Friday, September 24: On this journey to China, I’ve brought along a book called Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a novel by Lisa See set in 19th century China. I’ve been reading it at nights here in Beijing and just last night, I read the chapter titled “Footbinding.” I cringed while reading this chapter, which goes into excruciating detail about the horrors of footbinding. “Golden lilies” were considered much more important than a pretty face; tiny feet could improve social standing for a girl. The way it is described is thus: the feet are bound with bandages such that the four smallest toes were rolled underneath the foot. The idea was to get the toes and heel to meet, creating a cleft, but leaving the big toe to walk on. As the bones broke within the tightening bandages, the flesh putrified, with blood and pus oozing out. During this long tormenting process, the girl was forced to walk back and forth across the floor, causing the bones to break faster and to hurry the process along. Apparently, one out of ten girls died from footbinding across the whole of China.
Lisa See describes in her excellent book that the goal was to achieve “7 distinct attributes: The feet should be small, narrow, straight, pointed, and arched, yet still fragrant and soft in texture. Of these requirements length is most important. Seven centimeters — about the length of a thumb — is the ideal. Shape comes next. A perfect foot should be shaped like the bud of a lotus. It should be full and round at the heel, come to a point at the front, with all weight borne by the big toe alone. This means that the toes and arch of the foot must be broken and bent under to meet the heel. The cleft formed…should be deep enough to hide a large cash piece perpendicular within its folds.” (page 26).
I have read of footbinding before, but not in such horrifying detail. I cannot stop thinking about it and as we meet in the morning for breakfast, it is fresh on my mind. I tell Suzanne about what I’ve read after breakfast and she can’t believe it. I wonder whether women still do it today and if they are still walking around China with bound feet.
Today we have a free day in Beijing, so Suzanne, a couple of other girls and I have made plans to go on a rickshaw through a hutong. Our tour guide, Grace, arrives to take our little group in a van to the hutong; while we’re waiting for everyone to assemble, I ask her about the practice of footbinding. She tells me it was banned when the Qing dynasty collapsed in 1911, but people were still doing it until 1949, when it was finally outlawed forever by the Communists. Footbinding was practiced for about 1,000 years in China, from the 10th century to the first half of the 20th century. Girls had no say in the matter, as their mothers bound their feet when they were 4-6 years old. The resulting stumps were regarded as beautiful and exciting to men.
The pictures I have seen of these feet are so horrible and hoof-like, it’s hard to imagine why men would find them sexy. They look like animal hooves, honestly. I ask Grace if it might be possible to glimpse a foot-bound woman on the streets of Beijing today. She says that it is possible. I determine to keep an eye out for one of these women, but I never happen to see one during my time here.
When we arrive at the hutong, our little group goes to the Drum Tower, from the 15th century Ming dynasty. In this tower, from which we can see Houhai Lake and the Forbidden City, drums were once beaten to announce dusk and to call imperial bigwigs to meetings. Every half hour between 10 a.m. and noon and from 2-4 p.m. a group of drummers beats on the giant drums inside. We witness this not-especially-spectacular spectacle and then climb back down the 69 longevity steps to go outside to meet our orange-vested rickshaw driver.
We cruise on our bicycle rickshaw through the alleyways of a hutong near Houhai. In a whir, we pass through gray alleys, cluttered courtyards, public bathhouses, symbolic gates, bicycles, and other rickshaws. Street vendors offer fruits and women artfully display their vegetables. It’s breezy & fun, zipping through what used to be the true Beijing, but is now just a carefully preserved specimen of what used to be.
We make a stop for an intimate tea ceremony at a cozy tea shop; since there are only eight of us, I feel this is more like what a tea ceremony should be. The young lady here tells us we should take 3 sips of each tea for happiness, longevity, and a good future. The local tea of Beijing is jasmine tea, which is supposed to relax the nerves and mind and help you sleep. She tells us you can save the tea, dry it in the sun, and make pillows to help with blood flow. Oolong, or black dragon, tea is made with boiling water and is best in autumn. Green tea, made with 80 degree water, is best in summer. She tells us the Chinese tea ceremony is more flexible than the Japanese one; the Chinese emphasize just relaxing and talking with friends. She says when you have tea in China, you should relax and enjoy. The procedure is not complicated.
We browse in the little shop following the ceremony; here I buy some tea and then we continue on in our rickshaws, making another stop at a courtyard house where we are treated to a lovely, but aged, little garden brimming with pomegranate trees. The owner of the house invites us into his tiny and cluttered living room, where he serves us grapes on a plate. Grace tells us there are only 100 courtyards remaining in all of Beijing. In this particular courtyard, surrounded by a number of small buildings, 8 family members and their families live.
