Be forewarned: This post is fucking long. Make yourself comfortable, make sure there’s plenty of drinks and food around you coz by the time you finish reading, it’s July 2012.
So, as you already had guessed, I went to Melaka on my birthday. It was an impromptu decision by my parents and been a life long desire of mine to step in Malaysia’s most historical city.
There, I found something so unique that as a birthday gift to myself, I bought it without thinking twice. It's a bound feet shoes.
It’s really tiny. I can’t even fit my fist in it.
It’s actually a shoe made for ‘bound feet’ women. Cool eh?
There is only one place left on earth that sells this shoe and it’s at Jonker Street, Melaka, Malaysia. I was so enthralled by this rare, unique and one of a kind shoes and maybe, maybe one day this shoes will worth something, eh?At the shop:
Why yes, that hairy arm belongs to me.
I was told that this shoe is a pattern usually made for royalties.
My sister with the royal shoes.
(I've so many rude and sick jokes running in my head while reading this article that if I write it down here, man, I can't imagine the hate mails come pouring in. Instead, I just shared it with my sister and we had cramp stomach laughing our ass off. Yes, yes. We're sick that way)
There’s a story/article about bound feet that was given together with my purchase and since it’s so fascinating, I’m sharing it here with you.
“To speak of her bound feet to a Chinese lady is a little like asking a Frenchwoman about her clitoris!”
This was a Sinologue Marie Holtzmann’s way of enlightening us on the difficulty of our mission: to meet in China the last women who had their feet bound and to record their account of this custom which has tormented millions of women for more than a thousand years.
Hotzmann was convinced, at least that we would be able to find these Chinese women, even thought this practice was officially banned in 1911. Knowing that the feet of infant girls between the age of two and eight years were usually bound, it was possible that 90-year-old women today would have live through the ordeal. Taking into account the vastness of the country, it was probable that the ban was not respected overnight. In any case, we had to try to locate these women before it was really too late.
It is winter in Beijing. It is close to minus 20 degrees. The roads are either deserter or crossed hastily by people bundled up to their eyes. Where could we find these old ladies?
We try to contact people from various associations in charge of old people. Their tone is very cold. We were at an impasse. The Chinese do not like foreigners’ involving themselves with such sensitive subjects because they are ashamed of this customs and d not wish to expose themselves to possible criticism. We try friends of friends. Many reveal to us that their grandmothers have bound feet but it was out of the question to meet them, they affirm that they could not enthusiastically speak on this subject with foreigners; they themselves had never dared to bring up this topic to them.
Thus, we decided to hang around the old, traditional parts of Beijing, the ‘Hutongs’, where the majority of inhabitants were old folk. We finally notice a grandmother whose footsteps are characteristic of a woman with bound feet. This means that she walks like a duck, pressing on their heels, her feet shaped like a fan...
What is more surprising is that she walks quickly, running even, behind her granddaughter whom she is accompanying to school. The perseverance of our translator finds us at her home. A feat, because to these old people indoctrinated for many years with Maoism, foreign involvement remains somewhat of a taboo, all contact with them having been forbidding for such a long time.
At 72, Elegance wears the Mao jacket, and lives in a single room where a fridge and a TV are enthroned. Here, one washes himself or herself outside, even in winter. When we finally bring up the question about her feet, after a flash of surprise, she speaks with disconcerting ease. Like any old person who likes to talk about the past, she seems to appreciate being able to pour her feelings on this subject.
Everything is square about her; her height, her face, her straight hair, it is clear that she has lost all taste for vanity a long time ago. She compares, laughingly, her two small feet with those of her neighbour, who came over to join us very quickly, curious to see foreigners visiting in the neighbourhood. The latter is from the South and had, she says, “the good fortune to escape this barbaric custom”.
Elegance started to bind her feet at the age of six years. “Because I found this very beautiful. I suffered a lot when binding them and my mother told me, “Don’t cry. If you want to stop, you stop!” During this time, few women still did it. Even my father didn’t want me to continue. I did it almost against their will. I found my mother’s feet very beautiful, even if they caused her hurt. I couldn’t place on the floor the front of my feet and I still can’t today.”
