I just finished a book written by Lisa See called Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. There’s also a movie that came out in 2011 which I didn’t realize existed but plan on watching today for the heck of it. The book itself is about two woman from different social backgrounds in 19th century China. The protagonist, Lily, has her fate changed when she learns that her feet, once the binding process is complete, could be the most perfect in all the county. Because of this, she is able to get a laotong, an intimate friend whom she’ll have all her life. They keep records of significant events on a fan they share and communicate using an ancient code used only by women. The story follows the two as they get older, bind their feet, get married, have children, and experience the hardship that comes from being a woman in that time.
I enjoyed this book. It’s not my usual fast-paced adventure book, but it got into the culture of China, which I really enjoyed. I’m interested in cultures in general, and understanding the history of a society helps understand the society itself. I was sympathetic with the characters while exploring my own conceptions of tradition, gender roles, and life.
What I really enjoyed, as I said, was learning about China. Especially shocking to me was the concept of foot-binding. Most people know what it is: Chinese women tying up their feet at a young age so that they stunt their growth, resulting in smaller feet. I can’t explain the process any better than wikipedia:
The process was started before the arch of the foot had a chance to develop fully, usually between the ages of two and five. Binding usually started during the winter months since the feet were more likely to be numb, and therefore the pain would not be as extreme.
First, each foot would be soaked in a warm mixture of herbs and animal blood; this was intended to soften the foot and aid the binding. Then, the toenails were cut back as far as possible to prevent in-growth and subsequent infections, since the toes were to be pressed tightly into the sole of the foot. Cotton bandages were prepared by soaking them in the blood and herb mixture. To enable the size of the feet to be reduced, the toes on each foot were curled under, then pressed with great force downwards and squeezed into the sole of the foot until the toes broke.
The broken toes were held tightly against the sole of the foot while the foot was then drawn down straight with the leg and the arch forcibly broken. The bandages were repeatedly wound in a figure-eight movement, starting at the inside of the foot at the instep, then carried over the toes, under the foot, and round the heel, the freshly broken toes being pressed tightly into the sole of the foot. At each pass around the foot, the binding cloth was tightened, pulling the ball of the foot and the heel together, causing the broken foot to fold at the arch, and pressing the toes underneath.
The girl’s broken feet required a great deal of care and attention, and they would be unbound regularly. Each time the feet were unbound, they were washed, the toes carefully checked for injury, and the nails carefully and meticulously trimmed. When unbound, the broken feet were also kneaded to soften them and make the joints and broken bones more flexible, and were soaked in a concoction that caused any necrotic flesh to fall off.
Infection was the biggest danger to girls. I winced so much during these chapters because I had decided to look up pictures to get some idea of what the characters were going through. This is what Chinese men found attractive above all women’s attributes and what all Chinese girls sought more than anything else:
It’s amazing. Anyway, I enjoyed the book for every wince it was worth. They say beauty is pain. Shouldn’t be, but society’s standards of it often are. Just look at the modern Western world’s conception of beauty!
If you liked these pictures that made you squirm and pet your feet (don’t worry, I’ll never do that to you!), then be sure to subscribe to me.