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Delanceyplace: Bound Feet

Author Jung Chang writes in her memoir of the excruciatingly painful Chinese custom of binding women's feet.

My grandmother was a beauty. She had an oval face, with rosy cheeks and lustrous
skin. Her long, shiny black hair was woven into a thick plait reaching down to her
waist. She could be demure when the occasion demanded, which was most of the time,
but underneath her composed exterior she was bursting with suppressed energy. She
was petite, about five feet three inches, with a slender figure and sloping shoulders,
which were considered the ideal.

But her greatest assets were her bound feet, called in Chinese 'three-inch golden
lilies' (san-tsun-gin-lian). This meant she walked 'like a tender young willow shoot
in a spring breeze,' as Chinese connoisseurs of women traditionally put it. The
sight of a woman teetering on bound feet was supposed to have an erotic effect on
men, partly because her vulnerability induced a feeling of protectiveness in the

My grandmother's feet had been bound when she was two years old. Her mother, who
herself had bound feet, first wound a piece of white cloth about twenty feet long
round her feet, bending all the toes except the big toe inward and under the sole.
Then she placed a large stone on top to crush the arch. My grandmother screamed
in agony and begged her to stop. Her mother had to stick a cloth into her mouth
to gag her. My grandmother passed out repeatedly from the pain.

The process lasted several years. Even after the bones had been broken, the feet
had to be bound day and night in thick cloth because the moment they were released
they would try to recover. For years my grandmother lived in relentless, excruciating
pain. When she pleaded with her mother to untie the bindings, her mother would weep
and tell her that unbound feet would ruin her entire life, and that she was doing
it for her own future happiness.

In those days, when a woman was married, the first thing the bridegrooms family
did was to examine her feet. Large feet, meaning normal feet, were considered to
bring shame on the husband's household. The mother-in-law would lift the hem of
the bride's long skirt, and if the feet were more than about four inches long,
she would throw down the skirt in a demonstrative gesture of contempt and stalk
off, leaving the bride to the critical gaze of the wedding guests, who would stare
at her feet and insultingly mutter their disdain. Sometimes a mother would take
pity on her daughter and remove the binding cloth; but when the child grew up
and had to endure the contempt of her husband's family and the disapproval of society,
she would blame her mother for having been too weak.

The practice of binding feet was originally introduced about a thousand years ago,
allegedly by a concubine of the emperor. Not only was the sight of women hobbling
on tiny feet considered erotic, men would also get excited playing with bound feet,
which were always hidden in embroidered silk shoes. Women could not remove the binding
cloths even when they were adults, as their feet would start growing again. The
binding could only be loosened temporarily at night in bed, when they would put
on soft-soled shoes. Men rarely saw naked bound feet, which were usually covered
in rotting flesh and stank when the bindings were removed. As a child, I can remember
my grand- mother being in constant pain. When we came home from shopping, the first
thing she would do was soak her feet in a bowl of hot water, sighing with relief
as she did so. Then she would set about cutting off pieces of dead skin. The pain
came not only from the broken bones, but also from her toenails, which grew into
the balls of her feet.

"In fact, my grandmother's feet were bound just at the moment when foot-binding
was disappearing for good. By the time her sister was born in 1917, the practice
had virtually been abandoned, so she escaped the torment.

Jung Chang
Title: Wild Swans: The Three Daughters of China
Publisher: First Touchstone Edition
Pages: 4-5

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