China's lack of exploratory zeal, and its failure to capitalize on its vastly superior science and technology are two of the great puzzles of world history that have not been adequately explained. I came across part of the answer in a doctor's private collection of "golden lotus" shoes in a small suburban hospital in Taipei.
Foot-binding is something of Chinese civilization's dirty little secret, and like a mad relative the family pretends doesn't exist, it's seen as something shameful and to be forgotten. Most books on Chinese culture and history make no, or only passing, reference to it, and for many westerners their introduction to the cruel process came from reading Wild Swans -- Three Daughters of China by Jung[Young] Chang. The book, the first popular work to give a female perspective to the history of the Middle Kingdom, tells the story of China's tumultuous twentieth century through the lives of three generations of women. The author's grandmother had her feet bound by her mother when she was two years old. First a long piece of cloth was wound around her feet, and all the toes except the big toe bent under the sole. "Then she placed a large stone on top to crush the arch. My grandmother screamed in agony and begged her to stop. Her mother had to stick a cloth into her mouth to gag her. My grandmother passed out repeatedly from the pain."
The binding process lasted for several years during which time she was unable to walk. "For years my grandmother lived in relentless, excruciating pain. When she pleaded with her mother to untie the bindings, her mother would weep and tell her that unbound feet would ruin her entire life, and that she was doing it for her own future happiness." The ugly truth was that if a mother did listen to the pleas and remove the bindings the daughter would face a life of contempt, be an outcast, and in later years blame rather than thank her mother. What kind of culture would compel mothers to cripple and torture their daughters, perpetuate the pain that they could remember so well themselves?
And through a thousand years of torture where were all the great scholars and philosophers, the outrage; what criticism was there, what resistance? There was almost nothing but complete silence until missionaries and western ideas came into China, with the exception of one remarkable book, Flowers in the Mirror, which was the first ever to detail the procedure of foot-binding and show it for what it was. The author, Li Ju-chen (Li Ruzhen), was a scholar from Beijing who questioned the basic tenets of his Confucian education. In the book a merchant named Lin travels to a strange world far away from China where the sex roles are reversed. Not only do the men there do the work of women but they also have to take on a feminine appearance, and so it is the men who suffer the humiliation and pain of foot-binding, and spend hours making themselves attractive.
Merchant Lin is chosen by the female ruler of the country to be a "court lady" and his nightmare begins. "In due course, his feet lost much of their original shape. Blood and flesh were squeezed into a pulp and then little remained of his feet but dry bones and skin, shrunk, indeed, to a dainty size. Responding to daily anointing, his hair became shiny and smooth, and his body, after repeated ablutions of perfumed water, began to look very attractive indeed. His eyebrows were plucked to resemble a new moon. With blood-red lipstick, and powder adorning his face, and jade and pearl adorning his coiffure and ears, Merchant Lin assumed, at last, a not unappealing appearance."
Before visiting Dr. Ko Chi-sheng and his collection I scoured my small private library for information on foot-binding. According to tradition the custom began during the Southern Tang dynasty (907-923) during the reign of Emperor Li Yu, who was one of China's great romantic poets, but being more interested in wine, women, and song than matters of state, didn't stay too long upon the throne. He supposedly had one of his favourite consorts bandage her feet to make them pointed in order for her to dance more beautifully. This caused great excitement in the court and others followed suit. Whether the story is true or not, foot-binding was definitely practised during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) and through the centuries spread from the court to the upper class to the majority of the population. Over time small feet became synonymous with beauty, so much so that it was difficult for a woman with large feet to find a husband. The perfect foot was, according to a well-known seven-word expression, one that was "thin, small, pointed, crooked, perfumed, soft, and symmetrical."
A Portuguese missionary, Martin de Rada, who visited southern China in the mid-seventeenth century, provides ample proof that the custom was already common by the late Ming: "The women are very secluded and virtuous, and it was a rare thing for us to see a woman in the cities and large towns, unless it was an old crone. Only in the villages, where it seemed that there was more simplicity, the women were more often to be seen, and even working in the field."
