Element I – obsession with purity
We have already reviewed the lotus as a symbol of purity and the fact that maimed three inch feet were called “lotus hooks.” We have also seen how physical immobility and resulting confinement guaranteed women’s sexual and even mental fidelity.
Element II – total erasure of responsibility for the atrocities
The erasure of male responsibility is evident in footbinding. Daly writes, “From the Chinese male point of view, there was no question of his blame or moral accountability. After all, women ‘did it to themselves.’” The feminist scholar should by now detect that once again, women actually faced a Hobson’s choice, for during a period of a thousand years, millions of Chinese men only wanted brides with bound feet and the condition of marriage was the only respectable option open to a woman.
Levy reports the following comment from a Chinese man: “Every time I see a girl suffering the pain of footbinding, I think of the future when the lotuses will be placed on my shoulders or held in my palms and my desire overflows and becomes uncontrollable.” Clearly, men were aware of women’s intense, lifelong physical pain. Women could hardly walk. As lovers, men enjoyed squeezing the stumps to the point of causing acute pain. As brothers, they reported witnessing during childhood the tears and agony of their sisters. Any empathy of these brothers was, however, far outweighed by their own sadistic, fetishistic erotic pleasure. As reported by Levy, Chinese historical novelist Nan-kung Po related the thoughts of one of his characters upon beholding a courtesan’s “tiny feet:”.
He couldn’t help feeling compassion for her lower extremities. Compressing the feet in order to thicken the thighs must have been the invention of a genius. And of course the inventor must have been a woman….
Such feelings of “compassion” and “pity” were often reported by Chinese men at the sight of “tiny feet,” yet it did not occur to them that they were the ones demanding and thereby enforcing the mutilation. Thus, as Daly point out, this “compassion” was pure doublethink. Consider the following reported by Levy from another Chinese “genius” who signed himself as “Lotus Knower:”
Women of antiquity regarded the tiny foot as a crystallization of physical beauty; it was not a product of lewd thinking.
Okay. Then, just a few lines later the same “Lotus Knower” shares his own lewd thinking:
The lotus has special seductive characteristics and is an instrument for arousing desire. Who can resist the fascination and bewilderment of playing with and holding in his palms a soft and jade-like hook?
Doublethink. Furthermore, he explains that women regarded the stumps as beautiful and then when asking who can resist, he switches back to “holding in his palms.” The “who” here appreciating the “beauty” is thus clearly male.
Element III – inherent tendency to “catch on” and spread
Foot-maiming caught on quickly and spread widely. The rite, a “family affair” “enjoyed” by all members, is estimated by scholars to have begun in the period between the T’ang and Sung dynasties. From there, it quickly spread throughout China and into Korea. By the 12th century, it was considered correct fashion among the upper classes. Mothers from families claiming aristocratic origins had to bind the feet of their daughters as a sign of upper-class distinction. The ritual spread downward, even to members of lower classes in some regions.
Element IV – women are used as scapegoats and token torturers
This is particularly clear with footbinding. Mothers and aunts bound the feet of little girls, as I just indicated, to show upper-class distinction to prospective husbands. And again, not binding the feet was unthinkable to these older women / token torturers because no man would want to marry the young woman whose feet were not bound. Thus the mother, herself mutilated and imprisoned, believed that “if one loved a daughter, one could not love her feet.”
Daly also reports that there were other token torturers: “Older and more skilled concubines were also used to bind the feet of young maids and concubines, while their lord enjoyed the painful spectacle.”
Element V – compulsive orderliness, obsessive repetitiveness, and fixation upon minute details
The thousand-year-long ritual of Chinese footbinding was obsessive and repetitive. It involved extreme fixation on minute details in the manufacture and care of “tiny feet,” which Daly describes:
There were rules for the size of the bandages, the intervals between applications of tighter and tighter bandages, the roles of various members of the family in this act of dis-memberment, the length of the correct “foot,” the manner in which the foot-bound women should sit and stand, the washing of the re-formed feet (to be done privately because of smell and ugliness hidden by ointments and fancy shoes). There were also rites of fashion connected with the re-fashioned feet. “Beautiful” tiny shoes were designed for various occasions and ceremonies, and the women wore fashionable leggings to hide their monstrously misshapen ankles.
Element VI – behavior which is at other times and places unacceptable become acceptable and even normative; often, the ritual is still practiced or desired even after it has been made illegal
For over a thousand years, footbinding was normal and normative.
