Bound Feet and Western Dress – Review


Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda

Issue 1 Lent 2003

The magazine of

Women's Union

Bound Feet and Western Dress

Pang-Mei Natasha Chang

Anchor, 1996

Reviewed by Imogen Osborn

“In China a woman is nothing…This is the first lesson I want to give
you so that you will understand.”

Bound Feet and Western Dress describes two Chinese women’s struggle to
be accepted, both by themselves and by others. Natasha Chang compiled the
book from a series of interviews with her grandfather’s sister, Yu-i. Born
at the start of the 20th century, she was married aged fifteen and
struggled to fit into Chinese and Western cultures. After following her
husband to Europe, she was divorced by him in Germany and begins her
struggle to realise her dream of educating herself, finally moving to
New York. As a first generation American growing up in the sixties and
seventies, Chang draws parallels between Yu-i’s story her own.

Both women are torn between tradition and the modern, the East and the
West. Moving between her own story and that of Yu-i, Chang emphasises
the links between the two of them. The tenderness the author feels for
Yu-i is clear. 20th century Chinese culture is sharply contrasted to that
of America, and to what most of us know and take for granted
today. Neither Chang nor Yu-i reject either culture, nor do they feel at
home in one of them.

Chinese culture is vividly portrayed, made all the more shocking by the
stark language. The reader can easily imagine the force of the sense of
duty to one’s elders, and the need for a woman to honour their families,
showing filial piety, obeying their husband and bearing sons, and the
pain of the foot binding. The description of how Yu-i was eventually
freed from this agonising ritual is symbolic of her later struggle
against the obstacles women faced. Equally vivid is the depiction of the
teasing the young Natasha suffered in the US for manifestations of her
Chinese origins in her appearance.

Despite the unjust weight that it seems to today’s reader that Chinese
culture must have laid on women, part of the interest of the work lies in
the fact that neither does Chang nor the prominent voice of Yu-i
explicitly criticise it nor do they invite criticism from the reader. We
are left to form our own impressions, all the while reflecting on our own
culture and society. For Yu-i, the Chinese code of honour is of such
importance that taking on board the Western social codes was
impossible. Throughout her life the traditional role of a Chinese woman
seems to have remained in her thought processes even when she tried to
change and in many ways did not conform to a Chinese woman’s role. Yu-i’s
husband’s thought processes are also shown to be constricted by this,
although initially he seems more integrated into Western culture than she
is, considering himself “modern”.

There are several books available similar to Bound Feet and Western
Dress, describing women’s struggle through oppression in China: Wild
Swans (Jung Chang), for example, or Adeline Yen Mah’s Falling Leaves
Return to their Roots. Yet they all have distinct qualities meaning that,
despite the repetition of subject matter, they do not cease to interest
the reader. Perhaps the mystery of a culture so different from ours
contributes to the continued interest of westerners. However, much of the
intrigue in Bound Feet and Western Dress is created by Chang’s discussion
of the difficulties occurring when two cultures meet, and the implicit
relevance of her comments for today’s society. Yu-i’s enthralling life
story inspires us and, like Chang, we come to see it as an integral part
of the woman.

The book’s references to Chinese legend illustrate the differences
between Eastern and Western cultures, but also the need for
reconciliation. Describing one particularly beautiful legend of the sun
and moon, Chang explains how Yu-i could accept two versions of the legend
in her childhood, because she was accustomed to hearing them both as she
grew up. Bound Feet and Western Dress depicts the inherent tension for
Yu-i and Chang living between two cultures and the tragic consequences.



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