Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Splendid Slippers: A Thousand Years of an Erotic Tradition

Early in Lisa See's novel, Peony in Love, Peony and her mother assist in binding the feet of a young girl whose mother is too soft-hearted to do the job properly. The scene made me squirm, but what I remember most about it is a stirring speech made by Peony's mother about the importance of footbinding as she mercilessly manipulates the child's broken bones.

She reminds the women in the room they are Han women: proud, refined and altogether superior creatures to the big-footed ruling Manchus. Footbinding is essential, she says, for a woman to be thought respectable, to marry well and to have a good life, and the Manchus cannot make them stop binding their feet

This depiction of fierce cultural pride in footbinding stayed with me after I'd finished the novel. I realized Chinese people once viewed this practice much differently than Westerners do, and I wanted to know more.

Beverley Jackson's book, Splendid Slippers, served as a wonderful introduction to the subject. Jackson makes a real effort to understand footbinding from the perspective of the Chinese. She does not flinch from the horrified reactions it inspires in Westerners, but she also probes the Chinese psyche to reveal how the practice became so essential and desirable.

For a thousand years, Chinese mothers bound their daughters' feet, molding them into unnatural shapes and forcing the bones to break in pursuit of the ideal, three-inch "Golden Lotus." The mothers and daughters then spent hours sewing exquisite, embroidered shoes to cover their crippled feet, creating an erotic mystique men found captivating.

Splendid Slippers contains numerous photographs of these "lotus shoes." The care and attention to detail women put into these tiny works of art were nothing short of amazing.

For the Han Chinese, a woman's bound feet represented security. Desirability. Refinement. Sex appeal. Bound feet played important roles in marriage, prostitution, the theater, the arts and literature. Husbands used their wives' feet to achieve pleasure in the bedroom. Succumbing at least partially to the allure, Manchu women, while they did not bind, wore platform shoes designed to give the illusion of tiny feet.

Some of the elderly Chinese women Jackson met, who tottered on their tiny, misshapen feet, wept when the author showed them pictures of lotus shoes. Jackson portrayed footbinding as a complicated cultural practice, both horrifying and strangely beautiful.

For those who aren't squeamish, this Web site features photographs of an old woman's ideal lotus feet, similar to pictures in Jackson's book.

In Splendid Slippers, Jackson described a meeting Tzu Hsi, the last empress of China, had with a group of European diplomats. The Westerners criticized her for not doing more to end footbinding among her Han subjects, and the Manchu empress responded, Why do you cage your women in corsets, constricting their lungs so they cannot breathe?

This anecdote made me wonder, are the fad diets, plastic surgery and other fashions modern women embrace so much more civilized than footbinding?

My grade for Splendid Slippers: A.


Mimi said...

I remember reading in Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan about foot binding, and the deaths that resulted. I had no idea.

Marg said...

I too have read about the practice of foot binding in both of Lisa See's books, and I have to say it sounds horrible!