Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China

Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China

by Wang Ping, Ping Wang


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385721363
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/12/2002
Edition description: FIRST ANCHOR
Pages: 265
Product dimensions: 5.24(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.61(d)

About the Author

Wang Ping’s books include American Visa, a collection of short stories; Foreign Devil, a novel; and Of Flesh and Spirit, a collection of poetry. Born in Shanghai, she holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from New York University and teaches creative writing at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Three-Inch Golden Lotuses:
Achieving Beauty through Violence

The witch tells the Little Mermaid: "Your tail will part and shrink into what humans call nice legs but it will hurt just as if a sharp sword were passing through you. Every step you take will be like treading on a knife sharp enough to cause your blood to flow." When the Little Mermaid finally stands face to face with her beloved prince, her new feet, which she has traded with her lovely voice, bleed. The prince does not notice it, and she does not complain. —Hans Christian Andersen, "The Little Mermaid"

A pair of tiny feet,
two jugs of tears.
—Chinese ditty

A PAIR OF PERFECTLY BOUND FEET must meet seven qualifications—small, slim, pointed, arched, fragrant, soft, and straight—in order to become a piece of art, an object of erotic desire. Such beauty is created, however, through sheer violence. For about two or three years, little girls go through the inferno of torture: the flesh of her feet, which are tightly bound with layers of bandages day and night, is slowly putrefied, her toes crushed under the soles, and the insteps arched to the degree where the toes and heels meet. Loving mothers suddenly turn into monsters that beat their sobbing girls with sticks or brooms, forcing them to hop around to speed up the rotting of flesh and make sure the bones are broken properly. When the feet are finally shrunk to the size of a baby's—three inches long, half an inch wide in the front—they arecompletelydeformed. Naked, they look like the hoofs of an animal or female genitals. Adorned with shoes, they resemble male genitals, or vegetables like hot peppers and water chestnuts, or things like hooks, bows, writing brushes. The violent mutilation of the feet eliminates boundaries between human and beast, organic and inorganic. It sweeps away barriers that usually divide mortals: wealth, age, sex, and so on. Violence renders the feet sacred. Naked, they become taboo for men. Women guard them as if guarding their lives. It also gives them the power for healing and cursing. All the tears and pus, all the decay and broken bones are hidden under the elaborate adornment of the shoes, which are never taken off, not even in bed. Yet violence is traceable everywhere: the odor of dead flesh seeping through the bandages, the tiny appendages that barely support the frail body. It is the prohibition, the mystery, and the traces of violence that stir up men's desire, a desire derived from fear, pity, and awe. Through the passage of violence, bound feet—a combination of human, beast, vegetable, and object—enter the realm of eroticism and symbolize the ideal of an androgynous body, the body of an immortal or a god.

    In this chapter I will explore the links between beauty and violence, mutilation and language, taboo and transgression, the links that characterize footbinding. Bound feet become the emblem of femininity and eroticism through physical and linguistic violence. Sealing decay and death beneath its beautiful surface (wrapping and shoe as masks), footbinding promises immortality; yet at the same time, the odor, shape, and euphemism of the bound foot constantly reminds the fetish lovers of carnality, animality, death, and violence. Footbinding speaks multiple languages. It murmurs about seduction, eroticism, virtue, discipline, and sacrifice. It also teaches little girls about pain, about coming of age, about her place in this world, about her permanent bonding with her mother and female ancestors.

    Here are the steps for the initial binding:

1. Place one end of the bandage, about two inches wide and ten feet long, on the inside of the instep and from there carry it over the four small toes and wrap them once.

2. From the inside of the foot, pull the binding toward the front point and turn it tightly around the big toe.

3. Wrap the heel from the outer side of the foot, and pull the binding toward the front point so that the heel and toes are drawn together as closely as possible. Wrap the front except for the big toe.

4. Wrap over the instep, go around the ankle, and return to the instep.

5. Turn toward the heel and wrap the binding from the inner side of the foot to the front point.

6. Wrap from the inner side and over the instep to the outer side. Wrap around the heel and pull the binding back toward the part of the binding cloth on the instep.

7. Repeat the process from the beginning until the entire bandage is used, then sew the end to prevent the binding from coming loose.

