In contrast to the handicapped child of today whose question --- "Why me?" --- is unanswerable, there was a clear-cut, if harsh and cruel, answer, in traditional China: "Because, my daughter, childhood is over and you must begin to become a grown-up woman."
--- "Handicap as a Social Construction" from The Unexpected Minority: Handicapped Children in America,
by John Gliedman & Wm. Roth.
(Harcourt Brace 1980)They tell of the fascination of the ancient Chinese with certain parts of women's bodies. According to one writer, merely seeing it "produced in the male an indescribable degree of voluptuous feeling. It was not rare," [the correspondent continued], "to find Chinese Christians accusing themselves at confession of having had evil thoughts on looking at it." (All quotes are from The Soong Dynasty by Sterling Seagrave (Harper & Row, 1985)
We are not talking about buttocks or breasts or private parts. No. We're talking about feet. In 19th Century Chinese pornography males were shown "voluptuously fondling" woman's feet.
When a Celestial takes into his hand a woman's foot, especially if it is very small, the effect upon him is precisely the same as is provoked in a European by a young and firm bosom. 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!"
To be desirable, the foot had to be tiny. To make it so, the mother would wrap it in a ten-foot-long, two-inch wide bandage that was tightened each day, so that "flesh rotted and fell off, sometimes a toe or two, and the foot oozed pus, until the process of deformation was complete after two years, at which point the feet were practically dead."
This withered object had its own special name, "The Golden Lotus," because it resembled a lotus pod with the petals removed. It excited such passion that prostitutes would expose their feet "in a private chamber," where
it was customary to linger over the girl's feet, stroking, sniffing, and licking them, and even dipping them in tea before drinking it. A favorite delight was to eat almonds from between her crushed toes.
When mounting passion could be contained no longer, according to the author,
the gasping customer would at last drive his jade spear into her jade gate and, raising her tiny feet to his shoulders, insert her Gold Lotus entirely into his mouth and suck noisily till the moment of "Clouds and Rain."
The binding of feet was not restricted to a single class of women. Perhaps a quarter of Chinese women, of all classes, for a thousand years --- indeed, until the beginning of this century --- were subjected to foot-binding. Without it, marriage was considered difficult, if not impossible. With it, one's future was assured.
There is something very attractive about it, isn't there? I don't mean taking a child --- one who could run and jump and play --- and turning her into a cripple. I'm thinking rather about the devotion accorded to the women once they had been encrippled. Appendages which most 20th Century Americans would consider ugly were accorded special status. Twisted feet were seen as being so beautiful that men would go crazy in lust over them.
Many of us have fought all our lives to overcome our feelings of shame at our bodies. The same limbs, in 16th or 18th Century China, might have evoked a special and perhaps passionate response. (They say that Chinese women hid their bound feet: not out of shame, but to protect them from the stares and ill-concealed lust of the men.)
Can you see us now, lying about on a beach, carefully hiding our feeble arms and thighs --- not out of embarrassment, but because passers-bys might be tempted to uncontrollable acts of lust if they saw us exposed? Our legs or feet or backs or bellies would be considered so glorious, so beautiful, that the "able-bodied" would vye to see them. We would have to be careful that they didn't approach too closely, get on our nerves by fondling our various atrophied members without specific permission.
Instead of our saying "Why me?" you and I would say, "Wow." All that passion showered on us, all that lust flowing from the vision of our wasted limbs: a twisted foot, the hand with bent fingers, the jutting belly, the scars. We become the object.
For some of us, the attention might well be a privilege.
--- L. W. Milam
[This article originally appeared
in New Mobility, the disability magazine]