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Rural China and the painful allure of bound feet

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Editor's note: GoKunming contributor Peter Zupanc is a writer from Slovenia who has been published in one form or another for over 20 years. He has been living in Nanning since 2010. Zupanc first arrived there to conduct an experiment — to see if he could make it knowing no one and not speaking Chinese. During his time in southern China he has studied and explored Guangxi, seeking a disappearing way of life.

These travels have resulted in "Raising the Dragon's Head", a book about glimpses of Chinese life from many different places in Guangxi. The book was published in Slovenia in 2013. He is now composing a second work tentatively entitled "Women Stories". For more from Zupanc, check out his blog.

I couldn't tell you what Tonghai really looks like. The bus station rests on the edge of a town I couldn't see because I'm heading further on to a place called Liuyi (六一). Yes, that's 'six' and 'one'. Just by saying these two words as directions, I realize my bad Chinese, in the face of the local dialect, is going to be almost worthless. With no other instructions, I've turned into a baby who can barely count to ten. The crucial password between me and my driver becomes "small feet", because this is something you can show with your hands.

I was expecting Liuyi to be at least a partly isolated village with mud houses. Wrong. I couldn't find the border between it and Tonghai. And that would be a nice outsider description of Tonghai — a coalition of villages that forgot or never thought about borders. Yet there were slightly more mud houses where I was, a reminder of an ancient residential labyrinth which is now semaphored with numberless small cranes rebuilding the place.

The driver took me to some kind of governmental building that was closed. People told me, "It will open up in the afternoon, and you can make arrangements then. The women with bound feet will dance for you in the evening. But for now, you have to wait." There was a courtyard nearby — a sort of resting place for older people. "Maybe some of the women will come later. Wait here."

A digression

I guess it's time to explain. I read about Liuyi in a book, Cinderella's Sisters, by Dorothy Ko. If you want to read good accounts of footbinding practices, check out her work, or Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China, by Ping Wang. To cut it short and really simplify it, foot binding is the thousand year-old practice hinged on an ideal of socially defined artificial beauty. It also gave bound-foot women a chance to choose between the most desirable and richest suitors.

How was it done? When girls were five to seven years-old, professionals — sometimes that meant mothers — began to break the child's feet and bind them every night so the shattered bones would not regrow. The smaller they remained, the better. Around ten centimeters was nice and would fit in the palm of a hand. They were called sancun jinlian (三寸金莲) — or three-inch golden lotuses. Around 1900, the cries for "freeing feet" became more urgent and successful. The practice lingered in some places and the last binding supposedly happened around 1957.

I do not promote, nor do I condemn the practice. While I absolutely understand that it is easy to write about from a distance — not feeling the pain personally — I do consider footbinding a form of fashion. It was like high heels, tattoos or plastic surgery are today. All the people who do these things now in order to become more beautiful, attractive and accepted, might have appreciated bound feet if they happened to have been born in that era. But there is a difference — no tattoo or plastic surgery comes with the promise of success or of reaching a specific goal. Bound feet did. You had them, you were considered beautiful, and you married well.

A woman with small feet was the original beauty of her day. It is an idea of beauty that, I'm guessing, still makes some Chinese hearts beat a bit faster. In my mind, bound feet became a mix of different extremes. They came to be a form of artificial beauty that upstaged any other and proved the idea that the beautiful or erotic is a cultural question and has no 'universal'. But the practice also connects beauty with decay, death and dying, because once you break the foot, you stop it — or kill it. Perfection on the outside, pain on the inside.

A custom which lasted for so long must have left shadows — you can take the feet out of a small pair of shoes, but you can't take the mind that put them there out of people. But all of my understanding of bound feet and what they mean is at most an intellectual one. It came from reading and guessing and thinking. I wanted to see the person. I wanted to form an opinion about the face, the eyes, the gestures, the reactions. In a foreigner's mind, the typical woman with bound feet would be shy, reclusive in front of strangers, especially men, and also clumsy, obedient and waiting for orders. So...?