Such a binding soon makes the feet inflamed and the flesh deteriorated. Each act of rebinding and washing the feet is accompanied by bleeding and peeling of the rotten flesh. Mothers call this the breaking process, which lasts about two years. The more flesh is deteriorated, the more bones broken, the more slender the feet will become.

    In the 1930s, Yao Lingxi, a self-claimed "lotus addict," collected poems, stories, anecdotes, and articles about footbinding, and accounts by women who talked about their pain and sexual enhancement from this practice. He published them in four volumes, titled Records of Gathering Fragrance (Cai fei lu). These works record many accounts of the pain and suffering during the initial binding period, including this oral history:

Born into an old-fashioned family at P'ing-hsi, I was inflicted with the pain of footbinding when I was seven years old.... It was in the first lunar month of my seventh year that my ears were pierced and fitted with gold earrings. I was told that a girl had to suffer twice, through ear piercing and footbinding. Binding started in the second lunar month; mother consulted references in order to select an auspicious day for it. I wept and hid in a neighbor's home, but mother found me, scolded me, and dragged me home. She shut the bedroom door, boiled water, and from a box withdrew binding, shoes, knife, needle, and thread. I begged for a one-day postponement, but mother refused: "Today is a lucky day," she said. "If bound today, your feet will never hurt; if bound tomorrow, they will." She washed and placed alum on my feet and cut the toenails. She then bent my toes toward the plantar with a binding cloth ten feet long and two inches wide, doing the right foot first and then the left. She finished binding and ordered me to walk, but when I did the pain proved unbearable.

That night, mother wouldn't let me remove the shoes. My feet felt on fire and I couldn't sleep; mother struck me for crying. On the following days, I tried to hide but was forced to walk. Mother hit me on my hands and feet for resisting. Beatings and curses were my lot for covertly loosening the wrappings. The feet were washed and rebound after three or four days, with alum added. After several months, all toes but the big one were pressed against the inner surface. Whenever I ate fish or freshly killed meat, my feet would swell, and the pus would drip. Mother criticized me for placing pressure on the heel in walking, saying that my feet would never assume a pretty shape. Mother would remove the bindings and wipe the blood and pus which dripped from my feet. She told me that only with removal of the flesh could my feet become slender. If I mistakenly punctured a sore, the blood gushed like a stream. My somewhat-fleshy big toes were bound with small pieces of cloth and forced upwards, to assume a new moon shape.

Every two weeks, I changed to new shoes. Each new pair was one-to-two-tenths of an inch smaller than the previous one. The shoes were unyielding, and it took pressure to get into them. Though I wanted to sit passively by the k'ang, Mother forced me to move around. After changing more than ten pairs of shoes, my feet were reduced to a little over four inches. I had been binding for a month when my younger sister started; when no one was around, we would weep together. In summer, my feet smelled offensively because of pus and blood; in winter, my feet felt cold because of lack of circulation and hurt if they got too near the k'ang and were struck by warm air currents. Four of the toes were curled in like so many dead caterpillars; no outsider would ever have believed that they belonged to a human being. It took two years to achieve the three-inch model. (Cai fei lu, vol. 3, quoted in Levy 1992, 26-28)

    Little girls were initiated into the binding between the ages of five and seven, when their bones were still flexible, their qi (primary life force) started flourishing in their bodies, and their minds mature enough (dongshi) to understand the importance of this bodily discipline to undergo a long period of intense physical pain. The trauma radically changed her sense of the body in space and her sense of being in general. By having to relearn how to place her reduced feet on the ground and relearn how to walk through a long period of intense pain, the little girl was forced into a speedy maturation—physically, mentally, and socially. Ironically, it was her reduced feet that helped her to find a foothold in a male-dominated world: "Through the bending, twisting, and compressing of the feet, a girl's sense of managing space was radically modified and a mother delivered her daughter into a world where 'becoming one's body' led to moral and spiritual self-improvement" (Blake 1994, 681). And it was through pain that she began to bond with her mother.

