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Elderly woman in Shaanxi Province, China, display paper cuttings of two birds she just cut. Photo by Shara Johnson
She’s 85 years old—younger than my grandmother by six years.  The year my grandmother was 12, walking a mile through the corn fields each school-day to reach her one-room school house in Nebraska, on the other side of the world six-year old Dang Cui-Hua had the bones in her feet broken, folded under and tightly bound.  She screamed and cried in agony, “Mama, please!”  As all little Chinese girls did.

“I had to take care of my brother and cook in the kitchen,”  she told us.  “And my feet were already bound.”  At times, she said, she could not stand, but had to crawl around the kitchen.  She said this as though it was a thing of the past.  Yet, in the time I spent living in the rural village where she was visiting her brother, when she was 82 years old, I spied her crawling on her hands and knees in the courtyard.  When it was just the family near her, she crawled.

Northern China, in Shaanxi Province, is oppressively hot in the summer.  During the day the peasants stay inside their cool yao, rooms dug deep into hillsides—essentially, plastered cave dwellings.  But in the late afternoons and evenings, the villagers begin to fill their courtyards.  Most of the time I saw her, Dang Cui-Hua was sitting on a miniature wooden stool in a corner formed by the column sticking out between two yao, her pack of cigarettes sitting on the window sill above her head.

She is a poor peasant in a land of poor peasants, but she is also a paper-cutter.  At one time, her skill with her hobby gave her some repute locally—perhaps that is why her name is remembered.  The village women say that sometimes even a mother cannot remember the given name of her daughter; her name is subverted to be simply “the wife of so-and-so” or the mother of a son named so-and-so.  Within the family, all members call each other only by titles of familial relation (e.g. older brother, younger sister, maternal aunt, etc.). Dang Cui-Hua was married when she was 14 years old to an ordinary peasant farmer. Her husband died many years ago and only one son remains living, into whose care she has now been bequeathed.

I came to know her because I visited Dang Jia Shan village with her nephew, Dang Anrong, who brought eight of us – volunteer researchers – from America to help him carry out ethnographic documentation of his native village’s traditional ways of life. He asked his aunt to do some cuttings for the ethnographic research team.  He supplied her with the thin, red paper from which traditional Chinese paper cuttings are delicately hewn.  Upon her tiny stool, she folded a sheet into quarters.  The back side of the red paper was a dingy white, and she folded it so the red was inside, hidden until the cutting was opened up and the design revealed.  I loved making “snowflakes” in this manner as a child, folding a piece of paper in half and in half again, cutting into it then unfolding a design that I could never foresee from the notches made into the folded paper, so that each snowflake was a surprise to me.  But a paper-cutter can see the design they’re cutting as clearly as if they were drawing it.

The old woman held the quartered paper in her left hand.  With her right hand, she picked up a pair of large scissors with wide, oval finger holes and blades that narrow down to pointed tips.  Her right index finger was missing its top half. She lost it one day, after she and her grandson came back home from the farmland.  It was dark outside when she and her grandson began to cut grass for the donkey. She was feeding the grass into the blade of her grandson’s hatchet, but he was cutting so quickly that once she didn’t have time to move her finger back out of the way, and the top half was sliced clean off.  Above her wrist, just at the cuff-line of her long-sleeved shirt, her twiggy arm was ballooned with a tumor the size of a tangerine.  With this malformed appendage, she sliced decisively into the paper.

Elderly woman in Shaanxi Province, China, cutting red paper into two birds. Photo by Shara Johnson

Her face pursed in concentration as she wielded the scissors.  She scoffed at herself.  “I’m not very good.  I can’t see, my fingers are old.”  She used to be a good paper-cutter, she said.  She learned this art by watching her mother as a young child.  Suffering through the pain of having her feet bound, tired from cooking and caring for her siblings, in a life surely not meant for six-year-olds, she found some solace—she found something beautiful in her imagination and discovered she had a talent.  In the slivers of time not bound to chores, she cut for her own pleasure.If you ask her how to envision in quarters a whole piece, she cannot explain how. You ask, how does she come up with the patterns in her head?  She cannot give an answer.  She just begins cutting.  Our translator told us, “She sees it in her heart.

