Footbinding, Part 2–The Women in my Family

Although I’d always heard that Chinese women had bound feet in the “olden days”, for some reason it had never occurred to me
that any of my female ancestors had them. It wasn’t until after all my
maternal ancestors had passed away that I asked a cousin about it. She
said that my great, great grandmother was the last woman to have bound
feet in our family. Luckily, I was raised by my grandmother and she had
memories of HER grandmother. One story stands out. If my grandmother
ever did anything wrong while growing up, her grandmother would never
beat her or say anything in anger, she would just make a gesture that
later ended up being used on me—drawing the index finger downward on a
child’s cheek to say, “shame on you.” She is the only gentle relative
I’ve ever heard of or known.

My great grandmother, the first girl to have "big" feet, was a cruel
woman. She was born in 1900. She was very regal and intimidating. My
cousin told me that sometimes she would wake up the kids in the middle
of the night and start beating them for something they had done two
weeks prior. Or worse, throw a bucket of water on them while they
slept. She was probably addicted to opium, although all I know is that
they had a special ma jong room in the house that had a big hookah in
it. How did she get so mean?

My ancestors were herbalists. My great, great grandmother was known
to spend most of her time on her knees sorting herbs. (Was it too
painful to be on her feet?) The story of how her daughter ended up with
"big" feet goes like this: My great, great grandfather traveled around
a lot trading herbs as the Sichuan province is renowned for its special
herbs that can be found nowhere else. He therefore heard news that
footbinding was going out of style before the people in the village
did. So, he didn’t bind his daughter’s feet, and got a lot of flack
from the other villagers who teased him.

Bless him, bless him. But, with this unbinding, a thousand years of
oppression, inexplicable suffering and resulting anger were also
unbound. Neither Chinese, nor, after emigration, American culture,
acknowledged or allowed space for women’s anger. My great, great
grandmother, bound and oppressed, was gentle. My great grandmother,
with her free feet, was vicious and cruel. Her daughter, my
grandmother, could be cruel, but not quite as vicious. She found power
through her drop-dead gorgeous beauty. Later in life she became bound
up by her multiple plastic surgeries and the restrictions of her
fundamentalist Christian church. Her daughter, my mother, left me as a
newborn with my grandmother. For 25 years, she was the classic
co-dependent wife of an alcoholic man who wasn’t my father. She was a
compulsive liar. She developed a severe eating disorder. Her anger had
become more inwardly directed. All of my maternal ancestors were
unbound but still hobbled– by their rage and sense of powerlessness
rather than their tiny, broken feet.

Originally posted 4/18/06 at