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The Ties That Bind

September 21, 2011

Alison in Dior Hat à la Nancy Mitford

Picture: John Hoerner

Much is made of the power of women’s networking today but strong bonds of friendship and support have always been an integral part of relationships between women. This is wonderfully depicted in Lisa See’s novel Snowflower and the Secret Fan. See talks of the pain, suffering and prestige of the ancient custom of tiny bound feet. This custom was an integral part of the Laotong relationship – the main theme of the book – a lifetime bond formed between two women was an established part of traditional Chinese life.

“A Laotong (sisterhood) match is as significant as a good marriage,” Lily’s aunt explained. “A Laotong relationship is made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity. A marriage is not made by choice and has only one purpose – to have sons.” “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” is the story of such a friendship”

I went with a group of women friends to see the recent film by well known American director Wayne Wang, Snowflower and the Secret Fan. We went on to lunch in a private room at the splendid Italian Restaurant Ceconnis. The film was based on Lisa See’s moving book, and I was intrigued that Wendy Murdoch wife of the media mogul Rupert Murdoch produced this film.

I was emotionally engaged with the film – but it’s a flawed film that needed better editing.

The plot line has as many twists and feminine intrigues as a Jane Austen novel but unlike Sees book juxtaposes 21st century Shanghai Laotong relationship with the traditional Chinese one.

Traditional Chinese women’s lives were totally defined by men – foot binding, arranged marriage, virtual imprisonment by both a women’s family of origin and her husband’s family. Sisterhood or the Laotong relationship provided women with a network of emotional support from other women.

There could be different sisterhoods but the most precious was the Laotong (old sames). This relationship was formalized by a matchmaker – suitable foot size, birthday, ages, backgrounds, and birth signs all went into consideration in this relationship that lasted a lifetime. Woman betrothed into a Laotong relationship learnt the secret women’s language of na shu the only written and oral language ever invented and sustained for the exclusive use of women.

I think the Laotong is a wonderful tradition – for all women. There always will be periods in our lives when we all need a Laotong. Certainly when my husband was ill 8 years ago many women friends rallied around to support me spiritually and physically. I know that during this bleak time I was sustained by the kindness and generosity of women.

I can’t leave this post without mentioning the practice of foot binding that lasted well over 1000 years in China. There are many theories of how foot binding arose in Chinese culture but no theory is conclusive. That it was so pervasive through all the social and economic classes of China is staggering. Chinese writer Yang Yang says that women with tiny feet were a status symbol who would bring honor upon the entire family by their appearance.

Young girls feet at the age of 6 or 7 were wrapped in cotton, with only the big toe left free. A mother was obligated to bind her daughter’s feet or she almost certainly would never get married. In time, the bandage was wrapped tighter until the other toes were broken and forced flat against the soles. The ideal was a 3-inch foot called san zun jin lian, or golden lily.

It certainly was very painful – the foot had to be bathed and manicured on a daily basis. If the bindings were too tight they could cut off circulation which could lead to gangrene and blood poisoning. The feet were massaged and given hot and cold compresses to help relieve the pain and help improve circulation. With the lack of circulation flesh would rot and fall off and sometimes the toes would ooze infection.

A Chinese saying says, “Every pair of small feet costs a bath (kang) of tears”. Perfume, socks, leggings, and beautifully embroidered lotus shoes were worn at all times, even in bed, to cover the damaged feet with beauty and delicacy.

With their feet bound, women walked with a “lotus gait” that tightened their pelvic muscles. The men said it was like always making love to a virgin. Another attraction was the all important breast obsession “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…” In the Confucian world order, women were always to be subservient to men. Foot binding also had a practical benefit for wealthy men – it stopped their concubines and wives from straying or running away.

But we in the west can not condemn this practice. We really have to look on it as a case of cultural relativism. We have some equally bizarre practices – not the least of which is the western women’s obsession with stiletto heels, the platforms and wedges. Just two generations ago women would squeeze themselves into smaller shoes – small feet were thought more feminine and refined. Clearly women obsess over footwear – think Imelda Marcos and her thousands of shoes. The obsession with corsets that completely distorted women’s body shape for the last 500 years and certainly restricted women’s physical mobility. In the 1830’s little girls as young as three or four were laced up into corsets Our present day obsession with tattoos and body piercing could appear just as cruel as would cosmetic surgery, breast implants, and lipo suction.

One Comment leave one →
  1. joyce evans permalink
    October 9, 2011 12:22 pm

    Looks Great

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