Zhang Youyi: The Making of a New Woman

  • February 19, 2013
  • Editor: Sun Xi
  • Change Text Size: A  A  A
The young and beautiful Zhang Youyi [jiaren.org]

The young and beautiful Zhang Youyi [jiaren.org]

About her struggle to become a strong, successful woman, Zhang Youyi once said, "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."

As the first wife of famous poet Xu Zhimo, Zhang dealt with the miseries of a loveless marriage to a man who disliked her, before they eventually divorced. Despite that, she became the adopted daughter of Xu's parents, who loved her and continued to rely on her. In Zhang, there were all the virtues of traditional Chinese women and the constant striving for strength of the new woman.

A Marriage Filled with Silence

In 1996, Zhang's grandniece Pang-Mei Chang published a memoir called Bound Feet & Western Dress: a Memoir, a blend of her own memoir and her written record of Zhang's oral autobiography. A Chinese translation was also published in mainland China and Taiwan.

The book opens with Zhang telling Chang, "In China, a woman is nothing. When she is born, she must obey her father. When she is married, she must obey her husband. And when she is widowed, she must obey her son. A woman is nothing, you see. This is the first lesson I want to give you so that you will understand."

In 1900, Zhang was born into a family of scholars in Baoshang, at the time part of east China's Jiangsu Province (it is now a district of Shanghai). Her grandfather was a magistrate of a county during the Qing Dynasty. Her father, Zhang Runzhi, was a doctor. As such, the family was relatively wealthy and Zhang was the eighth of 12 children, and the second daughter. She had three sisters and eight brothers.

Zhang's second eldest brother, Zhang Junmai, studied in Japan and was a member of the Imperial Academy of the last reign of the Qing Dynasty. He was also a member of the revolutionary party and disciple of the reformist Liang Qichao.

Her fourth brother, Zhang Gongquan, worked in the banking industry for 22 years and served as general manager of the Bank of China, vice president of the Central Bank of China and director of the Central Post of China during the Kuomintang Regime.

In 1913, Zhang Gongquan, who was a secretary of east China's Zhejiang Province, read an article written by a young man called Xu Zhimo. Impressed by the article's style and intelligent content, he wrote a letter that same night to Xu's father, Xu Shenru, and proposed that they marry Zhang to Xu.

Although Xu Shenru was a rich businessman, traditional Chinese society at the time held scholars in great esteem, and being tied in wedlock to a family of scholars was considered a great honor. He was very pleased to accept the proposal.

At that time, Zhang was only 13 and a student at the Jiangsu Provincial Second Women's Normal School. Xu was only 16. They married two years later on December 5, 1915.

They had an extremely grand traditional Chinese wedding. According to her narrative in Chang's book, Zhang wanted to tell Xu on their wedding night that she was grateful to join his family and would do her duty in serving them. However, she found herself wordless and tongue-tied on her wedding night. Xu did not say a word either. Thus, their marriage life began, as it would remain, in silence.

Bound Feet & Western Dress

Although Zhang's feet were unbound, despite an earlier attempt to do so, Xu still did not regard her as a modern woman. "To my husband, they might as well have been bound because he thought I was old-fashioned and uneducated," Zhang said.

A few years later, she learned from Zhang's servant that when he first saw her picture, he said with contempt, "Country bumpkin!"

It became clear that Xu did not like her and that they had nothing in common to talk about. Despite this, Zhang adapted well to the family, helping her father-in-law manage the family finances and supporting him in other ways.

In 1917, Xu was introduced to Liang Qichao and became his disciple. In 1918, Zhang gave birth to a son named Xu Jikai, which meant that Xu had fulfilled his duty of passing on the family name. In August the same year, he went to the United States to study in the Department of History, Clark University, in Massachusetts.

By then, Zhang and Xu had been married for three years, but had only spent a collective four months together.

In September 1920, Xu left the US and was accepted at the University of London to study for a doctoral degree in political economy. He fell in love with a 16-year-old girl called Lin Huiyin [*note].

In the spring of 1921, Zhang left her son with her parents-in-law and went to England to live with Xu. She arrived on a ship, full of bright hope, only to be bitterly disappointed by the cold reception she received. "His carriage was unmistakable, so easy to spot, the only one in the crowd of receivers who looked as though he did not want to be there."

The first thing Xu did was to buy new clothes and shoes for Zhang, as he thought that the Chinese-style clothes she had carefully chosen and brought from China were unfashionable and would make him lose face in front of his friends. Zhang was deeply hurt.

Once, when one of Xu's female friends visited them, Zhang commented on her dressing that, "bound feet and Western dress do not go together." Xu suddenly turned and screamed at her, "I know that. That's why I want a divorce."

