1. Introduction by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang
2. The Story of Yu-i and Pang-Mei
3. Words as Passages to Memory and Meaning
4. A Glossary of Terms in the Book
5. Legend vs. Reality: The Case of Bound Feet
6. About the Author, by the Author
7. An Interview with Pang-Mei Natasha Chang
8. Questions for Discussion
9. Recommended Reading
10. Ordering Information
Introduction by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang
Tea and dumplings. They bring back many memories of my great-aunt, Chang Yu-i. During the five years that I interviewed her regularly, we used to meet at her New York City apartment for morning tea and then a lunch of jiaozi, Chinese dumplings. We were eating jiaozi when she told me that her feet had been bound, our dumplings reminding her of the ones her amah (nanny) fed her before the first wrapping of her feet.
When I began talking to Yu-i about her past, I was an eighteen-year-old Chinese-American who had never given bound feet much thought. As a freshman in Chinese studies at Harvard, I came across Yu-i's name in a history book in 1983, and learned that she had run a women's bank in Shanghai during the 1930s and endured what is considered China's first Western-style divorce. I had known Yu-i throughout most of my childhood, but never these things about her. The next time I saw her, I asked her to tell me more. And so our conversations began.
A willing storyteller, Yu-i was nonetheless initially reserved, even emotionless. As our talks continued, she grew more candid, and her observations astonished me. Most older family members I spoke to considered it taboo to speak about the past in anything but exalted tones. In Yu-i's tales, I saw the truth about being a woman in a culture that cherishes men; I understood the dilemma of accepting a husband's concubine. I saw bits of my own conflicts and ambivalences reflected throughout Yu-i's stories: the values of the East battling with those of the West, the tug between familial duty and individual desire.
It's been seven years since Yu-i's death, and twelve since she and I first sat down to talk about the past. Even now, when I make dumplings I hear her standing over me, directing me to let the water rise twice before serving, the way her mother did when she was a little girl.
--Pang-Mei Natasha Chang
The Story of Yu-i and Pang-Mei
Pang-Mei Natasha Chang was nine years old when she first met her great-aunt Chang Yu-i in 1974. Yu-i had just arrived in New York City, after living in China and then Hong Kong for most of her life. Fourteen years later, after Yu-i entrusted Pang-Mei with her life story, Pang-Mei sat close by in her great-aunt's studio apartment, listening to Yu-i's labored breath the night before she died.
Yu-i's mother, striking an aristocratic pose.
By that time, Pang-Mei had spent years listening and recording her great-aunt's story, gently urging this traditional woman to share her remarkable personal history. It was 1983 when Pang-Mei first came upon Yu-i's name in a textbook for course work in Chinese Studies at Harvard College. Until then she knew little of Yu-i's life, just a few bare facts the family rarely mentioned. To Pang-Mei's astonishment, she discovered that Yu-i had been married to a noted Chinese romantic poet, had received what is often referred to as "the first modern divorce in China," and was vice president of the Shanghai Women's Savings Bank. Growing up, Yu-i's family said of her that she was part man, because she was strong and willful. As an older woman, she was often quiet at family gatherings, appearing almost lost behind her thick-lensed glasses; there was little to suggest the deeply held passions and great strength of this retiring woman. Who was this woman to whom Pang-Mei felt such a deep and immediate attachment?
Yu-i's father, a respected doctor who ruled the household with a firm hand.
Pang-Mei began asking Yu-i questions and listening to her answers in earnest. And in the process of encouraging Yu-i to remember her story, gently urging forth details from her life, both women changed. Yu-i became more open, sharing her innermost feelings with her great-niece, and coming to a new understanding of her relationship with the husband who had abandoned her and their young son for the sake of his artistic pursuit. At the same time, Pang-Mei became less self-conscious about her Chinese heritage and learned to reconcile the opportunities presented to her with the responsiblilities and expectations attached to them--to study and do well, to marry a Chinese man, to care for family.
Eighteen-year-old Yu-i with her first son, the pride of the Hsü family.
By book's end, the echo of recognition that welled during Yu-i and Pang-Mei's first brief meeting resounds more deeply. They are bound together: two women from different eras who have struggled to come to terms with the traditional and modern values before them, with the choices and responsibilities they've been given, with the love and trust they feel for each other and their family.
Words as Passages to Memory and Meaning
Whether writing fiction or literary nonfiction, one of a writer's goals is to create a believable world for readers. To be believable, this world must contain details that snag a reader's attention. For it is through the physical details that the author delivers the universal emotional truth of a life, whether the setting is early-twentieth-century Shanghai, as in Yu-i's case, or Pang-Mei's late-twentieth-century- Connecticut.
