The Women of Yankee Mandarin – the Decorous and the Disaffected

The women of Yankee Mandarin contrast dramatically, especially the two of this post, Elizabeth and Ch’ang-mei. Each is fashionable and elite in her place and time, but both are discontent with their circumstances, resentful of their treatment by men, and of potentially seditious sentiment.

Elizabeth Fitch

Elizabeth Fitch, born October 21, 1840 on Chestnut Hill in Boston, is the unmarried daughter of Augustus and Hannah Fitch. We first encounter her aboard the clipper Essex. In 1860, Elizabeth is 19 years old, 5 feet 4 inches tall, and weighs 105 pounds. She is a slender, rosy-cheeked brunette bedecked in a mustard velvet and silk visiting dress, a tight high-necked bodice with flounced pagoda sleeves and white undersleeves, and a capote hat held on by a ribbon under her chin, a style her mother insisted was too old for her and unsuited for shipboard life as well. She was recently graduated from a backwoods women’s college called Mount Holyoke Female Seminary and was the epitome of an ingénue.

Mount Holyoke was located at South Hadley, in western Massachusetts, on the Connecticut River, above Springfield. Elizabeth began college there in 1857, but was told to return home in 1859 when her deportment in a Boston library was observed to be unacceptable. She excelled in rhetoric, composition, spelling, and drawing, but rebelled against regimentation and the religious atmosphere.

All the girls read French novels, but Elizabeth’s taste for Balzac also was against the propriety of the day as Balzac was considered vulgar [Tharp, Peabody Sisters, p. 38]. Elizabeth knew that not necessarily everything printed in the French language was immoral [Tharp, Peabody Sisters, p. 134].

“I was 14 years old when I read Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the 19th Century. I had to purloin a copy and read it in secret because it dealt with subjects deemed improper for any self-respecting woman, not to mention young girls, but Miss Fuller awakened me to all the many offenses committed against the initiative of young women to achieve something important, because of nothing other than their gender [Parrington, p. 424]. …I am sorry that Margaret Fuller did not live longer so that I could hear her lecture and have a conversation with her. From what I have read and heard she was a renegade bluestocking like me. Or rather, I am like she was. The tragic manner of her death, drowning at sea, her body, and the bodies of her child and husband, never found, within sight of home, it is more than I can bear to think of.”

“I’m afraid that I am not the demure handmaid to the Gospel and efficient auxiliary to the great task of renovating the world that Mary Lyon and Mount Holyoke would have had me. I was not cut out to be a pious, pure, submissive little house slave.” [From Mount Holyoke Female Seminary Female Education, Boston, 1839, cited in Welter, “The Cult of the True Woman,” American Quarterly, p. 153]

“I was expelled from Boston society as a Magdalene for placing my head too close to that of a young man as we read out of the same book in the public library. He was an attractive rogue to whom my quality of high spirits had been misrepresented, which led him to be unduly familiar. We were observed and the transgression was duly reported to seminary officials and I was asked to leave the Mount Holyoke. After that, no respectable girl my age would have anything to do with me, and I was shunned even by family friends.”

“My mother was furious, not at me, but rather at the seminary and the city of Boston for their behavior over a triviality. That’s when she told me how she also had been thrown out of the same seminary; we laughed together until it hurt. The next irony was that the book that I had been reading was Mr Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter which, like everything else worth reading, was banned to young ladies in Boston. I experienced something like Hester Prynne’s fate myself first hand.”

“The young man came to my mother with profuse and sincere apologies for the accident and was duly forgiven, by us. I heard later that his family took him from school and sent him to sea. I begged Mother to send me abroad to Europe, but instead she brought me out to the Far East to be with my father.”