Zhang had initially thought that she could continue her education abroad, but instead became a full-time housewife, doing the shopping, laundry, cleaning and cooking. Xu was careless with money and only gave her a small amount out of the allowance his parents sent him.

Not long later, Zhang became pregnant again. At the time, Xu was head over heels in love with Lin Huiyin and told Zhang to get an abortion. He also asked for a divorce, which Zhang refused to agree to. They fought, and Xu left.

Zhang then wrote to her brother, Zhang Junmai, in Paris. He told her to travel to Paris, where he would take care of her and the baby. Later on, she went to Germany with another brother, Zhang Jingqiu, and gave birth to her second son, Peter, in Berlin.

During that time, Xu asked one of his friends to serve Zhang with divorce papers. Zhang insisted on meeting Xu, who told her that he wanted to get divorced as soon as possible because Lin Huiyin was returning China and he was eager to follow her. Resigned to the end of her marriage, Zhang finally signed the papers.

It was the very first Western-style divorce case based on the Civil Law in the history of China.

After she had signed the papers, Xu joyfully thanked her, and asked to see their newborn child. "He looked at our son with adoration but never once asked me how I was going to feed him, how he was going to live."

In Berlin, Zhang hired a mother's helper, who helped her get enrolled into the Pestalozzi Furberhaus to study early childhood education. She used the allowance that the Xu family still sent her to cover the tuition fees and living expenses.

On March 19, 1925, 3-year-old Peter died of peritonitis in Berlin. By then, Xu had moved on from Lin Huiyin and was carrying on an affair with a beautiful married woman named Lu Xiaoman [*note]. To escape from public criticism, he went to Europe.

In Berlin, Xu burst into tears while clutching a jar of Peter's ashes at the funeral home.

Success in Business

In October 1926, Xu married Lu Xiaoman after she had obtained a divorce. They lived with Xu's parents. By then, Zhang had persuaded her in-laws to allow her first son, Ah Huan, to live with her in Beijing.

Soon after Xu remarried, his parents left their home and sought out Zhang in Beijing, complaining that their new daughter-in-law's character was intolerable. They adopted Zhang as their daughter and divided their property into three, for themselves, Xu and Zhang. Zhang had effectively become the head of the Xu family.

In early 1927, Zhang's mother died. She went back to Shanghai for the funeral and stayed there. She worked as a German teacher at the Soochow University and then opened Shanghai's first garments corporation. The biggest shareholder was her stepfather and former father-in-law, Xu Shenru.

Not long after the company's launch, Zhang accepted her brother Zhang Gongquan's offer to become the vice president of the Shanghai Women's Business Bank, showing her abilities and talents.

On November 19, 1931, Xu died in a plane crash. Lu Xiaoman was incapable of organizing a funeral, and Zhang was once again left to manage everything. Lu Xiaoman also objected to Xu being buried in Chinese-style clothes, and wanted him changed into Western clothing. Zhang simply said, "Tell Lu Xiaoman that I said no."

Later Life

In April 1949, Zhang moved to Hong Kong. She soon became close to one of her neighbors, a divorced doctor called Su Jizhi. When Su proposed, Zhang consulted her son, who said, "If you have found the right person, mother, I will serve him as though he were my real father."

In 1953, 53-year-old Zhang married Su in Tokyo. They lived together for 20 years.

In 1967, they visited England and Berlin. Zhang stood outside the house she had lived in with Xu and remembered her younger days. The next year, she went to Taiwan and looked up Xu's friend, Liang Shiqiu [*note], and his cousin, Jiang Fucong. She asked them to publish a collection of Xu's work, and she would sponsor it.

In 1972, Su died of colorectal cancer. Zhang moved to the United States to be near her son. In 1988, she passed away in New York and was buried there.

"In my entire life I have never said to anyone, 'I love you'. If caring for Xu Zhimo and his family was love, then maybe I loved him. Maybe, out of all the women in his life, I loved him the most."

Note:

Lin Huiyin (June 10, 1904 to April 1, 1955), known as Phyllis Lin or Lin Whei-yin when in the United States, was a noted 20th century Chinese architect and writer. She is said to be the first female architect in China. Her niece is Maya Lin.

Lu Xiaoman (September, 1903 – April, 1965) was an early 20th century Chinese painter. She was also known for acting and writing, though perhaps better known for her very passionate and public relationship with Xu Zhimo.

Liang Shiqiu (January 6, 1903 – November 3, 1987) was a renowned educator, writer, translator, literary theorist and lexicographer.

Zhou Zuoren (January16, 1885 – May 6, 1967) was a Chinese writer, primarily known as an essayist and a translator. He was the younger brother of the famous Chinese writer Lu Xun (Zhou Shuren), the second of three brothers.

