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.

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:

"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

 

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.

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."

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.

"My teenage experience was very different from most people's. I was so busy just trying to survive." At the time, Wang thought that she, like Andersen's Little Mermaid, was paying the price for freedom. She eventually got her wish. After three years in the country, she was recommended for Hongzhou foreign-language school. Next she moved on to Beijing University. In 1985, with functional English and almost no money, she left China and her family behind. She had no clear idea of what she would do abroad; she wanted only to continue her education. In New York, she worked illegally in restaurants while taking classes at Long Island University and, later, New York University.

At the urging of one of her professors, the poet Lewis Warsh, she also began to write. "I was so scared at first," she says. "I couldn't imagine I could do it. But it's like karma--once the wheel starts rolling." Though she was further from her childhood home than ever, Wang now began returning to Dinghai in her fiction.

In Foreign Devil, especially, Wang wrestles with her immigration as an impossible choice between cutting all ties with a country that's gone half mad and remaining bound in a provincial wasteland. In one striking passage (whose central image acts as a leitmotif), the narrator's grandmother describes Pacific birds who, once they've left their home island, must remain aloft forever:

 

Those birds didn't build nests. They laid their eggs on barren rocks. The chicks had to learn how to live with nature on the day they were born. Many didn't, but those who survived grew up strong and tough. When the flying time came, they followed their parents to the top of the island. From there, they hopped down as fast as they could. Their hopping was awkward, but once they were in the air and their powerful wings wide open between the blue sky and the blue sea, they turned into the most magnificent creatures on earth."

 

As in the birds' flight, the exile of the narrator, Ni Bing, becomes a choice between death and life as a "hungry ghost." The journey is long and solitary. "Often I walked as if on a road full of knives and broken glass," Wang writes, in an echo of both foot-binding stories and Andersen's fairy tale. "It is the only path I have, and it is worth it, I kept telling myself in the dark."

 

Although Aching for Beauty draws only sporadically on Wang's personal experience, it might also be read as an act of reconciliation--as in the author's fiction, a brave attempt to understand the power of pain to transform, as well as the cost of that transformation. Indeed, Wang prefaces her literary exploration with an account of her own secret childhood ritual: "Why did I think that small feet look better than natural big feet and voluntarily suppress them during a period when anything beautiful, natural or artificial, was considered dangerous and bad, and therefore, outlawed?...Whatever it was, my motivation was strong and clear: I would do anything at any cost to have a pair of feet as small and shameful as my mother's and sisters', so I could be included in the class of the noble, civilized, and fortunate."

Foot binding seems at first a metaphor for the constriction of China's caste system, reinforced as a symbol of the feminine mystique for generations of women. "Foot binding started as a safeguard," the author explains, "a border between genders to separate men and women. It was the borderland for gender, class, and sex. But as the practice went on, the border became blurred. You even see that in today's America. Look at the politicians; they now wear heavy makeup."

Though Wang draws striking parallels between foot binding and Western rituals like cosmetic surgery, body art, and corseting, Aching for Beauty is also steeped in the literature of China, much of which remains unavailable in English translation. And, though Wang uses occidental literary criticism to uncover her subject, she also posits foot binding as something distinct from Western mores: Through foot binding, the mother transmits an entire cultural history to her daughter. The binding process thus becomes an initiation, not only to the erotic masque of the golden lotus, but also to what Wang calls "an ocean current of female language and culture." As in the parable of the Little Mermaid, it is a metamorphosis achieved only through agony.

Indeed, Wang reads foot binding less as a symbol of women's suppression than as a complex interplay between decay and illusion, male and female, beauty and death. There is a phrase in Chinese, teng ai, which, she explains, captures her thesis. The latter character means either "love" or "hidden treasure." The former is "suffering." This apparent paradox--bodily rot covered with the illusion of beauty, a mother's love transmitted through pain, women empowered through erotic adornment--is the same mixture of shame and pride that prompted Jin Suxin to bind her feet a century ago.

It is also perhaps not so different from the trove of fondness and regret Wang uncovers in the fictional unraveling of her own past. The ties that bind, it seems, also keep us securely tethered in the floating world. Or, as Wang says, "For me, escaping was never the goal....What restricts you also becomes your source."

 

Wang Ping reads from Aching for Beauty 8:00 p.m. Thursday, October 26 at Ruminator Books in St. Paul; (651) 699-0587.

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