Amanda Foreman: ‘It Was Horrifying To Realize That Every Aspect of Women’s Beauty Was Intimately Bound Up With Pain’

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Why Footbinding Persisted in China for a Millennium

Despite the pain, millions of Chinese women stood firm in their devotion to the tradition

Amanda Foreman writes: For the past year I have been working with Britain’s BBC television to make a documentary series on the history of women. In the latest round of filming there was an incident that haunts me. It took place during a segment on the social changes that affected Chinese women in the late 13th century.

“The truth, no matter how unpalatable, is that foot-binding was experienced, perpetuated and administered by women.”

These changes can be illustrated by the practice of female foot-binding. Some early evidence for it comes from the tomb of Lady Huang Sheng, the wife of an imperial clansman, who died in 1243. Archaeologists discovered tiny, misshapen feet that had been wrapped in gauze and placed inside specially shaped “lotus shoes.” For one of my pieces on camera, I balanced a pair of embroidered doll shoes in the palm of my hand, as I talked about Lady Huang and the origins of foot-binding. When it was over, I turned to the museum curator who had given me the shoes and made some comment about the silliness of using toy shoes. This was when I was informed that I had been holding the real thing. The miniature “doll” shoes had in fact been worn by a human. The shock of discovery was like being doused with a bucket of freezing water.

“As I held the lotus shoes in my hand, it was horrifying to realize that every aspect of women’s beauty was intimately bound up with pain.”

Foot-binding is said to have been inspired by a tenth-century court dancer named Yao Niang who bound her feet into the shape of a new moon. She entranced Emperor Li Yu by dancing on her toes inside a six-foot golden lotus festooned with ribbons and precious stones. In addition to altering the shape of the foot, the practice also produced a particular sort of gait that relied on the thigh and buttock muscles for support. From the start, foot-binding was imbued with erotic overtones. Gradually, other court ladies—with money, time and a void to fill—took up foot-binding, making it a status symbol among the elite.

Lui Shui Ying (right) had her feet bound in the 1930s, after the custom fell out of favor. (Jo Farrell )

Lui Shui Ying (right) had her feet bound in the 1930s, after the custom fell out of favor. (Jo Farrell )

A small foot in China, no different from a tiny waist in Victorian England, represented the height of female refinement. For families with marriageable daughters, foot size translated into its own form of currency and a means of achieving upward mobility. The most desirable bride possessed a three-inch foot, known as a “golden lotus.” It was respectable to have four-inch feet—a silver lotus—but feet five inches or longer were dismissed as iron lotuses. The marriage prospects for such a girl were dim indeed.

“First, her feet were plunged into hot water and her toenails clipped short. Then the feet were massaged and oiled before all the toes, except the big toes, were broken and bound flat against the sole, making a triangle shape…”

As I held the lotus shoes in my hand, it was horrifying to realize that every aspect of women’s beauty was intimately bound up with pain. Placed side by side, the shoes were the length of my iPhone and less than a half-inch wider. My index finger was bigger than the “toe” of the shoe. It was obvious why the process had to begin in childhood when a girl was 5 or 6.

[read the full text here, at The Smithsonian]

First, her feet were plunged into hot water and her toenails clipped short. Then the feet were massaged and oiled before all the toes, except the big toes, were broken and bound flat against the sole, making a triangle shape. Next, her arch was strained as the foot was bent double. Finally, the feet were bound in place using a silk strip measuring ten feet long and two inches wide. These wrappings were briefly removed every two days to prevent blood and pus from infecting the foot. Sometimes “excess” flesh was cut away or encouraged to rot. The girls were forced to walk long distances in order to hasten the breaking of their arches. Over time the wrappings became tighter and the shoes smaller as the heel and sole were crushed together. After two years the process was complete, creating a deep cleft that could hold a coin in place. Once a foot had been crushed and bound, the shape could not be reversed without a woman undergoing the same pain all over again. Read the rest of this entry »


This Show Imagines What Life Would Be Like if the Nazis Had Won World War II

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Amazon’s new pilot proves that alternative-history shows are an uphill battle

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick, is an acknowledged classic of the alternative-history genre — the sort of books that imagine a world in which something important had gone differently. (In this case, it’s if the Axis powers had won World War II.) The TV show of the same title, whose pilot is currently streaming on Amazon, is unlikely to meet as much success, not least because the alternative-history genre of TV isn’t TheManintheHighCastlesomething that exists. In general, TV has been uniquely bad at conveying dystopian fantasies. So far, The Man in the High Castle is worse than it could be — but it’s hard to call it a disappointment, given how low expectations should have been.

[Order Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” from Amazon]

The power of books that imagine the apocalypse (or a far worse alternate present) is their power to parcel out information about the state of the world we’re witnessing through context. When television attempts to do the same, it feels sledgehammer-level unsubtle. In a book, a mention of a popular current movie or song, or a quick description of a poster or work of art, can be easily absorbed in the flow of information. In Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle pilot, when the camera pauses on a movie theater marquee or poster of a Third Reich soldier, it feels as though we’re being nudged in the ribs: This will be important later! The important stuff that’s actually interesting gets withheld to a frustrating degree, in favor of fairly dull characters who are on quests we don’t get enough information about to care. What would it really be like to live under Nazi rule in America? We don’t get a strong sense, aside from a vague feeling that the police would be far more aggressive.

Subtlety isn’t television’s strongest trait, but shows like The Man in the High Castle, which exist in a wildly different universe than our own, only exacerbate the medium’s problems with obviousness. We want to know how America ended up overrun with German and Japanese soldiers — just as how, in Under the Dome, we want to know how the town ended up under a dome, or how in the late ABC reboot of V we wanted to know the alien’s plots. Those last two shows are but two easy examples of an irritating phenomenon: when they did parcel out information about the world in which their characters found themselves, it was heavy-handed in a way that only emphasized how much the rest of the show was wheel-spinning. Read the rest of this entry »