”After she unfolded her first geometric design, we all (the foreigners) exclaimed over it and she laid it on the ground for us to inspect its graceful pattern.  She leaned back and took a cigarette from the window sill above her head.  She didn’t laugh or smile at how we were impressed.  She took a long drag on the cigarette and told us she’s not very good any more.

“No! No!” we said. “This is lovely; you’re very good.”

She belched and took another drag on her cigarette.  There were more pieces of red paper for her to cut, and we waited in silent hope for her to pick up another one.  But in the meantime, I was terribly curious about her feet.  They were so itty bitty, in brown stockings and dainty blue canvas shoes.  I wanted to ask her for all the gruesome details about how her feet were bound, but I didn’t want to be rude.  What I really wanted to know is why they look humped.  The soles of the feet look tiny, squeezed into a child-sized shoe, but the rest of the foot up to the ankle is bulbous, and I didn’t understand this because I’d never read or seen anything graphic about bound feet.  Dang Anrong told us that actually, her feet were not done too well, that a good foot would be even smaller.  The ideal woman’s foot was to be about 3 inches long.

People often tell me my feet look small, but I wear a ladies shoe size 6 ½ .  From the back of my heel to the tip of my big toe, my foot measures a little over nine inches long.  Dang Cui-Hua’s second-rate foot is about five inches long.  When any other lady sat next to her so that their feet were side by side, Dang Cui-Hua’s looked utterly improbable.  I was fascinated by them and took several pictures of them when I thought she wasn’t looking.  I came to know eventually that she wouldn’t care about the photos, but I felt, somehow, that I should be secretive with my fascination.

Two elderly women sitting in a courtyard in rural peasant village in Shaanxi Province, China, one woman with bound feet. Photo by Shara Johnson

I read about foot-binding after I returned home from China, and I understand now the strange bulging shape of the foot—the four toes other than the big toe are broken and folded under and bound to the sole of the foot; the arch of the foot is then broken and the big toe and heel are drawn together with binding strips, causing the soles of the feet to bend in extreme concavity.  This creates a hugely exaggerated arch.  For a thousand years Chinese women have hobbled around on things more like hoofs than feet.  The bindings have to be changed regularly, apparently releasing a sickening stench.  Women have regularly died of gangrene.  If Dang Cui-Hua had been born only a few years later, she would have been spared this suffering.  At the time of her birth, the last emperor had been dethroned and the practice had already been abolished by the new government.  However, particularly in the remote region where her family is rooted, it took several years for the change to filter down.

There are several legends that explain the origin of foot-binding, all centered in the imperial court and for reasons pleasing the emperor.  The idea is believed to have been first conceived at the end of the Tang Dynasty and the practice spread and entrenched itself into Chinese culture as the Song Dynasty began, around 1000 AD.  It’s been estimated that in the ensuing 1,000 years, one billion women have suffered this grotesque distortion of their feet and a lifetime of unrelenting pain.  One might think that the philosophy behind this is the upshot of some very “dark-aged” sinister ideology.  However, this practice began and bloomed during what scholars often call the most intellectually and artistically stimulated dynasty in Chinese history—the age of Neo-Confucianism.   It was the “enlightened” men, who otherwise proposed some reasonable and poetic ideas, who endorsed this barbaric custom as a necessity of feminine virtue.

The Song period was noted for the spread of education in China, and for its eloquence in historical writings, landscape painting, calligraphy, and hard-glazed porcelain. Cities developed into sophisticated centers of trade and industry, evolving a mercantile class of wealthy commoners. In the urban atmosphere, women's labor was less essential than it had been in rural areas. The practices of concubinage and of binding girls' feet became the new ways of life.  Many women now lived their entire lives hobbled within the confines of their own courtyards.  As the custom spread outward from the luxurious homes of the urban elite, it was the peasant women who suffered most, as they were expected to continue performing physical labor.  Some girls, when they reached puberty if their families needed them to work in the fields, the mothers would unbind their daughters’ feet.  This, however, did not lessen the pain, for the damage is already done and in fact this often led to even more severe deformation, while also lessening, if not wholly abolishing, the girl’s worth as a bride.

