Saturday, May 17, 2008

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

This was a book club book. It's a heartbreaking, beautifully-told story of the lives of two Chinese women who, as girls, are arranged by their families to be “laotong”, exclusive friends-for-life. Strangers when they enter into the laotong contract, they become each other’s truest, deepest love.

It’s set in 19th century rural China. Of course that means there’s footbinding. I hadn’t thought much about the mechanics of it, so was surprised that this is how it’s done:

Mama took one end of the bandage, placed it on my instep, then pulled it over my four smallest toes to begin the process of rolling them underneath my foot. From here she wrapped the bandage back around my heel. Another loop around the ankle helped to secure and stabilize the first two loops. The idea was to get my toes and heel to meet, creating the cleft, but leaving my big toe to walk on.

[Then every day she had to walk around on her feet, so that eventually her toes would break.]

One day, as I made one of my trips across the room, I hear something crack. One of my toes had broken. . . My mother’s eyes zeroed in on me. “Move! Progress is finally being made!” ...By nightfall the eight toes that needed to break had broken, but I was still made to walk. I felt my broken toes under the weight of every step I took, for they were loose in my shoes. The freshly created space where once there had been a joint was now a gelatinous infinity of torture. ...On the day that my bindings were rewrapped, I soaked my feet as usual, but this time the massage to reshape the bones was beyond anything I had experienced so far. With her fingers Mama pulled my loose bones back and up against the soles of my feet.

The result: feet that were 7 centimeters long, with a cleft on the sole that had erotic powers, and were an asset, along with a dowry, to be leveraged by one’s family in negotiating an arranged marriage.

The women suffer through brutal life circumstances (in addition to the footbinding), but the real tragedy of their lives is that they have a misunderstanding and break each other’s hearts.

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