Traveling 'Princess' and Dancing 'Diplomat': Yu Rongling, Corporeal Modernity, and Isadora Duncan in the Early 1900s China

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This talk is based on the first chapter of Nan Ma’s book When Words Are Inadequate: Modern Dance and Transnationalism in China. The book rewrites the cultural history of modern China from a bodily movement-based perspective through the lens of global dance modernism. It examines the careers and choreographies of four Chinese modern dance pioneers and their connections to canonical Western counterparts, including Isadora Duncan, Mary Wigman, Rudolf von Laban, and Alwin Nikolais. Tracing these Chinese pioneers' varied experiences both at home and abroad, the book shows how they adapted and reimagined the legacies of early Euro-American modern dance. In doing so, Ma reinserts China into the multi-centered, transnational network of artistic exchange that fostered the global rise of modern dance, complicating the binary conceptions of center and periphery and East and West.     This talk focuses on chapter one, featuring Yu Rongling (ca. 1888–1973), daughter of a top-rank Qing diplomat and one of the first students of Isadora Duncan in early 1900s Paris. Ma traces Yu’s dance learning experiences with Duncan in Paris and her international travel from Paris to the late Qing court, where Yu transformed Isadora Duncan’s “Greek dance” into its Chinese counterpart under the auspices of Empress Dowager Cixi. The study rethinks the origin of dance modernism and feminism as global and multiple in nature and of the evolving late Qing court as part of global modernities.    Nan Ma is an associate professor of Chinese language and literature at the Department of East Asian Studies of Dickinson College. She received her Ph.D. in Chinese Studies from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Ma conducts research on modern Chinese literature, film, visual culture, and dance and performance studies and is the author of When Words Are Inadequate: Modern Dance and Transnationalism in China. Her articles on Chinese modern dance, ballet, and film appeared in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, China Perspectives, and the Journal of Beijing Dance Academy. She currently serves as a Dance Research Journal board member.


  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created By: cwhittle9
  • Created: 01/29/2023
  • Modified By: cwhittle9
  • Modified: 03/23/2023