When we asked Dang Cui-Hua about her bound feet, she said she can’t climb mountains like us (as she was pointing to my hiking boots).  “I can’t walk well,” she said, and then, from her stool, she imitated walking teeter-tottering side to side.  (She also said something that her nephew quietly asked our translator not to translate.)  She finished her cigarette while we sat patiently.  I wondered to myself if she would like to climb mountains, if she stated her inability with remorse or as an unemotional fact.  In a book I read called Report From a Chinese Village, a woman with bound feet was interviewed and I often think about something she said:  “It must be lovely to have big feet.”

Dang Cui-Hua reached down for another piece of cutting paper and folded it in quarters. Several village children squatted on the hillside above the courtyard, spying conspicuously on the foreigners sitting anxiously before the old woman. As she cut, large chunks of the paper fell away onto the ground.  When she was finished, she laid down her scissors and unfolded the small patch of paper that was left to reveal a girl in a skirt carrying two buckets across her shoulders on a shoulder pole, with a chicken perched on each end of the pole.  We all clapped heartily.  Dang Cui-Hua then smiled a sly little smile and pointed out the feet of the paper girl.  They were teeny-tiny.

**

I first saw the old woman at the wedding.  The other villagers, and the rest of the research team, were all crowded into the courtyard where the five-piece wedding band was playing its joyous cacophony of horns and cymbals, and the bride and groom knelt at the alter beneath the double-happy banner.  I had followed the bridal procession up the hill and then hung back as everyone passed through the courtyard gates.  Thinking I was the last one, I started to enter the courtyard.  I glanced behind me and saw her, alone, leaning with her back against the mud-brick wall of the sheep pen.  She was dressed in a plain, dark blue Mao-era pant suit, the only clothes I ever saw her in.  One hand was pressed with her palm open against the wall behind her. She rocked back just slightly onto her heels as she leaned against the hardened mud.  In her other hand she held a smoldering cigarette.  We (the research team) had been told by Dang Anrong that we would likely get to meet his aunt, who was a woman with bound feet.  When I looked back toward the sheep pen, I knew instantly that it was she, even before I inspected her feet as something separate from her presence as a whole.

She had been brought from her village by her grandson for the occasion and would then stay on with her brother (Dang Anrong’s father) for awhile.  She was the only person who didn’t enter the courtyard.  Most of the other villagers and even people from neighboring villages had come to the celebration.  It wasn’t a real wedding; the bride was one of the principal research investigators and the groom was the one male on the volunteer research team.  But the ceremony was performed just like a real one for the benefit of our ethnographic documentation of the village traditions.  A wedding band had been hired to play, the “bride” dressed in red and rode a donkey up the hill from her yao to the wedding altar.  We were told afterward that all of the villagers had just as good a time as if it had been a real wedding.

Dang Cui-Hua, however, eyed the ceremony from outside the courtyard with indifference.  As she pursed her lips around her cigarette and drew in her breath, she had the distinct air of a person who is gratefully retired from all the bullshit, one who has gained passage to that realm of being under no obligation to fulfill any social expectation. My first impression of her, alone against the wall, was that she was a cold person, that she wouldn’t be friendly.  Perhaps I felt that way because she was the only person who hadn’t crowded around us foreigners, or spied on us from the hillsides or suffocated us with hospitality and honorary words, the only one who didn’t perpetually beam smiles.  She opened her mouth only to insert the cigarette.  And though I was looking at her, she didn’t look back at me; she looked straight ahead into the courtyard, but she was palpably isolated from the situation at hand. She looked like she was thinking how ridiculous the mock wedding was, like she just didn’t care and was far more taken with enjoying her cigarette.   I wrote in my journal that afternoon that she stands with a tangible removal from everyone else, as if she has spent her life apart.