Back to Liuyi

So I'm in the courtyard. I'm waiting. And in time, I'm surrounded by curious old men. Their pace of speaking is slow and they seem to be, in their minds, living in a time gone by. Often they use words which I absolutely do not recognize. There is an old man who's putonghua is a little bit more clear than the others, and he has patience with me.

I start asking him about the husbands of women with bound feet. I already have questions in my head — How did it feel to fall in love with her? What exactly did you fall in love with? Of course I can't make the questions understandable and the answers were even less so to me. In any case, it turns out the husbands have all died already. The women with bound feet in Liuyi are all over eighty years-old and their husbands were typically older when they married. My plan goes down the drain.

Hai Zhifu, the man with patience, uses traditional words with a hint of real care, "You've had to wait for a long time. Have you eaten yet?" I haven't eaten. I have no idea where I'll sleep, and I'm tired. I do not want to impose on him, but I almost feel I have no choice but to say yes. "Come with me," he says. "Would you eat in my home?"

I gladly take the invitation. He guides me through labyrinth backyards — gates to mud houses are opened and suddenly I can see inside. The old Chinese adage, What you see is not necessarily what's really there, is proven true one more time. The houses connect in unclear shadows and are sometimes bigger than they look.

From the outside, they are shaggy and almost ruined. But once you step inside, you find traditional Chinese yards with stone pools to welcome you. Stone foundations too, and wooden floored houses with many doors. Hai Zhifu lives in one of these together with his wife. Their four children live away, either in the same area, but in new houses, or simply in another place.

There are around 30 rooms in their home, but the old couple is probably using three of them. It is cool, quiet, and some of the houses have greenery inside. Little heavenly gardens. Now I understand what the man was telling me before — he prefers to live here rather than in a new house because of the temperature. Here, you can always find shade. It is never really rei, as he pronounces it, or re, hot, as it is said in common Chinese.

Hai Zhifu wakes his wife up and she starts cooking. While waiting, he hangs chilies on ropes to dry them. There are six small dishes and the couple takes me into the kitchen to eat. It is only then that I realize the woman was cooking just for me. Typical unbelievable Chinese hospitality. The entire meal is spent trying to make small talk or at least try to learn how to communicate.

"Your meal is great!"

"No, no, it's not!"

"Yes, absolutely!" And I mean it.

By this time, I'm already pretty sure I won't be able to conduct an interview with anyone. The language barrier is just too high. I have a sad feeling of missed opportunity. But Haizhi Fu is, as always on this day, a savior. "Do I understand right? If you meet one of the women with bound feet in their home, you'd be happy?" Than he talks with his wife. I can almost guess the essence of the conversation: "One of my friend's friends has a friend who's grandmother is...". The conclusion is simple: "Go with my wife, she'll take you!"

Another stroll through another part of the labyrinth. Five minutes later there's an old woman standing before us, waiting. She is small — much smaller than I am. Her legs are thin. That much fits the picture.

The rest doesn't.

The new woman takes us back to her room. She is living in a small space, separated from her family, with all her belongings locked in giant suitcases. I'm not sure if this means anything — it might only indicate they took her from another place to take care of her. She is extremely lively, especially once you learn that she is 89 years-old.

Her moves are jerky, fast. If I am able to move half like this when I am 89, I'll be madly happy. She is not shy at all. She looks straight into my eyes, and she is talkative. She wants to have a conversation, and it is truly a pity that we can't do it properly. She shows me her collection of small slippers while I try to find words.

"You are still beautiful," I manage hopelessly.

Her face shines — she immediately understands this. "No, no," she says, touching her face.

"Yes. Of course."

I think I notice several things. There is a touch of lovely vanity — her gestures and looks are those of a person who knows she has been beautiful. There's a feeling reminiscent of strutting. There is a glimpse of happiness from getting a compliment. But there is also a slight shadow of being angry — maybe a memory of admiration long gone, but still missed. I would bet that this woman, once upon a time, knew how to flirt.

