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December 22, 2022 by The Citron Review
by Jen Soong
My great-grandmother’s feet were no bigger than a sliver of cake. Beginning in the late 13th century in China, the practice of foot binding twisted women’s feet into dainty, doll sizes. To prevent a girl’s foot from growing naturally, her bones were broken, then wrapped tightly to slip into tiny, embroidered lotus shoes.
Legend has it that a beguiling dancer named Yao Niang bound her feet into the shape of a new moon to enchant Emperor Li Yu with her elegant dancing on her toes. Court ladies then took up the excruciatingly painful practice. Delicate feet became a coveted status symbol, embodying wealth and virginity.
In a photograph, my maternal great-grandmother wears a silk black jacket with red knotted buttons, matching her shoes. I try to decipher her dark eyes, plum-dumpling cheeks and diminutive feet. She looks like a red-crowned crane with clipped wings. She could never escape, never fly.
We never met and even if we did, I can’t speak her language fluently. Still, I want to ask her: Was it her mother who broke her bones, who wiped away her tears? Or, was it someone else who doused her with liquor and muffled her screams with a dirty ivory handkerchief?
If we met in the afterlife, I would clutch her hand gently and whisper in her ear: Feet are not meant to be broken. Girls are not meant to be trapped. Girls, like dancing cranes, are meant to fly.
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Jen Soong grew up in New Jersey and now lives in Northern California. An alum of Tin House and VONA, her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Audacity, Jellyfish Review, Cosmonauts Avenue and Waxwing. She received her MFA in creative writing from UC Davis. Her memoir-in-progress is a reckoning of myth, migration and memory. Find her work at jensoong.com.