Not so much a folk-tale today, but a fairy tale – the well-known ‘Cinderella’ … and more of a conversation than a rendition. I had no idea the basis for the story went as far back as, possibly, the 1st century BC, in the form of a Greco-Egyptian tale about a woman who had her sandal carried off by an eagle, which dropped it in a king’s lap. So taken by the beautiful shape of the sandal and the unusual circumstance he’d come by it, he sent his men to find the owner of the sandal. When she was found, she was brought to him and became his wife.
There is also a Chinese version, ‘Ye Xian’, written around 860AD; the young, hardworking girl is helped by a fish, which is the reincarnation of her mother, who had been killed by the stepmother and sister. The fish’s bones are magic, and help her dress for the New Year Festival. When Ye Xian loses her slipper, the king finds it and rescues her from her stepfamily. For comparison sake – Charles Perrault’s version was written in 1697; the Brothers Grimm recorded the ‘Aschenputtel’ version (‘Cinderella’ in English translations) in the 19th century.
As the possessor of larger-than-average-Asian-feet, I’ve always wondered what the idea was behind the small, dainty feet of Cinderella. Having discovered the Chinese version of the story, it got me thinking if it had anything to do with the practice of foot-binding, which originated during the 10th century T’ang Dynasty. Because, in the ‘Ye Xian’ story, the king didn’t meet her at the festival; he basically fell in love with her tiny slipper!
Having grown up in Malaysia, with its very large Chinese community, I’m no stranger to foot-binding. I remember a couple of my primary school class-mates had really old grandmothers, and they’d had bound feet. In my naiveté, I’d always assumed that foot-binding was just that – having one’s feet bound in cloth. It was only when I’d read a novel (what a surprise!), ‘The Binding Chair’ (by Kathryn Harrison), did I finally realise what foot-binding was all about. I can’t remember the plot of the book, but I will not forget the stomach-churning feeling of awfulness when realisation hit.
It’s generally believed that foot binding originated from a dance, and that it had nothing to do with suffering broken feet. Around 970AD, the consort of Emperor Li Yu performed a dance on a ‘golden lotus’ pedestal; she wrapped her feet in silken cloths as part of the dance. The Emperor was so spellbound by the beauty of her feet’s movement in the cloths that the other women in the court decided to imitate the look.
“There are a thousand buckets of tears for one who binds her feet” ~ old Chinese saying.
If you’re unaware of what foot-binding involves, please BE WARNED that this makes for horrific reading. Feel free to skip the following paragraph.
The process took about 2 years, starting with little girls as young as 2, though many were usually about 5; it was important to start before the arch of the foot had developed properly. First, the feet were soaked in a warm mixture of animal blood and herbs, after which the toenails were cut and the feet massaged. Then, apart from the big toe, the other toes were broken and curled under the foot. The foot was then brought level with the leg and the arch broken. Only then was the foot bound, with the bandages wrapped around the feet, pressing the broken toes tightly against the sole of the foot. The ends of the bandages were sewn tightly so they could not be undone. The feet were regularly unbound, washed, massaged and re-bound, each time more tightly. All done with no anaesthetic, no painkillers … to attain the ideal – a 3inch long foot, which would remain bound for life.
Tiny, bound feet, also known as ‘lotus feet’, were considered highly erotic, and the manner in which they walked – the ‘lotus gait’, caused by them needing to walk on their heels in a mincing manner – was considered arousing for men. All I can politely say is – what the what???
Arousing for men, but also a means of ensuring their domination over women?
Women with bound feet were severely limited in what they could do, as they, almost always, needed the physical support of another person to walk anywhere.
During the Song Dynasty (960 to 1276), women’s rights were whittled down – they were no longer educated, were not allowed to possess wealth, and were treated as little more than property.
It’s easy to see foot binding being used as a method of control.
Yet, for all this, and despite the excruciating pain they suffered, the women themselves upheld the practice – it was unheard of, impossible to go against the unyielding weight of culture and tradition. They mistakenly believed it promoted health and fertility, when in fact they suffered anything from swelling to paralysis to gangrene. But they saw in their tiny feet a social advantage; women with unbound feet were highly unlikely to enter into a prestigious marriage. An upper class woman with unbound feet would have to ‘marry down’ even if her ‘rival’ was deemed to be of lower standing, so long as she had bound feet. And for those of lower social status, they risked being sold into slavery.
Although foot binding was outlawed in 1912, it continued, though not openly, until the Communist Revolution in 1949. A blessing for young girls, but perhaps not so for those who already had bound feet; they were ordered to unbind them. Apart from having grown used to it, the wrappings provided some support for their broken feet. In the 1950s, like so many other women, bound-feet women were also forced to perform hard labour, made even more agonising with their tiny, deformed feet.
I wonder how many bound-feet women still survive, for though the practice was made illegal, still it continued covertly in the early 20th century. Needless to say, after I found out what foot binding entailed, no longer did I mind that I didn’t possess small and perfectly formed feet like Cinderella’s -- I love my large feet!