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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Writing of Cultural Ties That Bind

Before I tell you my story, I want you to remember this: In China, a woman is nothing.

Thus did Chang Yu-i, born in 1900, begin narrating the story of her life to her grand-niece Pang-Mei Natasha Chang.

In 1983, Chang -- a first-generation American educated in Chinese studies at Harvard and in law at Columbia -- sat down with Yu-i and started taping the octogenarian's oral autobiography. After Yu-i's death in 1989, Chang then wove her own history into her great-aunt's, eventually composing an elegantly contrapuntal duet of two women's lives, the critically acclaimed "Bound Feet and Western Dress," released this fall.

"I yearned to understand my origins but felt shame about my heritage," writes Chang, 31, who on Saturday attended a book signing and gave a reading.

Though she grew up in Connecticut, Chang, now living in Moscow with her husband, attorney Daniel Wolfe, nevertheless struggled with her cultural identity. Teased by children at school who reminded the author that "I wore my difference on my face," Chang from an early age began asking who she was and in which culture she belonged.

These were questions that Yu-i had also faced, many decades before and thousands of miles away. Born female in China at the beginning of the 20th century, Yu-i faced a life tightly circumscribed by ancient traditions: the psychological duties -- obedience first to her father, then her husband, then her son -- paired with physical mutilation -- bound feet that ostensibly enhanced beauty but essentially kept a woman dependent and at home.

"Bound feet take years of wrapping. The toe bones have to be broken slowly, carefully," saidYu-i to Chang. Though Yu-i was just 3 when her mother started to bind her feet, she was old enough to know it hurt. Her screams of pain induced her progressive brother to insist that the procedure be stopped.

Much of Yu-i's life was about escaping from the painful bonds of tradition, not being broken, walking on her own. She was married off at 15 to Hs-- Chih-mo, the famous Chinese poet, but the marriage failed. Hs-- Chih-mo, educated in the West and influenced by many of its ideas, considered his wife a "country bumpkin." He insisted on divorce -- considered scandalous in 1922 -- just when Yu-i realized she was pregnant with their second child.

Pregnant, abandoned, alone in England, not knowing where her husband was, Yu-i's long struggle began: her flight from England; the birth and death of her second child; her return to China; her eventual remarriage; her rise to the post of vice president of the Shanghai Women's Savings Bank. Born to be submissive, Yu-i eventually became her own person, strong and self-reliant.

"I think that Yu-i ended up becoming a synthesis of the East and the West," said Chang in a recent interview in that quintessentially American beanery, the Starlite Diner. As a young woman, Chang said she "could not avoid the crevice between the cultures," and so she sought out her great-aunt, who, through her story, helped guide her through the cracks.

"I used to think," said Chang, "Here's the perfect Chinese woman. And then to listen to her story and hear that she, too, felt uncertain whether she should be more Western or more Chinese. She, too, was uncertain about what the legacy of her past had given her, and she had to take these values that were given to her as a child and they didn't really fit into the new times.

"On the one hand, it's very liberating not to have that whole reputation of family and traditions hang over you. But on the other hand, it kind of makes you rootless. So I would like to think that you could take the best of both."

Before she died, Yu-i told Chang, "You are the end of my story." But in a very real way, Chang is also the continuation. "She helped me to see that ... because I understand my family really well, now that Chinese part of me can never leave."

"Bound Feet and Western Dress" is available at Zwemmer's bookstore for $30.99 and at Shakespeare & Co. for $23.