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Filial Piety in Chinese Culture and the Myth of Collectivism (Part III) - Footbinding In Old Chinese Society and the Concept of 疼 (téng)

Pan Jinlian with her master Ximen, the protagonists
of the ancient erotic novel "Golden Lotus". To Pan
Jinlian's charm belonged her bound feet.

Anointed with fragrance, she takes lotus steps;
Though often sad, she walks with swift lightness.
She dances like the wind, leaving no physical trace.
Another stealthily tries on this palace style,
but feels such distress when she tries to stand;
So wondrously small they defy description,
Unless placed in the palm.

(Su Shi, 1036-1101 AD, 
quoted in: Wang 2000, p. 29)

There is perhaps no better proof that the myth of the harmonious Chinese society has often been manipulated for ideological purposes, than the ancient custom of footbinding. For it is in this custom that we see how the idea of collectivism, as I have described it in one of my previous posts, has been re-interpreted in a misleading way in order to enhance a certain political agenda. 

Nowadays, no defender of Asian values would ever mention footbinding as a traditional characteristic of the Asian family; so deep has been the rejection of this practice. Yet for hundreds of years footbinding was, along with concubinage and other social conventions, an integral part of the life of millions of Chinese women, and a fundamental trait of the power structure and gender role inside the old Chinese family. It is thus not entirely purposeless to examine it more closely. 

What Is Footbinding?

Footbinding was the practice of changing the natural shape of women's feet by breaking the toes and bending them under the sole of the foot, and by stopping the blood circulation with bandages. The purpose was to create a tiny, 3-4-inch-long foot (around 10-8 centimeters). The excruciating process of footbinding began at the age of four or five and lasted overall ten to fifteen years; but it affected the entire lives of women.

A bound foot. Men would never see the naked
foot, but only the one wrapped in perfumed
bandages or clad in beautiful shoes.

Bound feet were euphemistically known as "lotus feet" or "golden lilies", and were considered beautiful and erotic. Lotus feet were one of the major criteria to define female beauty.

The custom of footbinding was known since the Han Dynasty (206BC-24AD), and became increasingly popular between the Five Dynasty (907-960) and the beginning of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It is believed that it was emperor Li Yu (937-978) of the Southern Tang Dynasty who made this practice fashionable at court. He demanded that his favourite concubine, Yaoniang, dance with bound feet on carved lotus flowers (see Hong 1997, p. 22;  Tamura et al. 1998, p. 15).

Footbinding was an instrument and a symbol of male superiority. Women with bound feet could walk only with great effort, which meant that they were mostly secluded at home, unable to have an independent life outside of the household. On the other hand, bound feet could also - but not always - indicate a woman's social status, for they signified that she did not need to perform menial work (Tamura et al. 1998, p. 15).

Footbinding was practiced both by the upper and the lower classes. For the first, it was the sign of their social status; for the latter, it was often a chance to move upward through marriage or concubinage. In Chinese history, in fact, there are numerous cases of emperors as well as wealthy and powerful men choosing concubines with bound feet, many of whom were from rural areas (see Chang 2003, chapter 1; Wang 2000, p. 32).

In her novel Wild Swans, Chinese-born author Jung Chang gives a detailed  description of the practice of footbinding, which her grandmother was forced to endure as a child:

My grandmother's feet had been bound when she was two years old. Her mother, who herself had bound feet, first wound a piece of white cloth about twenty feet long round her feet, bending all the toes except the big toe inward under the sole. The she placed a large stone on top to crush the arch. My grandmother screamed in agony and begged her to stop. Her mother had to stick a cloth into her mouth to gag her. [...] 

The process lasted several years. Even after the bones had been broken, the feet had to be bound day and night in thick cloth because the moment they were released they would try to recover. For years my grandmother lived in relentless, excruciating pain. When she pleaded with her mother to untie the bindings, her mother would weep and tell her that unbound feet would ruin her entire life, and that she was doing ti for her own future happiness. In those days, when a woman was married, the first thing the bridegroom's family did was to examine her feet (Chang 2003, p. 24).

Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, the man who with his programme of national modernization contributed perhaps more than any other to the abolition of footbinding, had himself witnessed this practice in his youth. 

Sun came from a very poor family. His father did not own enough land to support the family and had to do take on a variety of menial jobs to make ends meet. His mother, who had bound feet, was a hard-working peasant, and a proof that footbinding was practiced even by the lowest classes. "I am a coolie and the son of a coolie," said Sun Yat-sen. "I was born with the poor" ( Bergere 1998, p. 24). 

Sun Yat-sen was born in 1866, when the custom of footbinding was still very much alive and almost socially unchallenged. Many years later he still vividly remembered his little sister's cries of pain when her mother began to break her bones (ibid.).