“I had difficulty finding shoes of my size so I made up the difference in size with stockings,” she explains to us while to our great surprise, she takes off her slippers and large number of stockings to reveal her feet covered, however, with a pair of socks. Only her big toe and first two toes are flat, the others are completely curled up under the soles of her feet where a strange, large ball has formed. “The bones of my toes are all broken. My friends have advised me to cut them off. It seems that it becomes less painful but I am afraid of doing it.”
She stopped binding her feet when she was 20, “when it became unfashionable”. Then she adds, whispering, as if she should never say such a thing, “at that time, I was a little sorry that it became out of fashion!”
Elegance was to be the only one among dozens of women we met who still wanted her feet bound.
According to American historian Dorothy Ko, who studied the life of 16th century Chinese women, we can only separate “the complexity of motivations and sentiments of women. To have bound feet was the most important event in their life and culture as a woman. To bind them was to accomplish the supreme art of femininity. Despite all the weight of mate erotic attraction placed on bound feet,” she writes –this custom would never have lasted more than a thousand years without the determination and pride of the women throughout this ordeal.
The origin of this custom dates back to the 10th century. Stemming from the desire of dancers wanting to have feet the size of a lotus flower, this practice was quickly imitated by courtesans, joined by women of the richer class. To have bound feet became a sign of social distinction. To confine women in the family to the boudoir was to prove that they did not need to work. Thus, their movements are limited.
In the end, this custom was adopted by all social classes, even the peasants and farmers, where the women we met came from, like Zhen, still careful of her appearance at 74 years of age and who dyes her hair ebony black. She remembers that all the women of her family had bound feet. For the majority, it was dreadful, as they had to go to work in the fields in spite of everything. “I remember that my mother could only work on her knees; standing was too painful for her”
Zhen started to bind her feet in 1930, at the age of eight. “I didn’t want to do it! And my mother did not want to force me. But family intervened. They said that i had to bind my feet; otherwise I would not find a husband. During that time, even if a girl was very pretty, she was despised if she had big feet and no one would want her. My father left to work in Beijing and returned saying that feet binding was over, it was longer done. But the rest of the family did not believe him and insisted and convinced my mother to force me to do it.”
When she started to bind my feet, I had to keep the bandage on night and day, but this became so unbearable that I took it off at night. Thus, my mother made me a pair of shoes which I could not remove. I shouted, cried, but she did not give in, and I had to continue. At the beginning, she placed a huge stone on the arch of my feet to break the bones more quickly.
“We used clothes of between three to ten meters long to bind the feet. We curled up all the toes, except the big toe, under the arch of the sole so that the foot would be perfected pointed. The bandage, firmly sewn at the beginning, led the flesh to decay, thus preventing the foot from growing bigger. The feet were often bloody. We continued binding our feet during the rest of our lives, to maintain their abnormal shape.
“In the beginning, it was hell, as each day, the bandage became tighter and tighter,” recounts Chun, 78 years old, forced as well by her mother to bind her feet. “But once the toe bones were broken, it became less painful.”
The smallest feet we saw were those of Xiu, the eldest of them all. She was 90 years old and her feet were barely longer than her hand. They were so minuscule and so deformed. Her terribly arched feet have become ankles.
Xiu has a lot more difficulty walking than the others and supports herself almost all the time with a cane. “My largest fear is my great-grandchildren. I only need to be pushed slightly for me to lose my balance.
Like all Chinese women, she only had one explanation for binding her feet. “It was the main condition in order for us to find a husband. And to marry was our only future,” she summarizes. This sentence, ‘to find a husband’, was thus the theme of their childhood, and of their suffering.
But why was it s important to their ‘husbands’? Why did they like bound feet so much? These questions produced laughter. A rather cheeky laughter. And they never said anything more, inferring that their laughter was sufficient eloquent. How could we miss the importance of feet in Chinese sexuality? Chinese men appreciated bound feet so much because they had a fundamental erotic value. Every and anything was written on this subject. It was claimed that bound feet muscled the vagina, giving men the feeling of penetrating young virgins.
What is certain is that the foot was an object of desire. That a woman allows a man to nonchalantly caress her bare foot was the signal that a relationship could start between them. But if a man touched them by accident, it was worse than having touched her breasts of buttocks.
The handling of feet was essential prelude to sexual act, a perfect stimulant, as described by Howard Levy in his book, Lovers of the Lotus: Story of the strange erotic custom of bound feet in China.