Two hundred years later the custom was as strong as ever and small deformed feet had lost none of their attraction for Chinese men, as a French scholar explained. "All the Celestials whom I have interrogated on this point have replied unanimously: 'Oh, a little foot! You Europeans cannot understand how exquisite, how sweet, how exciting it is!' The contact of the genital organ with the little foot produces in the male an indescribable degree of voluptuous feeling, and women skilled in love know that to arouse the ardor of their lovers a better method than all Chinese aphrodisiacs is to take the penis between their feet. It is not rare to find Chinese Christians accusing themselves at confession of having had 'evil thoughts on looking at a woman's foot.'"
My favourite anecdote comes from the late nineteenth century. A missionary called Alicia Archibald, who, despite being a leading campaigner against foot-binding, was unaware of the sexual aspects and made some rather embarrassing blunders. During a lecture to five hundred college students in Hong Kong she showed them slides of bare bound feet and was perplexed as to why the boys laughed and snickered all through her presentation. At that time a man would not see a woman's naked feet until after marriage and then only during sex, so the missionary's lecture was equivalent to a hall packed with western schoolboys being shown photos of naked women!
Small feet have been a lifetime's passion for Dr. Ko, a boyish-looking 46-year-old surgeon and something of a Taiwanese Renaissance Man. He is the owner and head of Tucheng hospital, district chief of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and a respected expert on foot-binding. On a wet afternoon he showed me into one of three rooms that house his collection; the far wall was lined with a glass cabinet holding hundreds of pairs of tiny shoes which the Chinese called "three inch golden lotuses," another wall was covered in books, and the other two by large drawers holding various items related to foot-binding.
"This will help you understand the physical process," the doctor handed me a plastic model of a foot; small, pointed, and not too unattractive, until I turned it around to see the underside -- it revealed toes bent around and embedded in the flesh of the sole. It seemed inconceivable that this could have been done to all but a few women. He quickly corrected me.
"During its peak in the Qing dynasty, it was over ninety percent. The Qing rulers, the Manchu, forbade their women to bind their feet but they accounted for no more than two percent of the population. The Manchus actually tried to stamp it out when they took power but failed, and some Manchu women even risked severe punishment to do it. The custom was so strong! Jews living in China took up the practice. Bound feet were a mark of Han Chinese, the mark of civilized people, those without were barbarians.
"It is the longest lasting and most widespread fetish custom in history. It lasted for a thousand years and I've calculated that over that time it was done to three billion women." The doctor leaned forward towards me and repeated these last words slowly and deliberately, "Three billion women! That's exactly half the world's current population -- in other words, the number of women who have had their feet bound is equal to the number of every woman on earth today, every single woman on earth!"
Binding usually began when the girl was four and took about five years to complete. If started too late the feet would be too large and not supple enough to bend, but starting too soon carried the danger that the girl would be crippled for life and unable to walk.
Dr. Ko handed me a pot shaped like a huge donut without the hole on the bottom, "A bed pot for urinating -- during this time their feet were often too painful for them to walk, even to the toilet."
And why did so many parents inflict so much pain on three billion daughters? "This is why," he said pulling out a large plastic drawer and placing it on his lap. Inside were little human figurines about half the size of Barbie and Ken dolls but considerably naughtier -- they were naked and joined together in a bizarre variety of sexual positions. "This is why," he repeated, taking out a copulating pair and holding it in front of me. The woman was using her feet in an inventive way on a man who was obviously in a state of high arousal. "This is why," he pulled out some more dolls, this time a threesome, an equally excited man with one of the woman's tiny feet in the man's mouth.
"There were sexual reasons behind binding -- fetishism and other ..." As he searched for the right word I tried to guess his thoughts.
"I've heard that the vaginal muscles became more developed."
"Yes. After binding the feet the lower legs atrophied, so when they walked," he jumped to his feet and demonstrated an exaggerated hip-swaying motion, "they used their hip muscles to move, like this, with resulting hypertrophy [enlargement] of the hip muscles," then hitting his buttocks added, "and also the perineum muscle." The perineum is the small area between the anus and vagina.
