'Small' - Not Always Perfectly Formed

For over a thousand years and as recently as the 1950’s in some rural areas of China, albeit outlawed in 1911; female children had their feet broken and bound tightly for the purpose of creating a human version of nature’s lotus bud.
Footbinding, a practice generally known about in the West but not in any great detail, came to my attention through the Netflix series 'Marco Polo'. Not satisfied with the little I knew, my curiosity piqued; the researcher in me turned to Beverley Jackson’s book ‘Splendid Slippers’. A respectful and authoritative guide on, arguably, a highly emotive subject.

Let me share with you a glimpse from between its covers.

The fundamental reason for the practice seems to have been: marriage/sex/status/beauty/duty. Jackson states that: ‘the worst thing that could happen to a Chinese woman of the past was to be deemed unmarriageable’ and without bound-feet, she would have been deemed, unmarriageable'. To paraphrase then if said female’s feet hadn’t been broken - No Husband! As in, when a woman could not survive without a husband and was expected to remain indoors all day.

For a woman to attain ‘golden lily’ status her bud shaped feet would have measured no more than three inches wide (7.5cm). Perfectly formed to hold a Chinese silver dollar, tightly, within its cleft. Size mattered and a status existed therein namely, ‘golden lily’, ‘silver lily’, or worst of all, ‘iron lily’, aka, not perfectly formed feet because too big.

The photograph I have attached with the blog taken at one of my studio shoots shows an artificial silk waterlily measuring three inches wide. As the model said to me at the time: ‘my ankle measures more than that!’; as she manoeuvred her feet into the black, patent leather, fetish ballet shoes, that were never made for walking.

And so, we come closer, to nub of it. The ‘golden lily’ was a symbol of immense erotic pleasure to men and could endow women with considerable power. Ah, I hear you say, ‘pain-power-pleasure-pleasure-power-pain’, sounds like history repeating itself, East or West; was it the men? The practice was not perpetuated by men, but by the women.

The mysteries behind feet wrapped in white or blue bandages could lead men to behave in curious ways going to great lengths, for example, to steal the slipper of a famous courtesan, pour wine into her tiny shoe, and drink from it. If you want to know more about the intimacy shown by Chinese males with these beautifully embroidered slippers, do read Jackson’s book, it will bring Eastern spice to any fascination with women’s shoes.

Setting aside East/West for a moment it got me to wondering how this procedure affected the mother-daughter relationship. Ever questioned whether there are limits to the pain said relationship can withstand? Well, this adds a whole new tier and it’s a question I’ve wrestled with often given the complex nature that defines my own. To quote Jackson again: ‘Shoes (as in lotus slippers) represent a kind of discipline, suffering and resignation that we in the West cannot ever really comprehend’. It may well be that the Western understanding of ‘discipline, suffering and resignation’ is rooted in alternative sacrifice, and whilst it can be challenging to find commonality across dramatically distinct cultures, the one sentiment that echoed to me through the pages was that the mother-daughter relationship has rarely been an easy one.

‘Chinese mothers could be quite brutal with their own daughters’, states Jackson, and there I found my common thread. Like many daughters who fail to live up to their mother’s ambitions, in my case of a religious nature, I found myself cut off from the family, more refugee than orphan. Brutality doesn’t always manifest itself in a physical way. Adele Fielde summed up neatly her interaction with footbinding as a Christian missionary in China in the 1880’s when she wrote: ‘Religion is not the only sentiment which has its martyrs’.

So my quest for knowledge had begun with one agenda, that of seeking deeper meaning and it became clear to me that when it comes to the subject of ‘The Mother’ there are universal commonalities. How many daughters can truly say they’ve known how it feels to receive that perfectly formed, ‘unconditional’, mother-love?

Thankfully, it’s satisfying to know, that the debilitating practice of footbinding is now consigned to the pages of history. For many daughters, other issues, will remain.

Source material and for more information:
‘Splendid Slippers’ – A Thousand Years of An Erotic Tradition - Beverley Jackson
‘Pagoda Shadows’ – Adele Marion Fielde