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  • E.G. Maladroit

'Bound Feet and Western Dress' Pang-Mei Natasha Chang

‘Bound Feet and Western Dress’ is Pang-Mei Natasha Chang’s dual memoir of both herself and, mainly, her great-aunt Chang Yu-i – an extraordinary woman from one of China’s elite and hugely influential families, who saw the transition of China from the fall of the last emperor to the communist revolution, eventually living out her days in America. The book tracks Yu-i’s experiences of narrowly escaping foot binding, her young marriage to one of China’s most influential modern poets, her time abroad living in Europe and eventually her role as the head of one of China’s first women’s bank. Her story provides an encapsulating insight into the transition of Chinese culture from old Confucian values into ‘modernity’ and western tradition, and Yu-i‘s experience trapped between them.

The book received surprisingly low ratings – though largely positive, with about 52% of ratings being five-star, around 27% of ratings were three-star or below – something striking in contrast to somewhat similar books, such as ‘Wild Swans’, which received 77% five-star reviews and with only 9% 3-star or below. From what I could tell, this was largely due to the second part of the ‘dual’ memoir – Chang’s intrusions and life experiences. To an extent, I agree that they take away from the book, being somewhat jarring at first as they are hard to distinguish from Yu-I’s narrative (both being written in first person, with no indication when they were switched). Though they were to a certain extent informative, as her additions of how experiencing cultural conflicts between her American and Chinese sides was interesting (her responses towards the racism she received being particularly striking), they oftentimes came across as an ill-integrated aside to Yu-I’s story, fitting in poorly. This was emphasised at times where Chang also ventured to comment on aspects of Yu-i’s life, often bordering on condescension (as when she commented that she ‘was glad’ Yu-I was not jealous of her ex-husband’s second wife, or that she ‘was proud of Yu-I. That showed she really understood what the divorce was supposed to mean’). Similarly, the needling into the character of Xu Shimo, Yu-I’s emotionally and physically absent ex-husband, was bothersome – with Chang feeling the need to insert her own feelings about how she ‘could not help but be struck by the complexity of hsu Chih-mo’s character’. This was especially infuriating as it referenced his self-serving memorial to the son who he both encouraged Yu-I to abort and never bothered to visit, other than straight after his birth. Dishonesty and emotional exhibitionism are not complex and are far from uncommon – he did not need the sycophantic mythologising.

Despite this, however, the book is well worth reading, with Chang’s commentary being an absolute minority of the content – as well as easily skimmed over. As mentioned above, Yu-i’s narrative conveys an extraordinary depth of experience. Though I saw it critiqued in some reviews, I found the emotionless tone used deeply resonating, as the way she recounted savage experiences in this manner made them all the more shocking. She beautifully explains Chinese customs and culture, and it acts as an insightful look into both the traditional expectations of Chinese women, and how these were changed by the 20th century, from her perspective. Atop this, despite being emotionless, the narrative was far from characterless – with Yu-i’s wit and practicality coming through strongly, with the conversational quality to the narrative creating a sense that you really interact with her, as well as conveying the feeling that it is almost oral history.

The brevity of the book makes it far more accessible read than most similar memoirs – especially those like ‘Wild Swans’, making it a good entry point for anyone looking into the period and topics – however, being that it follows the life of a woman from one of the absolute upper classes (something highlighted by the relative uneventfulness of her time during the revolution) I would not say it is a substitute for those longer accounts which cover the tales of those with less privilege (not that Yu-I’s life was in any way easy, simply she encountered very different opportunities and experiences to most). In this sense I also felt that some reviews (despite being complimentary) somewhat missed the purpose of the book in labelling it as a representative of the general experiences of all, or even most Chinese women experiencing Chinese culture through the 20th century. It does not need to do this, as Yu-I’s life is a remarkable tale, with her experiences speaking for themselves without needing to be generalised. Her life is interesting enough as itself.

Overall, I would highly recommend the book – and find it was treated more harshly than was fair. It is entirely encapsulating, I finished it in around two evenings with how easily the narrative flowed and how interesting Yu-I’s life was. It is deeply emotional, but also informative and historically interesting; one certainly gets the sense that Yu-I’s life was far more interesting than the book has time to show with the errant references to heavy drinking with Zhou Enlai, and other seminal figures of Chinese history.


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