After I returned home and read about women who have suffered through foot-binding, I came across some interesting passages that suggest states of removal and distance.  They seem, after all, likely consequences of this process. It took about five years for Dang Cui-Hua’s feet to be “finished” binding.  During this time she would have been physically exiled from her brother and father who couldn’t fathom her crippling pain, and emotionally exiled from her mother who dutifully and mercilessly inflicted this pain.  There was no one to rescue her.  I asked Dang Anrong if his aunt has any bitterness over her past, over being subjected to such torture.  His response (sic):  “I think, she feels some sort of bitterness when she recalls her childhood. But as you know, back to the old days, every girl need do so. For my aunt, she has a very strong personality, she tries every thing needed. So, it was not a big deal for her.”

As I ponder Dang Cui-Hua, because she is the only bound-foot person I know, I sometimes forget that she is not singular, that she’s one droplet in an entire sea of suffering, that she has a sisterhood of nearly a billion other women.  However, most of that sisterhood is dead and she is adrift in a new world.  None of the women she sits with each evening in the courtyard knows what she has gone through, and so she walks around on artifacts, on little nubs of history, no longer common experience.  She’s almost as mythical now as the renowned graceful dancing girls of the Southern Tang dynasty whose tiny feet and beautiful bow shoes are oft alleged to have sparked the foot-binding phenomenon a thousand years ago.

Each evening at dusk, while she stayed in Dang Jia Shan village, she sat in the earthen courtyard outside the earthen yao, the sheep bleating for a serving of hay, the sun setting red with the dust of the growing desert, and puffed through one cigarette after another. Her eyes never rested upon anything particular, as if a curtain of gauze kept her from focusing outward. I wondered how many of her idle thoughts revolved around physical pain, if her focus was forever pulled inward.

**

Dang Anrong’s aunt continued her demonstration after finishing another cigarette. She picked up another piece of the delicate red paper and folded it in half.  We asked her, “What will you cut next?”  And she replied:  “Whatever I want.”  To me, who couldn’t understand her when she spoke her language, which is fraught with subtleties of tone and exaggerated vowel sounds,  I couldn’t decide if her self-effacing comments to this point were bitter, indifferent, or humorous.  She didn’t laugh when she spoke, but our translator often smiled when she relayed the words to us.

She folded the paper in quarters, carefully creasing it.  She didn’t ponder it at all; there seemed to be no calculation in her mind for what she was about to do.  While she maneuvered the scissors through the flimsy paper, her eyebrows lifted, her eyes seemed to widen, and her forehead furrowed.  She cut without ever pausing.  When she was finished, only a slim thread of paper joined both sides of the length-wise fold.  Her creation was two women holding hands, and their index fingers touched at the crease in the paper.  The delicacy with which this was rendered was remarkable.  Dang Cui-Hua pointed to the eldest of our team members who was in her sixties and sported a crown of white hair.  Dang Cui-Hua indicated that the paper girls represented the two of them.

Our research team clapped again in admiration.  The old woman sat back with a sigh and we asked if she was tired.  She said, “No, I’m just lazy.”

Then Dang Anrong asked if he could get her a cigarette (from the pack sitting on the ledge behind her).  She shooed him away and said, “I can get it myself!”

Old woman with bound feet in blue pantsuite smoking a cigarette in a peasant village in China. Photo by Shara Johnson

The moment that encapsulated this exchange of words abruptly endeared the old woman to me.  This little scene of contradictions suddenly revealed a subtle defiance and exposed a gristle on her sturdy bones. She was suddenly intolerably cute.  “She has a lot of spirit,” our translator said to us.  From that moment on, I loved her with all my heart.

