Tuesday, May 7, 2013


"Bound feet and Western dress do not go together," said Chang Yu-i, the author's
grand-aunt, to her husband the day he asked her for a divorce. She was speaking, of course,
of his girlfriend.  Later, Chang Yu-i, her husband and yet another girlfriend co-existed in a modern relationship.  But that unravelled tragically, except that Chang Yu-i persevered and survived it all.

The story in Bound Feet and Western Dress is poignant and bitter, when I think of what Chang Yu-i suffered and endured and still "did her duty."  She had wed at age fifteen to a man she met on her wedding day!

Furthermore, during their years together he barely spoke to her.  He was, I think, not only rebelling against his parents (who had chosen Chang Yu-i for him) but also against archaic Chinese customs ("the old ways").  Ironically, it was only  after the divorce that they became close friends who discussed everything together.    

Chang Yu-i's  husband, the brilliant poet and scholar Hsu Chih-mo, reminds me of another Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who also left his wife for 'true love'.

In fact, strong parallels exist between Hsu Chih-mo and Shelley.  Both were Romantic poets.  (Most of us are more familiar with Shelley’s great poetry; but Hsu Chih-mo’s poetry, quoted in the book, is also stunning and beautiful.)  Both took girlfriends while married, for they believed in "free love".  Both  rejected the "old ways": society and convention.  Both hobnobbed in Europe with famous writers, poets, artistes, and intellectuals of their day; both embraced modern/post-modern ideals; and so on.

At first, I felt Hsu Chi-mo was the 'bad guy' but by the end of the book, I had  a more complex conclusion: He had done the right thing in divorcing Chang Yu-i. His timing was unfortunate, however, having left her when she was with child. An intellectual eager to introduce “Western ways” and thinking to China, Hsu Chih-mo released her so that they both  might pursue more authentic lives, founded on "free choice".

Bound Feet and Western Dress is written by Chang Yu-i's grand-niece, the author Pang-Mei Natasha Chang.  It weaves masterfully the stories of both women.  Chang Yu-i lived a long life enmeshed in difficulties.  She was lucky, however, that her feet had not been bound.   A traditional woman, she tried to be modern.  Life circumstances obligated her to be independent and self-sufficient, in a time when China was being transformed.

"In China," Chang Yu-i said, "a woman is nothing." 

China pervades Bound Feet and Western Dress  with its culture and traditions (such as how foot-binding began) and in the lives of Chinese women--both modern and traditional.

This memoir is beautiful and artfully crafted.  I loved this book!  And although there are no villains, Chang Yu-i was heroic, a woman of  and  ahead of her time.

--Yolanda A.  Reid

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