Bound Feet and Western Dress: A Memoir

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Overview

"In China, a woman is nothing."

Thus begins the saga of a woman born at the turn of the century to a well-to-do, highly respected Chinese family, a woman who continually defied the expectations of her family and the traditions of her culture. Growing up in the perilous years between the fall of the last emperor and the Communist Revolution, Chang Yu-i's life is marked by a series of rebellions: her refusal as a child to let her mother bind her feet, her scandalous divorce, and her rise to Vice President of ...

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Overview

"In China, a woman is nothing."

Thus begins the saga of a woman born at the turn of the century to a well-to-do, highly respected Chinese family, a woman who continually defied the expectations of her family and the traditions of her culture. Growing up in the perilous years between the fall of the last emperor and the Communist Revolution, Chang Yu-i's life is marked by a series of rebellions: her refusal as a child to let her mother bind her feet, her scandalous divorce, and her rise to Vice President of China's first women's bank in her later years.

In the alternating voices of two generations, this dual memoir brings together a deeply textured portrait of a woman's life in China with the very American story of Yu-i's brilliant and assimilated grandniece, struggling with her own search for identity and belonging. Written in pitch-perfect prose and alive with detail, Bound Feet and Western Dress is the story of independent women struggling to emerge from centuries of customs and duty.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this exquisite memoir, Chang Yu-i, the daughter of a distinguished Chinese family, recreates her life for her American-born grandniece, Pang-Mei, a Harvard student who is conflicted about her identity. Born in 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, Yu-i was a victim of the tension between Western ideas and Chinese tradition. Her parents were sufficiently progressive not to insist on binding her feet but nevertheless believed that a woman was nothing except the obedient servant of her husband, in-laws and children. Dutifully, Yu-i accepted the marriage they arranged for her to Hsu Chi-mo, a poet so entranced by Western culture that, on their wedding night, he declared his intention to have the first Western-style divorce in China. Although this did not happen at once, after Yu-i had born him a son and submitted to several years of his cruelty, he deserted her while she was again pregnant. Refusing his demand that she abort the child, but ashamed to face disgrace at home, and rejecting thoughts of suicide, she joined her brother in Germany, where she educated herself, becoming a teacher and a successful businesswomaneventually the first woman vice-president of the Shanghai Women's Bank. With details of a life that straddled pre-Communist and Communist China, this is an enthralling tale of a woman who achieved independence despite great odds. Photos. (Sept.)
Library Journal
A nonfiction Joy Luck Club from a Chinese American lawyer.
Kirkus Reviews
Chang, a lawyer and first-generation Chinese-American, tells the story of her great-aunt's long, often hard, remarkable life.

Chang Yu-i was born in 1900 to a large and affluent family. As she grows up traditional China is gradually becoming Westernized: Yu-i herself is the first girl in her family to escape foot-binding; she is always aware of how this gave her freedom. Married at 15 to a scholar (and later renowned poet Hsu Chih-mo), a mother at 18, Yu-i is a docile wife and daughter-in-law who obeys the customs of filial devotion dutifully. But her husband is uncaring, often absent, and she feels restless and uneducated. Their marriage continues to deteriorate even after she leaves their son in China and joins her husband in Cambridge, England. He disappears, and pregnant, lonely, and depressed, Yu-i moves to Berlin with a brother and studies to become a teacher. Her husband returns to ask for a divorce, and Yu-i reluctantly agrees, without her parents' permission, to what would be the first modern, "no-fault" divorce in China. She emerges from this experience a determined, strong young woman. After the tragic early death of her second son, Yu-i returns to China and combines her traditional background and Western knowledge to become a successful businesswoman and bank vice president. Believing strongly that "love means taking responsibility, fulfilling a duty," she takes care of her in-laws and parents until their deaths. After a second marriage in Hong Kong, she ends her long life in New York City, resilient to the last.

Around Yu-i's first-person story Chang writes of her own struggle to assimilate into suburban America and succeed as both a regular American girl and a dutiful Chinese daughter. However, these parts of the book pale beside Yu-i's fascinating life and her plainspoken wisdom.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385479646
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/28/1997
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 720,510
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.53 (d)

Meet the Author

Pang-Mei Natasha Chang was raised in Connecticut. She received her B.A. in Chinese Studies from Harvard and a J.D. degree from Columbia University School of Law. She practiced law in New York City before moving to Moscow, where she currently resides with her husband. Bound Feet and Western Dress is her first book.
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Read an Excerpt

"In China, a woman is nothing."

Thus begins the saga of a woman born at the turn of the century to a well-to-do, highly respected Chinese family, a woman who continually defied the expectations of her family and the traditions of her culture. Growing up in the perilous years between the fall of the last emperor and the Communist Revolution, Chang Yu-i's life is marked by a series of rebellions: her refusal as a child to let her mother bind her feet, her scandalous divorce, and her rise to Vice President of China's first women's bank in her later years.

