by Youfeng Shen
The day after Shen Feng returned home from abroad, her mother, Shen Mama, gave her a cardboard box. She told her oldest daughter, “Ah Feng, this is the box your grandma left for you.”
“What’s inside?” Shen Feng asked.
“Something very important, I believe. Since you are her first granddaughter, your grandmother said she wanted you to have these.”
While Shen Feng was away in Great Britain as a visiting scholar from Shanghai University, her 81-year-old grandmother had passed away in the winter of 1982, six months before Shen Feng’s return.
Shen Feng was still grieving the loss of her dear grandma and feeling sad that she hadn’t been there to care for her grandma during her extended illness. Clutching the cardboard box closely to her chest, Shen Feng caught a whiff of her grandma’s special scent, which triggered many wonderful loving memories and brought tears to her eyes.
Later, when Shen Feng opened the box, she saw two journals and some letters tied together with a red ribbon. She noticed one journal was very old and ancient-looking, while the other one seemed relatively new. On the very top was an envelope addressed to Shen Feng in her grandmother’s careful hand.
Her own hand trembling, Shen Feng untied the ribbon and removed the letter from the box. Carefully, she unsealed the envelope, and removed and unfolded the letter.
“My Dear Granddaughter, Shen Feng,” the letter began, “Inside this box, you will find the story of my life as I have written it from my childhood on.
“My story is perhaps not so different from that of any other female of my generation, but because my kind and enlightened father allowed me to learn to read and write, I am perhaps in a better position to tell it than most women.
“You are two generations removed from me. Much has changed for women now. You are a scholar in a way I could never be, though I loved learning as much as I know you love learning.
“Now, as I feel my life drawing to a close, here is my request to you. Please take the story of my life and share it. Let my story be a bridge between my generation and yours so that the women of the future will see with clear eyes how life was for us, the women of the past.
“As I have loved you all your life, remember me with love.”
The letter was signed, “Your grandmother, Xinghua.”
Carefully, Shen Feng refolded the letter and put it back into its envelope. Replacing it in the box, she drew out the old journal, opened its cover and began to read.
I was born at the end of the Qing dynasty in March, 1901, into a scholar’s family in the city of Shaoxing. Located in the southeast of China, about 120 miles from Shanghai, the city of Shaoxing is well-known for its traditional architecture, bridges, boats, rice wine, silk and textile trade.
Papa named me Xinghua (Apricot Blossom) for the apricot blossoms blooming in our courtyard. But as far back as I can remember everyone called me Er Yatou (Number Two Girl), except Papa. I often wondered why I was called number two girl. I had only two elder brothers and that was all. One day, when I was about four years old, I asked Mama “Mama, where is the number one girl, my elder sister?”
Then Mama told me the story of my elder sister. Her name had been Taohua (Peach Blossom), as she was born when the peach blossoms bloomed in early March of 1898, three years before me. According to the local custom, when Peach Blossom was four years old, Papa’s elder sister, Aunty Pearl, came to our home to help Mama bind Peach Blossom’s feet.
Aunty Pearl was a widow and a professional foot binder who began to practice after her husband had died eight years before. As she didn’t have any children of her own, Papa had offered to move her back to live with us in the Dong compound, but she didn’t want to bother us. She said, “Once you marry a chicken, you follow the chicken; once you marry a dog, you follow the dog. I am my husband’s wife when I am alive and I will be following his ghost when I am dead.”
Foot binding had been practiced on Han Chinese girls for over a thousand years by then. When I was older, I learned that the custom had originated with a court dancer named Yao Niang, who performed with bound feet in the Tang dynasty court during the 10th century. According to the story, Yao Niang built a gilded stage in the shape of a lotus flower. When she danced with her bound feet on the lotus flower stage, the emperor was so delighted with her willowy movements that the other court dancers attempted to imitate her in order to gain the emperor’s favor.
That’s how foot binding started in the royal court. From there, it spread throughout China. By the early Qing dynasty (in the mid-17th century) every girl who hoped to marry had her feet bound. The only exceptions were poor peasant girls, ethnic Hakka girls, and women who worked in the fishing trade who needed normal feet in order to balance themselves on the constantly moving boats.
The practice of foot binding involved breaking a young girl’s four small toes and bending them down against the sole of her foot to produce a foot shaped “like a lily petal.” For centuries, bound feet were regarded as a status symbol of beauty and virtue in a woman. All families with marriageable daughters followed this practice in order to marry their daughters into wealthy or gentry families.
As soon as Aunty Pearl arrived, Mama started to soak Peach Blossom’s feet in a warm brownish herbal mix. When her feet were soft and pliable, Aunty Pearl cut back Peach Blossom’s toenails in order to prevent infection. Then she started the process on one foot first. She broke Peach Blossom’s four small toes, leaving the large toe intact. Mama gave Aunty Pearl a long strip of cloth and Aunty Pearl wrapped Peach Blossom’s foot tightly, binding the small toes downward against the sole of her foot. Then, they repeated the same process with the other foot.
