The children in the neighbourhood loved to look upon the tiny feet, in their tiny cloth shoes, their eyes then moving upwards to take in the bent, shrunken body, the arms that were mere sticks, and finally the very old wrinkled face. Altogether, Great Grandmother looked like someone out of a fairy tale, and if it were not for her hard severe eyes, they would have assigned to her the benign role of the Ancient Kind Goddess, rather than the Wicked Old Demoness.
Indeed, the children were so scared of the little old lady, no taller than themselves, that they dared to gaze upon those fascinating feet only when she was asleep in the special large cane chair standing in solitary splendour in the hall, exclusively for her use.
But the greatest treat for the children for which they would risk any amount of severity from Great Grandmother was to be present when The Kick took place. It was her special way of punishing the maidservants, especially the one assigned to take care of her. She kicked the culprit with her little bound feet, first with the right foot, then the left, always in that order, always with a short, sharp screech in her unintelligible dialect.
Because Great Grandmother could barely totter on those feet, she needed help to execute the punishment. It was a rather elaborate, stage-by-stage procedure. First, she had to call for two persons in the household to hold her by the armpits, allowing her to stand upright and to steady those lethal feet. Then she took a deep breath, to summon up all her energy and concentration. Next the culprit was made to kneel in exactly the position, at exactly the distance where the impact of each kick upon the upper part of the body was calculated to be maximal. In a particularly bad mood, Great Grandmother would repeat each kick, and then, quite exhausted, ask to be led back to her comfortable cane chair to rest.
The best part of the ritual for the children, gaping from the doorway and at open windows, had to do, not with the dispenser, but the receiver of the kicks. The maidservant, upon whose large, robust body the kicks had hardly any effect, would put up a loud wail for the benefit of the watching children, sometimes turning to give them a grin.
This true tale was told to me many years ago by a friend whose old forebear (she died at age hundred) was one of the last feet-bound women in Singapore. I remember being unable to sleep that night, thinking about why the old lady would choose a form of punishment for her maidservant, that was actually a punishment for herself, considering the difficulty of moving about on those tiny feet, much less using them in so athletic a manner. Surely some intriguing psychological principle was involved?
Then I thought I understood. The bizarre behaviour probably had to do with a powerful need, at some deep subconscious level, to redress a long-ago grievance. The bound feet must have been the constant reminder of her suffering through the years . Who can understand the pain of the little girl as her feet were being tightly bound on the instructions of her mother who reminded her, through her screams, that otherwise no man would want to marry her? Who can understand the humiliation of a young woman whose husband, lying on his bed, demanded the special delectation of watching her, naked except for those feet in their beautiful embroidered shoes, come tottering and swaying towards him, like a flower on its stalk?
Now, in old age, Great Grandmother could use her feet to inflict the same pain that she had herself suffered for so long. In old age, the symbol of her oppression had become a symbol of her freedom and power (only it continued to be used against her own gender) to restore an inner equilibrium to take to the grave.
A continuing flow of little, readable pieces that will constitute what I feel is an important 'legacy of values' to leave behind. Read more about Vignettes...