Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, March 10, 1998

By Beverley Jackson
Although foot-binding is no longer practiced, many women with bound feet are still alive. Author Beverley Jackson photographed this woman in Yunan Province in 1997.

Golden lilies

The tradition of foot-binding
is tied up in issues
of beauty, marriageability
and sex

By Nadine Kam
Assistant Features Editor


Chinese foot-binding, according to author Beverley Jackson, is all about sex.

That explains a lot. Historians have tried to explain foot-binding in terms of a culture's standard of beauty or as a way of holding a woman to a household, but these explanations seemed to lack the kind of power that would sustain a custom for several centuries. Just think of how many times the beauty ideal has changed in this country within the last 100 years, from voluptuousness to fitness to heroin chic. And man's vanity rarely allows him to believe his woman would run away.

Add sex to the equation, however, and one can certainly understand the motivation. Since Adam and Eve took a bite out of that apple in the Garden of Eden, humans have shown that they will do just about anything -- good, evil or in between -- for sex.

Jackson, curator of the Chinese collection at the Santa Barbara Historical Society Museum, a collector of Chinese textiles and author of "Splendid Slippers: A Thousand Years of an Erotic Tradition," will give a talk on foot-binding April 1 at the Honolulu Academy of Arts Theatre.

"To this day elderly Chinese men will look at a woman's feet before her face. Dolly Parton wouldn't stand a chance," Jackson said. "They look at my size 10 feet and laugh."

She said the foot-binding custom is believed to have originated a thousand years ago in the court of Prince Li Yu, whose favorite concubine was known for toe-dancing in an early variation of ballet. The royal craze moved down the social ladder, eventually reaching peasants who hoped to achieve higher status through smaller feet.

Jackson estimates there are still about a million women in China with bound feet. Although the custom was banned by the Communists in 1949, Jackson said the practice continued in some areas until 1957.

Contrary to belief that binding started in infancy, Jackson said it was started at age 6 to give the foot's arch time to develop. Feet were wrapped in cotton, with only the big toe left free. In time, the bandage was wrapped tighter until the other toes were broken and forced flat against the soles. The ideal was a 3-inch foot called san zun jin lian, or golden lily, and woe to the girl whose future mother-in-law was allowed to do the binding.

This photograph of a deformed bound foot is from Beverley Jackson's book, "Splendid Slippers."

With their feet bound, women walked with a "lotus gait" that tightened their pelvic muscles. "The men said it was like always making love to a virgin," Jackson said.

Her book resulted from seven years of research sparked by a pair of embroidered slippers measuring less than 5 inches, found in a Scotland antique store in the '80s.

"The owner didn't know anything about them, which was nice because I bought them for $10," she said. "I hate to tell you what I'm paying for them now."

Today, the author owns 174 pairs of delicate hand-embroidered shoes, made by their owners to cover their bound feet.

A young Chinese woman would spend years embroidering tiny shoes for her bound feet. This example is from Beverley Jackson's collection.

But this was not her first foray into things Chinese. She had already been a collector of antique Chinese robes, started in 1975 with a visit to Shanghai, China.

Back in Santa Barbara, Jackson became a popular lecturer on Chinese robes and textiles. "I would have a robe hanging at the foot of my bed and start writing, wondering what women's' lives were like. I started doing research out of curiosity, but at lectures, the only questions people had were about foot-binding. Then I thought, if everyone's so interested, I should write a book."

The book dispels several misconceptions, including the belief that foot-binding was practiced by nobles and in limited areas. In reality, only the Hakka community and the boat dwellers of the Tanka community shunned the custom. Some men -- primarily actors and prostitutes -- also bound their feet.

Parts of Jackson's book are written from the perspective of Phoenix Treasure, a fictional composite of a child who pleads with her mother not to bind her feet.

As a teen, Phoenix Treasure is resigned to her fate and finds solace in needlework, her sole source of freedom and creativity.

Another embroidered shoe from Beverley Jackson's collection.