Peach Blossom gripped Mama’s hand and screamed in agony and begged them to stop. But Mama said calmly, “It’s all right. All girls have to go through this. Your aunty and I did when we were your age. In order to find you a good husband, we have no other choice.”
Before Aunty Pearl returned home, she wiped the sweat off her forehead from this ordeal and left instructions for Mama. She said, “Her pain will slowly reduce as time goes on. Just wash her feet once every two weeks.” Peach Blossom cried and sobbed quietly. As an obedient girl, she had learned to endure the pain and didn’t complain much. About two weeks later, Mama opened the bindings. She examined Peach Blossom’s feet and found they were swollen and warmer than usual. Mama washed Peach Blossom’s feet gently and applied some more herbal salve. This time, she didn’t wrap her feet as tightly.
Another two weeks passed by and Mama carefully opened the bindings again. As soon as the bindings came loose, Mama smelled a stinky, foul odor from Peach Blossom’s feet. Both of her feet were red and swollen. When she touched Peach Blossom’s forehead, it was hot and feverish. Mama was worried. She called my second brother, Yifeng (Abundance), and sent him to get Papa from his study right away.
Papa was a gentle and self-disciplined scholar. He conducted a private school at home in the mornings and was usually reading and writing in the afternoons when school was over. He hurried to Peach Blossom’s room, examined her feet and checked her forehead. Papa said gravely, “She is running a high fever. I am afraid that her feet are infected.” He asked Yifeng to run to the herbal store to buy a ready-made herbal medicine for infections. At the same time, Papa asked Mama to make a big pot of herbal tea for Peach Blossom to drink.
Two more weeks went by but there was no sign of improvement. After applying the herbal concoction and drinking herbal tea twice daily, Peach Blossom was still hot and feverish. A local Chinese doctor was called in. After checking both of Peach Blossom’s feet carefully, he shook his head and said it was too late to treat her.
About two months after her toes were broken, Peach Blossom died from the infection at the tender age of four-and-a-half years.
Both Papa and Mama were very sad, especially Papa. He was already 40 years old when he had his first daughter. But Mama was a strong and practical woman. She said to Papa, “I am so sorry, the father of my children. I will give you another daughter in a few years.”
Aunty Pearl cried many tears and said apologetically, “I never thought this could happen to my poor little niece. This is only the second case that happened like this in my eight years of practice. We were so very careful with her. Oh, Heaven, please forgive me. I killed my poor little niece…”
Aunty Pearl was considered to be one of the best foot binders in the city of Shaoxing and the surrounding villages. It was said that roughly 10 percent of all girls subjected to foot binding died as a result of infection. Aunty Pearl’s record was not as bad as others in her practice.
When I turned five in 1906, Aunty Pearl and Mama prepared to do the same thing to me. I was so scared when I realized what was going to happen. I shrieked, “Oh, please! Mama, Aunty, I don’t want to die like my elder sister!”
Papa heard me, came out and stopped them on the spot. He said, “I have never interfered with your women’s business before. But this is a life and death matter. I can’t let you take away another young girl’s life.”
Eventually, Papa and the two women reached an agreement. They would not break my toes. But they would still apply the long strips of cloth to bind my feet tightly in order to keep them from growing bigger. Mama also promised to Papa that she would check my feet more often, at least once a week, instead of once every two weeks.
Even though I got lucky because Papa stepped in, I still suffered. I cried often from the burning pain in my feet day and night. Every time my feet touched the floor, the pain felt as if my whole body were on fire. The toe nails were growing into my skin inside the tightly wrapped bindings. I begged Mama to unbind my feet, but she always replied, “It’s for the sake of your future.”
In those days, girls were taught from a very young age to behave in a certain way -- to be bashful, obedient and self-effacing. Very few girls learned to read and write. They usually kept to themselves in the background and performed their duties and obligations quietly behind the scenes. A woman’s life was usually dependent on her father before her marriage, on her husband during marriage and on her son (or sons) if she was widowed.
Most marriages were arranged by family members or local matchmakers. When a matchmaker found a good man from a respectable family for a young girl or a marriage proposal was offered by a family member or a friend, the first thing the bridegroom’s family did was to check the girl’s feet. Her beauty, talents, and other attributes were secondary and often ignored. If they found that the girl had unbound feet, she would have no chance of marrying into a wealthy or an upper-class family.
When I was very young, I did not understand how the excruciating pain from my feet had anything to do with my future. I wobbled to Papa’s study and asked him one afternoon, “Papa, why do girls have to suffer to have their feet bound and walk like a willow tree wobbling about in the house like Mama and Aunty Pearl?”
Papa put down his ink brush, turned around and put me on his lap. He said thoughtfully, “You are a very smart girl, Xinghua. A lot of things in this world are not fair, especially for girls. Both your Mama and I understand your pains and frustrations. You can’t run and jump around in the garden like your elder brothers anymore. But very soon, you will learn drawing, embroidery, sewing and a lot of other things with your mama. Your pains will be reduced gradually and you will get used to it eventually. Do you understand?”
