Bound Feet and Western Dress

by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang

When this book first came out, I became interested mostly because of Hsu Chi-mo, considered one of the most famous poets in recent Chinese history. As dreamy high school girls my friends and I were in love with his romantic poems, such as Farewell to Cambridge Again:

That pool under the shade of elm trees
Holds not water but the rainbow from the sky;
Shattered to pieces among the duckweeds
Is the sediment of a rainbow-like dream.

Very quietly I take my leave
As quietly as I came here;
Gently I flick my sleeves
Not even a wisp of cloud will I bring away

While the name Chang Yu-i was mentioned in the poet’s biography, it was simply a oneliner as an old fashioned arranged marriage forced on by his parents, a far more mundane character than the racy Xiaoman who bewitched the poet.

In other words, my interest in this book is not the life of Yu-i but rather what it says about Chih-mo.

However, I was glad that the author managed to get this story out of Yu-i before she passed away. This biography is valuable, for giving us the other side of the story, and for so vividly depicting China in the early 20th century. A turbalent time when old China collided with the West.

Born in 1900, Chang Yu-i was a victim of the tension between Western ideas and Chinese tradition. Her parents were progressive enough that she was the first daughter not to have her feet bound; nonetheless, while her brothers studied in Europe, their parents considered a girl’s schooling of no significance and a girl’s purpose in life is to marry. A fact that kept Yu-i wondering in her old age: if she were more educated, maybe her husband would have liked her better? While she eventually became the president of a bank, her action and her speech revealed her deeply ingrained traditional breeding: her duty to her parent-in-laws and her family, and her reluctance to badmouth her husband and other people.

As a dutiful daughter, Yu-i accepted the arranged marriage to Hsu Chi-mo (Xu Zhimo), one of the most famous Chinese poets in the 20th century. Chi-mo hated Yu-i with a vengance, and declared his intention to have the first Western-style divorce in China. It’s likely more for the old traditions she represented than for her personally. I really felt sorry for the abuse she had to go through. While I have grown less naive with age, it still disturbs me to know of people who act amicably and charmingly among others but treat their spouses despicably. It’s very hard for me to see Chih-mo’s handsome face and read his beautiful, romantic poems and imagine the hurt he heartlessly caused. Shouldn’t a poet be more sensitive to feelings and emotions? While one can argue that he had freed Yu-i to be herself, and in some way she had been better off for it, surely he can do it in a nicer way?

But then I remember they were both really teenagers then, living in a difficult time in history. Maybe Chih-mo was afterall just a rebellious teen, hating anything forced onto him by his parents, and being selfish and inconsiderate just as many teenagers could be. A rebel, a genius, a dreamer… one who can produce great works of art but woe to those who love him?

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Published in: on April 9, 2010 at 6:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

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