Thursday, September 2, 2010

Bound Feet and Bride Shows: More on the Chinese Cinderella

Again from Cinderella: A Casebook-Photeine P. Bourboulis argues for the likely origin of China for the fairy tale we now know as Cinderella in her essay "The Bride-Show Custom and the Fairy Story of Cinderella." She mentions two specific customs that appear in the Cinderella tale-1. The ancient Chinese custom of a bride show. When a rich prince wanted to marry, he would gather several beautiful young women and choose between them-think of the story of Esther in the Old Testament. The connection between this and Cinderella is pretty obvious.

The other custom she mentions is the custom of foot binding. A lot of times we like to think of the foot test in Cinderella as just meaning that the Prince had to find the right girl, and the shoe was the only thing he had to identify her-but why couldn't he identify her by her face? In some older versions of the tale, Cinderella had never even met the Prince. He just finds an unbelievably small shoe, one that no one else can fit into, and by that criteria alone, selects his bride.

I'm not going to comment on the following, I'll let the pictures and the quotes from Chinese people do the talking.

"If a girl's feet are not bound, people say she is not like a woman, but like a man; they laugh at her, calling her names, and her parents are ashamed of her."

"Girls are like flowers, like the willow. It is very important that their feet should be short, so that they can walk beautifully, with mincing steps, swaying gracefully, thus showing they are persons of respectability. People praise them. If not bound short, they say the mother has not trained the daughter carefully. She goes from house to house with noisy steps, and is called names. Therefore careful persons bind short."

"Possessed of peerless beauty the ring of her admirers gradually increased, till at last she rose up to go. The excitement among the young men was intense; they criticized her face and discussed her feet..."

"One of a good family does not wish to marry a woman with long feet. She is commiserated because her feet are not perfect. If betrothed and the size of her feet not discovered till after marriage her husband and mother-in-law are displeased, her sisters-in-law laugh at her, and she herself is sad."

"Girls are like gold, like gems. They ought to stay in their own house. If their feet are not bound they go here and they go there with unfitting associates; they have no good name. They are like defective gems that are rejected."

From Madame Wu, a Chinese woman with bound feet: "I prefer eat to walk...In China not much use to walk, only around gardens at home. Chinese ladies not walk abroad like Americans. In streets they go in sedan chairs, always with chaperone."

"But she could not get the toe into it, for the shoe was too small; then her mother handed her a knife, and said, 'Cut the toe off, for when you are Queen you will never have to go on foot.' So the girl cut her toe off, squeezed her foot into the shoe, concealed the pain, and went down to the Prince."
-from the brothers Grimm's Cinderella

"Any Chinaman will bear witness as to the seductive effect of a gaily dressed girl picking her way on tiny feet sometimes three inches in length, her swaying movements and delightful appearance of instability, converying a general sense of delicate grace quite beyond expression in words."-quoted by Bourboulis from H.A. Giles' The Civilization of China, 1911. Emphasis my own.

Random thought: I was just over at DaddyLikey and read the latest Don't Showcha Your Chocha post, where readers submit pictures of models/celebrities/etc. wearing dresses/skirts/shirts and no pants where pants are really quite necessary. But under one of the pictures, the heading read: "Sitting down: overrated and unnecessary." It just struck me because I had just finished writing this post, in which the ideal in China was once that standing was overrated and unnecessary for women, and they physically were constrained to force them to stand and walk as little as possible. It is interesting that we've almost switched ideals in this respect-almost as if, in a way, we're so concerned about women being healthy and active in this culture that we truly don't like the idea of a woman sitting around, although the picture heading was meant to be a joke. But it's true that beauty standards are whatever is most difficult to attain: in cultures where people work physically to stay alive, it's the rich people who can afford to eat a lot and sit around that are considered the most desirable. Whereas now, with fast food and office jobs where most people are mostly sedentary unless they specifically work hard to stay active, it's the disciplined, lean, healthy body that we all covet. Not that really short hemlines are quite the ideal like tiny feet in China. It was just a thought...

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