"When the Japanese took control of Taiwan in 1895 they outlawed foot-binding, but studied it. Japanese doctors took X-rays of women with bound feet and compared them with those with normal feet. They found the skeletal structure was identical. The difference was in the muscles. Binding increased the shrinkage power of the vagina."
The price to pay for increased "shrinkage power" seemed pretty damned high. Apart from the obvious pain there were the physical limitations imposed on the women, and a corresponding increased workload for men, as the doctor went on to explain.
"The maximum distance they could walk was about three or five miles, so it shrunk their world, made them conservative, they needed care and support, needed large families. It also had an important influence on architecture -- Chinese houses have a single floor, two at most, because women couldn't climb up stairs. Everything was small, villages, narrow lanes, and so on because women needed support to walk, a man's help, a rail, or a wall, or they carried umbrellas to use as walking sticks.
"The women couldn't travel. So while the West was able to explore the world, to colonize the world and send settlers out to America, Canada, South America, New Zealand and Australia, the Chinese were restricted by the both the physical and mental consequences of foot-binding. They couldn't take their women. The Chinese stayed in China. The Chinatowns you see in America, the overseas Chinese were all from Guangdong in southern China, because they didn't practise binding." Indeed, the Hakkas, some of the earliest settlers in Taiwan, and notable for not binding, were likewise from Guangdong.
Doctor Ko's argument had a brilliant simplicity to it -- how Chinese history and culture had been restricted by bound feet. It was blindingly obvious yet I'd never heard it before. History is obviously too complicated to attribute single causes too great a significance, yet could you have nearly half the population severely disabled, enduring years of intense pain followed with a lifetime of mild pain, and not have that influence the culture? The doctor argued his case with passion and logic. He was right -- foot-binding was a central fact, not some obscure exotica, not some missionary hammer with which to slam Chinese society as sick and degenerate.
"Foot-binding was a way of controlling women. A rich man had several wives in his household, and keeping an eye on them was difficult. Binding restricted their movements, stopped them escaping and having romantic interests outside."
The doctor paused for breath and brushed his moppish hair, thick and black, away from his glasses. He was becoming increasingly intense and expressive.
"How to control two or more wives? The problem of jealousy between them?" he asked as he reached once more for the drawer with the fornicating dolls, and took out a threesome so intricately interwoven I had trouble making out whose limbs were whose.
"For us, for modern people, we cannot imagine having sex with more than one woman, too incredible, but for them it was completely normal." According to his argument small feet helped prevent jealousy, removed sex to another plane -- away from the emotional and the personal and onto something physical, a rather abstract type of love. "It was different from Western romantic love. The man's mentality was 'I don't love you, I love your feet.' The woman may not have had a beautiful body, or a pretty face, but she had small feet, and he was in love with her small feet. The woman could think 'It's not that you love me, or the other wives, you love our feet, you're playing with us.'"
I had trouble keeping up with his line of thought, and it didn't help that at the same time several people were walking past the open door and looking in. I felt rather self-conscious of the how the two of us must have looked -- we were sitting half an arm's length from each other, face to face and leaning forward in a conspiratorial fashion, one holding a sexual orgy in his hands, and the other, a foreigner, studiously taking notes.
The subject turned to the shoes themselves. These ranged in size from two to five inches, had wooden soles and silk uppers that were embroidered in an infinite variety of designs.
"Unlike other items of clothing, you could tell where a woman came from just by looking at her shoes -- they made the shoes themselves and styles varied not just between areas, but between districts within a city."
"I want to tell you a story," the doctor announced as he took a shoe from a shelf, placed a small cup inside, and cradling it in his hands, held it up before his face, "Chinese men of leisure, gentlemen, would drink together with a group of friends at a wine house. There would be hostesses, some prostitutes, to pour the drinks, chat and so on. The men played drinking games, and the loser would have to drink the cup of wine, but look," he raised the shoe and cup to his smiling lips, half-closed his eyes in a perfect imitation of a moment's drunken bliss, "as you drink you can fondle the shoe, press it against your face, smell the shoe, mmm." He ran his fingers along the curve of the fabric and inhaled a long deep breath, "the shoes were perfumed, you could smell them, wonderful!"
