From the time of her birth in 1906 it was expected that Gus Lee’s mother, Tzu Da-tsien, would become an elegant bride for a wealthy provincial man. But she was shunted onto a less certain path by age three, when her warmhearted father rescued her from her foot-binding ceremony in response to her terrified screams. This dramatic rejection of tradition was the first of many clashes that would lock the family in a constant struggle between Chinese customs and modern ways.
Later, with the Chinese countryside in the grip of civil war, the Tzu family moved to Shanghai, seeking financial stability. There Da-tsien met Lee Zee Zee, the dashing son of the Tzus’ landlord, who lived across the street. With their patriarch succumbing to opium addiction, Zee Zee’s family was on the brink of ruin, and Da-tsien’s mother was working hard to secure her big-footed daughter’s marriage to a wealthy older man. But not even the protests of both families could keep the lovers apart, and these two socially displaced clans were reluctantly united.
Over the course of their courtship and marriage, Zee Zee and Da-tsien would encounter the most important movements and figures of the times, including underworld gangsters, Communist students and workers, revolutionary armies, Christian missionaries, and legions of invading Japanese soldiers. Zee Zee became an ardent anti-Maoist and an ally of the highest-ranking leaders in the Chinese Nationalist movement. But his flights from tradition took him away from his young family—first into Chiang Kai-shek’s air force and later to America in search of his idol, Katharine Hepburn. Faced with this abandonment and with the chaos of the Japanese occupation, Da-tsien would rely on all of her resources, traditional and modern—faith, superstition, tremendous courage, and her strong feet—in an attempt to preserve her family.
Gus Lee takes us straight into the heart of twentieth-century Chinese society, offering a clear-eyed yet compassionate view of the forces that repeatedly tore apart and reconfigured the lives of his parents and their contemporaries. He moves deftly from recounting intimate household conversations to discussing major historical events, and the resulting story is by turns comic, harrowing, heroic, and tragic. For most of her life, Da-tsien prayed for a son who would honor his family and respect his Chinese heritage. In this enthralling tribute, Gus Lee lovingly accomplishes both.
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Who Will Marry You Now?
The future shifted when the clan ladies failed to break my mother's tiny feet. From then on, her life was guided by the good and the bad of that day. She would grow up to be a dreamer who married a rogue, a woman who laughed easily whenever she thought of how her big, unbound feet had saved four females and caused us to become Americans.
The story begins when she is three. She is the Only Daughter of the House of Tzu. Cherished by all, she loves easily. Servants pamper her to chase away the tiniest frown, tickling her toes to hear her sweet laughter. All of heaven, from Lei Tsu, the three-eyed father of thunder, to T'u Ti, the dwarfed, puckish local deity, honor this sweet child. She is Little Missy Da-tsien, granddaughter of a great man, and she smiles at all people and loves all gods. Surely she will win a rich husband and make fruitful sons, multiplying clan wealth and making everyone except herself crazy with happiness.
If I look into the distance of my family's past, I see fireflies flitting in the fields as low angles of soft afternoon sunlight fill the upper rooms of the great house. It is the hour of late tea in the pleasant autumn of 1909, just before the entire world will change.
Da-tsien has been denied her nap to make her slow and pliable, so now, instead, she's quick and cranky. Lao Chu, the burly chef, and his robust white-jacketed cooks bang hot black iron woks in clouds of sizzling steam to produce a sumptuous second meal of the day for forty mouths and eighty chopsticks. The neatly dressed house staff anticipate the good dishes, enjoying the textured scents that promise a satisfying meal.
Rich homes of this era have housemasters, majordomos. In the crossings of oceans and the tides of time, our domo's name has been lost. He's remembered as a blunt man with keen eyes, a harsh voice and a neat mustache that would bristle for dramatic emphasis. He had little to do since the Tzu jia--the clan of the Tzus--stopped doing trade and making money.
