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In Every Step a Lotus, Dorothy Ko embarks on a fascinating exploration of the practice of footbinding in China, explaining its origins, purpose, and spread before the nineteenth century. She uses women's own voices to reconstruct the inner chambers of a Chinese house where women with bound feet lived and worked. Focusing on the material aspects of footbinding and shoemaking—the tools needed, the procedures, the wealth of symbolism in the shoes, and the amazing regional variations in style—she contends that footbinding was a reasonable course of action for a woman who lived in a Confucian culture that placed the highest moral value on domesticity, motherhood, and handwork. Her absorbing, superbly detailed, and beautifully written book demonstrates that in the women's eyes, footbinding had less to do with the exotic or the sublime than with the mundane business of having to live in a woman's body in a man's world.
Footbinding was likely to have started in the tenth century among palace dancers. Ironically, it was meant not to cripple but to enhance their grace. Its meaning shifted dramatically as it became domesticated in the subsequent centuries, though the original hint of sensuality did not entirely disappear. This contradictory image of footbinding as at once degenerate and virtuous, grotesque and refined, is embodied in the key symbol for the practice—the lotus blossom, being both a Buddhist sign of piety and a poetic allusion to sensory pleasures.
Every Step a Lotus includes almost one hundred illustrations of shoes from different regions of China, material paraphernalia associated with the customs and rituals of footbinding, and historical images that contextualize the narrative. Most of the shoes, from the collection of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, have not been exhibited before. Readers will come away from the book with a richer understanding of why footbinding carries such force as a symbol and why, long after its demise, it continues to exercise a powerful grip on our imaginations.
A Copublication with the Bata Shoe Museum
There are three offenses to filial piety, and the most serious is depriving your family of posterity.
Rarely does one pass by a Chinese house, garden, or restaurant without hearing the sound of children. The Chinese love of children is legendary, and colorful folkways have sprung up to ensure their safe passage to adulthood. One scheme allots an individual one of the twelve so-called zodiac animals according to the year of birth, and the newborn is draped in hats, capes, or shoes with the emblem-a tiger, a dragon, or a ram (see "Ancient Zodiac Animals"). Avoid harm by knowing your place in the complex constellation of cosmological forces; the message is loud and clear. And those who live to a ripe old age deserve privileges because they must have done something right.
Respect for elders and love for children constituted the foundation of Chinese ethics, and this emphasis on continuity has clearly worked: the Chinese family as we know it first took shape during the Han dynasty, two millennia ago, and its basic structure and values are to a large extent still thriving today (see "Confucian Family Values"). The strength of the family creates special opportunities and constraints for men and women alike, and to understand why footbinding became an attractive option for women-leading to its spread from door to door from the twelfth century on-we have to begin by examining the place of daughters in the family.
Being a Girl in a Male World
It is often said that girls were second-class citizens in the traditional Chinese family, which is a classic case of a "patriarchy"-where power and responsibilities were handed down from father to son. This picture is not wrong but misleading. Boys and girls were often equally loved, but forces larger than human emotions dictated that boys were valued more. To ensure peace and harmony, the Chinese family established clear rules for passing on property, ritual responsibilities, and authority along the male line-from grandfather to father to son. Scholars have called this type of family "patri-lineal" and "patri-archal"; the root "patri" in both words signals a focus on males. The intent was not so much to discriminate against women, as is often taken to be, but to prevent family assets from falling into the hands of the families of the sons' wives. Unlike our society in which individuals own their houses and cars, in traditional China, strictly speaking, it was the family as a whole-not the sons-that owned houses and land, if any. The wealthiest families thus functioned more as a corporation jealously guarding its assets from hostile takeovers by its marital relatives.
The popular image that parents slighted their own daughters as outsiders is valid in theory. Given the patrilineal nature of the family, a woman did not have a permanent place in society until she married and had her name entered on the genealogy of her husband's family. But this image of the daughter as a devalued outsider in her parents' house is a far cry from the experience of most daughters. The historical record is full of diaries of fathers who doted on their girls by teaching them how to read. Human feelings aside, parents had real incentives to raise a healthy and good daughter who would fetch a high bride price. Although daughters were not supposed to inherit family property, they often received jewelry as dowry, which made brides, ironically, the only party in a family who had private holdings. If the family was wealthy, this kind of informal inheritance could be substantial. There are many stories that tell of a wife pawning her jewelry to bail out a husband in dire straits.
