romantic love, see Lynn Pan, When True Love Came to China (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press 2016).
 Sir Robert Hart was Inspector-General of the Imperial Maritime Customs in Peking (1863–1911). See Hayter-Menzies, Imperial Masquerade, 4, 52.
 Dymphna Cusack, Chinese Women Speak (London: Angus and Robertson, 1959), 18.
 See Ma Nan, “Dancing into Modernity,” 70.
 See Hayter-Menzies, Imperial Masquerade, 80.
 See Paul A. Cohen and Paul A. Townsend, History in Three Keys; The Boxers as Event, Experience and Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997)
 See Hayter-Manzies, Imperial Masquerade, 91–95.
 See Lesley Downer, Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Seduced the West (London: Review, 2003), 201, 182.
 Isadora Duncan and Joan Acocella, Isadora Duncan: My Life (New York: Liveright, 2013), 54.
 Saint-John Perse, Letters, ed. and trans. Arthur J. Knodel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 347.
 “Paris Chinese in European Fancy Dress,” Chicago Sunday Tribune, March 17, 1901, 9.
 “Chen’s Bride-Elect Now Reigns in Paris,” Saint Paul Globe, December 10 1902, 1.
 “When San Toy Gets A Chance,” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 16, 1902, 11. San Toy was a popular musical comedy.
 See Yin Wei, “Yu Rongling,” trans. Koon-ki Tommy Ho, in Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: The Qing Period, 1644–1911, ed. Lily Xiao Hong Lee, Clara Lau, A. D. Stefanowska (London: Routledge, 1998), 267–69.
 Yu Rongling 裕容齡, “Qingmo wudaojia Yu Rongling huiyilu” 清末舞蹈家裕容齡回憶錄 (The Memoir of Yu Rongling, A dancer of the Late Qing), Wudao 舞蹈 no. 2 (March, 1958), 44–45; cited in Ma Nan, “Dancing into Modernity,” 31.
Der Ling, Lotos Petals (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1930), 236.
 Peter Kurth, Isadora: A Sensational Life (London: Abacus, 2003), 73.
 Observer, March 2, 1902, 5.
 Olga Taxidou, Modernism and Performance: Jarry to Brecht (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 123.
 See Frank Dikötter, The Age of Openness: China Before Mao (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
 Yu Rongling, “Qingmo wudaojia Yu Rongling huiyilu,” 45, quoted in Ma Nan, “Dancing into Modernity,” 70.
 Craig Clunas, Chinese Painting and its Audiences (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 174.
 See Emily Wilcox, “Beyond Internal Orientalism: Dance and Nationality Discourse in the Early People’s Republic of China, 1949–1954,” Journal of Asian Studies 75, no. 2 (2016): 363–86.
 I have taken this from Ma Nan, “Dancing into Modernity,” where she notes this timeline, 80.
 Harold Acton, Memoirs of an Aesthete (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), 278.
 Priest to Paul Sachs, February 26, 1927, in Karl E. Mayer and Shareen Blair Brysac, The China Collectors: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures (New York: Palgrave, 2015), 250. Alan Reed Priest (1898–1969) was in Peking on a fellowship from Harvard studying the Forbidden City and Peking Opera. A flamboyant yet hot tempered character, Acton describes him wearing Buddhist robes and serving cocktails in his house on the moat in the Forbidden City. He was curator of East Asian Art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1928 until 1963. He no doubt encountered Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, and their Denishawn Dancers when they toured the Far East including Peking in 1925.
 See Cusack, Chinese Women Speak.
 See Yu Rongling, “Qingmo wudaojia Yu Rongling huiyilu,” 44–45, quoted in Ma Nan, “Dancing into Modernity,” 278.
 Grant Hayter-Menzies, Shadow Woman: The Extraordinary Career of Pauline Benton (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013), 120.