American Culture

Sado-ritual syndrome, part IV – Chinese footbinding

(part I, part II, part III)

“If you care for a son, you don’t go easy on his studies; if you care for a daughter, you don’t go easy on her footbinding.”

Chinese saying,

Ts’ai-fei lu

“…a woman’s heart must be of such a size, and no larger, else it must be pressed small like Chinese feet; her happiness is to be made as cakes are, by a fixed receipt. That was what my father wanted.”

George Elliot,

Daniel Deronda 

“The bonsai tree

in the attractive pot

could have grown eighty feet tall

on the side of a mountain

till split by lightning.

But a gardener

carefully pruned it.

It was nine inches high….

With living creatures

one must begin very early

to dwarf their growth:

the bound feet,

the crippled brain,

the hair in curlers,

the hands you

love to touch.”

.Marge Percy,

from “A work of artifice,”

To Be of Use

“Last week, in the bus, I was preoccupied with feet.

So many were in sandals, almost squinting at a light, they rarely see.

One woman’s toes, grotesque contortions cramped beneath

a brave facade of purple polish –

I missed my stop, with staring.

Who could heal such feet?”

Robin Morgan,

from “The City of God,”

Lady of the Beasts

“Women, women limping on the edges of the History of Man

Crippled for centuries and dragging the heavy emptiness

Past submission and sorrow to forgotten and unknown selves.

It’s time to break free and run.”

Rita Mae Brown,

from “The New Lost Feminist,”

The Hand That Cradles the Rock

Chinese footbinding

What was involved

Chinese footbinding was a thousand-year-long practice of tightly wrapping girls’ feet from a very young age to keep the feet only three inches long. The “adorable” wrapped, maimed feet, a focus of extreme sexual fetish for men, were in fact so grotesque and so smelly that they could only be unwrapped and washed in private. Perfumed ointment was always needed on the woman’s feet and body to camouflage the horrible stench of her rotted stumps. Women with bound feet could just barely, painfully hobble along, although once the feet had been thus trained, a woman would suffer even greater pain if she attempted to walk without her feet bound.The ritual continued until the twentieth century Maoist revolution required women in the workforce.

Cultural context

The hideously deformed three inch feet were called “lotus hooks.” In fact, the maimed feet did resemble lotus hooks since the large toe was pointed upward while the others were crushed and bent under the plantar. The symbolism of the lotus in the East is comparable to that of the rose in the West. Like the rose, the lotus is considered very beautiful. It is also viewed as a natural symbol for all forms of evolution. The Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore explains the lotus as a symbol of purity in China: “As elsewhere, it is the emblem of purity (because it rises unsullied, however muddied the waters, and does not grow in the earth),” The feminist scholar can further understand the links between the bound feet as “lotus hooks” and purity, for the mutilation of women’s feet and the resulting lack of mobility absolutely guaranteed that, in the most complete sense, a wife would never be able to “run around.” Thus we see women confined and under complete control of their masters. Mary Daly says, “The foot purification (mutilation) ensured that women would be brainwashed as well, since their immobility made them entirely dependent upon males for knowledge of the world outside their houses…Thus her mind was purely possessed, and it became axiomatic that the possessor of tiny feet was a paradigm of feminine goodness.”

Male sexual obsession with tiny feet was fetishism in the extreme. In Chinese Footbinding: The History of a Curious Erotic Custom, Howard S. Levy documents that men enjoyed squeezing the stumps to the point of causing acute pain, smelling them, whipping them, stuffing them into their mouths, biting them, and having their penises rubbed by them. Men stole “tiny shoes” in order to masturbate with them and then ejaculate into them. They also drank tea containing the liquid in which the smelly stumps were washed.

Chinese emphasis on tiny feet has traveled to our own culture. The Cinderella with which we are all familiar was originally a Chinese story from the 9th century A.D., during the age of footbinding. One version recounted by Jakob Karl Grimm in the early 19th century and republished and translated in subsequent editions since has it that when the older step-sister tried on the tiny shoe presented by the prince, her mother ordered her to cut off her big toe to make it fit. The prince, however, noticed the blood. Then Cinderella’s step-mother had her other daughter slice off part of her heel to make the tiny shoe fit, but again, the prince noticed the blood. In the end only the good, previously mistreated (pain and martyrdom being necessary ingredients in the patriarchal making of “true,” worthy femininity) Cinderella possessed properly tiny feet and fit into the shoe – thus she gets to marry the prince, which always means living happily ever after. Today, American women still have a tendency to underestimate their shoe sizes. On the popular television show “Married With Children,” this tendency was the source of an ongoing gag – the shoe salesman Al Bundy routinely brought to women customers shoes that were actually two sizes larger than the sizes the women had requested to try on. Bundy did this to save himself multiple trips to the shoe storage room in the back of the store since experience had taught him that his women customers actually needed sizes larger than those they initially claimed to wear.

Next up, part V, applying Mary Daly’s elements to Chinese footbinding.

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