Yang Shaorong lives in a small Shanghai apartment. He collects women’s shoes. Tiny shoes. Shoes for bound feet.
“That’s horrible,” said the publisher of my magazine, when I mentioned Yang the collector to him. “It’s a disturbing part of Chinese history.”
I was confused. I didn’t really know much about them, or why he was so upset. So I did some reading. And the more I learned, the more nauseous I became.
“Foot fetishes are common to many cultures,” Sterling Seagrave writes in his sensationalist book The Soong Dynasty. “In China it was institutionalized.”
He continues, although be warned that it’s very horrific and mildly pornographic.
The practice of footbinding began in the tenth century… One purpose to restrain women; Confucians barely tolerated females, and by crippling their feet it was certain that they could not stray far from their well-guarded quarters…
Footbinding usually began at age four. A ten-foot-long, two-inch bandage was wrapped around the toes to force them in against the sole. Each day the bandage was tightened until the foot was folded under with only the big toe sticking out, a shape called the “Golden Lotus” because it resembled a lotus pod with the petals removed. Flesh rotted and fell off, sometimes a toe or two, and the foot oozed pus, until the process of deformation was complete after two years, at which point the feet were practically dead.
Swaddled in exquisitely decorated silk boots, the feet were carefully hidden. It was commonplace for young rogues to go to great lengths to steal a maiden’s tiny silk shoes, masturbate into them, and then return them, to her intense embarrassment and humiliation.
Thus hobbled, a girl grew up walking in a mincing step, not unlike a ballet dancer en pointe. This caused her limbs to remain undeveloped and spindly. By contrast, the girl’s buttocks and “jade gate” were popularly believed to develop to such a degree that she could more tightly grip her lover’s “jade spear”… Chinese men cared little about breasts, but had visions of fondling and sucking deformed feet, with the result that the whorehouses of Shanghai each night saw thousands of performances of this extraordinary spectacle.
Mr Yang has spent decades building his collection of over a thousand pairs of bound foot shoes. He keeps them in glass cabinets and dust-free boxes. His entire apartment, which he shares with his wife, is filled with them, and every surface is covered with foot-esoteria. There are photos, paintings, assorted erotica, but mostly just shoes. Racks and racks of shoes.
“I’m sad they don’t do this anymore,” Mr Yang said. “It’s sexy.”
Reverb, who was translating, looked distraught.
“Do you wish your wife had bound feet,” I asked.
His wife let out a huff, and marched from the room. Mr Yang smiled, and nodded. His mother and grandmother both had bound feet. Why not his wife?
I’d seen these tiny shoes for sale at Beijing flea markets. Friends and strangers had bought them for gifts.
Did they have any idea what these represent? The pain, misery, and horror behind these shoes? The forced deformities and enslavement? And all that teenage masturbation?
I suspect not. But I still can’t see what Mr Yang sees in all of this. I agree with my publisher. It’s all a little creepy.