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Old-School China = Bone-Breaking Pressure

Posted by on August 4, 2012

In China around 1000 years ago, a unique trend began in the area of fashion, custom, and duty. Parents started to tightly wrap the feet of their young daughters so the feet wouldn’t grow large. This binding became extreme enough to require the breaking of the toes and of the arch. And it evolved to become a common practice throughout all the classes of Chinese society for hundreds of years. This practice hasn’t take place for sometime now. And the society it represented was much different than the one we see in China today.

But it wasn’t that long ago–phased out in the 1930’s and 40’s–and the fact that things were so different just some decades ago speaks to how much change has taken place there. I think that’s what intrigues me about the practice of ‘xiao jiao’–small feet. They are a marker of this change. Also, they represent the actions people take under the weight of social order.

Soon after I arrived in Zhuhai, I learned that some elderly women still lived with these signs of old times. I wanted to find one of these women. One day in my adult English class we talked about family and a student named June said she had a 99-year old grandmother back in her home province of Henan. I asked if she had the bound feet. June affirmed.

Four months later I got off the train in the city of Ruzhou in Henan Province. Last week I talked about chillin’ around small town China. This time, I share with you the experience that brought me there.

On a Sunday morning the same brother-in-law who picked me up at the train station, along with June’s mother and I, waited alongside a wide, empty road in Ruyang (the small town outside Ruzhou). This day they were taking me to see the woman I’d traveled so far and waited months to meet.

A small bus approached and slowed. In we went:

Grandma lives outside of town—-outside of asphalt roads, as a matter of fact.

‘Over the meadow and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go.’

After several miles of town and country, hills and fields, we stopped along a stretch. Now we had to walk it.

Past animals:



Past the landscapes:

Brother-in-law brought along baby daughter, too. Grandma brought gifts.

Finally, our sunny, Sunday stroll started to slope downward, meeting a few buildings at the bottom. We were there:

Right this way, sir

If curious, here’s some of the journey on video:


It was a farmstead, a compound that housed family and extended family. The queen bee of this hive stayed in perhaps the most humble brick/mud building. Brother-in-law led the way inside:

‘Yeah, so we got this American dude out there who wants to check out your feet. You, uh, cool with that, Grandma?’

She expected me, and I entered. At first, I just watched the family interact:

Three of four generations. Generation three, June’s sister, had to stay back at the restaurant in Ruyang.

I looked around a bit, too, checking out her digs:

Guess she likes corn.

Then we began to speak–with the help of a bilingual friend on speaker phone.

Her name is Jing Yuan, a 99 year old woman who’s lived around these parts her whole life. When she was six, her feet were prepared for the binding process. From what I’ve read, this meant stretching wet bandages around her little feet, wrapping her toes down and in. Eventually, the arch of the foot is pressured to break upward. It’s that tight. Jing Yuan did say that the pain wasn’t too bad if she didn’t move her feet. Unfortunately, walking on the bound and broken feet was necessary for the little girls to do to secure the shape. For Jing Yuan, this was 93 years ago.

I put her feet on my lap and removed the socks:

Where are the toenails and pinky toe?

Once the shape was set, the bindings would stay on—-for good. It was a big part of a woman’s day changing the bandages and washing—-crucial, too, as some girls died from infection.

There’s the nails and the pinky toe.

We see or hear about these kinds of customs throughout the world–I always wonder how they start. Historians believe the ancient wealthy Chinese wanted to emulate the small feet of some dancers of the day. But how that got to breaking girls feet is quite a leap.

What is understandable, I think, is how this trend could perpetuate and be maintained. This is interesting, too, because we can compare this to us. For one thing, like many trends, foot binding began in the upper class and trickled downward. (In America the same thing happens with baby names.) Foot binding became a symbol of wealth—-of not needing to do manual work. And somewhere along the line it became sexy.

So like a poor woman today with a knock-off Prada bag, the lower classes followed suit. (This was really tough, too, because the women in the these classes did need to work.) But they did it. Now go ahead and put yourself in the shoes (he he) of a parent during that time. If a girl in town has feet twice the size of the others, then according to your world, she’ll have no place in life. And all this in a society that held social acceptability to a level higher than we’ve ever known it in America. (Though we still know it in America.)

It’s such a pronounced example of the powers of culture and tradition.

Supposedly, it wasn’t the bare foot that the men liked, but the visual of the feet in their shoes.

Can we see the norms that we accept without question? The things we do to fit in? Our desire to be looked up to? The things we find attractive?

Stepping outside one’s culture is a beneficial skill because it’s enlightening—-and this level of actualization helps us lighten up. It’s freeing. :)

But what a sign of change! What was once seen as practically mandatory is now looked back on with interest and curiosity at best, disgust and embarrassment (by some people foreign and domestic) at worst. In a complete turnaround, the wealth and status exemplified by a woman’’s bound feet was frowned upon and eliminated by the communist mentality and order. This new ideology praised labor, and today you’ll see both men and women work on rebuilding a road or demolishing a building.

As a result of the political and social change, Jing Yuan “only” practiced foot binding for 50 years. She said taking the bandages off for good was also painful. The foot wants to adjust to its new freedom, though she said her feet didn’t change all too much:

There have been a lot of changes in Jing Yuan’s lifetime—-social and personal. I asked her to look back and she recalled being in her 20’’s and 30’’s and doing outdoor work with a cane. She also fondly remembered Mao Zedong and the founding days of modern China.

Here’s an illustration of the changes in this society: In one generation women’s feet size doubled 😉

Mother and daughter

Well feet were made for walking–actually, some of these ladies couldn’t walk and needed to be carried. But this gal could, and can. :) Darn near a centenarian, she is!

To me, she’s a symbol of feminism, too, because she represents where China was and is today in the area of women’s rights.

Most feminine of all, I think, is her legacy of life she’s mothered, and grandmothered, and great-grandmothered…

Generations of Chinese women

Unfortunately, at this age, you’ll also see the other side of all this life:

Her son (one heck of a tombstone, too)

Here she is on video:

As a child, her whole world was defined by the order that shaped her feet—-which her feet still symbolize today. But more than one social trend, they represent all the cultural sways of behavior humans take part in. And now, ironically, these feet clash with the same world she endured so much pain to fit into.

Only it isn’t exactly the same world, is it? The society, the trends, customs and behaviors that her generation of Chinese defined their lives by—-the whole aura of those days—where did the times go that required her feet to be bound?

They’re gone.

So remember not to get too bound up in the social pressures of your day.

’til next week


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