The complete reversibility of what is ‘normal” for women under patriarchy is well illustrated by the transition from the footbinding era to the New Order of “letting out the feet.” Writing about the Kuomintang government of the late 1920s, Levy notes:
Women with bound feet who lived during the transitional era suffered twofold. They endured the pain and discomfort of binding in tender childhood, only to be told in maturity that their sufferings had been in vain because of the demands of the Revolution and the (resulting) change in aesthetic viewpoint.
With this change of “aesthetic viewpoint,” women with “tiny feet” were looked down upon, humiliated, and openly mocked. Now they were suddenly the unmarriageable ones. A woman with hopelessly deformed and broken bones could not simply removed her bandages and walk. Some women with longer or less “perfect” feet, with the bones unbroken, did in some cases manage to heed the government call to let their feet out. This was a propaganda song sung by revolutionaries in Chinese villages to mutilated women who simply could not “let their feet out” and get to work in the name of the revolution:
Big sister has big feet;
See how fast she walks down the street!
Little sister has tiny feet;
With each step she sways complete.
Big sister grows vegetables, tills the fields
Takes cabbages to market on a carrying pole.
Little sister, who can do none of these,
Washes her bindings, kneeling at the river bank;
Everyone runs away when they smell the stank!
Okay, I don’t know how it translated to end up rhyming in English, but there it is.
As Daly points out, “evidently, males were able to change their aesthetic standards for female beauty when their politics required this.” And, of course, once footbinding was no longer the marriageability measurement that it had been, women immediately stopped the practice, illustrating where the true power had been all along.
Element VII – “Objective” (read “patriarchal”) scholarship: mansplaining misogynist atrocities
As you might suspect, when the subject is a male sexual fetish, the scholarly mansplaining is a mess.
First, we have the by now predictable eagerness to assign agency to women who were in fact facing a Hobson’s choice. Levy’s book covers the horrors of footbinding – it has disturbing drawings and x-ray images of such damaged and broken feet. Strangely, though, the book contains an introduction by Arthur Waley, who takes quite a different tone from that of the author. Waley writes of his “interest” in footbinding “as the most striking example of the strange things that women do or have done to them, in almost all cultures, in order to make themselves attractive to men.” After stating that he has been “intrigued” for more than fifty years by these “propensities” of women, he provides cross-cultural examples. Among his examples are African women who wear large round disks attached to their lower lips. We already know that all too often these women’s masters use the disks to keep the women in line. Waley also cites African women with necks greatly elongated by neck rings (which Waley calls “necklaces”). We know these women’s male masters use the threat of removing the neck rings from these “giraffe women” to keep them in line because once the neck is used to such support, removal of the rings causes excruciating pain.
Waley then goes on the praise Levy as follows:
One of the values of Mr. Levy’s well-documented book on footbinding in China is that it will give material to anyone writing a general anthropological study of such self-mutilations or self-modifications in all parts of the world
Yet, if he really read the book he was introducing, he would know that seven year old girls were not mutilating themselves – that was, of course, the role of patriarchy’s token female torturers. And once again, it was men who in fact demanded this maiming because they would only marry footbound women. As Mary Daly reminds us, “Women of ‘other’ cultures are deceived by sado-scholarship which ‘proves’ that women like to maim each other, documenting the ‘fact’ that ‘women did it.’”
On the psychological side this book would have fascinated Havelock Ellis, who in discussing sexual abnormalities stresses the attractiveness to some men of lameless or an uncertain gait in women. There is no doubt that this and other small perversions became institutionalized in the cult of the bound foot in China.
It is mind-blowing that he refers to this subject as in a category of “small perversions.” First of all, he is referring to the torturing and crippling of millions of women for the pleasure of “some men.” Secondly, I would hardly call men men squeezing the stumps to the point of causing acute pain, smelling them, whipping them, stuffing them into their mouths, biting them, having their penises rubbed by them, masturbating into stolen tiny shoes and drinking tea made with the water used in the washing of terribly smelly stumps “small” perversions. I think those are pretty fucking big perversions!
As to Waley’s mention of some men being attracted to lameness, we should detour briefly to note here that this is certainly not limited to the Far East. In “Rationale of the Dirty Joke,” one G. Legman (yep, that’s the name on the book cover – Legman) writes:
A woman…had lost a leg during WWII and had to wear an artificial limb, with the unexpected result that perverted men began following her in the subway and whispering sexual invitations to her…
Remember Flannery O’Connor’s disturbing short story “Good Country People?”
