Sunday, August 2, 2015

Lotus Slippers

If You Want to be Beautiful, You Must Suffer –French saying

For centuries every culture supported customs that were considered indicative of social status, power and/or physical beauty.  Many of these customs were achieved with a certain amount of discomfort , many with considerable pain. Scarification (small, superficial incisions creating patterns of scars on the skin), tattoos, piercings and the use of toxic cosmetics are commonly noted.

  One of the most excessive of these practices was the breaking and binding of the feet of young girls in China.  Foot- binding began as early as 900, remaining the custom of royalty and rich nobility until the end of the 17thC.  From that time until the practice was officially banned by the 1911 revolutionary government, millions of young girls from every socioeconomic background were subjected to excruciating pain and permanent deformity.  Not all Chinese practiced this custom (the Manchu did not practice this, the Han did).   The daughters of poor farmers were important laborers and were spared (if you cannot walk, you cannot toil).

The actual binding began when a girl reached the age of 4-7 years, when her bones were still flexible.  The feet were soaked in solutions containing various herbs and other ingredients according to secret family recipes. The four small toes were bound against the sole of the foot after breaking of the arch of the foot, while the big toe was left exposed.  Strips of cotton cloth were used to tightly bind the feet.  The child would then have to don a tiny pair of shoes (usually made by her mother).  The bindings were changed at regular intervals, more tightly wound each time, the shoes becoming smaller and smaller.  The practitioners of foot-binding might have been the female relatives of the child, or a professional might be employed.  It would take two years for the feet to be shaped into an unopened lotus flower bud.  In realty the foot did not so much resemble a flower but a misshapen mass of crushed bones.

Foot-binding left the women  virtual captives in their house, frequently they could only walk with very short, mincing steps, and needed to be carried or transported by carriage or cart when outside.  Obviously, male dominance was one factor, but not the only one.  Small, bound feet ( as small as 3 inches) were considered symbols of beauty, family status, mariageablilty and duty.  

Splendid Slippers- A Thousand Years of an Exotic Tradition, Beverly Jackson, 
Ten speed Press, Berkeley, California, 1997

To cover their deformity, girls and women made exquisite miniature shoes of the richest material they could afford.  Tradition patterns and symbols were embroidered with silken threads.  Even the soles were often patterned as they would show very little wear. These slippers have great aesthetic qualities and showcase great talents of the girls for embellishment.  However, they also represent the great pain and life-long deformity associated with this practice.

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