"I've seen the pride women had in their finished slippers," Jackson said. "It gave vent to their imagination and they were able to create such beautiful things.

"It's like having a baby. Childbirth is not pleasant, even with medication, but we forget the pain because we're so proud of our babies."

Repelled at first by the notion of bound feet, she said, "I had to submerge myself in the better side because if I dwelled on the pain I might not have been able to do the book."

The book is full of photographs of the embroidered shoes, as well as women, with their tiny pointed feet sticking out from beneath Mandarin gowns. There are also X-ray photos of mangled feet and in one case, a photo of a mummified foot that had fallen off due to gangrene.

"I show that foot in my lectures. When I do my talks audiences get somewhat squeamish. I tell them, 'Look at this next slide real fast,' then I show a nice picture of a lotus bloom while I'm talking about that foot.

"My talks can get pretty graphic and sexy sometimes. Once I was invited to lecture to a group called the 'Old Treasures.' Here was this sea of white hair, people with canes and walkers and I told them I didn't know how far I should go in telling the sexual aspects of foot-binding.

"Well, one old woman stood up and raised her cane and said, 'We want to hear all you got!' "

Binding tradition

Beverley Jackson speaks on the Chinese custom of foot-binding:

° Place: Honolulu Academy of Arts Theatre

° Time: 7:30 p.m. April 1

° Admission: Free

° Call: 532-8700

° Note: Jackson's book, "Splendid Slippers: A Thousand Years of an Erotic Tradition" (Ten Speed Press, $24.95) will be available

Scholar: Women share blame

By Nadine Kam
Assistant Features Editor


Like many Punti Chinese growing up in Honolulu of the '50s, Douglas Chong was accustomed to seeing elderly Chinese women running errands around Honolulu on bound feet. Yet he never asked his mother why their feet were so different.

"It's not unusual when you grow up with it," he said. "The small feet weren't something curious. It was very much accepted, very much part of the Hawaii scene."

Chong, a past-president of the Hawaii Chinese History Center, is an author and lecturer on things Chinese. He said that a majority of Chinese who immigrated to Hawaii were Punti, at 60 percent, vs. a 30 percent Hakka population.

It was the Punti who practiced foot-binding, so within that community, he said it was common to have a great-grandmother or grandmother with bound feet. "If you went to any family function, out of five women, two or three had bound feet," said Chong, who believes that the last woman in Hawaii with bound feet died about five years ago.

Although foot-binding was banned in Hawaii by 1898, Chong said Chinese merchants still brought wives from China with bound feet. Some people continued the custom, risking arrest.

In his own family, his grandmother was one of four sisters with bound feet; two others had normal feet. "The only reason the last two sisters never had bound feet was because their brother told his mother he was gonna call the sheriff," Chong said.

His view that the custom was perpetuated by women has not endeared him to feminists. "It was enforced by the mothers. It was always, 'You're not going to get married unless you do this, you'll have a good chance of being selected by a wealthy family.' "

Beverley Jackson, in her book, "Splendid Slippers," points out that in some cases, women forbidden to bind their daughters' feet would wait until their husbands were out of town to start the process.

The daughters accepted the practice as a fact of life and Chong said when he listened to elderly women talk about it, they never complained. "They would mention who had the smallest feet at such a time. Very seldom did they want to talk about the pain. They didn't dwell on it and they didn't make it out to be horrible or senseless."

Contrary to the notion that the women were unable to walk for the rest of their lives, Chong said women were expected to lead productive working lives.

"My great grandmother used to raise and slaughter pigs. She did all the cooking for the family and dried fish on the beach.

"Later, my grandmother worked at the pineapple cannery and tuna factory, and operated her own hardware store in Waipahu after my grandfather died. She raised six kids and was an accomplished cook and seamstress.

"I never heard my grandmother complain once about her feet. And here, today, I think, 'Oh, rough day. My feet sore,' and I think of my grandmother with her small feet."

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