A Bible salesman, purportedly named Manley Pointer, visits the family and is invited for dinner despite the Hopewells’ lack of interest in purchasing Bibles. Mrs. Hopewell believes Manley is “good country people.” While leaving the home, Pointer invites Joy for a picnic date the next evening, and she ironically imagines seducing the innocent Bible salesman. During the date, he persuades her to go up into the barn loft where he persuades her to remove her prosthetic leg and takes her glasses. He then produces a hollowed-out Bible containing a bottle of whiskey, sex cards, and some condoms. He tries to get her to drink some liquor, but she rebuffs his advances. At that point he disappears with her leg after telling her that he collects prostheses from disabled people and is a nihilistic atheist.
William A. Rossi, a fan of foot fetishism, writes in The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe, “female helplessness arouses many men,” referring to the fact that one extreme example, female ankle bondage, goes back at least four thousand years. Consider too the cult of female helplessness in the antebellum American South, where women wore corsets laced so tightly – to achieve the ideal of a waist tiny enough for a man to wrap his hands around – that they often fainted because they simply couldn’t breathe, which was taken as proof of women’s extreme delicacy. In the book “Gone With the Wind,” Margaret Mitchell explained how Scarlett was trained to slowly walk pigeon-toed to “make her skirts sway alluringly.”
As to the scholarship on footbinding, Mary Daly writes:
Conventional scholarship contributes mightily to the “normalization” of the atrocious ritual in people’s minds after the fact, perpetuating and extending its mindbinding influence. This is accomplished repeatedly through the use of language that minimizes / belittles facts. Thus the very title of Levy’s book puts footbinding in its place: Chinese Footbinding: The History of a Curious Erotic Custom. The adjective curious suggests the bland detachment of schizoid scholarship. The adjective erotic is deceptively innocuous sounding, for it fails to convey the fact that sexual desire is aroused precisely by mutilation.
Notice once again the use of the word “custom” which as Daly points out “suggests something as physically harmless as a handshake or the table manners of Emily Post.”
Rossi’s work is, for Daly, “a veritable sourcebook for a study of legitimation of sado-ritual by the Rites of Re-search.” Rossi asserts that the view of the “outside world,” which judged this thousand-year-long “sex orgy” involving what he estimates to have involved five billion Chinese, as barbarous and cruel has been “naive and distorted.” Rossi then explains that “the Chinese regarded the bound foot as the most erotic and desired portion of the entire female anatomy.” This is a deceptive use of the pseudogeneric – “the Chinese” – for it was men who desired this mutilated part of the female anatomy while it was girls and women who were widely reported crying in pain yet who believed that, in order to survive, they had to cater to the fetish of the patriarchs. Rossi again uses the deceptive pseudogeneric when he writes,” the human species prefers itself a little bent out of shape.” The fact is that since the dawn of the patriarchal age so many men have preferred their women badly bent out of shape – physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Astonishing in my opinion is that Rossi refers to these Chinese pain-ridden semi-amputees as “a reigning clan of goddesses with sensual powers not bestowed upon ordinary women.” Seriously? They, unable to walk, were the ones “reigning” in China? We know the only kind of “power” these “goddesses” had – it is the kind of fake power usually assigned to oppressed women, the “power” to give men boners. Ho-hum. We hear this even today from Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs), rapists, and someone like Elliott Rogers who goes on a killing spree in an announced effort to “get even” with all women because they hold the ultimate “power” of sexual access while he is still a virgin. As to Rossi, when he does use the term “cruel” in reference to footbinding, he puts it in quotation marks. Apparently then we are not to take it as actually cruel (?). He writes blandly of “discomfort” rather than the actual pain of hobbling along on crushed, broken foot bones, thus deceptively hiding the harsh reality, for if you have ever sprained your ankle or foot (as I have twice) or broken bones in that area, you know that it is not mere “discomfort” but actual pain.
Finally, Rossi tells us that “women have always had an affinity for fragile foundations and willowy walking.” This, of course, has not always been the case. And, again, such a fragile presentation has so often been a matter of male desires and since the beginnings of patriarchy, women have needed husbands for safety, security, and respectability – so again I point out that Rossi’s claim that women have always had an affinity for fragile foundations has been, for women, a Hobson’s choice.
We may also turn to Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. Becker argues that sadomasochism is “natural” and sees the natural human foot as “the absolute and unmitigated testimony to our degraded animality, to the incongruity between our proud, rich, lively, infinitely transcendent, free inner spirit and our earth-bound body.” He further illuminates this combination of flesh-loathing and false transcendence when he writes that “nothing equals the foot for ugliness or the shoe for contrast and cultural contrivance.” Thus, it is not surprising to find him affirming Chinese footbinding as “the perfect triumph of cultural contrivance over the animal foot – exactly what the fetishist achieves with the shoe.” We can see that Becker’s “infinitely transcendent, free inner spirit” and “cultural contrivance” are identified with the male while the “ugly, animal foot” over which the latter triumphs is the female. The mutilated foot, then, is a triumph of patriarchal transcendence. Becker goes on:
One of the reasons that the fetish object is itself so splendid and fascinating to the fetishist must be that he transfers to it the awesomeness of the other human presence. The fetish is then the manageable miracle while the partner is not.