    In the account above, every movement the narrator makes, every emotional experience she has—be it painful, hateful, or helpless—is related to her mother, who, through her own earlier experience of similar pain, can also relate to her daughter's agony. During the two years of the binding process, the mother has imprinted her secret knowledge of female survival onto the flesh of her daughter. This secret knowledge is best carried out by the Chinese character teng, which means hurting and loving (caring, treasuring) separately or simultaneously. Mother inflicts the horrible pain on her daughter, beats and curses her to keep her walking, washes and changes her binding, makes shoes for her, and cleans the pus and blood off her putrefying feet. Teng is embedded in each gesture the mother makes toward the girl. The pain of footbinding, so intense that it is beyond words, forces the little girl to relearn language, a language more preverbal, transmitted from mother to daughter and shared among women. It partly explains why women barely talked about their practice, and why footbinding was mostly recorded by and represented in the male voice. From the few oral accounts of footbound women (recorded by men at the end of the practice), the unanimous description of the pain seems limited to "burning," "on fire," "sleepless," "loss of appetite." Elaine Scarry describes this scarcity of words for such experience: "Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language" (1985, 4).

    The speaker of the above excerpt uses an interesting metaphor about her binding experience: "Four of the toes were curled in like so many dead caterpillars." The process used to make a pair of three-inch feet resemble the different stages of an insect, like the caterpillar spinning thread and wrapping itself in a cocoon, then coming out of it, transformed from a crawling creature into a butterfly, or like a cicada shedding its skin from time to time to grow. The difference is that in the case of the insects the goal is to grow bigger while the aim of footbinding is to reduce feet to the degree that they almost disappear. When the foot is forced to arch like a bow, it gives the illusion of being part of the leg. Thus, with the help of high-heeled lotus shoes, what remains of the original foot becomes the extension of the erect leg. It is quite similar to the effect created by high-heeled shoes. Those stilt-like shoes and boots with heels as high as five to seven inches raise the body dramatically, creating the illusion of lengthened and thinned legs as well as shortened feet. More important, the raised heel alters the sudden break of the line of the leg, making the body appear taller and straighter, away from the dirt, from gravity.

    The illusion of overcoming gravity and flying up to the sky is what the tiny-footed ladies aimed to achieve. When Yao Niang, the legendary first footbinder, dances on the golden lotus, she looks as if she were whirling on a cloud. Floating on clouds or water becomes a clichéd metaphor for describing the walk of bound feet in Chinese literature. Goddesses, female immortals, and girls with special talents in paintings of those periods all show this flying movement and highly aestheticized expression of idealized femininity. Their faces and upper bodies were depicted in detail, whereas their lower bodies, especially their feet, were veiled in clouds or fabrics. Their airy weightlessness, embodied in the darting, floating movement of their bodies on the lotus feet that are both there and not there, is the emblem of a femininity purged of earthly dross and carnality.

    However, the opposite also holds in assessing beauty, as Georges Bataille speculates:

The image of the desirable woman as first imagined would be insipid and unprovocative if it did not at the same time also promise or reveal a mysterious animal aspect, more momentously suggestive. The beauty of the desirable woman suggests her private parts, the hairy ones, to be precise, the animal ones.... But above and beyond the sexual instinct, erotic desire has other components. Beauty that denies the animal and awakes desire finishes up by exasperating desire and exalting the animal parts. (1986, 142)

In the eye of the beholder, bound feet represent a true celestial being for the reason that they never have to touch the dirt, being wrapped in bandages and covered with embroidered shoes even during sleep. Yet at the same time, such a foot resembles the hoof of an animal, not the hoof of a cow or a horse, but the foot of a fox or hoof of a deer, which is associated with the myth of footbinding. The golden lotus, a euphonious term for bound feet, was originally a special apparatus made of gilded gold in the shape of lotus petals on which palace dancers walked and danced. The tradition was begun by an emperor of the northern Qi, Xiao Baojuan (reign, 498-501), who had his Consort Pan walk on top of the golden lotus blossoms to give the effect of blooming lotuses with each step (Nan shi 5:21a).

