City Paper – Book review, Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China

From the February 9, 2001 issue.

Bitter Lotus

By Virginia Vitzthum

Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China

By Wang Ping

University of Minnesota Press,

320 pp., $27.95

If footbinding never existed and Margaret Atwood or Marge Piercy wove it into a feminist dystopian novel, readers would probably reject it as too grotesque an invention. As in the case of female circumcision, the reality beggars belief: For more than 1,000 years, one of the world’s major civilizations essentially amputated women to make them more decorative.

Well into the 20th century, Chinese mothers were still breaking their young daughters’ feet to keep them small and curved “like a lotus blossom.” The lotus and the new moon were the favored metaphors for the perfectly bound foot, and legendary beauties were said to walk on air. But the photos in Wang Ping’s Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China show a hoof cloven sideways, toes and ball compressed into a cube like a junked car, then pushed back into the heel. The arch is squeezed up into a tall slit or gap; the bare foot looks like a platform shoe or a pig’s foot.

The first references to tiny, bowed feet appeared in Chinese literature in the 21st century B.C.E., but footbinding didn’t become popular until the 11th century, B.C. “By the end of the Song [Dynasty, in 1279],” writes Wang, “tiny feet began to be used as a synonym for women.” By the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), peasants as well as royal women were wrapping their feet. Nationalist leaders outlawed footbinding early in the 20th century as part of an effort to modernize China, but it took rural women years to reject the tradition handed down by their mothers and grandmothers. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao ordered bound feet to be “liberated”–which crippled older women all over again; they couldn’t walk without their bandages and lotus shoes.

To achieve the ideal of 3 inches or smaller, first the mothers, and then, eventually, the daughters themselves would pull the four small toes in toward the heel with 10-foot bandages, which were then sewn shut. A girl would don progressively smaller high-heeled shoes, barely wider than an ankle, and walk as much as she could, training the bent-under toes to bear her weight. This was the beginning of a two-year “breaking period.”

The bound foot wasn’t just stunted–it was slowly cut away, like a rotting tree stump. Every few days or weeks, the mother or the girl removed the bandages, washed and tended to the foot, and rewrapped it tighter. A woman describes her breaking process at age 7:

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.

The mothers ignored their daughters’ agonized crying, because the girls’ future was at stake. A tiny foot signaled to a prospective husband accomplishment, beauty, and the ability to withstand suffering, which combination Wang says is the Chinese ideal of femininity. The very tiniest feet could carry a girl up the social ladder, possibly to the royal palace. Girls therefore became obsessed with crushing them smaller, exulting over “losing” a quarter-inch, like anorexics in some parallel universe where they’re encouraged to weigh 80 pounds.

Aching for Beauty began as Wang’s dissertation for her comparative literature Ph.D., and her relationship with her subject is a fascinatingly tortured mix of personal and academic, feminist and explicator/defender of Chinese culture. Her grandmother had bound feet that were “liberated,” and Wang tried to stunt her own feet’s growth with rubber bands when she was 9. She doesn’t see foot-bound women simply as victims of the patriarchy; she refers to a sisterhood based on pain, “a language more preverbal, transmitted from mother to daughter and shared among women.”

Such metaphorical use of “language” flashes a warning throughout Aching for Beauty: Beware, French Obscurantism Ahead. Time after time, Wang turns away from her well-researched historical analysis to follow Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, Georges Bataille, and others on their wordy way up their own butts. My merde detector first went off on Page 4, when I read: “Bound feet became the emblem of femininity and eroticism through physical and linguistic violence.” Chapter 4, “Edible Beauty,” begins with this epigram by Gilles Deleuze: “If you utter something, that something goes through your mouth; therefore when you utter ‘a chariot,’ a chariot goes through your mouth.” Such whimsical free-association can be charming when, say, Roland Barthes is musing about l’amour, but it’s a frustrating analytical tool.

Wang fares better with non-Gallic theories: Both Marxism and feminism certainly apply to a society that collected and modified women like dolls. Tiny-footed concubines were luxury items, gathered and displayed most avidly in conspicuously consuming dynasties like the Song. Footbinding also rose parallel with prostitution, which was so widely accepted that prostitutes were registered with the army and the government.

Wang even gets some mileage out of Freud. The bound feet do look like penises, and if eros and thanatos ever mixed it up anywhere, it’s on a sexually fetishized body part that’s being suffocated to death. She also ties the practice into that part of Chinese culture that hides savagery beneath beautiful masks. The crippled foot was always hidden in beautiful lotus slippers, and for a man to glimpse it uncovered shamed a woman nearly as much as rape. The book reproduces several erotic prints where the super-sized genitals are bared and busy, but the little hoof shoes stay on. Because anything so forbidden becomes alluring, the “lotus lovers” lovingly classified the different shapes of stump, even the different smells of the rotting flesh.

Footbinding also coincided with the rise of Confucianism, which deemed desire based on the five senses evil–especially lust for women. Confucian women during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties proved their piousness with violent self-mutilation. Wang writes:

They gouged out their eyes; cut off their noses, ears, hair, or arms; bit off their fingers; destroyed their faces–all in order to show their determination not to remarry after the death of their husbands or fiances. When women were forced to remarry or were raped by bandits and soldiers, they often committed suicide to maintain their chastity.

These mutilations and suicides became the subjects of Confucian morality tales of “exemplary women.” During the Ming dynasty, mortification of the flesh extended to men as well. By the early 1600s, there were 100,000 castrated or self-castrated eunuchs, Wang writes, “hoping to serve in the palace and even become part of the royal power network.” The Ming was also known for executing traitors by ling chi, or the thousand cuts. The emperor would shout out a number–more than 3,000 in the book’s two examples, from witnesses’ journals–and the prisoner would be cut that many times, slowly losing ears, limbs, penis. Death could take three days.

Like the other mutilations, ling chi inspires Wang to a linguistic analysis that jumps the tracks of reason. “[L]ike footbinding, the fetish was completed through language,” she writes, because the number of cuts was shouted out after each 10 and horsemen announced the death to the emperor at the palace. Furthermore, the “body was dissected into thirty-six hundred pieces (in Zheng Man’s case), a figure that coincides with the approximate number of characters a Chinese person needs to know in order to read and write.” She could just as well have concluded that the “fetish was completed” with mathematics (pick your number pattern) or architecture (the news of the outdoor death moving into the palace).

Over the course of the book, I came to believe that Wang’s most out-there theorizing about “discourse” and “euphemism” and “linguistics” is always in response to the most grisly horrors–the little girls begging their mothers to loosen the bandages around their infected feet, the widows’ eye-gouging, the thousand cuts. It began to seem like dissociation from anguish–that her mind recoils from what her ancestors did to each other. And the Frenchmen give her plenty of rope to tangle, if not hang, herself.

But the French theorists’ lack of moral absolutes does fit Wang’s ambivalence toward her subject. She implicates herself in the culture of footbinding by beginning and ending the book with her childish attempts to stop her feet from growing. There’s much sadness but no judgment in explanations like this: “A truly loving mother must teach her daughters how to endure pain…to prepare her for her sexuality, marriage, reproduction, motherhood.” Perhaps this Chinese emigree who writes in English recasts violence as language because the latter is her personal triumph, her best shot at making sense of the unspeakable. CP