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The Delicate Reminders of a Tortured Past

May 21, 1996|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Beverley Jackson, having just described how millions of Chinese women had their feet maimed and miniaturized in the name of beauty, asks her Santa Monica audience, "How many women here today have pointed toes, high heels--and their feet hurt?"

She's made her point: "Essentially, foot-binding is about sex." And, she adds, "Until our liberation by Reeboks and Nikes, we were just as bad, in our own way."

Jackson--size 10B--unravels the mysteries of those frightfully fettered 3-inch-long feet, revered for 1,000 years by Chinese men as "little lotus blossoms," in "Splendid Slippers / Size One Narrow," to be published in 1997.

Myth No. 1: Bound feet signified class and wealth. The custom started in the palace in the 10th century, Jackson says, but, "It worked its way down. By the 17th century, the poorest farmer would bind his daughter's feet to get her a richer husband."

Alas, this didn't guarantee the poor girl a life of luxury. Unlike her well-born sisters, who spent their hobble-footed days doing embroidery and being carried about in sedan chairs, she might still have to work in the fields.

Why would any woman trade a serviceable pair of feet for a lifetime of pain?

Those little feet turned Chinese men on. It wasn't just the feet--which husbands would sniff, fondle and nibble. A woman with bound feet developed a "lotus gait" that tightened pelvic muscles. "The men said it was like always making love to a virgin," Jackson explains.

Jackson, for 24 years society columnist for the Santa Barbara News-Press, occasionally finds people squeamish as she tells how those tiny feet got that way.

It wasn't pretty. When a girl was about 6, she'd be taken--often crying and screaming--to a foot-binding stool. For softening up, her feet might be soaked in a broth of boiled monkey bones. Then a cotton bandage, about 3 inches wide and 10 feet long, would be wrapped around each foot in a figure-eight.

Only the big toes were free. As the feet were rebound, tighter and tighter, over about two years, the child's other toes were broken and forced flat against the soles, the arches broken, the heels drawn forward. Picture a fist turned on end, the thumb representing the big toe.

"There are still a million women today whose feet were bound," Jackson says--virtually every native woman born before 1943.

Women of other cultures have mutilated themselves--displacing internal organs with corsets, enlarging their breasts or otherwise tinkering with nature, but only the Chinese did true foot-binding.

Jackson has uncovered intriguing lore. One story has it that binding began by decree of an emperor whose empress had a club foot. More likely, it began about AD 980 with a court concubine who'd wrap her feet in silk and dance on her toes for her prince.

At her Santa Barbara home, Jackson displays slippers from her collection of 140 pairs. It began on her first visit to China in 1975, when she bought an antique robe. She was collecting robes and researching the lives of the women who had worn them. But at her lectures, "All anyone ever asked about were eunuchs and bound feet."

She began collecting tiny slippers. She has embroidered white mourning slippers and red boudoir slippers with tooth-marked toes.

"It's really yin and yang, such beauty covering such ugliness," Jackson says. Chinese women--with the exception of those with love for sale-- never bared those feet, and their men "thought they were these beautiful little pink dumplings, when they were these terrible monstrosities."

The Manchus, who invaded China in 1644, forbade their women to bind, eager to keep cultural separation. But Manchu women simulated the "lotus gait" by wearing shoes with high platforms. Although bound feet were taboo inside the Forbidden City, eunuchs reported seeing tiny red slippers, presumably belonging to prostitutes, under royal bedcovers.

Despite campaigns by American missionaries and others, foot-binding flourished until banned by the Communists in 1949. They equated binding with decadence and, Jackson says, "They didn't make that long march to have women who couldn't walk." Or work. Overnight, women with bound feet became objects of ridicule.

Elderly women interviewed for Jackson's books continue binding, because leaving their feet unbound is excruciatingly painful. One Chinese factory still makes simple slippers, size 1 / narrow. Antique slippers--many collected and preserved by diplomats' wives--today fetch up to $1,000 a pair.

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