Shanghai Bund in 1879, Copyright@Virtual Cities Project (Institut d’Asie Orientale)

When Elizabeth arrived at Shanghai “she felt within her that something was coming to life in the chill and colorless winter countryside of her New England soul. She tingled in a vague anticipation of a change in her life, conscious of the proximity of its promise while still ignorant of its form. She feels it’s like the moment before the first dawn she had ever seen at sea: if the aura alone could cause such excitement, how could she survive the event itself? [The Genteel Female, p. 72]

Fletcher Wood observes that Elizabeth is “an uncongealed character, reluctant gentility working to bridle coltish intellect, blue stockings hidden under silks and crinoline. Her mother threw over the traces and embraced women’s emancipation when it arrived, but Elizabeth seems to have taken a large, unpalatable dose of liberal education she could stomach then retreated under the skirts of melancholy propriety.”

Even if Elizabeth Fitch cannot take seriously the gentility of the day (regardless of how much she is compelled to practice it), her vigor will not be enough to sustain her in a country like China. In time, her sentimentality is reduced by the callous brutality of Chinese life to a reflex, then to indifference. However, readers will later see how she responds to the confinement of her new life, and discover the extraordinary choices she will make.

Elizabeth and her mother were worked up from several books that describe American women of the “Victorian” era.

Furness, Clifton, ed., The Genteel Female, Knopf, New York, 1931.
Thornwell, Emily, The Lady’s Guide to Perfect Gentility, Huntington Library, 1856.
Welter, Barbara, “The Cult of Womanhood, 1820-1860,” American Quarterly, 1966.
Chestnut, Mary, Diary from Dixie, Random House Inc, New York, 1992.
Fuller, Margaret, Woman in the 19th Century, Dover Publications – 1999, 1845.
Amory, Cleveland, The Proper Bostonians, E. P. Dutton, New York, 1947.
Tharp, Louise, The Peabody Sisters of Salem, Little Brown & Co., Boston, 1950.
Donnelly, Mabel, The American Victorian Woman, Greenwood Press, New York, 1986.
Howe, Daniel, Victorian America, U of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1976.
Parrington, Vernon, Main Currents in American Thought, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1927.

Yang Ch’ang Mei

Yang Ch’ang-mei 楊常梅, born in Yin County, Chejiang, in 1839 was the unmarried daughter of Yang Fang 楊坊, called Takee by foreigners, a prominent Shanghai silk merchant and banker. She was 21 years old, 5 foot 2 inches, weighed 100 pounds,  and was unexceptional in appearance. Her black eyes were close-set in an oval face, her nose wide and flat, and her mouth full. Her forehead and eyebrows were cleanly shaven, and her long hair was gathered tightly at the nape of her neck with a beaten gold sleeve. When she first appears in the novel, she wears a light blue skirt and embroidered belt, white silk blouse with large open sleeves and, over her shoulders, and a blue mantlet edged with white lace trim. She carries a round fan of translucent bird’s-egg blue silk painted with yellow and black swallow-tailed butterflies and mounted on a slender handle of ivory carved in the shape of a willowy woman. She grew up cloistered in her father’s house and never went beyond the compound walls.

Chinese Foot Binding Shoes (Wikimedia Commons)

Ch’ang-mei is attended by a young slave girl called Hsüeh Ch’un 雪春, who dutifully follows beside her, lightly supporting her arm. The small, mincing steps Ch’ang-mei takes on her golden lilies – her bound feet – were firm and unwavering and made her skirts swish. In the long years the two girls had lived together as mistress and maid, Hsüeh Ch’un had endured with her mistress the ordeal Ch’ang-mei suffered learning to walk with skill on her heels in beautifully made but extraordinarily clumsy platform shoes of magenta brocade only four inches long. The slave girl fluttered constantly at the side of her mistress, but really was needed only when they came to stairs, and sometimes to help her mistress stand.

