Manchu "princess" speaking English

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"Is your English better than that of this Qing dynasty ‘princess’?" (YouTube 1:01)


This video, which was initially posted to the internet on May 15, 2018, for some reason has gone viral in recent days.

The speaker is "Princess" Der Ling (1885-1944), "a Hanjun bannerwoman, the daughter of Yü Keng (Chinese: 裕庚; pinyin: Yù Geng; Wade–Giles: Yu Keng) and Louisa Pearson, the half-Chinese daughter of a Boston merchant working in Shanghai".  (Wikipedia)  Though of Han ethnicity, she was thus a member of the military aristocracy of the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

Selected readings

This article examines the introduction of English to the treaty port of Shanghai and the speech communities that developed there as a result. English became a sociocultural phenomenon rather than an academic subject when it entered Shanghai in the 1840s, gradually generating various social activities of local Chinese people who lived in the treaty port. Ordinary people picked up a rudimentary knowledge of English along trading streets and through glossary references, and went to private schools to improve their linguistic skills. They used English to communicate with foreigners and as a means to explore a foreign presence dominated by Western material culture.Although those who learned English gained small-scale social mobility in the late nineteenth century, the images of English-speaking Chinese were repeatedly criticized by the literati and official scholars. This paper explores Westerners’ travel accounts, as well as various sources written by the new elite Chinese, including official records and vernacular poems, to demonstrate how English language acquisition brought changes to local people’s daily lives. I argue that treaty-port English in nineteenth-century Shanghai was not only a linguistic medium but, more importantly, a cultural agent of urban transformation. It gradually molded a new linguistic landscape, which at the same time contributed to the shaping of modern Shanghai culture.

[h.t. John Rohsenow]


  1. Alex said,

    August 24, 2020 @ 12:38 am

    Just a guess but not too long ago there was a trend on douyin here in China with locals trying to show how they have good English with a anti american expat slant.

    An example would be they would say in Chinese, some variation of "today i was in a coffee shop and there was an american speaking loudly. I asked him in English "can you please keep it down." (different videos different variations) Then the american would say wow your English is so good. Then the local would say a more complicated English phrase in contempt of the patronizing american.

    Just a pure guess but it wouldn't surprise me given the title of the youtube video.

  2. Nick Kaldis said,

    August 24, 2020 @ 10:04 am

    The bibliography and notes in Chunmei DU's _Gu Hongming's Eccentric Chinese Odyssey_ (a new book from Victor Mair's "Encounters With Asia" series), documents Princess Der Ling's book _Two Years in the Forbidden City_ as well as books about Der Ling: _Empress and Mrs. Conger_, & _Imperial Masquerade_, for anyone interested.

  3. Vanya said,

    August 25, 2020 @ 1:17 am

    Then the american would say wow your English is so good.

    That, honestly, doesn’t sound like the kind of thing American expats would say. Americans usually expect non-natives to have fairly fluent English,and certainly wouldn’t be surprised by a native Chinese producing a fairly complicated utterance. These anecdotes sound more like Chinese projecting their own attitudes toward language onto foreigners and creating an urban legend.

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    August 25, 2020 @ 4:11 am

    Not being an American, I have no idea of the average American expatriate's expectations regarding the linguistic abilities of "non-natives" (whoever they may be), but I did once congratulate a native Chinese speaker on his oral Chinese ! What I meant, of course, was that his oral Chinese was so easy for a non-native Chinese speaker such as myself to understand, but he understandably found my 你的 漢語 很好!highly amusing !

  5. Michael Watts said,

    August 25, 2020 @ 5:59 am

    Speaking as an American who has lived in Shanghai, I would never dream of assuming that a native Chinese person would be able to speak "fairly fluent English". I have met Chinese of every English ability level including native-level fluency[1]; the modal level is quite low.

    [1] This person indeed got an explicit inquiry from me as to why her English was so good, based on a sentence similar to "are you really not gonna eat anything?". The perfect grammar was worthy of note, but the flawless American pronunciation was much more so. I tend to suspect that the douyin trend did not involve flawless native pronunciation.

