Lakewood High School
Instructor: Amy Garritano
When you finally fell in love, Love told you that he liked Chinese girls — but only if they had small feet. Chinese girls with skin as white as snow, cheeks as pink as peonies, lips as red as holly. Smart, but knows to hold her tongue when men are in the room. Eyes amber with colored contacts, eyes big with eyelid tape, eyes luminescent with eyelash extensions, eyes wide back-alley bargains promising beauty by stretching your skin, eyes open because they don't buy anesthetics because Love only likes Chinese girls if they're in constant pain. Love told you to wrap a one hundred yuan note around your wrist and starve yourself if it didn't hold. Love told you that your value as a person was equivalent to the amount of coins you could stack on your collarbone. Love prefers His girls obedient to their fathers and husbands. Love prefers His girls with a melodic Southern accent and limited vocabularies and small hands barely fit to lift a teacup. Love prefers His girls silent when He puts His hand down their skirts. Love prefers His girls quieter when he leaves.
We are but porcelain dolls to you, Love. You daren't set us free.
Foot-binding was supposed to have been inspired by Yao Niang, a tenth century court dancer who bound her feet into the shape of a new moon — fleeting, ephemeral, there only for a moment before disappearing under billowing clouds of silk. Yao Niang entranced the emperor by dancing on the tips of her numb toes, moving with a sensual gait. Love dangled the emperor's interest over the heads of the court, and they craned their necks downward and looked at their own feet with distaste. Distaste they passed down to their daughters, who passed it down to their daughters, until every daughter in every house in China bound their feet.
Their feet were dowries: three inches or less was a golden lotus; three to four inches was a silver lotus; five inches or greater meant they were an iron lotus. Love laughed in the faces of iron lotuses, chewing them up and spitting them out, for no respectable man would ever choose to marry a clumsy, dull girl when she was positioned next to the glistening golden lotuses whose feet were barely bigger than a teaspoon. Love told the iron lotuses they were destined to lie in empty beds, their lovers leaving them by sunrise. They broke their toes and clipped their nails and bound their feet in place with silk and walked long distances barefoot to try to hasten the breaking of their arches so that they could force their feet into becoming golden lotuses. Love promised golden lotuses happiness; Love promised silver lotuses contentment; Love promised iron lotuses naught.
You were a city girl at heart, and you had been born into a family mourning the loss of its former self. You wandered the halls of a ghost-house of broken promises and broken hearts with a strange sort of glee. Your mother first wrapped silk around your feet when you were six, and you dipped your toes into boiling hot water to ease the pain of the first breakage, the first time the bones of your feet crumbled up into little bits and the arch of your foot deflated. You bit down on your tongue to try and ease the pain; crying was something you didn't want your mother to see, your mother didn't want to see you cry. You flung your head backward in pain, and you were greeted by a dilapidated ceiling and half-lit lantern, and for a screaming moment you thought you were capable of being Loved.
In the Middle Ages, foot-binding became an expression of Chinese identity after the invasion of the Mongols in 1279. When China was tossed from hand to hand in the centuries afterward, periodic bans of foot-binding were proposed — but not for the pain it inflicted upon women, instead for its symbol of Chinese cultural superiority.
The Mongols and Manchus were seen as iron lotuses — they were clumsy, they were dull, they never attempted to change their status like we did. We floated above it all with our unnatural gaits and our feet that couldn't be seen past our bosom. We had sex in scarcity; we were valued for our virginity, our obedience, our dignity. Our feet were bound in life and in death, in sickness and in health, to show our commitment, each woman's own sacrifice to values set in stone by Kong Fuzi.
He defined our relationship to society as wholly inferior to men. A good woman's only destiny was to be a good wife. She suckled off of her husband's bosom of prosperity, fulfilling her social compact by birthing sons and turning a blind eye when her husband came home drunk with another woman's perfume on his neck. Any daughter was a disappointment, and was valued only for her perfect tiny feet, and smooth pale skin — a bargaining chip between wealthy families to ensure preservation.
Now, you watch your granddaughter grow up in the world of controlled eating, filters, and social media. You watch as she barely pokes at her food during mealtimes, you watch how her ribcage is beginning to poke out from her skin. You watch as she tries out various tinctures and treatments on her face — from the whitening cream that promises to make her look like her favorite idols to the light brown powder she uses to make her nose look smaller, even the horrid pink powder she uses to make her cheeks look full and bright. You watch as she switches from filter to filter, trying to find one that makes her skin clearer, her chin smaller, her eyes bigger. You watch as she tries to make herself Love's perfect porcelain doll because Love always prefers golden lotuses to iron.
You were once golden like her. You once applied a milk-white powder all over your face and painted your eyebrows black with charcoal and your teeth too because Love prefers His women seen and not heard. Your feet were small, and your dancing was beautiful, and when you spoke it was always ephemerally; it was always with a trained melodic Southern accent. And you know in her history classes, she always talks badly of how obedient you were to your father (he who demanded your feet be bound!) and badly of how you would've taken radium pills if it promised you beauty and badly of how you can only walk when leaning on someone else's shoulder.
Yet you can't help but see yourself in her. She wraps her arm around her back to try to reach her belly button and cries whenever she fails to do so. She asks for fifty yuan notes to buy a bag of chips from the dollar store and wraps them around her wrists to make sure they're dainty enough to be beautiful. She would bind her feet too, if Love told her to.
She speaks of the changing world, but the world hasn't yet changed. It still requires that Chinese women fiddle with their hair while doing chemistry work and prepare to leave everything behind upon getting married and even then, it's just waiting for a stork to drop a wailing (male) bundle of joy and milk to rush out of the bosom like a tsunami and losing your fertility and being gradually less respected and forcing yourself into clothes that are too small so that you look more like your husband's coworker than your (actual) self. In the middle of the night we still are suppressed fantasies coming to life, imagining a world in which we aren't restricted by the length and width of the feet to which we are perpetually bound. Yet Love still haunts us like a shadow of our former self as He whips us into subservience and binds our mouths shut when our husbands return home four hours too late, reeking of whiskey and Chanel No. 5. We starve ourselves when we don't look like the women on magazine covers. We refuse to wash away clotted foundation that's three shades too light until our husbands and sons and fathers are fast asleep.
We are silent soldiers in a Terracotta army yearning for the moment to wake.
We are porcelain dolls in the hands of Siddhartha and Kong Fuzi.
We are porcelain dolls in the hands of all men.
We will be silent when Love puts His hand under our shirts, even though we feel pain. Even though we feel the need to yell, to scream at the top of our lungs and pound upon our chests and beat on drums with bones like the ancient men of yore.
But Love chooses to silence us because when one of us speaks, ten more gain the courage to. Love prefers when women choose not to speak; men prefer when women choose not to speak.
But our actions speak for themselves — we are golden lotuses, with our feet broken and bound for the viewing pleasure of our fathers and husbands.