"It was good to lose."
"Yes, it was very good to lose!" the doctor guffawed.
"That must have been quite exciting for a Chinese man -- in today's terms something like feeling a breast," I said as I placed my right hand on my chest.
"No, no. Much better!" came his rebuke. "Women's feet were considered the most intimate part of her body, and her shoes were also very precious and intimate."
The doctor pulled out a large book of old colored erotic prints, placed it on his lap facing me and turned the pages. "You see here, completely naked except for the feet, and here again." Copulating couple after copulating couple flashed before me in a variety of positions and places, and there were some very graphic details of private parts, but the women were always wearing their little shoes, or at least socks.
"From the thousands and thousands of pictures I've looked at, I've only seen a few pictures of naked feet." He reverted to another book, an album of photos he'd taken of elderly women's naked bound feet. "Even today they feel that feet are very private and it took a lot of persuasion to get them to take off their shoes and bindings."
He opened another draw and took out a wine cup, a tobacco holder, and a spoon, which were all shaped like a golden lotus shoe. "See how strongly the feet imprinted upon people's minds."
With such strong sexual connotations these items must have been rather risque and I asked whether they would have been acceptable in public places or strictly for private use.
"This I don't know," he admitted, throwing his hands out to the sides and smiling. "Maybe they were kept secretly by a boy, and hidden from his father," he added with a hearty laugh, no doubt recalling his own secretive youth.
Dr. Ko's interest in foot-binding sprang from a voracious appetite for reading that began at the early age of ten, and was very much a case of the sweet taste of forbidden fruit. "When I was a boy there were two things that couldn't be talked about -- politics and erotic material. I was drawn towards them, had a very strong desire to learn about them. That they were prohibited subjects only increased my desire. It wasn't easy at that time, Chiang Kai-shek was in power, and Taiwan was very ... " he pressed his palms down imitating a crushing weight, "very strict, repressed. The material I wanted couldn't be published or sold, and the books and magazines that I wanted were illegal. I had to use many methods to find and keep them. I had a total of 3,000 books, magazines, pictures and other items. My family had no idea. The more I read the more I was drawn to foot-binding because it was such a taboo subject, and when I was eighteen I bought my first pair of shoes. Now I have one thousand pairs of shoes, and another three thousand related items."
What had started out as a few porno mags hidden under the bed had developed into the world's greatest collection of golden lotus shoes, and the curious schoolboy was now a world authority on the subject. According to the doctor, amassing the collection hadn't required much effort or wealth. "They're not too expensive. Taiwanese don't want them -- no status such as with a painting or porcelain." Despite his modesty Dr. Ko has indeed gone to great lengths to build a wide-ranging collection. For example, when he found the formula for a medicine that was given to girls to make their bones softer and easier to bind, he had it formulated at a traditional Chinese pharmacy. He has also commissioned researchers to track down shoes in mainland China.
"Many people with small private collections leave their shoes to me when they die, because they know I'll take good care of them." He showed me a few examples of donated shoes, and then somehow affected by these emotional memories straightened up his back, pursed his lips, and nodded with serious intent, for a brief moment stared half-squinting to an invisible horizon before turning back to me. "I have a duty to keep them and show the world. If I don't nobody will, and it will remain hidden. Chinese people think it's something shameful and want to ignore it. And yet, it is completely compatible with Chinese culture."
I scanned the rows of shoes, and tried to elicit an anecdote or two, "There must be some interesting stories behind some of them."
"A story of tears, perhaps," he answered after a long pause. I tried again, and asked if he had any favourites.