     This invention seemed to have been inspired by an Indian tale of a deer lady (perhaps a mere coincidence) recorded by the Buddhist pilgrim Xuan Zang (596-664). A Rishi was once bathing in a stream when a deer came and gave birth to a girl. She was extremely beautiful, but she had the feet of a deer. The Rishi took her home and brought her up as his own child. When she walked, she left the impressions of lotus flowers on the ground. It was predicted that she would bear a thousand sons, each seated on one petal of a thousand-petaled lotus blossom. And she did (Beal 1906, 2:71-72). What makes the myth extremely interesting is that it underlines all the idealizations of footbinding: the elimination of distinction between creatures, and the assimilation of different things. The girl is the result of the copulation between a man and a deer, a mixture of half-human, half-animal and half-god, half-monster. This monstrous duality, however, makes her a symbol of beauty and fecundity, just as the dual nature of bound feet turn tiny-footed women into the ideal of femininity, the symbol of morality, and the object of desire.

    Four centuries later, the fecundity and animal allure of the deer girl tale that had inspired the emperor of the northern Qi and his court were believed to have inspired the imagination of another emperor, Li Yu, reigning in southern China. Not only did he inherit the idea of the golden lotus as a dancing apparatus, but he also invented the binding of the dancer's feet to exhort the allure of the deer-footed beauty. Chinese folklore and mythology tend to represent such a hoof-footed female figure as fox-footed femme fatales. These foxes, such as Da Ji of the Shang dynasty, were often sent by gods to bring down a corrupt dynasty. They could transform themselves into beauties beyond human measure except for their feet, which refused to be metamorphosed. Just as the humans have completely erected themselves from the earth except for the feet that stubbornly remain horizontal, the feet of foxes alone fail to assume a human shape. Yet it is exactly this stubborn animality that gives off the strongest, most irresistible sexual allure, and it is this base animality that has brought down many kingdoms, many civilizations.

    How well Chinese women know this secret weapon! When they call one another xiao tizi—"little hooves"—whether as a curse or endearment, they are fully aware of the power of this animality, in the disguise of high civilization, morality, and divinity. When the girl from P'ing-hsi tells us that her feet, after the binding, no longer "belong to a human being," the tone is, of course, filled with remorse, but at the same time it is tinged with a sense of great achievement through sheer will and endurance. A tiny-footed beauty appears to be restricted (as well as restricting: the feet, once bound, become taboo for the male gaze and touch) and celestial, away from the muddy, decaying, and excremental quality of sexuality. Yet she provokes more erotic desires by promising a mysterious animal aspect and turning her body into prohibition, taboo. In other words, the lotus foot exasperates and exalts desire for flesh by diminishing and covering the flesh. The tension of such a flux from the animal to the celestial, and from the celestial to the animal, is the key to the erotic attraction of bound feet in the eye of a lotus lover.

    The Chinese were not alone in knowing, worshiping, and fearing this power. Pan, the pastoral god of fertility, was originally an Arcadian deity, later associated with the Greek Dionysus and the Roman Faunus, both fertility gods. He is depicted as a merry, ugly man with the horns, ears, legs, and hooves of a goat. All the myths about him deal with his amorous affairs. He invented the panpipe, a musical instrument made of reeds, for the beautiful nymph he loved. The nymph fled, leaving him nothing but a lonely sighing of the wind. The mysterious fear that comes from no known cause is called a panic fear. And fear is one of the indispensable ingredients in the working of eroticism: the fear of chaos and violence, of blood and rotting, of death, and the fear of female sexual power yet at the same time the longing for it.

    And the sphinx, the fearful monster, is a veritable conglomerate of differences, with its woman's head, lion's body, serpent's tail, and eagle's wings. Perched high outside the city of Thebes, it threatens to destroy the city with a puzzle. No one can answer it except for Oedipus, who passes by the place and solves the riddle. This is the man who, by killing his father, has just transgressed the most fearful taboo and is about to commit an even worse crime—marrying his mother and having children with her, the taboo of incest that ultimately separates man from animals. In other words, Oedipus is himself a mixture of human and beast, and the physical evidence is his clubfeet, the deformed or half-evolved feet that betray his link to the animal world and its power.

