Footbinding

Patricia Beer

My grandmother had a small shelf of books
Hanging in a shadow. One of them
Was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. All the rest
Were works by missionaries who had served
In China. They were handsome volumes, hard
With gold and angry colours, heavy with Empire.
I never saw her read them but she handed
Them out to me like medicine. As well
As every other heathen practice, they
Described footbinding. In their godly fashion
The missionaries revelled in the cracking
Of the maiden’s bones, the consternation
Of her bloodstream, the whining of her sinews
And the two years of agony ahead.
It was far worse than Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

My mother’s and her mother’s feet were tiny.
Mine were thin but long and getting longer.
Would those two organise a ceremony
Where women gathered and the screaming started?
Probably not. They planned on twisting me
Into a little lady if it killed them
But definitely would not want to be
Anything but the smallest feet in town.

Nowadays I think of those girls in China
Who ran and pounced and almost flew until
The day they never pounced or ran again.
Their fledgling feet did not grow into birds.
Some of them died of gangrene. Some went mad.
But those who lived, nubile, felt like orchids.
Their family’s approval smelled of jasmine
As, fluttering in silk, they married Emperors.

An aim the missionaries did not mention.