A writer who wants to bring a scene to life begins by describing things. For instance, when remembering her mother, the writer might mention the scarlet lipstick she wore, the way she arranged the chairs just so around the kitchen table, or how she read a book while she folded laundry. Layer by layer, these emotionally accurate details lead to truth. Toni Morrison, in her essay "The Site of Memory" (from Inventing the Truth, William Zinsser, ed.), says, "I have suspected, more often than not...that I know more than my grandfather and my great-grandmother did, but I also know that I'm no wiser than they were....These people are my access to me; they are my entrance into my own interior life. Which is why the images that float around them--the remains, so to speak, at the archeological site--surface first, and they surface so vividly and so compellingly that I acknowledge them as my route to a reconstruction of a world, to an exploration of an interior life that was not written and to the revelation of a kind of truth."
Yu-i with her brothers and sisters, gathered in Shanghai in 1927 for their parents' funeral. Seated, from left, First and Fourth Sisters, and Yu-i. Standing, Third Sister and two sisters-in-law. Seated, from left, First, Second, Eighth, Fifth, and Third Brothers. Standing, Seventh, Fourth, and Sixth Brothers.
Pang-Mei knows this route well, and she uses it to bring us deep into Yu-i's story and her own, offering a web of details spun with Chinese words that are loaded with meaning. The list below, the things defined in Bound Feet & Western Dress--a dumpling, wisdom, a pen stroke, integrity--are embedded in Yu-i's life. They help us make connections that bring us closer to the truth at the heart of her story.
A Glossary of Terms Used in the Book
bazi--eight characters based on a person's name and the time, day, month, and year of birth, used by fortunetellers
bei shu--recital of lessons; literally, back to the book
bu san, bu si--neither three nor four
chia kuo pang ming--Chang family couplet meaning fine country, bright kingdom. Each character is used as a generation name.
Da Taitai--principal wife
fengshui--natural position of a house; literally, wind and water.
gu--strength of stroke in calligraphy
Li, Yi, Nin, Chi--characters on the Changs' New Year's banner teaching them to practice propriety (Li) and righteousness (Yi), and to avoid coveting wealth or stealing (Nin) and underhanded actions (Chi)
na qie--take a concubine
paopaosu--bubbling silk, nubbed fabric
qi--natural spirit of characters in calligraphy
Qi Chu--Seven Outs; seven reasons a man can divorce a woman
Ren, yi, li, zhih, xin--the Five Confucian Virtues: benevolence or human-heartedness; righteousness or justice; propriety or decorum; wisdom; sincerity
ruyi--small, ivory-carved scepter
sheng jing bing--crazy
tuibaju--game played with thirty-two dominoes
Wai Po, Wai Gong--outside grandmother, outside grandfather
zhongzi--rice wrapped in bamboo
zi qi--self-respect, integrity
Legend vs. Reality: The Case of Bound Feet
Legend, whether its roots are cultural, familial, or individual, plays a role in most people's lives. Some of us may adhere to legend as a way to guide us to our destiny, others to save us from it, but we are all influenced by the powerful pull of lore and legend.
Yu-i's life was influenced by such stories and the contradictions they hold. She tells us how bound feet, called new moon or lotus petals in China, were started by a Tang Dynasty concubine. Later, Yu-i gives a step-by-step lesson on how foot binding is achieved. She doesn't dwell on the price one pays for bound feet. She doesn't need to. Her straightforward description of the process speaks volumes.
This is the legend:
Westerners call them bound feet, but we call them something so much prettier in China, new moon or lotus petals, after the Tang Dynasty concubine who started the tradition. So beautiful a dancer was she that the emperor had a larger-than-life lotus complete with pond constructed for her of metal and jewels, and, for his entertainment, asked her to wrap her feet in strips of silk cloth and dance among the petals of the lotus. Her graceful dance steps were like the new moon flitting among the clouds in the reflection of a lotus pond. The emperor was so impressed that other women began to wrap their feet and bend their arches in the crescent shape of the new moon. That is how the tradition began.
How small, how beautiful then, the bound foot. Give me your hand so you might see how it is done, how the toes of the feet are taught to curve gently around the sole of the foot until they touch your heel. Imagine your palm as the sole and your fingers as the toes. See how I close your fingers into your palm to make a loose fist the shape of a new moon? That is the bound foot--you end up walking on your heels and the knuckles of your toes--and if it is perfectly formed, you can slide three fingers into the niche between the toes and the heels.
