“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.
At the beginning of this article, Chang Yu-I give us a fact about Chinese women at that times, they must comply with “the three obediences and the four vitures”. “In China, a woman is nothing. When she is born, she must obey her father. When she is married, she must obey her husband. And when she is widowed, she must obey her son. A woman is nothing, you see.” (p.6, Pangmei Chang) I think this sentence is also the best description of their marriage and social moral background. Before telling story about their marriage, Chang Yu-I narrated a long background of their family, I think this is important to know about her and social background at that time, too. “The first lesson of filial piety is this: that your life and body are gifts to you from your parents.”(p.9) and “The second less is: you must always inform your parents where you are going and what you are doing”(p.10), these two lessons could explain the reasons why she was difficult to go through her failed marriage. Women were taught that they should be honor and respect their family and elder, so if they divorced, it would disgrace both themselves and their families at that time. In this novel, Chang mentioned the importance about fame for many times.
Her mother was promised to marry her dad when she was only two years old, so it seems to be a matter of course that I married at 15. “Flat and soundless, my feet became my talisman, guiding me through a new, large, open world.” (p.23) In fact, Chang Yu-I was only bound feet for three days and didn’t very conservative and unable to alternative as many other women at that time. But for her husband, her feet were bounded, because he thought Chang was conservative and uneducated and described her as “Country bumpkin.” “And now I understood what my amah had meant about being “neither three nor four.” I was supposed to be a modern girl with big feet, but Hsu Chih-mo treated me as though I had bound feet. He thought me old-fashioned and uneducated, and did not care for me. Yet I was not traditional enough for Lao Taitai.” (p. 90) In fact, Chang Yu-I had many new thoughts, but she afraid to express herself to Hsu. The mainly reason is Hsu’s unconcerned behavior to her, when she first time took a plane, she felt terrible. But Hsu shook his head in disgust and say “What a country bumpkin you are.” (p.104), after he said that, he felt sick, too. After read this part, I laughed because I always think Hsu Chiho-Mo liked to put on an act to Chang. He even asked Chang to get an abortion after he knew that she got pregnant. What Hsu really asked is divorce with Chang, because “bound feet and Western dress do not go together”, he thought Chang represents “bound feet” while he represents “western dress”.
After finish reading this book, I think this oral history echo recurring issues about women’s inferior position and harmed in marriage through our class. This book gives an important reason for those tragic women roles, “I was born into changing times and had two faces, one that heard talk of the old and the other that listened for talk of the new, the part of me that stayed East and the other that looked West, the spirit in me that was woman and the other that was man.” (p.15) I think this article is great for me to write my paper, and I plan to write something about the women’s transition during 1910s-1940s. Chang Yu-I was born in 1900 and great changes happened to her, so I think the story of Chang Yu-i is an important information for me to understand the women’s transition at that time. Also, this oral history based article is a good example for me to know about how to write a good oral history paper.