    Finally, there is the mermaid, the classical half-fish, half-human figure of women's seduction, of fatal voices and the lure of sexuality, immortalized by Homer, then by Hans Christian Andersen. In "The Little Mermaid," she is willing to give up her most precious gift (also her most enchanting attractor)—her voice; she is willing to endure the pain of treading on knives in order to have human legs. In the tale, her metamorphosis is successful, although she fails to win the prince's love after all the sacrifice and suffering. But it is her original form, not her transformed human figure, that prevails, as the statue at the port of Copenhagen, as the icon image in movies, toys, picture books, and art. Again, animality prevails.

    A lotus foot has the semblance of a penis; such simulated genitals are devices animals often use to attract the opposite sex. For example, male gelada baboons have patterns on their chests that resemble female genitals (Hersey 1996, 12). The deep crease in the middle part of a lotus foot, caused by squeezing the front and heel together, also suggests the female sex organ. So does a lotus shoe, which looks like a lily petal. Flower and flower heart are common euphemisms for the vagina in Chinese literature and pornography, sometimes even from the mouth of a country woman (see figure 5).

    Records of Gathering Fragrance tells several stories of men stealing lotus shoes for masturbation or to humiliate women. Thus, bound feet not only mingle human with animal and celestial, but also mix the male and female features together. Nothing can be more ironic than this. Footbinding began as a measure to stop the blurring and crossing of gender and social hierarchies, and to mark differences, but only ended in producing an even greater combination of all things. Just as the sphinx combines human and animal features in one body, footbinding gathers all the opposites and differences upon the tiny feet: ugly and beautiful, grotesque and erotic, human and beastly, earthly and celestial, male and female.

    Bound feet become mappings of human reproductive systems for both sexes, or what George Hersey calls "vectors"—ornamental indicators that point to or frame the primary or secondary sex organs (1996, 12). By reducing, hurting, hiding, and creating a strict taboo, footbinding actually dramatizes the primary reproductive apparatus. By the same token, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, corsets, and tightly laced boots function as sexual vectors through symbolic binding, penetrating, and self-imprisoning. Such devices for sexual display are no less extravagant than the device men use in the competition for sexual selection—the accumulation and squandering of wealth; the brains of an intellectual; the talents of a literati or artist; the muscles of a warrior.

    Of all the male devices of "genitalia extravagance," nothing is more direct than the penis enlargement, which is comically and vividly presented in the erotic novel The Carnal Prayer Mat by Li Yu. The main character, Weiyang Sheng, has everything a Chinese male needs to attract women: he is intelligent and good-looking, and he knows how to please women. Although the Chinese have fixed attractors for male and female, such as lang cai nu mao or caizi jiaren (man's talent and woman's look or talent and beauty), a man's appearance, at least in romance literature, is as important as his talent. If he is not described as being as handsome as the legendary male beauty Pan An, he is at least a baimian shusheng—a fair-skinned scholar (fair skin is a most important sign of beauty). Weiyang's ambition is to sleep with all the beautiful women in China. When he asks his thief friend to help him fulfill this dream, his friend examines the size of Weiyang Sheng's "capital"—his penis. Seeing Weiyang's tiny member, the thief ridicules him, then tells him to go home and forget about his sexual adventures. With a sex organ that small, not only will he fail to fulfill his ambition, but he will cause himself endless disasters. In his deep humiliation and desperation, Weiyang Sheng comes across a doctor, a specialist in enlarging male genitals. He implants a dog's sex organ into Weiyang's penis and turns it into an enormous, powerful weapon.

Table of Contents

1 Three-Inch Golden Lotuses: Achieving Beauty through
2 A Brief History of Footbinding29
3 Footbinding and the Cult of the Exemplary Woman55
4 Edible Beauty: Food and Foot Fetishes in China79
5 Silken Slippers: Footbinding in Chinese Erotica99
6 Binding, Weaving, Chatting: Female Bonding and Writing145
7 From Golden Lotus to Prime Minister: A Woman's Tale
Living from Mouth to Mouth175
8 The Fabric of Masquerade199
Conclusion: Aching for Beauty and Beyond225

What People are Saying About This

Ha Jin

Demonstrates the complexity and the manifestations of a civilization's obsession with the body—it's beauty, its fulfillment, its destruction, and its transformation. Wang Ping writes with passion and an understanding strengthened by the female experience. This is a rich, necessary, and invaluable book.
—Ha Jin, author of Waiting, winner of the 1999 National Book Award for Fiction

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