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 blissing.net