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Brutal Beauty

One of the world's largest collections of shoes for bound feet is in a Chicago apartment.


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In search of airplane reading material before a trip to China last spring, I grabbed Lisa See's popular novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan from a bookstore shelf and was promptly riveted by her description of foot binding. Nothing in my glancing awareness of this practice prepared me for the details she provided: that it was inflicted on girls as young as three years old, that "the arch and toes of the foot must be broken and bent under to meet the heel," and that the ideal result would fit into a shoe no more than three inches long. I knew that foot binding was female mutilation, falling somewhere on the continuum between clitoral cutting and ear piercing; what I didn't know was that it had been practiced for nearly a thousand years, that the bound foot—no less than the bountiful breast in Western culture—represented an epitome of female beauty, and that the obsessively decorated coverings for these status-symbol stubs constituted their own complex and prized folk art genre.

Visitors descending on Beijing for the Olympics this week will get a jaw-dropping look at an ancient country catapulting itself into the future. They'll see alarmingly massive skyscrapers sprouting like so many ginkgo trees in a city where a thousand new cars hit the streets every day. They'll tour the empty shell of the Forbidden City and the spiffed-up remains of a few old courtyard-and-alley neighborhoods—perhaps by rickshaw, after a tea ceremony. But they aren't likely to learn much about the once-pervasive culture of foot binding, thought to have affected as many as a billion women, including nearly 100 percent of those from the upper classes. Eradicated 60 years ago when the Communists took over, swept away with so much else during the Cultural Revolution, it's not something the government or government-sponsored museums want to highlight. It wasn't until my last day in China that I chanced upon a pair of bound-feet shoe replicas for sale. Creamy embroidered silk, they nestled in the palm of my hand like baby birds. To see the real thing on a major scale I had to come home.

Paul Prentice, an event designer for chic Chicago florist Blumen, owns one of largest—and lowest-profile—collections of bound-feet shoes in the world. His fascination with things Asian started early. Growing up in the little town of Troy Grove, near Starved Rock State Park, he was a kid with an unusual hobby: accompanying an aunt to farm sales, he began buying Chinese and Japanese porcelain. "No one else was interested in it," he says. "I would have three or four dollars in my pocket, and I collected Satsuma, Imari, Kutani."

A few years later, after moving to the west coast, where there was more interest in such things, he sold that collection. The proceeds paid for a yearlong trip around the world that brought him to China in 1980, just as it was opening up to Westerners. Backpacking across the country, he found the Chinese eager for foreign money—"selling whatever they had, digging out stuff that had remained hidden from the Cultural Revolution." He bought his first few pairs of bound-foot shoes on that trip without knowing anything about them. "I thought so little of them, I came back and gave them away as gifts, as curiosities," he recalls. Then, he says, "I started doing research on it." Two years later he was back in China on a shoe-buying mission.

No one knows for sure how foot binding—which looks from a distance like national insanity—took hold in China, but there's archaeological evidence that it had already been around for a while by the 13th century. Legend has it that it was inspired by a clubfooted empress, or tenth-century palace dancers cavorting on their toes. Incredibly cruel and painful, perversely erotic, it was clearly a means of repression and confinement. And yet—as Prentice's favorite scholar, Barnard College historian Dorothy Ko, argues in Every Step a Lotus—for hundreds of years it was also the ultimate mark of class standing. In a culture that valued cloistered domesticity, where being wealthy meant not having to do anything that resembled physical labor (even walking) for oneself, a foot the shape and size of a lotus bud was the ticket to a more important kind of mobility.

There were geographic variations, but for the most part big-footed women were housemaids and field hands, bound-foot women could become rich men's brides. Foot binding was the central event in their lives, Ko writes, and the intricate shoes they made by hand for themselves, their families, and as offerings to their gods, are evidence of the value they assigned it.

Prentice says misinformation and distortions that proliferated in early writing on the subject, much of it by missionaries, have been perpetuated in books by more contemporary experts and novelists. He maintains, for example, that X-ray evidence shows that though foot binding stretches ligaments and displaces bones, it does not break them. The very tiny foot, he says, was mostly an illusion.

Using a 19th-century model from his collection, he shows that the big toe remained forward for balance, while the other toes were folded under. "The heel bone was extended down, so you actually walked on it. The arch was pushed up and compressed, creating a hump on the front of the foot," he says.

The toes and the heel bone went inside the shoe; the rest of the foot remained above it, covered with a short, decorated legging that was often secured with a decorative sash called a puttee. Though some shoes were made commercially (and embroidered by men), "the craft was handed down from mother to daughter," he notes.

Prentice has never shown his collection in public and is careful even when talking about it. His experience has been that "people think it's some kind of fetish. They get indignant and judgmental about a culture without understanding it." If the right venue came along, however, he says he'd consider an exhibition. In the meantime, we're missing a dazzling trove of 500 pairs of shoes and a thousand or so related items like leggings, sashes, bindings, shoe-making tools, photographs, paintings, and books.

The shoes—many of them never-used dowry items—are displayed in mind-boggling abundance in lighted cabinets that fill a room and more of Prentice's vintage apartment. Each pristine pair—shaped according to the traditions of the region it came from, painstakingly beaded, embroidered, appliqued, or painted with symbols of fertility and good fortune—tells a story he can read. There are undyed shoes for the progressive stages of mourning; burial slippers with ladders to heaven on the soles; votive miniatures for the altar of Guanyin, goddess of foot binding; overshoes, undershoes, and shoes to wear to bed.

Despite tales of erotica mostly intended for the tourist trade, the bound foot, Prentice insists, was never uncovered except in the absolute privacy of the women's quarters. A lover might clutch the tiny foot in passion, but he'd be clasping a mystery in its artful second skin.v

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