I am old enough to know only too well my good and bad qualities, which were often one and the same. For my entire life I longed for love. I knew it was not right for me—as a girl and later as a woman—to want or expect it, but I did, and this unjustified desire has been at the root of every problem I have experienced in my life. I dreamed that my mother would notice me and that she and the rest of my family would grow to love me. To win their affection, I was obedient—the ideal characteristic for someone of my sex—but I was too willing to do what they told me to do. Hoping they would show me even the most simple kindness, I tried to fulfill their expectations for me—to attain the smallest bound feet in the county—so I let my bones be broken and molded into a better shape.
Looking at my own life, I see it draws from the stories of women and men. I am a lowly woman with the usual complaints, but inside I also waged something like a man’s battle between my true nature and the person I should have been.
To me, they had an ideal marriage; he was an affectionate rat and she was dutiful ox.
She looked at me the way all mothers look at their daughters –as a temporary visitor who was another mouth to feed and a body to dress until I went to my husband’s home.
Seventy-five years have gone by, and I still remember the feel of the mud between my toes, the rush of water over my feet, the cold against my skin. Beautiful Moon and I were free in a way that we would never be again. But I remember something else distinctly from that day. From the second I woke up, I had seen my family in new ways and they had filed me with strange emotions –melancholy, sadness, jealousy, and a sense of injustice about many things that suddenly seemed unfair. I let the water wash all that away.
In the quiet darkness, I was precious to him. For that moment, I was like a pearl in his hand.
I was only a means to make profit.
I knew that men rarely entered the women’s chamber; it was for us alone, where we could do our work and share our thoughts. I knew I would spend almost my entire life in a room like that. I also knew the difference between nei—the inner realm of the home—and wai—the outer realm of men—lay at the very heart of Confucian society. Whether you are rich or poor, emperor or slave, the domestic sphere is for women and the outside sphere is for men. Women should not pass beyond the inner chambers in their thoughts or in their actions. I also understood that two Confucian ideals ruled our lives. The first was the Three Obediences: “When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son.” The second was the Four Virtues, which delineate women’s behavior, speech, carriage, and occupation: “Be chaste and yielding, calm and upright in attitude; be quiet and agreeable in words; be restrained and exquisite in movement; be perfect in handiwork and embroidery.” If girls do not stray from these principles, they will grow into virtuous women.
Mama and Aunt resumed their pre-binding activities, making more bandages. They fed us red-bean dumplings, to soften our bones to the consistency of a dumpling and inspire us to achieve a size for our feet that would be no larger than a dumpling.
Now I know there were many things no one said. (No one said I could die. It wasn’t until I moved to my husband’s home that my mother-in-law told me that one out of ten girls died from footbinding, not only in our county but across the whole of China.)
All I knew was that footbinding would make me more marriageable and therefore bring me closer to the greatest love and greatest joy in a woman’s life –a son. To that end, my goal was to achieve a pair of perfectly bound feet with seven distinct attributes: They should be small, narrow, straight, pointed, and arched, yet still fragrant and soft in texture. Of those requirements, length is more important. Seven centimeters –about the length of a thumb –is the ideal. Shape comes next. A perfect foot should be shaped like a bud of a lotus. It should be full and round at the heel, come to a point at the front, with all weight borne by the big toe alone. This means that the toes and arch of the foot must be broken and bent under to meet the heel. Finally, the cleft formed by the forefoot and the heel should be deep enough to hide a large cash piece perpendicularly within its folds. If I could attain all that, happiness would be my reward.
… every girl of any standing throughout the great country of China went through what we were going through to become women, wives, and mothers of worth.
On our fourth day, we soaked our bandaged feet in a bucket of hot water. The bindings were then removed, and Mama and Aunt checked our toenails, shaved calluses, scrubbed away dead skin, dabbed on more alum and perfume to disguise the odor our putrefying flesh, and wrapped new clean bindings, even tighter this time. Every day the same. Every fourth day the same. Every two weeks a new pair of shoes, each pair smaller.
For us, the pain didn’t lessen. How could it? But we learned the most important lesson for all women: that we must obey for our own good.
By nightfall the eight toes that needed to break had broken, but I was still made to walk. I felt my broken toes under the weight of every step I took, for they were loose in my shoes. The freshly created space where once there had been a joint was now a gelatinous infinity of torture.
“A true lady lets no ugliness into her life,” she repeated again and again, drilling the words into me. “Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suffering will you find peace. I wrap, I bind, but you will have the reward.”