A Time of Great Change, A Woman Who Adapts and Keeps Her Dignity

A long time ago, a blogger (I think it was The Poet’s Wife, but it looks like her blog doesn’t exist any longer) recommended a memoir to me, and I bought the book, intending to read it right away. Instead, I misplaced the book. The other day I discovered the book had slipped behind some others on the shelf, so I finally read it: Pang-Mei Natasha Chang’s Bound Feet and Western Dress.

Bound FeetIf you remember my review of Helen Fremont’s After Long Silence, you know that Fremont’s book was billed as a memoir, but focused more on a recreation of the lives of her parents during the Holocaust. Of course, there was some memoir story about Fremont’s own life, including how she and her sister put the pieces of the secret story together. Chang’s book goes a step further. While the book cover calls this a dual memoir–that of the author and her Great Aunt Yu-i–to me this is more the memoir of Yu-i as verbally told and recreated on the page by her younger relative. It is mainly Yu-i’s story. And what a story it is.

She was born at the very beginning of the 20th century in China. Times were changing rapidly. During the course of Yu-i’s life, she must learn how to become a more “Western” woman and still show respect for her elders and her heritage by adhering to the traditions that were most important. Yu-i was the first woman in her family not to have her feet bound, and yet when she was married by her family to a man she didn’t know, she acted very traditional, as if she had bound feet.

When he divorces her, she must learn to take care of herself and her responsibilities. She describes the change in herself this way:

I always think of my life as “before Germany” and “after Germany.” Before Germany, I was afraid of everything. After Germany, I was afraid of nothing.

Yu-i’s story is a triumph of admirable traits, resilience, and a loving family.

And who is this man who divorced her? Hsu Chih-mo, arguably the most famous Chinese poet of his time period. Check out this Wikipedia link about him.  Why did he divorce her? What happened to her after the divorce? Read. the. book.



Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

19 responses to “A Time of Great Change, A Woman Who Adapts and Keeps Her Dignity

  1. Sounds like the kind of story I enjoy. That part of the world is so different in customs which makes it so interesting. I often wonder what made that first parent bind their daughter’s feet.

    • Kate, it gives such a glimpse into China as it was sort in two–the old and the new. Women without bound feet were considered to be very ugly and unmarriageable. It was a great way of keeping women at home in the house and courtyard.

  2. Yes Mam! Great review, Luanne. This book sounds like a page turner.

    • It’s such a view into how things were in China at that time. And the psychology of a woman who was torn between old and new and learning to deal with it in a way that fit her conscience.

  3. Oh, Luanne you left us hanging! I’m dying to know why the renowned poet divorced her… and her qoute? It is phenonmenal…If we’re lucky, I think we all have defining moments like that in our lives. The times when we learn exactly what we’re made of, and realize that it’s of really good stuff. Unfortunately, they don’t feel so lucky when we’re going through them. Great post, and I’ll forgive you for the awesome cliff hanger. Another one moved to my (ever growing) TBR list!

    • She was such a strong person and grew so much during the years after her divorce. But she never lost sight of her traditional obligations either. Such a good book!! And you’re right: I think she thought things were awful for a long time, but she got through it and it made her the woman she was after that!

  4. Thanks for the review, Luanne. Have you read Lisa See’s novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan? It’s a wonderful yet often heartbreaking story of two young women in 19-century China, back when women were still having their feet bound. The novel describes, in painful detail, how feet were bound and how women could (and did) die from infections caused by the practice. I believe See has also written a memoir though I haven’t read it. I loved Snow Flower, and bet her memoir would be just as a riveting a read.

    • I have not, but I think Lisa See is one my husband reads. He likes historical novels, especially set in Asia. I didn’t know she had written a memoir, though. I’ll look for it. And I’ll check hubby’s books to see if he has Snow Flower! Thanks, Marie!

  5. You.Got.Me.Again. What a read, fascinating….

    • Hehe :). Such a wonderful story. It’s the sort of book that I feel so enriched by–learning about something so far removed from my life or my family’s.

  6. How immigrants live with a foot in both worlds has always been fascinating to me. Maybe because I only saw my own immigrant grandparents on an annual basis – thus, getting glimpses of the story but never being around long enough to understand the big picture.

    That foot-binding is some nasty stuff. I’ve only seen pictures of the painful results, but that was close enough!

    • Interesting re your “part-time” knowledge of immigration, Shel. I actually didn’t have any immigrants in my family, until I realized my paternal grandmother was born in German. But I never saw her that way–and I think she only wanted me to see her as American.
      Isn’t it though (foot binding)! As a kid I knew about it and even studied China in depth in high school, but it wasn’t until years later that I really understood what foot binding was. It was just a “phrase” until then.

  7. Another memoir that sounds wonderful – I love the quote, which makes me want to know more about how she gained that strength.

    • Andrea, yes, it’s so worth the read. Her process of gaining strength was somewhat gradual. It wasn’t really an epiphany she had in one day. It was more what she went through in the few years after her divorce (and maybe even leading up to it). Remarkable woman!!

  8. Interesting! Another one to add to the ‘must read’ list.

  9. I love how you bring these obscure stories to light, Luanne. Another book added to my list. Thanks!

    • Rudri, she was such a remarkable woman who was really considered “ordinary” in some ways. I wish more high school kids were reading books like this!

  10. I am at Mom’s in Cleveland and had an arduous, long days period in October first two weeks, fell far behind in reading your posts. This was a wonderful memoir and wondering now about the divorce and other details of this woman’s life. It was certainly a fascinating (to readers) and challenging (to her) life.

    • Coming from her traditional Chinese background, the divorce was almost beyond thinking. She was put in such an impossible situation. To gather the strength that she did is so admirable. I’m so glad her great niece wrote about her.

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