Of Human Bondage

Wang Ping's personal study on Chinese foot binding reflects on the pain of freedom

o begin, the mother must methodically break her daughter's bones. She wrenches the toes against the plantar fascia and binds them tight with ten feet of silk bandage. If they are broken properly, the feet will assume the shape of miniature crescent moons, with the toe and heel nearly touching. During the binding process, which typically begins when the girl is between five and seven years old, the feet are repeatedly broken over a period of up to three years. During that time, the pain is unspeakable: The feet become hypersensitive to heat and cold; walking is torture. The girl, who feels as though her body is being turned inside out with every step, begs to be released even for a few minutes a day. She may secretly loosen the bandages at night. For this her mother will curse and beat her.

The girl's mother, who oversees the breaking and binding, forces the child to walk on the shattered toes. If she does not, the feet will become flat and misshapen. Eventually the blood stops circulating, the nerve endings die, and the pain ebbs. The skin sloughs off, and the toes deliquesce into the sole of the foot. Removing the bandage late in the process, the girl will no longer believe they were ever part of a living human body. They begin to smell of death, as well. The girl's mother advises her to keep the raw sores covered in perfumed powder to conceal the stink of rotting flesh. She must drain the pus daily. The change is irreversible. If the feet are ever released, they will grow to grotesque proportions, like weeds in an untended garden. In the end, when the breaking is complete, the girl will regard the feet as something distinct and distant from herself. She, like her mother, will dream of perfect three-inch lotus flowers.

"I would do anything at any cost to have a pair of feet as small and shameful as my mother's and sisters'": Poet and novelist Wang Ping
Dan Monick
"I would do anything at any cost to have a pair of feet as small and shameful as my mother's and sisters'": Poet and novelist Wang Ping

The origins of foot binding are obscured by time and legend. According to the latter, it was the emperor of the Northern Qin, who, in the Third Century B.C.E., first ordered his favorite concubines to dance on lotus flowers in order to create the illusion of weightlessness. The cult of the "golden lotus," as bound feet were euphemistically known, reached its height in the languid decadence of the Song Dynasty and persisted into the 20th Century. In the 1930s, a devotee of lotus feet named Yao Linxi traveled China collecting first-person accounts of the foot binding process, which he published as Records of Gathering Fragrance. He recounts the experience of Jin Suxin, who began binding her feet at age six:

 

At eleven, my feet were thin, small and arched, about four-and-a-half inches long. One day, I went with my mother to my maternal grandma's birthday party. Among the visitors were two girls of my age from the Weiyang family. Their feet were so tiny, smaller than hands, all wrapped in scarlet embroidered shoes. Everybody admired them. My uncle turned to me, laughing, 'Look at their feet, so small and straight. How respectful! Look at yours, so big and fat. Who will be willing to be your matchmaker?' At that moment, I was determined to bind my feet much more tightly no matter how painful it was.

 

To Yao and fellow aficionados of lotus feet, stories like Jin's were a kind of sacred pornography. Though they were closely guarded by women, the feet themselves were objects of fetishistic desire; even the stench they gave off was regarded as aphrodisiacal. But the mysterious process--the female body transformed into an objet d'art--was just as arousing. It was both a quest for immortal beauty and a memento mori: agony made erotic by its proximity to death.

Seen through Western eyes, foot binding, which was outlawed during the Cultural Revolution, might seem an archaic, barbarous ritual. To novelist and poet Wang Ping, however, whose new book Aching Beauty offers a fascinating survey of the custom's history and cultural significance, foot binding is the key to a deeper mystery, tied as much to her own past as to that of China. And, because that mystery is buried by time and shame, unlocking it is like chasing ghosts--which has, in one form or another, been the work of Wang's life.

 

On a luminous fall afternoon, Wang is sitting outside her office in the leaf-blown quadrangle of Macalester College, where she has taught creative writing for the past two years. Sunlight filters through tree branches overhead. At age 43 she might still pass for one of the students walking across the campus, though she now has two children of her own with her partner Adam Lerner, of Minneapolis-based Lerner Publications. (The couple met while she was studying at New York University.) Since immigrating to America in 1985, Wang has also produced a wide-ranging body of work: a book of poetry, Of Flesh and Spirit, a short-story collection, American Visa, and a novel, Foreign Devil. In her fiction, Wang deals with the psychic fallout of self-imposed exile. Her heroines are prisoners of circumstance and of mothers who heap abuse on them--not, as in the stories of foot binding, to inflict beauty, but to make them fierce and unbreakable. Looking back they regard the bondage of the past with a mixture of sorrow and regret. They are free in exile, but also adrift in the world.

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