The basic social unit in China is the family. Chinese families are not nuclear with parents at the center--they are vertical and horizontal, with ruling elders and the dead ancestors earnestly watching from above and, not infrequently, from below. These are the jia, the clans--lacking in privacy, prosperous in community, robust in support and rich in conflict.
The Tzu jia was once part of the bustling pharmaceutical Yangtze River herb trade. It was like being in medicine before managed care. Business was so good that the majordomo bragged about it. But gods listen and punish pride. The big words floated upward to heaven with the kitchen-stove smoke, drying up rain clouds and creating droughts that killed Tzu-land crops and caused starving pirates to raid their herbal boats for the last vestiges of the produce.
Now, instead of making business, the clan cruises on old profits and the domo gambles with Ah Tsui, my mother's amah, a personal maid who will attend her until one of them dies. Ah Tsui is a round and full country girl who is quick to criticize imperfection and to remember cards. When cards run towards her luck, she snorts through her nose like a young mare in spring; when they don't, she grinds her molars.
Later, Amah will comfort her little girl. Amah's the laziest and most superstitious member of the nonworking house. She's been eating Lao Chu's cooking since Da-tsien's birth, but her sudden, bloodcurdling midnap howls at invisible spirits still make the others jump as if T'sao T'sao, the devil, had stuck a kitchen knife into their bottoms. Ah Tsui is plagued by spirits that try to dig their way into her clothing to find secret hidden coins and old, sequestered food.
She heats a tub of warming and healing mineral waters to soothe her baby girl. Anxious servants watch the majordomo and the amah play cards as the mineral waters cool, dishes sizzle and hot spicy aromas lace the air. Soon it will happen. Screams will fill the house, chasing away all good thoughts. Pain for the sweet little girl, their precious Da-tsien, the one with the laughter of heaven. Some will cry; most will lower their heads. Hot food will help. They wait uneasily, cleaning their teeth and nails. The frowning men are more nervous than the women, who are unusually quiet.
The gentry ladies have been preparing all day, complimenting one another loudly, laughing abruptly, eating too much, joking about wine-drinking men and slow servants. They are steeling themselves. They look at Taitai, my maternal grandmother, my mother's mah-mee, the conductor of the house's feelings, for guidance.
Taitai is a short, fine-featured woman in a comfortable silk cheongsam, loose enough for doing work. She has so much burning clarity in her left eye that tricky merchants lower their heads, not crazy enough to bargain with so much heat. Today her eye is sharp and feral.
Finally, Taitai nods and the household ladies take her little daughter upstairs. She'll be a famous beauty, they remind one another--a fabled bride who'll make sons with long luck, old money, perfect faces and big male organs. They encourage one another because hurting this child will be hard, harder than any other in their long experience.
They close the doors and windows, locking out a sun fatigued by its hot work for Mr. and Mrs. Tu-di, the Chinese gods of the earth. The mister and missus are heavenly white-haired elders who manage agriculture for the best farmers of the earth. The missus is careful, ensuring that the soil is fertile, but the old man can be forgetful, allowing torrential floods or accidentally kicking away the clouds of rain from sun-parched fields. Some of the women will later recall that they glimpsed ominous shadows of evil fox spirits dancing on the waters by the house, and that the outside air seemed tomblike, leaving a bad weight on the heart.
On the canal, a lonely dirt farmer on a bony raft calls out his last wares with hopeful notes--cheap, half a copper for all that's left! But none of the pretty ladies in swishing high-necked silk gowns appear on their balcony of Shi Shr er, Lucky Seventy Two Way, to clack their long nails on the mahogany railing. He calls again, mournfully.
The women take deep breaths. They softly caress the little girl's cheeks, brush her dark hair, gaze into her immense round eyes and soothe her with cooing words, "Shiaobaobee, Shiaobaobee, Little Precious," while removing her tiny silk slippers.
Kind Auntie Gao reclines the child on the padded tabletop. She caresses the girl's feet, warming the ligaments. The girl smiles, then jerks as Auntie bends the four smallest toes, stretching the joints, leaving the largest to stand like a lonely sentinel, watching the fate of the others.