From left, Second Brother, Mrs. Liu, Yu-i (with child) and Mr. Liu. The Liu's both students at the University of Paris, were kind enough to take in a pregnant Yu-i after Hsu Chih-mo left her.
This is how the legend took root in Yu-i's life:
On my third festival of the Kitchen God, when I was three, my amah instructed me to eat an entire glutinous rice dumpling by myself. She said that it would help to soften me, but I did not know what she meant until the next morning. Mama and my amah arrived at my bedside with a basin of warm water and strips of heavy white cotton. They soaked my feet in the water, and then proceeded to bind them with the thick wet bandages. When the bandages completed their first tight wraps around my feet, I saw red in front of my eyes and could not breathe. It felt like my feet had shrunk into tiny insects. I began shrieking with pain; I thought I would die....
Bound feet take years of wrapping. The toe bones have to be broken slowly, carefully. Even after a young girl's feet are perfectly formed, she has to keep them wrapped so they will stay in the shape....
For three days, I sat before Mama and Amah and endured the ritual: the removal of bloody bandages, the soaking, the rewrapping and tightening. But on the fourth morning, something miraculous happened. Second Brother, who could no longer bear my screams, told my mother to stop hurting me.
About the Author, by the Author
Photo credit: Paul Coughlin
I was born on the Fourth of July in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in suburban Connecticut as American as everyone else around me. I spoke English at home, loved Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and even considered myself like Harriet the Spy. But, filled with stories of China from my parents and my amah, who had brought up my father in Shanghai and was now in charge of my siblings and me, I dreamed of other lands, and felt drawn to know more about my Chinese heritage.
In 1980, I visited China for the first time on a six-month sabbatical with my father, a professor at Yale. I met with many relatives and even lived with some for several weeks, sharing a room with six other people, and a bathroom and kitchen with nine other families.
I recently married and moved to Moscow with my husband. Before that, I lived in New York and worked as an attorney.
An Interview with Pang-Mei Natasha Chang
Q: What first led you to write a book about your great-aunt?
I'd known Yu-i since my childhood and had always been fascinated by her. She was one of those perfectly upright old Chinese women you often see in Chinatown, very small, proper and contained. But at the same time that there was something secretive and proud about her, there seemed something also mournful and shameful. I was attracted to that part of her, the part of her that held herself separate from family members and others, that part of her that made people in the family call her masculine.
Yu-i in Hamburg with Eighth Brother, Chang Chiachu, who was also Pang-Mei's grandfather (1926).
Then the first time she sat down with me to tell me her story, she said, "You must remember this. In China, a woman is nothing." Something clicked in me. I was hooked.
Q: What is the significance of the title, Bound Feet & Western Dress?
For me, it's about the tension between the East and the West, the old and the new, the traditional and the modern. I think this was my great-aunt's dilemma and, in some ways, my own.
For instance, my great-aunt's feet were bound for three days until her progressive brother stepped in and said that it was too painful for her, and besides, old-fashioned. So, Yu-i grew up with the "unbound" feet of a modern woman, but without the education or expectations of her Western counterparts. And she married by arrangement Hsü Chih-mo, a man who aspired to be very Western; he studied abroad and introduced Western poetry forms to China. Yu-i never felt modern or educated enough around him and his friends.
After the divorce, she worked as vice president of the Shanghai Women's Savings Bank. She took care of her in-laws by having them move in with her. And then when her ex-husband died in a plane crash at the age of thirty-five, my great-aunt helped support his second wife and the second wife's lover! She took care of Hsü Chih-mo's family on behalf of her teenage son because she thought it was his duty to look after the family his father left behind.
As the first generation in my family to be born and raised in America, I, too, had to reconcile the Eastern and Western values. I wanted to be like everybody else but still honor my Chinese heritage.
Yu-i and Pang-Mei, New York City, Christmas 1986.
Q: Do you ever go back to China? Do you still have relatives in China?
When Nixon opened China in 1974, my amah, who left behind a son in China, was watching on television. She kept saying, "If Nixon can go, why can't I?" So she moved to China after nearly twenty years in America. And the last time my family and I were in China in 1989, we visited her. We went out to her village and she showed us all around--how well she lived, how much rice there was. And her son was building her a house like a Swiss chalet in the middle of the village. My father asked, "How is she going to get up the stairs when she gets much older?" The son said, "I will carry her."
I still have distant relatives in China. When I spend time with them, I realize how lucky I was to have been born in America. I've had so many more opportunities than them.
Yu-i posing with her mother and her sisters shortly after her return from Germany. Notice her decidedly Western dress and striped hat in contrast to her traditional sisters.