Thoughts fill my head: What was flirting like? How many men loved you, wanted you? Did they write eternal love letters? Were you a muse? Did you ever unbind your feet for someone against all the taboos? Do your feet still have that special connoisseur's smell? Do you remember the admiration or pain more?

I'm asking about her collection of slippers, which are all handmade, her own work. I'm asking about her husband. Dead, of course. I'm asking about the dance. There are still ten other women with bound feet in the area and some time ago they even had a video of them disco dancing on YouTube. I'm asking about the woman's name. Hai Zhifu's wife writes a sentence in my notebook and only later do I realize that she did not understand what I wanted.

A soft look. "Since you came here and I am an old woman, you could give me a gift." She is — I do not know how else to put it — fully capable, inventive, resourceful. And I did know it would happen at some point. I've had my 100 yuan ready. My hostess, Hai Zhifu's wife, nods. One hundred is ok.

I begin taking pictures. I would love her to take her slippers off. While I write this, I'm realizing how erotic it all sounds. It wasn't meant to be this way and I did not feel the sensuousness of it while I was there. I was, simply, in a certain state of awe. I had a feeling of time travel, of touching the embodiment of a certain past.

"Three hundred yuan more and I'll sell you the slippers." Hai Zhifu's wife is shaking her head. I am not really sure how it came to that. I did not ask for a slipper. But the old woman is insisting and when Hai Zhifu's wife says "Let's go", I realize I'm in the process of haggling. The woman is talking to her friend, another elderly woman, who is obviously on my side. Her eyes are saying, He is kind, he just gave you 100 yuan for nothing. You can't be so tough!

The funny thing is, at this point, I think I want the slippers. They've read me well. As I watch the old woman, she has that unmistakable light of a bit of awakened greed. But mostly I still read gentleness in her, maybe even softness. I take her hand with both of my hands and I smile, trying to say with my eyes and words that whatever is ok, that I am not going to buy the slippers for 300 because I do not need them so much, that I might buy them for less, but if I don't, that's ok too, and, most importantly, thank you for giving me your time. I can see the greed giving up and a surge of beautiful kindness — she really looks very grandmotherly in the moment — coming through. One moment later she is reaching for her bag again. "One hundred yuan?"


Hai Zhifu's wife has two important things to say. "You got them cheap because you have guanxi!". And then, later, when we talk to her husband, "Two hundred yuan for 15 minutes!" She is amazed. This place is poor and it is hard to make money.

Smiling somewhat cynically at the slippers, Hai Zhifu asks, "What will you use them for?" I mention museums, but he is not convinced, and neither am I. I guess that the most important reason I bought them was I wanted something I could hold and touch later. They invite me to have dinner with them, but I have to run.

I have a hell of a trip back to Guangxi waiting for me — the first step being an illegal bus that picks up migrant workers from Yunnan and takes them to Guangdong. Plus, my mind needs time to process everything. One of the last things Hai Zhifu does before saying goodbye and inviting me to come again is steal another glance at the slippers. He sighs and says with pride, "You know, my mother's feet were even smaller."

That night, in Mengzi, I am drinking and eating with newfound friends, local people. I tell them why I went to Tonghai. "Lao nainai", they say — old grandmothers. They understand. And then, "You think there's only a few of them left there, don't you? Hah, you're wrong!"

"I'm wrong?"

"There's a lot of them, all around here, especially a lot here in Mengzi!"

That's something to remember.

Images: Peter Zupanc

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Strange that in 2014 there are still people who do not condemn footbinding.

Never seen as anything but disturbing, never mind the word alluring the author likes to use!

Children having their feet broken so parents can marry them of to some family with higher standing, 2014 we call it abuse but look back on past culture as you will.

There is no footbinding anymore. It's necessary to understand the past, useless to condemn it, reasonable to regret it. What needs to be condemned now is that which produces the poverty in which some people live.
But this article doesn't really help one to understand the past, it merely reminds us that there was one.

It's not useless to condemn the past, it helps us prevent such things happening in the near future. Interesting article, albeit rather strange. I suspect that the guy has a bit of a thing for small, rotten feet.

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