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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Middles (16)—Gendered Confucian

[a] Double Confused-ness RF
Lin Zhiyang is right smack dab in the middle of trouble. This little story is part of a long, 100-chapter narrative written in the early-nineteenth century called Flowers in the Mirror (鏡花緣). The excerpt below speaks for itself, but just let me say that I assign this text often in classes that deal with the tumultuous change that China experienced from the mid-eighteenth century onward. Sloppy thinking assumes that Western influence changed a traditional social order. That is ridiculous, and this tale is but one small example of indigenous critiques of the treatment of women that had been coursing through Chinese intellectual life for many centuries. While good textbooks correctly speak of the organizations and writers who protested mistreatment in prose essays and placards, this little tale says just about everything about the cruelty at the heart of footbinding, concubinage, and many aspects of the traditional marriage system. It didn't take Westerners to figure this out. This text shows clearly—on its own—how confused and muddled such practices were.

Join Monsieur Lin for his little journey into the middle of the country of women.
Li Ruzhen
In the Country of Women[1]
The palace maidens were all immensely strong, and seized hold of Lin Zhiyang as a hawk seizes a sparrow—there were no questions of his being the master. As soon as they had taken off his shoes and undressed him, fragrant water was brought for his bath. They changed his coat and trousers for a tunic and skirt, and for the time being put socks of thin silk on his dainty great feet. The combed his hair into plaits, pinning it with phoenix pins, and rubbed in scented oils. They powdered his face and smeared his lips with bright red lipstick. They put rings on his hands and bangles on his wrists, and arranging the curtains of the bed invited him to take his seat upon it.

Lin Zhiyang felt as though he were dreaming or drunk, and could only sit there in misery. Closely questioning the palace maidens, he discovered for the first time that the ruler of the country had chosen him to be a royal concubine, and that he was to enter the palace as soon as an auspicious date had been picked.

[b] Enmeshed RF
As he was reflecting on this alarming news, more palace maidens came in. These were of middle age, all tall and strong, and with jowls covered in hair. One of the maidens, who had a white beard and held in her hand a needle and thread, advanced before the bed and there knelt and said, "Gracious lady, with your permission, I have been ordered to pierce your ears." Already four maidens had come forward and were gripping him firmly. The white-bearded maiden approached and took hold of his right ear. She rolled a few times between her fingers the lobe where the needle was to go, and then straight away drove the needle through. Lin Zhiyang shrieked out, "The pain's killing me," and would have fallen over backwards had the maidens not been supporting him. She then got hold of his left ear, rolled it a few times and stuck the needle through. The pain brought continuous shouts and cries from Lin Zhiyang. Both ears pierced, white lead was smeared on them and rubbed in, after which a pair of golden earrings of the "eight jewel" design was fixed to them.

When the white-bearded maiden had finished her task she withdrew, and another maiden, this time with a black beard, came up. This one had in her hand a roll of thin white silk. Kneeling before the bed, she said, "Gracious lady, with your permission, I have been ordered to bind your feet." Two more maidens approached, and kneeling on the floor to support his dainty feet proceeded to take off the silk socks. The black-bearded maiden seated herself on a low stool. Tearing off a strip of silk, she set Lin Zhiyang's right foot on her lap and sprinkled alum between the joints of the toes. Then she drew all five toes tightly together and, forcibly bending the whole foot over till ti took on the shape of a drawn bow, swiftly bound it up with the white silk. When she had wound the silk round a few times, another of the palace maidens brought a needle and thread and began to sew up the ends tight, and so they continued, one binding while the other sewed.

With the four palace maidens pressing closely against him and the two others holding on to his feet, Lin Zhiyang could not move an inch. When the bindings were in place he felt his feet burning like a charcoal brazier. Wave upon wave of aching swept over him, and soon sharp pains began to shoot and forced out a loud cry: "I am dying in a fiery pit!"

[c] Tiny RF
Having finished binding his feet, the maidens hurriedly made a pair of large red slippers with soft soles and put them on fir him. Lin Zhiyang's tears flowed for a long time. His thoughts flew back and forth, but he could think of no plan, all he could do was entreat the palace maidens, "My brothers, I beseech you, put in a word for me before your ruler: I am a married man, I have a wife, how can I become a concubine? And these big feet of mine are like a wandering student who has spent years without presenting himself for examination and has grown accustomed to a life of abandon—how can they bear restriction? I beg you, let me go, and then my wife as well will be filled with gratitude."

But the maidens replied, "Our ruler has just now given us the order to bind your feet and then invite you into the palace. Who then would dare to raise her voice in protest?

[1] Cyril Birch, ed, Anthology of Chinese Literature: From the Fourteenth Century to the Present Day (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1972), 187-189. Please note that Chinese names, terms, and phrases have been modified to fit the pinyin romanization system.

Birch, Cyril, ed. Anthology of Chinese Literature: From the Fourteenth Century to the Present Day. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1972.

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