Marriage is of paramount importance for the families and individuals concerned. The groom's family gained a productive member and a potential mother; the daughter gained a home and a socially respectable identity-wife. She and her parents would want to make her as attractive as possible in order to marry well, into an economically secure family with kind in-laws. The standards for a good bride varied over time and by geographical location, and elite families often held to different standards from those of the socially deprived. Generally speaking, in the early years of the Tang when aristocratic families held sway in politics, marriage was a form of political alliance and pedigree was key. When politics became more democratic and officials were chosen on the basis of merit during the Song dynasty, personal attributes became more common in the selection of brides. Moral repute-signified by a pair of bound feet-later became a common requirement. By the sixteenth century, a sophisticated education was added on top of morality, and an ideal bride had to be both talented in literature and virtuous. In the nineteenth century, ironically on the eve of the practice's decline, a pair of bound feet became an overriding factor among bride seekers in lower-class families.
Footbinding spread from the thirteenth to fifteenth century because it enhanced a daughter's marriage prospects, as is often said. But the reason for the desirability of brides with bound feet is not, as is sometimes assumed, that parents gave in to their son's wishes for a sexually attractive wife. An openly seductive bride threatened family harmony, and in any case sons did not have any say over the choice of a spouse. Marriage was a family-to-family affair, to be decided by parents who knew better. In fact, future in-laws desired brides with bound feet because it signaled not sexuality but modesty and morality. More than marriage prospects, the biggest reason for the domestication of footbinding was its association with women's textile work, which enjoyed high cultural and economic value in a Confucian society. We will examine this more closely in the next chapter when we visit the women's workroom and learn how they spun, wove, and made shoes. Here we would leave aside abstract analysis about the family and head to the inner chambers of the Chinese house (see "The Chinese House, Where Women Ruled the Roost"). To teach her girl how to be a woman in a man's world, a mother is about to bind her daughter's feet.
Becoming a Woman
The daughter's first binding took place in the depths of the women's quarters under the direction of her mother, sometimes assisted by grandmothers and aunts; no men were privy to the ceremonial process. It was a solemn occasion marking the girl's coming of age, the first step of her decade-long grooming to become a bride-a prelude to a sweet-sixteen party. A sense of anticipation stirred the women's hearts, tinted with a bittersweet awareness that as women, they could gain power only by way of their bodies. Their physical and bodily labor-in the silkworm hut as in the childbirth chamber-was what made them valuable to the family. This message would soon be inscribed on the daughter's very body. The pain of footbinding anticipated the pain of childbirth, the blessing and curse for a Chinese woman.
As if to underscore the message that binding-like labor-is a fact of a woman's life, the materials and tools needed were not specialized gadgets but everyday items already in use in the women's rooms. These include such sewing implements as scissors, needles, and thread-the former for trimming the toenails and the latter for sealing the binders tight. The binding cloth would have been woven afresh. For adult women the average size of the cloth is about 10 cm wide by 4 meters long (4 inches by 13 feet), but the length varies. Women wove the cloth and stored it in a roll, like fresh bandages, ready to be torn off at the desired length. Alum powder, an astringent, would be sprinkled in between the toes. Fragrant powder from the toiletry chest dusted the cloth and the lining of the shoe. Ancient herbal formulas for medicinal powder or tonic, made specially to soften the bones or to speed up the healing, were passed on from family to family. Dating as early as the Song dynasty, these formulas remained popular until modern times, attesting to the meticulous care that women from well-off families received.
Although many of the implements needed for the first binding were readily available, new shoes would have to be made specially for the daughter. Months before the auspicious day the mother and elder women in the house began to prepare an array of tiny shoes for the girl, for daytime training and for bed. In Taiwan, where only settler families from southern Fujian (Min-nan in Chinese) bound their daughters' feet, mothers followed Fujian custom in making a series of training shoes with a rather odd appearance. Sometimes called "toad shoes" because of their shape, they became progressively smaller in size and higher in the heel. The wooden heels were left uncovered because these shoes were worn strictly behind closed doors, for the purpose of teaching the newly bound girl how to shift weight and walk with a shuffling gait. In other regions, mothers would simply make several pairs of regular shoes progressively smaller in size.