  6. M. Paul Shore said,

    August 25, 2020 @ 6:39 am

    I once experienced the equivalent of what Philip Taylor describes above: I was complimented for the clarity of my English pronunciation by an employee of a Beijing store that catered to foreign tourists, with most of the employees having at least passable English skills. I appreciated the compliment because I’d been making an effort, speaking maybe 10% slower than normal, and making sure every consonant was sounded distinctly and a tiny bit louder than normal. She said that most English-speaking customers slurred their sounds together in a way that made it hard for the employees to understand them.

    My approach to easily understandable English pronunciation was actually based on my longstanding difficulties understanding the rapid, slurred-together dialog in French movies. (By contrast, I find the speech in French news broadcasts to be not too hard to understand as long as I maintain my concentration.)

  7. cliff arroyo said,

    August 25, 2020 @ 9:53 am

    I was once drafted to do some Polish to English interpreting at an event at my university (several journalists from a couple of different Asian countries were doing some kind of government sponsored tour and we were on the itinerary).

    I'm not great at this type of event because my personality type is all wrong for an interpreter (I get bored and distracted easily rather than staying focused on the message). After the ceremony part was over one Polish administrator I'd never met before told me (in Polish) that my English was very good:
    "Well, I am American…" I started.
    "Even so" he answered "it was really very good!".

  8. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 25, 2020 @ 1:17 pm

    @ cliff arroyo — Might the Polish administrator’s comment have referred to more than clearly spoken and grammatical English? Perhaps your translations employed a large working vocabulary used in a way that was sensitive to nuance, applying the optimal English word or phrase to express a Polish speaker’s intended meaning. The compliment you received may have been about more than pronunciation and grammar.

  9. David C. said,

    August 25, 2020 @ 8:38 pm

    A common sentiment of European colleagues I have worked with is that native speakers of English are often more difficult to understand because of the frequent use of sports analogies, slang, slurred speech, and just a general lack of awareness that native spoken English is not quite the same as the Euro English lingua franca that everyone studied at school. When working with non-native speakers, I take extra care in my speech to proceed at a normal pace and to say something in two different ways whenever there is a possibility for confusion.

    @Philip Taylor
    If the opportunity arises again, one compliment you may want to try is "你的普通話很標準。" [Nǐ de pǔtōnghuà hěn biāozhǔn] (literally: your Putonghua [Mandarin] is very standard.) Chinese whose mother tongue is not Mandarin usually take that kind of compliment very well, as a sign of being well-educated. Unfortunately, 你的漢語很好 is an example of one of those phrases that are taught to and only expected from/of foreigners, à la "¿Dónde está la biblioteca?". Chinese speakers by and large refer to their language as 中文, unless needing to stress the distinction from a foreign language or a minority language.

  10. cliff arroyo said,

    August 26, 2020 @ 3:49 am

    @Barbara Phillips Long – I think it was a combination of speaking a bit more slowly and clearly than usual (since the recipients were non-native speakers) and the very common (if seldom articulated out loud) opinion in Poland that English from England is generally better and more correct than American English (and most Poles long to speak as correctly as possible which has shaped post WWII Polish in lots of interesting ways).

  11. Rodger C said,

    August 27, 2020 @ 7:03 am

    Is American English really "slurred," or is it simply a matter of L2 speakers' unfamiliarity with American prosody? I strongly suspect the latter.

  12. BobW said,

    August 27, 2020 @ 12:41 pm

    @Roger C: I dunno, mite cuh dbee so.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    August 28, 2020 @ 10:05 pm

    Following up on Nick Kaldis' comment above, this note comes from Chunmei Du:

    The whole family is fascinating. I actually did some preliminary research on Yu Ling’s sister, Rong Ling, who is often called the first Chinese modern dancer. Both sisters studied with Isadora Duncan in Paris but Rong Ling continued her dance practice after the family came back to China. She brought “modern dance” to Empress Dowager Cixi, with her own creations that experimented with forms from Chinese opera, folk, and classic dances, and continued her public appearance well into the Republican era.

    Here is a link to the only known video of Rong Ling’s dance if you are interested in the body language of a hybrid “Chinese” woman dancer.

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