Q: How does your family feel about your writing the book?
They're very happy for me and they've been supportive of the project all along. When I was researching the book, it made them a little uncomfortable at first that I was digging into so-called family secrets and talking frankly with Yu-i about things that we never dared discuss at big family gatherings. But I know that my parents admired Yu-i enormously and felt that her story should be told.
Some of the sections in my voice were a little difficult for my parents to read because they saw how conflicted I felt about being Chinese at certain points in my life. I don't think my parents ever realized I felt that way. They were born proud of their Chinese heritage, while I had to come to it on my own, through Yu-i.
Yu-i with a teenage Ahuan. She raised her son on her own after returning from Germany in 1926.
Q: How did you make the choice to write in Yu-i's voice and to weave your voice in at the beginning of each chapter? Did Yu-i's memories come easily?
The manuscript must have gone through a half-dozen permutations before my editor and I were satisfied with the final format and balance. At first I simply opened and closed the book with my voice--serving as a sort of bookend. At another point, my voice came in and out of the story almost at random. At one point, we even introduced sections with either my name or Yu-i's so readers would know where they were.
The first drafts were also stiffer and more formal in a sense. In one early draft, the beginning was full of details on the Chang family history in China. My father read it and said, "This is great." But my mother and I read it and countered with the truth: It was boring--the story had no dramatic arc.
Yu-i opened up more and more as I talked to her. But I often had to probe and press or remind her of things so that she would tell me the story behind the story. I used different methods to help her remember. For instance, I'd ask her about the food they ate and prepared, using these associations as a way into her memories.
Q: In the end you did not marry a Chinese man. How does that decision affect your life? How do you imagine raising your own children?
I did want to marry a Chinese to please my family, but I ended up falling in love with someone who isn't Chinese and marrying him. The values we share are not race-dependent. When I married Dan last summer, I stood at the altar confident of my decision. But I could not have arrived at that place without resolving some of the same issues that Yu-i faced, such as the tension between family loyalty and individual freedom. I don't believe it was a coincidence that I became compelled by Yu-i's story. She was the first woman in her family not to have bound feet; she was one of the first women in China to get divorced. I drew on her strength and courage. She helped me to discover my own legacy. That's what I hope I can do for my own children.
Questions for Discussion
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 binge/purging 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?
de Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death
Blackburn, Julia, Daisy Bates in the Desert
Chang, Jung, Wild Swans
Cheng, Nien, Life and Death in Shanghai
Conway, Jill Ker, The Road from Coorain
Dillard, Annie, An American Childhood
Kingston, Maxine Hong, The Woman Warrior and China Men
Lopate, Phillip, ed., The Art of the Personal Essay
McCarthy, Mary, How I Grew
Munro, Alice, Lives of Girls and Women
Orenstein, Peggy, School Girls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap
Robinson, Marilyn, Housekeeping
Shigekuni, Julie, A Bridge Between Us
Tan, Amy, The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife
Welty, Eudora, One Writer's Beginnings
Whitman, Walt, Leaves of Grass
Yen Mah, Adeline, Falling Leaves
Zinsser, William, ed., Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir
Reading Group Companion Guides
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Reading Group Companion Guides now available (subject to change):
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Mitch Albom, Tuesdays With Morrie
Tina McElroy Ansa, The Hand I Fan With
Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace
Margaret Atwood, Bodily Harm
Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye
Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood, Lady Oracle
Margaret Atwood, Life Before Man
Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride
Margaret Atwood, Sufacing
David Beers, Blue Sky Dream: A Memoir of America's Fall from Grace
Barbara Taylor Bradford, A Sudden Change of Heart
Rosemary L. Bray, Unafraid of the Dark
Geraldine Brooks, Foreign Correspondence
The J. California Cooper Reader's Companion
The Currency Guide to Book Groups in the Workplace
The Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni Readers' Group Companion
Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition
Mikal Gilmore, Shot in the Heart
The Jane Hamilton Readers' Group Companion
William A. Henry III, In Defense of Elitism
Alexandra Johnson, The Hidden Writer
Phillip Lopate, editor, The Art of the Personal Essay
The Naguib Mahfouz Readers' Group Companion
The Ian McEwan Readers' Group Companion
Bill Moyers, The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets
Barbara Neil, A History 0f Silence
Stewart O'Nan, editor, The Vietnam Reader
Peggy Orenstein, Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap
Harriet Rubin, The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women
Sallie Tisdale, Talk Dirty to Me: An Intimate Philosophy of Sex
Dorothy West, The Wedding
The Van Whitfield Readers' Group Companion
David Whyte, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America