A typical age for binding to start was five to six years old. As infants, boys and girls mingled freely in the house; children were considered genderneutral in many ways. Boys and girls led more segregated lives as they came of age, which according to Chinese thinking was the time when they became capable of understanding sexual matters. For families who could afford the loss of potential labor force, the boy would be sent to school and the girl would have her feet bound. Ritual convention dictated that a boy came of age when he turned eight by Chinese count and a girl, seven. This is because The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, a classic medical treatise, suggested that boys developed in cycles of eight years, whereas girls' cycles measured seven years. Since the Chinese count age (sui) by taking the lunar year of one's birth as year one and adding a year at each lunar new year's day, a seven-sui girl would be around five or six years old by Western reckoning.
Ritual formalities aside, the actual binding age tended to range from five to eight years old. For families that lived close to a hand-to-mouth existence, binding a daughter's feet was like setting aside a sum of its monthly income for the savings account-an investment in the future can only come at the expense of immediate sacrifice. Year after year peasant parents struggled to save up a little cushion so that they could afford to take their daughter out of the most strenuous forms of labor in the fields. This is why the lower one went down the social scale, the later the age for binding tended to become. For most poor daughters before the nineteenth century, however, the day never came. In a flash she grew old enough to marry and like her mother, she would marry a poor farmer.
A prepubescent girl might not have been fully aware that she was being prepared for sexual service to her future family, but she knew that footbinding was her initiation rite into the women's community, which consisted of her mother, maternal aunts, elder sisters, and cousins if they lived nearby. With her hair tied up in tufts and her feet bound, her attire signaled her new status as bride-in-waiting, almost a woman, even though her body had yet to change physically. The women's community is not so much secretive as invisible, hidden behind the formal structures of the male-centered family. If the father's power was all too apparent and the father-son tie was celebrated in concrete physical form-the ancestral shrine and the genealogy book, for example-women's power was informal and the mother-daughter tie was celebrated only in the women's hearts and minds.
In fact, instability and insecurity were the first facts of life that the mother had to teach the daughter. A woman's station in life was not fixed. Unlike her brothers, who were born into the same house they would eventually inherit and often die in, a girl had to rise up to new challenges in every stage of her life. The most traumatic dislocations she suffered were on her wedding day, when she entered a stranger's family, which she had to make her own. As she learned the idiosyncrasies of her mother-in-law, the most important person to please, she became more settled and comfortable. Her position became secure with the birth of a son; as the mother of sons she would gain a permanent and visible place in the family. As the mother of daughters she could only hope for the best.
Sons did not have an easier life-they were under intense pressure to succeed and not to let the family down. Nor were they free to pursue their own interests at the expense of the family business. Yet at least men in Chinese society had a basic choice-to work with the body or the mind; to be a worker or a scholar. For a woman, the body was her only gateway to a better future. To do textile work and to give birth-to attain value and meaning for herself, she could not do without the body. As a mother readied the training shoes and cloth binders for her daughter, both fruits of female labor, these thoughts might have raced through her head. Our bodies and labor make us women, she might have said to her daughter, and our bodies and labor are the ties that bind us in a female kinship that no men can undo.
Praying to the Tiny-Footed Maiden
As a crucial rite of passage for the daughter and a central event for the women's community, the binding of feet was rich in spiritual and religious meanings. To begin with, the day to begin binding had to be selected with care. Almanacs specifying auspicious days for the first binding can be found as early as the sixteenth century. In practice, the day and rituals varied a great deal from region to region, but the women's desire for perfect feet and the great length to which they were willing to go to achieve them, was universal.
For pragmatic reasons, the ideal season for binding to start was autumn, when feet were no longer sweaty and the breeze cooled off some of the discomfort. In Suzhou, a southern city famous for its elegant, elongated shoes for bound feet, binding customarily started with fanfare on the twenty-fourth day of the Eighth Moon. In honor of the Stove (or Kitchen) God, on that day women of the house would cook sticky rice, add red beans, shape the mixture into balls, and make offerings on the stove. The Stove God, ironically always a male, belongs to the male pantheon of celestial bureaucrats and presides over the line of patriarchs in the household. The offering of rice balls was a common ritual throughout China, for red beans were believed to have the power to ward off diseases and evil spirits. But in fashionable Suzhou the women added another layer of meaning to the ritual by designating the day the birthday of their goddess, the Tiny-Footed Maiden.
Excerpted from Every Step a LOTUS Shoes for Bound Feet by Dorothy Ko Copyright © 2001 by Bata Shoe Museum Foundation. Excerpted by permission.
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|2||The Ties That Bind||47|
|3||Bodies of Work||77|
|4||The Speaking Shoe||97|
|5||A New World||131|
Posted April 19, 2009
No text was provided for this review.