(Source: jiaren.org/Translated and edited by womenofchina.cn)

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  • Zhang Youyi: The Making of a New Woman2013-02-19   Editor: Sun Xi
    The young and beautiful Zhang Youyi [jiaren.org]

    The young and beautiful Zhang Youyi [jiaren.org]

    About her struggle to become a strong, successful woman, Zhang Youyi once said, "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."

    As the first wife of famous poet Xu Zhimo, Zhang dealt with the miseries of a loveless marriage to a man who disliked her, before they eventually divorced. Despite that, she became the adopted daughter of Xu's parents, who loved her and continued to rely on her. In Zhang, there were all the virtues of traditional Chinese women and the constant striving for strength of the new woman.

    A Marriage Filled with Silence

    In 1996, Zhang's grandniece Pang-Mei Chang published a memoir called Bound Feet & Western Dress: a Memoir, a blend of her own memoir and her written record of Zhang's oral autobiography. A Chinese translation was also published in mainland China and Taiwan.

    The book opens with Zhang telling Chang, "In China, a woman is nothing. When she is born, she must obey her father. When she is married, she must obey her husband. And when she is widowed, she must obey her son. A woman is nothing, you see. This is the first lesson I want to give you so that you will understand."

    In 1900, Zhang was born into a family of scholars in Baoshang, at the time part of east China's Jiangsu Province (it is now a district of Shanghai). Her grandfather was a magistrate of a county during the Qing Dynasty. Her father, Zhang Runzhi, was a doctor. As such, the family was relatively wealthy and Zhang was the eighth of 12 children, and the second daughter. She had three sisters and eight brothers.

    Zhang's second eldest brother, Zhang Junmai, studied in Japan and was a member of the Imperial Academy of the last reign of the Qing Dynasty. He was also a member of the revolutionary party and disciple of the reformist Liang Qichao.

    Her fourth brother, Zhang Gongquan, worked in the banking industry for 22 years and served as general manager of the Bank of China, vice president of the Central Bank of China and director of the Central Post of China during the Kuomintang Regime.

    In 1913, Zhang Gongquan, who was a secretary of east China's Zhejiang Province, read an article written by a young man called Xu Zhimo. Impressed by the article's style and intelligent content, he wrote a letter that same night to Xu's father, Xu Shenru, and proposed that they marry Zhang to Xu.

    Although Xu Shenru was a rich businessman, traditional Chinese society at the time held scholars in great esteem, and being tied in wedlock to a family of scholars was considered a great honor. He was very pleased to accept the proposal.

    At that time, Zhang was only 13 and a student at the Jiangsu Provincial Second Women's Normal School. Xu was only 16. They married two years later on December 5, 1915.

    They had an extremely grand traditional Chinese wedding. According to her narrative in Chang's book, Zhang wanted to tell Xu on their wedding night that she was grateful to join his family and would do her duty in serving them. However, she found herself wordless and tongue-tied on her wedding night. Xu did not say a word either. Thus, their marriage life began, as it would remain, in silence.

    Bound Feet & Western Dress

    Although Zhang's feet were unbound, despite an earlier attempt to do so, Xu still did not regard her as a modern woman. "To my husband, they might as well have been bound because he thought I was old-fashioned and uneducated," Zhang said.

    A few years later, she learned from Zhang's servant that when he first saw her picture, he said with contempt, "Country bumpkin!"

    It became clear that Xu did not like her and that they had nothing in common to talk about. Despite this, Zhang adapted well to the family, helping her father-in-law manage the family finances and supporting him in other ways.

    In 1917, Xu was introduced to Liang Qichao and became his disciple. In 1918, Zhang gave birth to a son named Xu Jikai, which meant that Xu had fulfilled his duty of passing on the family name. In August the same year, he went to the United States to study in the Department of History, Clark University, in Massachusetts.

    By then, Zhang and Xu had been married for three years, but had only spent a collective four months together.

    In September 1920, Xu left the US and was accepted at the University of London to study for a doctoral degree in political economy. He fell in love with a 16-year-old girl called Lin Huiyin [*note].

    In the spring of 1921, Zhang left her son with her parents-in-law and went to England to live with Xu. She arrived on a ship, full of bright hope, only to be bitterly disappointed by the cold reception she received. "His carriage was unmistakable, so easy to spot, the only one in the crowd of receivers who looked as though he did not want to be there."

    The first thing Xu did was to buy new clothes and shoes for Zhang, as he thought that the Chinese-style clothes she had carefully chosen and brought from China were unfashionable and would make him lose face in front of his friends. Zhang was deeply hurt.

    Once, when one of Xu's female friends visited them, Zhang commented on her dressing that, "bound feet and Western dress do not go together." Xu suddenly turned and screamed at her, "I know that. That's why I want a divorce."