In the alternating voices of two generations, this dual memoir brings together a deeply textured portrait of a woman's life in China with the very American story of Yu-i's brilliant and assimilated grandniece, struggling with her own search for identity and belonging. Written in pitch-perfect prose and alive with detail, Bound Feet and Western Dress is the story of independent women struggling to emerge from centuries of customs and duty.
Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

1. In Yu-i's family, each child was assigned a role from the start, so that a child was often limited (or given opportunities) on the basis of his or her name. For instance, "Yu" means goodness, and "i" means propriety. Did Yu-i live up to her name? Did your name play a part in making you who you are?

2. Pang-Mei tells the story in Yu-i's voice, after introducing each chapter with anecdotes from her own childhood or young adult life. Does this choice limit our understanding of either Pang-Mei or Yu-i? Did you want more or less of either woman's story?

3. Yu-i believes that her family's misfortune made them strong, a common theme in many immigrants' stories. Does the struggle always mean something? Or is the need to believe in its importance a form of self-protection?

4. As a girl, Pang-Mei felt safest within her Chinese heritage when she was with Xu Ma, her amah. Do the children of immigrants, with a foot in each culture, bear the brunt of their parents' decision to leave home?

5. How did family secrets harm the Chang family throughout its history?

6. Food often provides more than sustenance in Yu-i's story. Discuss its importance.

7. Did Yu-i believe the legends and myths and rules that decreed that girls were not as valuable as boys?

8. Yu-i's modesty is forceful--everything about her is understated. Do you think she knew how strong, smart, compassionate, and wise she was?

9. Yu-i describes a few incidents in which her family was not above bending the truth. Is there a contradiction between these actions and the Changs' deep-rooted belief in responsibility, familial duty, and personal integrity?

10. Yu-i has conflicting feelings about her "big" feet, saying for instance, "...they could not make me educated. Nor could they make my husband care for me." Yet she also states unequivocally that she would never bind a daughter's feet. Discuss the ways Yu-i was bound to tradition.

11. In China, up until ninety years ago, they bound young girls' feet. In America today, young girls inflict serious physical damage upon themselves by starving or bingepurging as they try to meet unrealistic standards of physical beauty. Discuss the physical price women pay because of gender. Do men pay such a price?

12. Much of Hsuuml; Chih-mo's treatment of Yu-i can be explained based on Chinese culture. Does this explanation excuse him? Or does a higher universal morality demand that people rise above "acceptable" standards of behavior in the times and culture they are born into?

13. Many artists, writers, performers, composers, and poets have been accused of being selfish, obsessive, irresponsible, even immoral--think of Rilke, Gaugin, and Wagner. Should we separate the person from the work he or she creates? Or is, to paraphrase Emerson, character more important than intellect?

14. Ultimately, Yu-i says, she loved Hsü Chih-mo. Do you believe her?

15. Discuss the different silences in Yu-i's life. Is the silence always oppressive?

16. Was Hsü Chih-mo's remorse at Peter's death a pose? If not, does it excuse his earlier irresponsibility toward his son?

17. Yu-i says she never believed the gossip that Lao Ye and Lao Taitai loved her more than they loved their son, Hsü Chih-mo. She excuses them by saying they "just did not understand Hsü Chih-mo." Do you agree? Or did they see their son's character clearly?

18. Did the act of talking to Pang-Mei bring Yu-i to a new level of understanding her life, making her, in a sense, more modern, less traditional? Did the means become an end?

19. Pang-Mei wears two dresses at her wedding, wanting to incorporate her heritage with her modern life and American husband. On the basis of her family story, do you think she'll be successful?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 8 )
Rating Distribution

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(1)

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2011

    Facinating

    I liked the story, it reminded me of "The Joy Luck Club". It was a bit hard keeping the characters straight though, as the author used the characters multiple names throughout the story. The history was facinating

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2000

    A Brilliant Biography ^ ^

    This is an excellent story illustrating old Chinese customs-especially the role of Chinese women at the turn of the century. You can visualize how it must have been like during the perilous years of China. It's filled with conflicts of traditional Chinese values vs. Western values. A perfect novel to learn about life in China in the 20th century.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2000

    Bound Feet and Western Feet

    The story lets us follow Yu-i on her struggle against a Communist China, about to be modernized. Yu-i is the first generation in her family to have unbound feet, and this, she says, means that she have to become modern. When she is married to her Husband, Hsu Chih-mo, her life will change tremendously. She will have to adapt to him, his way of livin, and his family. This means the end of her freedom, as there is many rules for brides in China at that time. The story is good, but sometimes hard to follow, and not always easy to know who is who, as I am not Chinese, and I do not know the differences between Seventh Brother and Second Brother, and also many other chinese words she uses sometimes.Overall, it is a good book, so if you are interested in China and chinese history, you should absolutely read it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2013

    I have big feet 13 in womans........

    And proud of it!!!!!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 19, 2011

    Horrible

    Worst boook ever........confused throughout the whole thing

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 17, 2002

    Informative Reading

    I enjoyed this book very much and learned much about what it was like to be born a woman in China at the turn of the twentieth century. I think Chang Yuyi had a lot of courage and I am glad that Pang Mei took the time to write the story.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 1999

    WELL-DONE!!!!!!!!!!!

    A brilliant memoir, well described.You'll enjoy it as much as I do.There's no doubt about it.You'll be totally captured by it.Sensational!!!!!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 21, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews

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