Daughters' Pain, Parents' Love? The Infliction of Suffering and the Role of Shame in Chinese Parenting

In the 1930s, Yao Lingxi (Chinese: 姚靈犀 / 姚灵犀; pinyin: Yáo Língxī, 1899?-1963) published a series of volumes with the title Records of Gathering Fragrance (Chinese: 采菲錄 / 采菲录; pinyin: Cǎi fēi lù), a collection of materials regarding the history and development of footbinding, the anti-footbinding movement that had started at the end of the 19th century, and - most importantly - anecdotes told by women with bound feet who talked about their own personal experience (note). 

A natural foot (left), and a bound foot
As to this day, this book remains one of the major sources on the practice of footbinding, thanks to the fact that it was written when the custom was dying but there were still millions of women with "lotus feet" who could recount their personal stories.

I would like to quote here a passage from the book to convey a vivid impression of how women in late imperial China experienced the practice of footbinding. This is what a woman said about how her feet were bound by her mother:

Born into an old-fashioned family at P'ing-hsi, I was inflicted with the pain of footbinding when I was seven years old ... It was the first lunar month of my seventh year that my ears were pierced and fitted with gold earrings. I was told that a girl had to suffer twice, through ear piercing and footbinding. 
Binding started in the second lunar month; mother consulted references in order to select an auspicious day for it. I wept and hid in a neighbor's home, but mother found me, scolded me, and dragged me home. She shut the bedroom door, boiled water, and from a box withdrew binding, shoes, knife, needle, and thread. I begged for a one-day postponement, but mother refused: "Today is a lucky day," she said. "If bound today, your feet will never hurt; if bound tomorrow, they will." She washed and placed alum on my feet and cut the toenails. She then bent my toes toward the plantar with a binding cloth ten feet long and two inches wide, doing the right foot first and then the left. She finished binding and ordered me to walk, but when I did the pain proved unbearable.
That night, mother wouldn't let me remove the shoes. My feet felt on fire and I couldn't sleep; mother struck me for crying. On the following days, I tried to hide but was forced to walk. Mother hit me on my hands and feet for resisting. Beatings and curses were my lot for covertly loosening the wrappings. The feet were washed and rebound after three or four days, with alum added. 
After several months, all toes but the big one were pressed against the inner surface. Whenever I ate fish or freshly killed meat, my feet would swell, and the pus would drip. Mother criticized me for placing pressure on the heel while walking, saying that my feet would never assume a pretty shape. Mother would remove the bindings and wipe the blood and pus which dripped from my feet. She told me that only with the removal of the flesh could my feet become slender. If I mistakenly punctured a sore, the blood gushed like a stream [...]. 

Every two weeks, I changed to new shoes. Each pair was one-to-ten-tenths of an inch smaller than the previous one [...]. After changing more than ten pairs of shoes, my feet were reduced to a little over four inches. I had been binding for a month when my younger sister started; when no one was around, we would weep together. In summer, my feet smelled offensively because of pus and blood; in winter, my feet felt cold because of lack of circulation [...]. Four of the toes were curled in like so many dead caterpillars; no outsider would ever have believed that they belonged to a human being. It took me two years to achieve the three-inch model" (quoted in: Wang 2000, pp. 5-6). 

Although the practice of footbinding is nothing more than history today, it tells a lot about certain aspects of Chinese parenting which in some respects still exist today, though in a much mitigated form. We shall see that the resilience of this custom was due to three elements: 1) 'face', in the sense of reputation and social capital; 2) the concept of  疼 (téng), which can be translated as both 'loving' and 'hurting' someone; 3) and the use of shame and jesting in raising one's children.

One may wonder how mothers, who had themselves suffered for years because of footbinding, could possibly inflict the same torture to their own daughters. What was the motivation behind the act of crippling one's own children's feet for life?

The answer is 'face'. When children cried and besought their mothers to stop binding their feet, mothers would answer that a daughter without bound feet or with badly bound feet would 'lose face' on her wedding day. In fact, lotus feet were an important criterion for brides' selection in old China. After marriage, the husband's relatives, most especially the mother, would examine the bride's feet, and if they were too big or badly shaped, the bride would be met with contempt and lose face (see Wang 2000, p. 18).

The bride's lifelong reputation (face) in her new home, as well as that of her old and new families, was formed at this moment. [...] Badly shaped, oversized feet (more than three to four inch long) meant that the bride had no endurance, no patience, and worst of all, was lazy; therefore she couldn't be a good daughter-in-law [...]. Since the feet became the face and the face closed the bride's fate [...] mothers dared no loosen the bandages a little bit despite their daughters' tears (ibid., p. 19).

We see here how the judgement about a person was formed according to external standards; this was, and it often is, still common in a society based on hierarchy and rituals. 

We also see that since 'face', and not individual aspirations, were the main motivation that in the eyes of parents justified the suffering of their children, loving and hurting one's children were part of the role of parents.

This is symbolized by the character 疼 (téng), which has two, by Western standards perhaps completely opposite meanings: the first is 'love dearly', the second is 'hurt', 'sore' (see ibid., p. 6). In this single word is perhaps summarized the whole attitude of Chinese parents towards their children. On the one hand there is absolute love and the great attention they give to the education and the future of their children; on the other hand, however, there are all the immense sacrifices that they demand, and the complete self-confidence with which they try to control their children's destinies in the direction they view as the best for them, even if it means making their children suffer, or compromising their happiness (happiness being considered a short-term gratification).   

