Of Human Bondage

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

Aching for Beauty, a nonfictional treatise that originated as Wang's NYU Ph.D. thesis, might seem a sharp departure from her previous, highly autobiographical work. Yet, the author explains, this too is rooted in the memories of childhood. "The 'golden lotus' was something we grew up with," she says. "It was a household term."

Wang's childhood home was Dinghai, a dingy island in the China Sea about 12 hours from Shanghai, where her father was stationed as a naval officer. "My mother was born in Shanghai," she begins in a voice just above a whisper. "My father was from the north of China. He was a peasant, so there was friction between city and country, sophistication and peasantry. I leaned toward my father's side."

Wang's paternal grandmother, she says, sold herself as indentured labor to a Shanghai textile factory. Because of that, she was forced to unbind her feet. (Foot binding was a mark of social caste. When lower-class women went to work their formerly bound feet often had to be "liberated.") Even after they were released, the tiny, clawlike appendages remained a mystery to Wang. Reflecting on her childhood, she continues, "My grandma was very demanding. I watched her wash her feet, then mocked her behind her back. As I grew up, though, the curiosity about her feet stayed with me, and also the guilt. I had a desire to be close to her after she died. I wondered what kind of woman she was."

"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

Though she now remembers her family fondly, life on Dinghai during the feverish early years of the Cultural Revolution was anything but idyllic. "There was no hot water, no sink, no indoor bathroom, no heat in the winter," she says. "It's hard to imagine. There was no washing machine. I washed clothes by hand in icy water. My hands were frostbitten. We sat in classrooms with no heat.

"I recall this with nostalgia. It was a sweet-bitter experience. I'm glad I had this kind of experience. It made me what I am. I look back at what I was and feel that life is so magical." As Wang finishes, the wind comes up and sends dead leaves writhing around the yard, until it appears that the ground is shifting uneasily beneath her feet.

By her own account a shy and introspective girl, Wang was unprepossessing in every way but one. When it came to books, she says, she traded and stole shamelessly to get her hands on anything she could read: Chairman Mao's essays, illegal hand-written copies of Shakespeare, pornography, military training manuals. Above all, she treasured Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," in which the titular maiden gives up her tail and voice to find terrestrial love. "That still influences my writing, I think," Wang says (one of her daughters is named Ariel). "I was interesting in haunting tales of transformation, which dealt with the price you have to pay. It was aching for beauty in a subconscious way." Indeed, the passage of the fairy tale Wang quotes in Aching for Beauty, wherein the Little Mermaid is told that every step she takes with her new legs will be "like treading on a knife sharp enough to cause your blood to flow," eerily echoes Jin Suxin's account of foot binding.

By age nine, Wang's own feet were growing quickly, flattened because of labor and swollen from cold. Her mother and sisters called her "big feet" and "peasant feet," which, though innocuous-sounding, was a source of shame to a Chinese girl. And so Wang began binding her feet secretly at night with elastic strips. "I had no idea regarding foot binding," she recalls. "My idea was to suppress them a little. It hurt, but Western beauty products were then regarded as poison, so it was the only way to make myself beautiful. It was my ache for beauty."

Years later, triggered by a modern photo of a woman with lotus feet and a pair of three-inch shoes, Wang would describe the experience in American Visa: "A young woman with bound feet at the end of the 20th Century! For a while, I couldn't utter a word. Then I laughed...Weren't so many women, Asian and Western, still wearing high-heeled shoes in order to look sexy, in spite of the pain and bad consequences?...I suffered voluntarily. A modern lotus."

 

When Wang was a young woman, her path seemed to end at the sea's edge. Her single ambition, she explains, was to get a college degree. But, as a result of the class tumult of the Cultural Revolution, even that modest goal seemed beyond reach. Excepting the written oeuvre of Mao himself, books were banned. Universities, too, were closed to all but a select few with political connections. In an oddly metaphorical parallel to the crippling effects of Mao's reforms, the chairman also outlawed foot binding and ordered public self-criticisms for women with lotus feet. Though it was done in the name of gender equity, in many cases when the feet were unbound the women were left hobbled.

For a relatively middle-class girl like Wang, the only route to an education was through "reeducation" as a peasant. So, at age 15, she set out alone for the people's commune at Ganlan, where she worked for three years, 12 to 15 hours a day in the fields without pay. "I knew that the chance of getting out of the countryside was practically zero," she recalls. "But I wanted to go because it was the only way to go to college. I fought with my mother intensely. She wanted me to stay [home] another year so that my sister would have a better chance to go to college." Classes have let out, and a group of Macalester students amble across the quad, laughing and kicking up leaves as they go. Wang pays them little mind.

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