by Jennifer Thaney
Wang Ping doesn’t wear high heels anymore.
She used to, but that was before she wrote “Aching for Beauty,” an exploration of the Chinese practice of footbinding. Now the only thing this Macalester College professor wears on her own feet as she trudges around the St. Paul campus are oversized shoes and roomy hiking boots.
It’s no wonder Wang’s book, published by the University of Minnesota Press last year, affected her so deeply. Three years of research for the book had immersed Wang in the harrowing world of Chinese footbinding: the female rite of passage that began when girls were between the ages of 5 and 7, when their bones were still flexible. Wang (who uses the traditional Chinese name order of surname first) writes, “For about two or three years, little girls go through the inferno of torture: the flesh of her feet, which are tightly bound with layers of bandages day and night, is slowly putrefied, her toes crushed under the soles, and the insteps arched to the degree where the toes and heels meet. Loving mothers suddenly turn into monsters who beat their sobbing girls with sticks or brooms, forcing them to hop around to speed up the rotting of flesh and make sure the bones are broken properly. When the feet are finally shrunk to the size of a baby’s–three inches long, half an inch wide in the front–they are completely deformed.”
Although Wang lived in China until 1985, she didn’t uncover the history of footbinding until she started research for her doctoral dissertation at New York University. She was prompted by a visit to a friend’s apartment, where a pair of lotus shoes–the traditional coverings for bound feet–were on display. She immediately thought of her grandmother, who had liberated her own bound feet before Wang was born. “I had seen my grandma’s feet, but I never imagined what kind of pain she must have went through, and why. I was really shocked.”
Wang held the tiny shoes, her hands shaking. Later, she incorporated footbinding into her poetry and short stories, but felt it wasn’t enough. “There was more [to footbinding] than just pain. The deeper I dug, the more materials I found, and I became extremely fascinated.”
Western feminists have readily denounced footbinding as barbaric, but Wang asserts it isn’t that simple. “Footbinding is a very complicated issue,” she said in an interview with the Minnesota Women’s Press. “It’s about female oppression and violation of the body, but that’s just one side of it. … You can’t just dismiss something that has been there for thousands of years.”
But you can try to understand it, and that’s why Wang wrote “Aching for Beauty.” Just as some women today starve and vomit their way toward the American beauty ideal, Chinese women strived to attain the miniature feet ideal that reigned from the 10th century until the early 20th century.
Comparing the broken toes caused by footbinding to the pain endured by women who undergo liposuction procedures, breast implant operations and other invasive cosmetic surgeries, Wang wonders how different ancient Chinese tradition and modern American beautification practices really are. American women transform their bodies all the time–they just use painkillers and other drugs to avoid the pain, Wang said. “If we have a better understanding of why we voluntarily or involuntarily inflict pain on our bodies … perhaps we won’t do it again.”
Her search for understanding has brought Wang to a place where she views footbinding as much of a form of women’s liberation as it was a form of oppression. Though the practice rendered women nearly immobile and often confined them to their inner chambers, it also created an opportunity for the women to turn the tables, Wang said. They transformed pain into a subculture of their own, gathering with one another as they embroidered their own shoes. As women translated their imagination and creativity into elaborate stitches, they transformed their bodies into art.
Out of this grew a supportive network that Wang refers to as “binding, weaving and chatting.” Because words weren’t sufficient to describe the pain they had in common, the women often communicated through their needlework. They developed a secret female language called “nu shu” that was written on fans, cloth or paper. Nu shu allowed women to complain about their suffering in a male-dominated society.
This suffering drove mothers to bind the feet of their young daughters, Wang explained. They saw the physical pain as a manifestation of what would surely befall girls as they became wives, daughters-in-law and mothers.
Women didn’t have much time to prepare their daughters for this life, Wang said. Chinese girls were typically married by age 16. Footbinding was the fastest way to teach them about pain, discipline, responsibility and humility, characteristics that would qualify them as “good” in the eyes of their new family and society. “The pain of footbinding was so excruciating that girls would never forget it. … No other pain could be equal to it,” Wang said.
“The trauma [of footbinding] radically changed [a girl’s] sense of the body in space and her sense of being in general,” Wang writes. “By having to relearn how to place her reduced feet on the ground and relearn how to walk through a long period of intense pain, the little girl was forced into a speedy maturation–physically, mentally, and socially. Ironically, it was her reduced feet that helped her find a foothold in a male-dominated world.”
Footbinding did this by establishing status and identity for women as they married. A woman’s feet either elevated her or denigrated her.
Criticism of her own “big” feet–size six–by Wang’s mother and sister drove her to bind her feet at age 9. It was 1966, and China was in the midst of a cultural revolution led by Mao Zedong. Footbinding had been outlawed for nearly 50 years, after revolutionaries and western missionaries blamed it for China’s decline.
Still, small feet remained a standard of beauty. According to Chinese fortune tellers, women with big feet were destined to become maids or peasants. Determined to keep her feet from growing, Wang invented her own method of binding, secretly wrapping her feet tightly at night with layers of elastic bands. Even though her feet burned as if she were walking through fire, Wang bore the pain proudly for six months, when she couldn’t take it any longer.
“It is still a mystery how the urge and determination to bind my feet came to me,” Wang writes in the preface of her book. “…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 that I could be included in the class of the noble, civilized, and fortunate.”
Now, at age 43, Wang has a broader understanding of her own footbinding experience. In the conclusion of “Aching for Beauty,” she writes, “I was not only trying to create beauty, but also to write/inscribe my personal, political, and cultural signature upon my body. Beauty and pain, twin sisters, are the only passage through which I could be initiated from a girl into the family and society, into the women’s camp in the jungle of culture. There I’d be taught the art of seducing, usurping and subverting, breaking and mixing all of the established boundaries in order to make new boundaries, new orders, and a new language. I’d be trained how to inherit the great female heritage and how to pass it on to the next generation.
“In this secret camp, I was not, and will not be, alone.”
And neither are the generations of women who preceded her. It is their silent suffering that Wang exposes with her book, not to condemn her ancestors for binding their feet but to honor them. “[‘Aching for Beauty’] is not a book that justifies this pain,” Wang said. “It is a book that speaks for the women who, having inflicted this pain, turned it into a kind of weapon to gain a foothold in a very hostile environment. They found identity in a patriarchal society. … They created a culture and heritage that is really incredible considering all the constriction they had to live through. They have nothing to be ashamed of. They should be proud of what they achieved: a rich, female, footbinding culture that created bonds, community and networks among women.”
And so the legacy of footbinding lasts, in both Chinese culture and Wang’s own life. Years ago, when she removed the elastic bands after attempting to bind her own feet, they grew longer and wider, leaving her two big toes pointing permanently upward.
Then, after she had written about half of her book, Wang’s left foot started hurting, especially when she wore high heels. “Maybe it was some sort of retribution in my old age,” Wang joked. Or maybe it is 1,000 years of Chinese women’s history haunting one of its descendants.
Either way, Wang’s foot aches with the beauty she once tried to inflict upon it, a beauty and a form of violence she no longer needs. Hiking boots have replaced high heels, and Wang’s book begs the rest of us to ask why we don’t do the same.