Note here that the real perversion is Becker’s in seeing the natural female foot as ugly and its mutilated leftover as “splendid.”
Another example of scholarship legitimizing footbinding is R.H. Van Gulik’s Sexual Life in Ancient China. Van Gulik dismisses as “far-fetched” the idea that the custom was encouraged to restrict women’s movements and keep them within the house. Yet he misses the point that this oppression, women’s reality, was exactly what happened. He dismisses footbinding as having something to do with “shoe-fetishism” and fails to see it as anything oppressive even though he presents in his book a horrifying drawing of a bound foot based on an X-ray. He reports that “woman’s small feet came to be considered as the most intimate part of her body, the very symbol of femininity, and the most powerful centre of sex appeal.” What does it mean when “sex appeal” includes the sadistic mutilating / maiming of women into “femininity?”
The writer points us to “secondary” effects of footbinding:
As to the detrimental effects on women’s health caused by footbinding, these are often exaggerated. For the general state of health of Chinese women, the secondary effects of footbinding were the most serious: bound feet discouraged women’s interest in dancing, fencing, and other physical exercises popular with the weaker sex in pre-footbinding days.
As Daly points out, “this is comparable to describing a leg amputation as ‘discouraging’ figure skating, skiing, and ballet. One difference between footbound women and amputees is that the latter can, with prostheses, learn to walk, whereas perfectly footbound women could only fall from stump to stump and often had to be carried.” Van Gulik seems to express one regret though:
In the artistic field footbinding had the regrettable consequence that it put a stop to the great old Chinese art of dancing. After the Sung period…one hears less and less about great dancers.
Well, I would imagine so!
Van Gulik does take time to slap the wrist of one 19th century scholar who had written that the minds and bodies of the Chinese” people” are “distorted and deformed by unnatural uses:”
That scholar conveniently forgot that about the same time his wife and female relatives at home were bringing upon themselves cardiac, pulmonary, and other serious afflictions by the excessive tight-lacing of their waists. Footbinding caused much pain and acute suffering, but women of all times and races have as a rule gladly borne those if fashion demanded it.
Van Gulik branded the thus chastised writer as exemplifying “the smug attitude of 19th century Western observers.” Here, once again, we see a scholar branding all women as agents of their own affliction. The first agent demanding this is, for the author, not male preference but “fashion.”
We will next consider Vern L. Bullough and his book “The Subordinate Sex: A History of Attitudes Towards Women.” He describes footbinding as “a practice which makes it almost impossible for women to move around without great effort.” We turn once again to Daly for translation:
The combination of the adverb almost with the phrase without great effort has a completely nullifying effect. Each erases the point of the other. Had he eliminated either the adverb or the phrase, the statement would have been correct. Had he eliminated both, it still would have been accurate. By the use of both, he succeeds in watering down the reality to the point that the statement is simply wrong, for footbinding did indeed make it impossible for women to move about without great effort and without great agony. His choice of the bland term effort is deeply and subtly deceptive. If it conjures up any images at all, these are somewhat in the range of tight shoes, corns, bunions, or at worst a sprained ankle – hardly conveying the reduction of a woman’s feet to putrescent three-inch stumps….Bullough deceives by omission. He nowhere describes the horrible physical reality of footbinding, although he uses the same source (Howard S. Levy) as Andrea Dworkin, and therefore had available for use the very same graphic and detailed material. His terse statement that “there was a cult of foot fetishism” conveys nothing of the maiming of women.
And that finally brings us to the feminist scholarship of Andrea Dworkin. One immediately detects a difference in tone for her book is called Woman Hating and her chapter on footbinding is titled “Gynocide: Chinese Footbinding.” She sweeps the “material” off musty shelves reserved for those who are “curious” about remote “erotic customs.” Dworkin honesty presents the real horror, which here includes the use of Levy’s graphic illustrations. Then she connects it to other concepts related to women’s oppression:
It (footbinding) demonstrates that man’s love for woman, his sexual adoration of her, his human definition of her, require her negation, physical crippling, and psychological lobotomy.
Next up, African genital mutilation.