We get back in the rickshaw and since I have to take a bathroom break, we stop at a public bathroom. Apparently, none of the houses in the hutongs have private bathrooms, so people use public bathhouses. We see plenty of people wandering around the streets in their bathrobes.
After the rickshaw tour, Grace walks us over to the lovely Houhai Lake. This is my favorite place in Beijing…the Summer Palace being a close second. Houhai isn’t necessarily a tourist place, although it draws plenty of tourists. It’s a thriving commercial area with funky and cool shops, restaurants with outdoor cafes and live music, weeping willow trees, paddle boats, bicycles galore, and a cool breeze blowing off the small finger-shaped lake.
In Nicole Mones’ book, A Cup of Light, she tells an interesting story of Houhai Lake. I’m not sure if it’s true, since this is fiction, but she says “this was the body of water to which candidates who failed the imperial examinations came to drown themselves. There were always those who chose to hurl themselves in the water rather than return home to face their parents. Now their ghosts were here forever, mourning by the banks of the lake.” (p. 82)
One street back from the lakeside street are multitudes of shops filled with tea cups, pots and teas, journals and bookmarks, scarves and lanterns, clothes, Chinese masks, cushions, Buddhas, little Mao dolls in Communist clothing, shoes, traditional clothing, Chinese artwork & scrolls… too many desirable things!
We have a light lunch on a rooftop cafe where the service is atrocious; after, some of the girls take off to paddle-boat around the lake. Suzanne and I go on a shopping spree. This is the kind of shopping I enjoy, in shops where I can browse and find beautiful things, not necessarily things that I NEED, but things that will add beauty to my life, to my living space, things that will make me smile. I buy a lantern, several scarves, a ring, a tea-cup with a ceramic insert punched with holes where you can steep the tea. Not much, but these few things make me happy.
Suzanne and I wander around the lake. It is so lovely, with a cool breeze sweeping the weeping willows on the lake’s edge, like soft woolen fringe on a Nordic sweater. The lake is filled with dancing points of light, effervescent. We take our time, meander and wander, and finally stop at a lakeside cafe ~ AUTHENTIC MEXICAN BEER! ~ where there is a Chinese girl playing folksy guitar tunes. Between the two of us, we hardly have any money remaining, and I have just enough to get one beer. It is so relaxing here, I think we could sit here indefinitely. But we are due to meet up with some of the other girls, so we can’t linger long enough.
When we meet them, we split up to go into two taxis to Wangfujing Food Street. We get separated from the other girls and never find them at the food street. There, we check out all the bizarre foods: starfish, squid, octopus, giant prawns, sea cucumbers, scorpions on sticks, sea horses, snake, legs of lamb, silkworms, and some kind of drink with volcanic smoke erupting from it. We see giant crickets, fruits on sticks, and the typical Chinese fare of dumplings and stir-fry. I take a picture of a brave girl eating silkworms, but I am too afraid to try anything myself. Yes, admittedly, I’m a wimp. Besides, at this point Suzanne and I barely have enough money for the taxi back to our hotel.
At the end of the food street, we come to the modern and high-class shopping district, Wangfujing Dajie, which has a huge glitzy mall full of designer shops. The best find for me is the Foreign Languages Bookstore, where I browse and find the Nicole Mones book and Cries in the Drizzle by Yu Hua. I actually find too many books I want and since I’ve been starved for an English bookstore since I arrived in Korea, I could be happy to stay here all night. But again, since we are short on cash, we figure we better take the taxi back to the hotel.
We catch a taxi and we have exactly 39 yuan between us. I have 34 and Suzanne has 5. The ride to our hotel is a long and convoluted one and we watch the meter carefully, nervously wondering if the taxi driver is taking us on a wild goose chase. Finally, as the meter approaches 34 yuan, we pull into the entrance to the Holiday Inn Lido. We escape the taxi with 5 yuan in our possession.
I am tired as we’ve been on the go all day, so I decide to get comfortable and relax and read. Suzanne takes off to hang out with her friends. I am back to 19th century China, engrossed in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Our last night in China, I’m exhausted but happy to have come here. I have found a multi-layered culture of incredible richness and depth and am disappointed that I have to leave tomorrow morning, after just four days in Beijing. I’m left wanting more. I’ll have to figure out another time I can get back to China to explore the hinterlands and the other cities, like Shanghai and Hong Kong. Hmmm… When (& HOW) can I do this? A dilemma.