“Their ears were in love with the sound of women’s footsteps, whereas their noses inhaled the odour of the perfumed soles of the feet. To achieve ecstasy, the lover would bring the foot from his hand to his mouth, kiss it, suck it, insert the foot into his mouth until both cheeks are full, chewing vigorously on it. The lover would press the foot lovingly against his chest, knees or genitals. He was often willing to wash the feet of his adored one, liking to cut, without hesitation, her toenails by himself, and even ate watermelon seeds and almonds which he placed between her toes.”
Men were apparently not turned off by the smell of the decayed flesh of the feet. The odour, when a woman takes off her shoes, was enough – when someone faints – to revive him. It was, it is said, more effective than smelling salts! Women who were well-off, drenched their feet in perfumes, more to cultivate the special fragrance, it seems, than to drown out the original smell.
All these charms which caused Chinese women so many tears suddenly became out-of-date at the beginning of the century. And if voices were raised in past centuries to condemn this custom, they had to wait until 1911 in order for the proposals of intellectual Chinese, made through the influence of foreigners, especially furious missionaries, to carry sufficient weight to provoke a ban.
But this practice would still continue for years in the most remote regions. It was thus that we found a woman who had her feet bound in 1943! Ying lived in the Shandong region, in the mountains surrounding the town of Jinan. She was 10 years old then, 63 today.
“In my village, peasants refused to have their daughters’ feet unbound. It was my mother who forced me to do it. Nevertheless, she suffered a lot herself because of her feet at work. When she enveloped mine with the cloths, I couldn’t walk a step. Little by little, I succeeded in walking again when my bones were broken. I cried every night. Sometimes in order not to suffer, I secretly removed the bandage. My mother beat me but I didn’t care”
It was, she says, the “Liberations’ which ended up freeing her of her bandages. And her husband, she recounts, who was overjoyed to have married a woman with bound feet, encouraged her to stop. “It was like that, during the “Liberation”, everyone changed their opinions and the fact that I had bound feet suddenly became a source of embarrassment to him”
Yin, 78, did not ask the opinion of her spouse to stop a year after her marriage at the age of 20. “It was no longer the fashion and then I didn’t care I was pretty or not because I had already found a husband”
For her as well as for others, removing the bandages proved to be another ordeal. “It became more painful because my feet, used to being protected by cloth, touched the round directly. This hurt them and I often had bloody feet. Our 90-year-old grandmother waited till she was 60 to remove her bandages. First of all, I didn’t dare to walk as my bones were completely broken. I was afraid of falling all the time. I no longer had any balance. I decided to take away the cloth little by little, meter by meter. In fact, I really had to learn how walk again.”
In ceasing to bind their feet, all of a sudden, their years of torture no longer meant anything. They were taught to be proud of their tiny feet. They were then taught to be ashamed of them. And consequently to be ashamed of themselves. Some were blamed publicly during eradication campaigns. Others who bound their feet in order to find a husband, found themselves rejected because of their small feet. With the arrival of Mao, they became the ‘victims’ and the ‘symbol of a feudal and barbaric era,’ expressions which they would mumble in chorus, like a well repeated speech.
Faced with the absurdity of having bound and then unbound their feet, useless objects of permanent suffering, one of them asked us what the use if investigating this topic. “It would change the fact that all the bones of my toes are broken. Unless you have a solution?”
All, with the exception of Elegance, tell us their relief to see the end forever of the era of bound feet. Xiu, a 90 year old grandmother, puts it beautifully to our 20 year old translator. “You can live like a flower having the right to bloom, you are fortunate. For us, in our ancient society, our youth had a bitter taste. I am happy for you.” She was shocked to learn that our translator, in fact, also has bound feet. “But it is not even in fashion!” she insists. “Simply, my mother and I found that my feet were too big. So, for 6 months, I bound them to reduce their size. I suffered a little but not much! And today, my feet are a lot more beautiful!”
To her knowledge, she is the only to have done so. But as she has never dared to reveal that she bound her feet, it is possible that her friends have hidden this fact from her as well. For a young Chinese woman today, small feet are still considered a criterion of beauty. A custom that lasted thousands of years cannot be forgotten in less than a century.
Excerpt from an article by Catherine Moniajon.