    Zhang had initially thought that she could continue her education abroad, but instead became a full-time housewife, doing the shopping, laundry, cleaning and cooking. Xu was careless with money and only gave her a small amount out of the allowance his parents sent him.

    Not long later, Zhang became pregnant again. At the time, Xu was head over heels in love with Lin Huiyin and told Zhang to get an abortion. He also asked for a divorce, which Zhang refused to agree to. They fought, and Xu left.

    Zhang then wrote to her brother, Zhang Junmai, in Paris. He told her to travel to Paris, where he would take care of her and the baby. Later on, she went to Germany with another brother, Zhang Jingqiu, and gave birth to her second son, Peter, in Berlin.

    During that time, Xu asked one of his friends to serve Zhang with divorce papers. Zhang insisted on meeting Xu, who told her that he wanted to get divorced as soon as possible because Lin Huiyin was returning China and he was eager to follow her. Resigned to the end of her marriage, Zhang finally signed the papers.

    It was the very first Western-style divorce case based on the Civil Law in the history of China.

    After she had signed the papers, Xu joyfully thanked her, and asked to see their newborn child. "He looked at our son with adoration but never once asked me how I was going to feed him, how he was going to live."

    In Berlin, Zhang hired a mother's helper, who helped her get enrolled into the Pestalozzi Furberhaus to study early childhood education. She used the allowance that the Xu family still sent her to cover the tuition fees and living expenses.

    On March 19, 1925, 3-year-old Peter died of peritonitis in Berlin. By then, Xu had moved on from Lin Huiyin and was carrying on an affair with a beautiful married woman named Lu Xiaoman [*note]. To escape from public criticism, he went to Europe.

    In Berlin, Xu burst into tears while clutching a jar of Peter's ashes at the funeral home.

    Success in Business

    In October 1926, Xu married Lu Xiaoman after she had obtained a divorce. They lived with Xu's parents. By then, Zhang had persuaded her in-laws to allow her first son, Ah Huan, to live with her in Beijing.

    Soon after Xu remarried, his parents left their home and sought out Zhang in Beijing, complaining that their new daughter-in-law's character was intolerable. They adopted Zhang as their daughter and divided their property into three, for themselves, Xu and Zhang. Zhang had effectively become the head of the Xu family.

    In early 1927, Zhang's mother died. She went back to Shanghai for the funeral and stayed there. She worked as a German teacher at the Soochow University and then opened Shanghai's first garments corporation. The biggest shareholder was her stepfather and former father-in-law, Xu Shenru.

    Not long after the company's launch, Zhang accepted her brother Zhang Gongquan's offer to become the vice president of the Shanghai Women's Business Bank, showing her abilities and talents.

    On November 19, 1931, Xu died in a plane crash. Lu Xiaoman was incapable of organizing a funeral, and Zhang was once again left to manage everything. Lu Xiaoman also objected to Xu being buried in Chinese-style clothes, and wanted him changed into Western clothing. Zhang simply said, "Tell Lu Xiaoman that I said no."

    Later Life

    In April 1949, Zhang moved to Hong Kong. She soon became close to one of her neighbors, a divorced doctor called Su Jizhi. When Su proposed, Zhang consulted her son, who said, "If you have found the right person, mother, I will serve him as though he were my real father."

    In 1953, 53-year-old Zhang married Su in Tokyo. They lived together for 20 years.

    In 1967, they visited England and Berlin. Zhang stood outside the house she had lived in with Xu and remembered her younger days. The next year, she went to Taiwan and looked up Xu's friend, Liang Shiqiu [*note], and his cousin, Jiang Fucong. She asked them to publish a collection of Xu's work, and she would sponsor it.

    In 1972, Su died of colorectal cancer. Zhang moved to the United States to be near her son. In 1988, she passed away in New York and was buried there.

    "In my entire life I have never said to anyone, 'I love you'. If caring for Xu Zhimo and his family was love, then maybe I loved him. Maybe, out of all the women in his life, I loved him the most."

    Note:

    Lin Huiyin (June 10, 1904 to April 1, 1955), known as Phyllis Lin or Lin Whei-yin when in the United States, was a noted 20th century Chinese architect and writer. She is said to be the first female architect in China. Her niece is Maya Lin.

    Lu Xiaoman (September, 1903 – April, 1965) was an early 20th century Chinese painter. She was also known for acting and writing, though perhaps better known for her very passionate and public relationship with Xu Zhimo.

    Liang Shiqiu (January 6, 1903 – November 3, 1987) was a renowned educator, writer, translator, literary theorist and lexicographer.

    Zhou Zuoren (January16, 1885 – May 6, 1967) was a Chinese writer, primarily known as an essayist and a translator. He was the younger brother of the famous Chinese writer Lu Xun (Zhou Shuren), the second of three brothers.

    (Source: jiaren.org/Translated and edited by womenofchina.cn)
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