Friday, June 14, 2013

Foot Binding and the Measure of Beauty

I completed two books in the past couple of weeks by Lisa See. Lisa See looks Caucasian, which she is, but she is very proud of her Chinese heritage that has all been washed from her physical features. I stumbled upon her writing when I borrowed Shanghai Girls from the Kahuku Public Library.

SHAMELESS PLUG for public libraries. I cannot imagine a world without access to the mountains of information that are in the public libraries. In the State of Hawaii, there are public libraries everywhere. Thanks to the internet, you can search the state's library database from home, request material from other libraries to be sent to whatever library in the State that you'd like to pick it up at, and also reserve material or computer time. All of this can be done without leaving home. Trust me, I put it to very good use! You can also download ebooks and audio books to an app that allows you to read or listen to your book. Awesome!!

ShangHai Girls forced me to observe Chinese culture from the present day. In recent years, I try not to attach a judgement to my observation. For instance, an ancient practice in China is foot binding. I look down at my extremely wide, almost flat feet, and try to imagine these 11W's being only 3 inches long. Out of curiosity I just measured my left foot. The results: 4 inches at its widest and just over 10 inches long. My foot is wider than the length of what was considered a beautiful foot in China. Is it right? Wrong? Good? Bad? I am just an observer. Foot binding might sound strange to the present day observer but is it any stranger than women paying to have their face injected with botulin (poision) to remove wrinkles temporarily? Is foot binding more strange than implanting saline pouches to make body parts larger or more prominent? Is foot binding more strange than cutting a portion of the stomach out so that a patient is forced to eat less? Beauty certainly is dictated by society.

 
 
I remember traveling to Malta and taking a tour of Gozo. On our way to the ferry that would take us across the harbor to the island of Gozo, the tour guide talked about the history of Gozo. She informed us that the island was filled with monolithic depictions of large women. Apparently, the measure of beauty for people of Malta and Gozo in centuries-past was a large woman. She represented fertility and beauty and ultimate femininity. As soon as we returned from Gozo, I went to a Maltese bookstore and purchased a book on the large female statues of Gozo. I still have that book and it looks fairly new because I have only thumbed through it once. I must preserve the book! It was the only one I could find that was in English.

ShangHai Girls mentions foot binding in passing but the second Lisa See book that I read, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, goes into detail. If you have never seen what bound feet look like, please google it. I can barely stomach the sight of them. I imagine the significance of food binding, from a man's perspective, being symbolic of the loyalty of a woman to her husband. It must be very comfortable for a man to know that no matter how abusive or misogynistic he may be, his wife will never leave his side. Even if he were to take on concubines, in Chinese culture as I understand it, a woman's worth is intrinsically tied to her value to her husband.

Both books deserve a proper review of their own but who has the time? ShangHai Girls explores the life of two Chinese women and their experience of being forced to leave Shang Hai for America in an age of war. Cultural protocol is emphasized throughout; from behavioral expectations to the memory of the ancestors. Some of the practices may seem burdensome but not more than what some of us practice in our own cultures today. In Snow Flower, the book emphasizes class distinction and marriage as the tool to boost a woman's value. However, the true significance of the book is its presentation of a language created by women and only for women; a secret language! This is not pig-latin but an actual living language steeped in poetry and symbolism called nu shu.

The overwhelming feeling in both novels is very heavy and burdensome. I'm not sure if that is what the author means to portray. I assume that the measure for Chinese-American literature would be Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club (made into a movie) and The Hundred Secret Senses. If you recall from Amy Tan's work, the relationship and protocol between male and female, mother and daughter, mother and son, are all very distinct and carefully tended to. The same is true in Lisa See's books. One gets the sense that this must be a token of Chinese culture - the heavy gloom and sadness associated with being a woman, forced to do hard things and make hard choices. The mood of female Chinese-American literature is one of eventual triumph over the hard facts of life. ShangHai Girls and Snow Flower do not disappoint. If anything, Lisa See's work is a definite reminder for women to be grateful that they can choose not to bind their feet (high heels). **giggles** A woman in modern America can choose her spouse, choose where she will live, choose the destiny of her life in open attempt (not in secrecy). And so today - today I am grateful to be me.



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