When she spoke these terse sentences, she expelled them in a voice made taught by nicotine-clogged lungs.  Her skin was a deep, dark brown.  A peasant brown.  Her hobbled feet were never given consideration as a handicap; she’s worked outside as much as the village women who have lovely big feet.  I think her skin must be heavy with all that color; all the sun that’s been absorbed must fill her pores like a weight.  But it didn’t sag.  She was wrinkled in all the nooks and corners of her face and along the width of her forehead, but her skin still seemed taught, like her voice.  Only when I inspected a still photograph of her did I notice that it does actually fall a little loosely from the corners of her mouth along the sides of her chin and that she has little pillows beneath her eyes.  But somehow when she moved and spoke, everything about her was lean.  Her short-cut silver-white hair was very sparse on her crown.  A large circle on the top of her head was bald, but at the edge of the circle, her hair grew straight and smooth and came down to frame her face.  She, by my estimation, is an attractive woman, even now.  And I think she must have been a striking beauty in her youth.

One day our team left the village to visit a city a couple of hours away.  We would be gone for two nights and so we each packed a bag to take with us.  We were waiting outside of Dang Anrong’s brother’s house for the minivans we’d hired to drive up the steep hillside not made for cars (no villager owns a car) and pick us up.  All of our luggage was stacked on a mound of dirt outside of the courtyard.  It was a hot day and Dang Anrong’s aunt was standing with us, savoring a cigarette.

“Go inside!” she admonished us.  “It’s hot!”  She leaned herself back against the wall of the courtyard, rocked back on the heels of her tiny feet.

“We’re OK,” we claimed.  “The van will be here soon.”

“Go in out of the heat!  I’ll watch your things,” she said, as if we might be worried about their safety in this tiny village of cave homes.  She flicked her wrist at us.  “I’m here!  I’ll watch your things.  It’s too hot.”  She pointed to our heads and our arms.  Everyone in the village was extremely concerned about the pale skin of the foreigners, and they became alarmed when they saw us in the sun in short-sleeved shirts and shorts.

Though it seemed a little ridiculous, we felt compelled to obey the old woman, to go comfort ourselves in the coolness while she stood out in the heat on her hobbled feet, her balding head exposed to the sun, unnecessarily guarding our luggage with the teetering frame of her small body.

When I asked Dang Anrong how old his aunt was, he told me, “This year, my aunt is 82 years old. She is 8 years older than my father. Her animal is mouse, and my father’s animal is goat.”  I thought it was cute that he just added the zodiac information as a matter of fact, a natural inclusion into the subject of one’s age.  People born in the year of the mouse are said to have good vitality and give the impression that they are smart, nimble and filled with enterprising spirits. People born in the year of the mouse are reputed to be optimistic and will not fall into low spirits no matter how hard the circumstances; they will fight for their lives.  If you are a mouse, they say you are particularly prone to being imaginative.  Perhaps Dang Anrong included the mention of the mouse by way of explanation of his aunt’s personality.  I explained the word “spunk” to Dang Anrong, and he concluded that his aunt is full of spunk.

**

When we returned from our excursion to the city, we learned that Dang Cui-Hua, the paper-cutter, was sick.  Whenever Dang Anrong spoke to his aunt, he spoke through a gentle smile.  It was amusing sometimes because his manner was so soft and hers was so coarse.  He sometimes put his arm around her shoulders and smoothed her hair.  She was sitting outside on the little stool when Dang Anrong was told she wasn’t feeling too well.  Dang Anrong bent over her, and she brushed him off with the manner of someone who had obviously never been allowed the luxury of complaining or seeking comfort for her pains.  I don’t know what they said to each other, but Dang Anrong spoke in his soft way and she answered in her gruff way.  Then Dang Anrong rubbed his hand over her chest, soothing her.  Oh dear aunt, this paternal gesture said.  Dear aunt.

After supper that night, Dang Anrong told us his aunt was worse off.  He was visibly nervous about her health, casting his eyes downward when he spoke.  All of the team was concerned also.  We asked if we could wish her well, and Dang Anrong agreed to show us in to see her briefly.  I guess I thought she’d be sitting down on her stool.  But we entered the yao to find her as a tiny lump on the kang (the large platform bed at the back of a yao).  She was lying on her back covered by a pink quilt.  She turned her head toward us with blank eyes and unfolded her elbow to stretch her tumorous arm out from underneath the quilt, folding a weak moan into her exhaled breath.  Her hand, with its fingers still curled toward the palm, wasn’t a gesture toward us, really, but some expression of honesty about how she was feeling.