Papa didn’t really answer my question but he was kind enough to put down his work and comfort me as best he could. I left him to his own writing then. On the way to my room, I began wondering, “What was Papa reading and writing all afternoon?” I knew he had five to six young men coming to study early every morning and I became curious about what they were studying.
I got up early the next morning and hid behind a carved wooden screen which divided my father’s study into two sections. One section was his study and the other section was his classroom.
I saw my 13-year-old brother, Yifeng, and six other young boys sitting around a big table reciting Dao De Jing (The Book of the Way and Its Virtue) by Lao Zi. I didn’t see my 16-year-old eldest brother, Yiwei (Greatness). He sometimes joined Yifeng in Papa’s classes and sometimes he studied by himself in his room.
When Papa discovered that I was eavesdropping from behind the screen and wanted to learn, he let me sit quietly in his study and observe his classes. He understood my curiosity and my eagerness to learn.
I learned about Lao Zi and Confucius’s teachings from Papa’s classes. Lao Zi was a philosopher and a writer whose book (probably written in the sixth century B.C.) has been one of the most translated books in history, alongside the Bible and the Quran. The very first line of Dao De Jing says, “The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao.” I didn’t understand what the eternal Dao meant. Mama told me not to bother, just be a good girl and do whatever I was told. But Papa explained to me that Dao means the way, the path of the universe. He said “It’s important to follow the natural order of things and work with it rather than against it and to live a simple and balanced life in harmony with nature.”
Mama was a very resourceful and practical woman. She did not encourage me to ask all kinds of questions of Papa. But she agreed that I could listen in on my Papa’s classes to learn the Chinese classics and practice calligraphy with ink and brushes. She said that would enable me one day to teach them to my own children.
Influenced by the philosophy of his contemporary, Lao Zi, Confucian teaching rested on three essential values: filial piety, humaneness, and ritual. Confucius’ message of knowledge, benevolence, loyalty and virtue was the guiding philosophy of China for thousands of years until western ideas were introduced to China in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Although I didn’t know it at first when I was growing up, my family lived during the time when the Qing dynasty had already been weakened by widespread corruption and internal strife. The Confucian system of education seemed to have led China into disaster, permitting China to be “carved up like a melon” by western powers. The devastating decline of imperial China had led to new modernization efforts throughout the country.
I learned gradually what was going on in China and in the world from discussions between my father and my brothers. My brothers talked eagerly about the possibility of going abroad to study science and technology in order to modernize China. I was surprised to hear this as I sat quietly doing my embroidery by the window in Papa’s study.
Both of my elder brothers seemed to support the idea of ending the traditional patriarchal family in favor of individual freedom and women’s liberation. They also supported the New Culture Movement that criticized classical Chinese ideas and promoted a new Chinese culture based upon western ideals like democracy and science. They believed that China was no longer the center of the civilized world, but one nation among many other countries struggling for survival in a global system dominated by the West.
One afternoon while I was practicing my calligraphy in Papa’s study by the window, Yifeng said, “Papa, since Yiwei is the oldest son, he needs to stay in China and take care of the family while I go abroad for a few years to study. I have read a lot of history and geography books from your library and I want to see the world. What do you think Big brother?”
Yiwei didn’t know what to say, as it came up so suddenly. Papa thought for a while and said, “Let’s not make any rash decisions now. You are not even 17 yet. We need to do more checking and ask around. I heard one of my former pupils just returned from America. I will write to him and maybe we can meet him and ask him some questions. But don’t tell your Mama yet. I don’t want her to start to worry too early.”
I was excited about their discussions and sometimes I really wanted to jump into their conversations. But I always remembered to hold my tongue as I had been taught by Mama. I wished I would be able to join them to meet Papa’s former pupil, but I didn’t know if Papa would let me.
By then, I knew the whole world was changing and the Qing dynasty was coming to an end. Papa and my two elder brothers read a lot and they were all open-minded. They didn’t mind that I was always listening to them.
Fortunately for me, foot binding began to die out as a result of anti-foot-binding campaigns organized and supported by liberal-minded people such as Kang Youwei (1858-1927) and Liang Qichao (1873-1929) and Lu Xun (1881-1936). The idea of foot binding began to shift from a symbol of beauty to one of torture, oppression and control of women.
Foot binding was finally outlawed in China in 1912 when Dr. Sun Yatsen, the founding father of the Republic of China, banned this cruel and barbaric custom. I was relieved and grateful when my feet were released from their bindings when I was 11 years old. This left a permanent, but less severe, deformity than what many women of my generation and previous generations had suffered.
Shen Feng paused in her reading. Almost unconsciously, she reached down and ran her hand over the smooth curves of her own whole and healthy feet. She touched her toes protectively. Only a few decades had saved her from her grandma’s fate. She had read all she could bear for the moment. She closed the old journal, but she knew she would look into it again, crossing the bridge back into her grandma’s past.