The custom of footbinding reflected in the most visible way the dual meaning of the word 'teng'. Nowadays, there are no physical signs of suffering, but in some cases, by imposing their will on children, by putting extreme pressure and nurturing high expectations in terms of face and social status, parents at times still inflict wounds on children, albeit of spiritual nature.  

The distortion of the flesh was a lesson in female behaviour; lotus feet existed because men found them erotic; women's fate was to adapt to the male ideal of beauty, so that a good marriage deal could be sealed. Acting against the social convention would have been considered unwise and unfilial. 

There was a huge emotional distance between women and men, a lack of communication due to the hierarchical nature of the Confucian family. Men loved to see their wives' small feet and their staggering gate; however, they never took part in the footbinding ceremony, nor did they see what was hidden behind the bandages: the pus, the rotten, stinky flesh. The emotional aspect of this process and the psychological consequences for women did not seem to interest them.

The third element I want to examine is the role of mocking and shame in children's upbringing. This element can be still seen nowadays. First, I will quote another passage from Records of Gathering Fragrance:  

At eleven, my feet were thin, small, and arched, about four and a half inches long. One day, I went with my mother to my maternal grandma's birthday party. Among the visitors were two girls of my age from the Weiyang family. Their feet were so tiny, smaller than hands, all wrapped in scarlet embroidered shoes. Everybody admired them. My uncle turned to me, laughing, "Look at their feet, so small and straight. How respectful! Look at yours, so big and fat. Who will be willing to be your matchmaker?" All the visitors turned to look at my feet and laughed [...]. At that moment I was determined to bind my feet much more tightly no matter how painful it was (quoted in: Wang 2000, p. 20).

The fundamental role of jesting and humiliating children by comparing them to other children or by making them feel ashamed had already been noticed by Ruth Benedict in her analysis of the way Japanese children learnt to behave properly. Until today, this is the biggest instrument used by parents to exert influence on their children. For instance, mocking one's daughter's appearance, her failure to find a boyfriend, shortly, making one's children feel they are worse than other children, that they are losers, is the main tool parents possess. 

In Chinese society, making your beloved suffer and caring for them are not  contradictions, but two different sides of one and the same thing. It is a parenting strategy that is derived from the Confucian assumption that children have to please their parents, make them happy by giving them 'face' and taking care of them, and respect their authority, for parents' authority is the guarantor of social stability. 

Confucianism does assume that parents may have faults, but it gives little power to children in order to correct such shortcomings. The Book of Rites, one of the classical Confucian text, explains:

When sons and their wives have not been filial and reverential, (the parents) should not be angry and resentful with them, but endeavour to instruct them. If they will not receive instruction, they should then be angry with them. If that anger do no good, they can then drive out the son, and send the wife away, yet not publicly showing why they have so treated them.  

If a parent have a fault, (the son) should with bated breath, and bland aspect, and gentle voice, admonish him. If the admonition do not take effect, he will be the more reverential and the more filial; and when the father seems pleased, he will repeat the admonition. If he should be displeased with this, rather than allow him to commit an offence against any one in the neighbourhood or countryside, (the son) should strongly remonstrate. If the parent be angry and (more) displeased, and beat him till the blood flows, he should not presume to be angry and resentful, but be (still) more reverential and more filial (Book of Rites. Transl. by James Legge. Every edition. 內則 [neize] 17-18).

There are numerous examples of parents' strategy of controlling children by either mocking them or making them feel ashamed. I will here quote one excerpt from a recent book; in this passage, a Shanghai girl ('Stella') describes how her parents push her to find a boyfriend:

Parents want to get involved in your relationship as much as they can. When you date they want to know, where did you go and what did you do? They want details about how the relationship is going and they try to offer you advice. Girls especially value what their parents think of their boyfriends, and if they do not approve the girl may not be happy. I don't have a boyfriend now and my parents are going crazy, so they're telling me everyday, 'You're almost 24, you should be going out to find a boyfriend. Your career is secondary to your marriage.' They think I should prioritize my goals in life and make finding a boyfriend my first priority. 
It's annoying for me to hear them talk like that because I want to get a degree. Their intentions are good, but they're based on their own judgement and experience and they are trying to force their ideas on me and prove my own ideas are wrong. I try not to discuss this issue with them. Still, it's much different than in the countryside, where the marriage is usually arranged and the girl only meets the boy once or twice before they get married (Burger 2012, pp. 35-36). 


It was not my purpose to suggest that Asian families are any worse than Western families; I hope to have made clear enough that I believe happy or unhappy families depend on the individuals involved, and not whether they are Western or Asian. My point was simply to question the myth of the 'harmonious' Confucian family as opposed to a decadent Western family. While it is true that the Western institution of family has experienced a process of erosion, it would be too simplistic to view the Asian family as not problematic, and build on it an ideology that selectively chooses the aspects deemed positive and leaves out less pleasant ones. 


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