"I'm not a collector, I'm a philosopher!" he bellowed. "I want to share my incredible ideas with the world. My ambition is to enter the women's world, the erotic world, to get into their minds. There is no description of this from history. We have history, 'his story', but I want to tell 'her story.' I want to get into their minds. The Chinese women's world was kept in the shoe. Oh, I'm so rich. I can get into a another world, a wonderful new world where no one has ever gone before. To understand China you have to get inside the shoe. The sexual life is hidden in the shoe, Chinese philosophy -- kept in the shoe."
Dr. Ko's philosophy has, by his own estimate, amounted to ten million written words (characters). He has written three books on foot-binding; two on the more mundane aspects have been published, but the other, on the sexual aspects, has yet to hit the printing press. "I think society is still too sensitive for it. There might be some problem." What -- too sexually explicit for Taiwan! The island is awash with porn; magazines, videos, the internet, cable TV, absolutely everything right down to the perverted Japanese comic books schoolchildren read, and it's difficult to imagine a book on historical Chinese practices causing too much offense.
The doctor didn't agree with the established interpretation of traditional male-female roles, "The idea that women were being badly treated by men is wrong. They were useless for working in the fields, and had less work to do. The women are staying at home, the men are going out to provide for them."
"The woman aren't slaves then?" The doctor misheard me, thought I was calling the men slaves.
"Slaves. Yes, the men are slaves."
After two hours of talking I still hadn't heard him condemn foot-binding for the evil it was, and I pushed him for an opinion.
"Good or bad is nonsense!" he half-shouted as a flicker of anger passed across his face. "I only want to understand it, not to judge," he explained, his friendly countenance quickly restored.
Dr. Ko had been getting more and more worked up all afternoon, and now his enthusiasm and passion were threatening to boil over. He was like a fiery Southern Baptist minister, but with none of the rehearsed performance, and no concern for society's sensibilities. After decades of silence, his passion, intelligence, and pride, so long hidden, could be set free. The doctor admitted as much himself. He had kept his interest in fetishes and the sexual aspects of foot-binding a secret. "The first person I told was my wife, but only after we got married," he laughed. He "came out" to the public about six years ago when a magazine ran a story on his collection, although he used a pseudonym and had his back to the camera in a picture which accompanied the piece. Now he doesn't care what people think, has become well known in certain circles, a respected expert.
"I used to worry that something was wrong with me -- why I was so strange -- but I found that there are many other people with similar ideas," he pulled a magazine called Body Talk from his bookshelf and flicked through the pages, arty black and white photos of S&M; women tied to beds, wrapped in ropes and hanging from the ceiling by their feet, and then showed me another, a Japanese magazine with the oriental equivalent. "These I can't find in Chinese, have to get them from Japan and England. When I realized that people all over the world were interested I felt much better."
"A part of human nature," I conceded, rather at a loss for words.
"Yes, human nature!"
He pointed to the books of ancient erotic prints. "It's a very rich society, a sophisticated culture, that has enough time to devote so much time to leisure, to explore the possibilities of sex. There are different ways to eat, and to feel full, a simple meal, or you could have a huge banquet, with incredible dishes, wine, friends, music, violins playing. Likewise with sex, it can be just," he thrust his pelvis forward a couple of times and screwed his face into a dismissive wince of disgust, "or it can be something wonderful," he whispered with a feverish look and a flourish of his hand towards his mating dolls.
The interview had run well into overtime; I thanked the doctor for being so generous with his time, took a few photographs, and begged my leave. He gave me one of his books and accompanied me out onto the street still in a state of excitement.
I left with a new appreciation of the importance of foot-binding. It had started off as a personal fetish, became a fad, but rather than dying out had spread and developed into a mainstream cultural phenomenon that endured for a thousand years. Chinese consider the Tang Dynasty to be their Golden Age, a time of cultural brilliance and joie de vivre that was never again matched. As I walked through the streets I remembered the words of a French historian who blamed Genghis Khan's Mongol invasion in the 13th century, " ... it was as if during the Mongol domination a spring had been broken in the Chinese soul ... the Chinese organism had suffered such an intense shock, had been so fatigued that as soon as the storm was over, it recoiled tightly and timorously within itself." He would have been more accurate if he had been talking about foot-binding.