Having grown up together, mistress and maid were very close, and Ch’ang-mei truly appreciated her slave girl. “We precious daughters 千金小姐 choose smart, quick-witted slaves who can sing and tell jokes. You entertain me, and are my eyes and ears outside of the boudoir and beyond our walls. So you have to be at least as smart as me, which, as you know, is not difficult. If you do well, then when I marry I will be certain that you also are married well as part of the bargain.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QnRvdAGeXHYPart of the inspiration for these two Chinese women came from my long familiarity with the Chinese style of light-opera called huang-mei-tiao 黃梅調, “Yellow-plum Melody.” In particular, the 1965 Shaw Brothers’ film The West Chamber 西廂記, that starred Ivy Ling Po 凌波 as the student Chang Jün-rei, Fang Ying 方盈 as the rich daughter Ying-ying, and Li Ch’ing 李青 as her slave girl Hung-niang. This charming rendition of the old huang-mei-tiao is similar to American musicals, where songs intermingle with spoken dialogue. The convention of the clever slave girl who comes to the aid of her mistress may have arisen with The Western Chamber – Hung-niang has over time become popular in her own right. Another model for Yankee Mandarin‘s Hsueh-ch’un is the servant girl Hsueh-ch’un who is murdered in the huang‑mei-tiao called The Crimson Handprint,  Hsueh Shou‑yin 血手印, also with Ling‑po, a Judge Bao mystery. Parts of these old huang-mei-tiao can be seen now on YouTube.

Young as she was, Ch’ang-mei already bore a profound sorrow. She was bad luck. Engaged to marry at a much younger and more appropriate age, her intended had died. Regardless of how rich and important her father might be, no one would consider her for marriage now that she had “spilled her tea,” frightened they too would die because of the inscrutable working of her sinister fate. She could only believe her betrothed had cursed her with his dying breath. He certainly had doomed her to long lonely years as an old maid, never to have a home of her own, never to have children, never to have happiness. But for Hsüeh Ch’un her slave, Yang Fang’s daughter was imprisoned alone in her own boudoir, where the only part of life she could taste was her own tears.

When the foreign devils called upon her father, Ch’ang-mei and her slave concealed themselves in the gloom of a balcony at the end of the guest hall and watched them. “The smaller one looks somewhat like a Chinese,” Ch’ang-mei said, her curiosity aroused by the apparitions in strange Western clothing, and the odd, piggish grunts and squeals that passed for language between them and her father. In her memory, foreigners had seldom come to their home – a privilege rarely granted even her father’s close Chinese friends, who were always met in teahouses or restaurants. It was unnerving to have two very large and boisterous foreign men appear suddenly in their guest hall. She sensed, too, tension between them and her father, and took a dislike to them. She was certain she could smell their strange odor over the scent of sandalwood incense.

Ch’ang-mei is not without ingenuity, however. Later in the story, when Fletcher is laid up at Takee’s recovering from wounds suffered in battle and Ch’ang-mei has had time to get over her fear of him, she is so overcome with pity and the foolishness of Chinese doctors that together with her slave she consults lay manuals on herbal medicines to cure Fletcher’s injuries. She naturally is more familiar with the texts about women’s medicine, and so when the Bamboo Grove Monastery 竹林寺 manual comes to hand she brews some potions from what she finds there, joking that she hopes the cures for women don’t take away Fletcher’s masculinity. This unexpected and intimate exposure to a foreign soldier resident in her household will have a dramatic impact on Ch’ang-mei’s sequestered life and change her future completely.

In addition to the standard biographical sources, Yankee Mandarin‘s Yang Ch’ang-mei is an amalgam of several additional sources.

Shaw Brothers, The Western Chamber 西廂記, 1965
Shaw Brothers, The Crimson Palm 血手印, 1964
Aero, Rita, Things Chinese, Doubleday, New York, 1980.
Headland, I, Home Life in China, MacMillan, New York, 1914.
Rudd, Herbert Chinese Social Origins, U of Chicago Press, 1928
Williams, Samuel Wells, The Middle Kingdom, Paragon Reprint, New York – 1966, 1895.
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One Response to The Women of Yankee Mandarin – the Decorous and the Disaffected

  1. Kay Meggison says:

    Very good mental vision of both women and their personalities along with their dilemmas. How Fletcher impacts two such young ladies makes me pretty darn curious!

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