I was so drawn aback at how small she was lying on the kang, that I nearly cried.  It wasn’t because she was sick that I got teary, although I certainly worried.  It was because the size of this ball of spunk, whom I had edified in light of her physical suffering, had suddenly been revealed to be so little that she must surely be horribly vulnerable.  There have not been wolves in these parts for decades, her brother told us, but even a hungry rabbit with an adventurous palette could surely have come in and eaten her for a light dinner; she would have been crushed beneath the weight of a bunny’s paw.  I had stood next to her; I knew she was short.  I am not tall myself, yet she barely reached my shoulder.  But her spirit had projected her body to seem much bigger.  Now, silent and covered, she took up a humbly miniscule space of the kang.  As I looked at her, I felt overwhelmed, like the smallness was a measure of profoundness.  Nearly every step in this woman’s life—76-years’ worth—has been a measure of pain, and it was a shock to realize what a fragile vessel has held this steady drip of misery.  It frightened me, in fact, to see that something so much smaller than myself could bear such a bitter existence.

Dang Anrong was taken aback also to see her lying there.  He moved swiftly to the kang, slipped off his shoes and jumped up onto the kang to kneel beside her.  He put his hand on her forehead and held it there for awhile, looking into the wrinkles on her aged face. His gentleness was heartbreaking.

All the rest of the night I thought to myself, she’s just a tiny little thing.

The next day Dang Cui-Hua’s grandson came to pick her up and take her to a doctor.  He said she would be OK, that this happened to her sometimes and she just needed some fluids and medicine from a doctor in their village who could administer them intravenously.  I tried to take relief from his assurances.  But in a way, it didn’t matter.  I didn’t want her to die, but when Dang Cui-Hua left the village with her grandson, I knew I would never see her again except in my photos and videos and in my mind’s eye.  I would never again see the living spirit that photos cannot reproduce.

When she left, that was the end of her vignette to me, the last stroke of her portrait.  People go in and out of my life all the time, but when she left, the parting had a peculiar severity.  Because for one thin slice of time I knew something far beyond my own life.  Having known her, I feel older and wiser and as if I know a new magnitude of the world.  In this one person, I have known barbarity and tradition, ancientness and suffering, the revelation that creativity and artistry are insuppressible articulations of human spirit; all of this in the most petite frame I’ve known an adult to have.

It’s like how ponies are creatures made to hold all the characteristics admired of the horse, packed down and crammed into a smaller space.  They’re impractical, only for show and for little kids.  Yet they’re bred ever smaller beyond reason into novelty.  Dang Cui-Hua’s spirit has been packed down, compressed and restrained in her mutilated feet.  If she were set free, I’m sure she would run and climb a mountain, reclaim her childhood and run just to run, her silver mane flying back in the turbulence of her own wind.

In her, I’ve known something unfathomable, remote. I know how she meddled in her brother’s marriage arrangement, conniving to thwart the matchmaker and convince her parents to instead pick the woman who became her brother’s wife and perfect match, but otherwise I don’t know her well personally; we never sat down together to chit chat.  But even this vignette—a week with her at arm’s length—is enough to have touched these things unfathomable and remote, to have felt the prickly texture of a monstrous custom, the silky woven strands of perseverance and spirit, with my own ivory fingertips.

I have a dream for her now of a stallion coming to her bed one night, rising in the air on his hind legs with a great whinny.  He wraps his tail around her and lifts her little body onto his back and gallops away.  Not to Heaven or Eden, but back through time.  And she reaches down to all the other Chinese women of the past and pulls them up onto the horse with her.  She rides with her sisters with a speed and freedom they’ve never known, on a beast galloping with mighty pounding hoofs, faster and faster until their bodies finally blow right off them.Then she’ll be free to wander and roam—to Heaven to taste sweet wines, or to Hell to spit on the masters of the ideological abomination, or most likely she’ll simply go home and rest.  Rest an unfettered rest so deep and wide that God himself cannot wake her.

*

 

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