Monday, September 1, 2008

Casting Stones

I recently read the book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. My mother read it while we were at the beach last week. At one point while on the beach she turned to me in disgust and said "They BOUND the girls feet to make them 7 mm long?!?" This particular book takes place during 19th century China and follows one woman's life story. For those of you that weren't in Professor Walz East Asian History class or particularly versed in Chinese culture, for about one thousand years it was common practice in China for women to have bound feet. The practice has only recently (early 1900s) been outlawed and you can still find women in China with bound feet.

Why in the world would they bind women's feet? I will attempt to summarize. The origin of why this started is not entirely known. It is speculated that there was a prized concubine once upon a time that, by nature, had incredibly small feet. She grew in fame because of her beauty and favor with the emperor. From this, women, especially those in high class society, began breaking their feet in order to make them appear incredibly small. The goal was to achieve the "golden lotus" - feet about the length of a thumb. The bound feet were seen as attractive and symbolized class and good breeding. Large feet became indicative of lower class due to the need for manual labor. The process began around the age of 6-7 and didn't fully heal for about 5 years. One in ten girls died from the foot-binding process. The girls knew their responsibilities as women and accepted that the bound feet determined theirstatus for the rest of their lives. Yes, bound feet even determined how well they would marry.

While we (my mom, sister, and I) sat discussing this on the beach, we speculated how a culture could practice something so crazy - and for a thousand years - all for the sake of society, fashion, sensuality, tradition, and duty. When examing alone the reasons for foot-binding, we'd find that such concepts are not foreign to American culture. My sister stated this observation as we sat there, baking ourselves in the sun, (oiling and lotioning! lotioning and oiling!), damaging our skin cells all for solely aesthetic purposes.

Her comment reminded me of an article I read in college that I often go back to whenever an issue of cultural differences arises. It is called "Trying out one's New Sword" by Mary Midgley. If you are interested, I suggest reading the article. If you choose not to read it, the basic idea is as follows: There is a word in the Japanese language that means "to try out one's new sword on a chance wayfarer." The practice was to test a new blade on a human opponent, preferrebly not another Samurai, usually completely at random. This example is used to bring about the question of whether members of one culture can make a moral judgement upon members or practices of another.

I often think of this article. Not only when discussing other cultures but moreso when hearing or reading about my own. I am not without judgment. No human can claim as such. But the root of our judgments upon other cultures lies in the intolerance of those within our own. I don't necessarily mean cultures within cultures but also groups, individuals, opinions, friends, loved-ones. A position we hold, whether it be socially, intellectually, or professionally, should not be used as basis for a superiority complex. It only contributes to a pedistol of intolerance and closes our minds when we otherwise claim to be striving to open them. It's a lesson that I don't mean to imply that I have learned, just one that I think of whenever I read that article.

Moral and cultural
judgments are a tricky thing. Reading that article after reading Snow Flower helps to put into perspective that every culture has a tsujigiri or a foot-binding. If anyone still has questions about whether or not bound feet are a completely crazy practice, read up on the definition of high heel shoes. Or people-watch at the state fair.

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