Chapter 10 About the Bound Feet
Yu Mengying was born in 1892, the 18th year of the reign of Guangxu Emperor, two years before the China-Japan War of 1894-95. At that time, all well-born girls of respectable families had to have their feet bound. Mengying was no exception. But her mother loosened the binding cloth from time to time so that Mengying would suffer less pain, and her feet were considerably larger than most of her peers. In November 1937, the Japanese brought war to China. Mengying, then 45, walked from Liyang in Jiangsu Province all the way to Tongling in Anhui Province, a direct distance of 240 km. There she and her family found a boat that took them to safety. Her feet, bound though they were, saved her life.
When Mengying was eight years old, the eight-power army invaded Beijing and the Empress Dowager escaped to Xi’an. That year, 1900, Zhang Youyi was born. When Youyi was five, the Qing government abolished the examination system. The whole old structure shook to its roots. The five-year old cried and fought until her mother gave up binding her feet. The young girl won! She grew up, married and then divorced the poet Hsu Zhimo. She went overseas to study ad returned to have an illustrious career of her own.
Another seven years passed. In 1907, Hu Ruihua was born. She followed her father who worked on the Beijing-Shenyang Railway. When she was five, Xinhai Revolution brought down the Qing. Like many of her contemporaries, she did not have her feet bound. In 1923, the girl was 16 and found herself in Shanghai, where the new movie industry just began to boom. She metamorphosed into the Butterfly (Hu Die, her screen name), movie queen, and public idol.
Shanghai of the 1930s — that is the place and the time still missed by many as a golden age. Is it because of the appeal of a glittering metropolis? Or the movies and songs ? Yes, all these and more, but the most important reason is found in the beautiful modern women on and off the screen that became the symbol of a new era.
Of course I am talking about Shanghai. What about an obscure county town named Changshu?
In The Annals of Changshu 1990 edition, there are a few lines on this subject:
1908 A Changshu woman Yin Hu Jingfang formed “The Society for Natural Feet” calling on women to resist foot-bing.
1916 October 21, the county government reissued an order from the Ministry of Education, banning all foot-binding.
The elegant Qipao, modified by the fashion-conscious women of Shanghai, began to be associated with the new-age women of China in the 1930s. Women’s hairstyle also went through a revolution. The awkward “liuhai” gave way to the Hollywood-inspired style of short wavy hairs. With high heels and Max Factor cosmetics, Chinese women seemed to have astonished the whole world overnight with their beauty and style.
A Shanghai studio designed in the 30s the wall calendar advertisements for a popular brand of dyed fabrics. The “Miss Happiness” model is the epitome of the new image of a modern Chinese woman. You look at her, she smiles back at you, and you are excused if you forget that 70 over years separate her from you.