There are many methods for binding feet. In the backcountry, toes can be bent with increasing pressure for months. But this is Soochow, the city of elegant women, and the technique is brutal. When joints are loosened and warm, Auntie will nod and one of the ladies will sharply pinch the girl's ear to distract her as Auntie snaps the toes, making the sound of fried grasshoppers in a sizzling-hot wok. As the girl shrieks, Auntie will send her soft thoughts, then break the big toe and, with steady pressure, tightly bind all five to the body of the foot with a pure white bandage, fifteen palms long. This will bend the foot under itself. Her little niece will scream and fight as pain fills every nerve in her body. The pain will ebb as she gasps for air, recovering some chi, her inner strength, and then Auntie Gao will break the toes of the other foot.
The pain will persist through adolescence, ebbing and cresting while other bones fail and the foot dies and the skin with it as the girl matures into womanhood. Of course, some girls will perish from infections, and others will be crippled. It is the Soochow way. The canals that grace the city replaced arable soil, and now beautiful feet replace country feet. This is life and the commandment of beauty. It's a blessing for wellborn girls to be groomed for rich men, their tiny, inviting feet held by diminutive shoes.
In other times and lands, alternative parts of the female body will be emphasized or encased in other challenging interventions. This is the era of crippling feet, of hamstringing the liberty of girls for the pleasure of male eyes. It is a time of strengthening gentry clans by producing sons, for sons determine a clan's destiny and ensure survival for five thousand years. Sons serve elders in this world and care for the dead in the next life. Only sons warrant clan memory tablets and are able to survive against capricious gods who control weather, fertility and fortune.
When Auntie Gao was little, her clan women botched the binding, breaking the wrong bones and inducing a purple fever that stunted her growth and cost cash in doctoring and remedial fortune-telling. Her right foot grew at a bad-luck angle, ruining her future as a bride and cloaking her house with a spiritual darkness. Because the women had tsa guo, "dropped the pots" with her, Auntie grew into a small, limping woman who deserved her angry husband with the sour heart. But her victimization as a wife made her sensitive to the needs of others. She became a top foot-binder in Soochow, the city of picturesque canals and lovely ladies. Wearing Taoist black and a kind look, she calmed the unhappiest girl and quickly and neatly broke toes to create beauty and to help clans.
Auntie has a small face framed by tightly coiled black hair. She looks older than her twenty-six years. She dearly loves her three-year-old niece, taking her time, warming up the precious foot as she breathes deeply to collect strength for the snapping of bones. She says a quick prayer to Guan Yin, the female goddess of mercy and male children. May good luck and healthy sons come from this hard day!
Da-tsien cries under the cresting pain, calls out to young Auntie Gao--Please stop! She begs for Ah Tsui, her amah, but Amah's gone! She reaches for Mother--Mah-mee helps them! She can't hear Mah-mee's encouragements, her justifications, her descriptions of fine young men with old money who will be pleased with the results of today's tears. The girl squirms to fight free, but she's pinned to the table by a phalanx of women, and she screams pitifully, her cries echoing through the three floors of the Chinese mansion. She weeps to heaven, and some women bite their lips as others show teeth and blink back tears. The house's gray mouser cats perk pointed ears and sedately take cover.
Downstairs, Ah Tsui freezes, her round face wrenching in pain. She prays to Guan Yin, apologizing for her laziness, her weaknesses. Since birth, Da-tsien has been taught all about the goddess of mercy. Guan Yin is strong and heals all hurts, Ah Tsui promised my mother.
Da-tsien, a child who has never known hardship or privation in a household of kind women, begs Guan Yin to come as a bright-winged phoenix from the sky to rescue her. She cries needfully at the ceiling, but no one comes. Desperately, she screams for Baba, her father.
They smile tightly. Her mother breathes, "Ssss, be strong." Auntie straightens the foot, the toes protesting, bending them.
Da-tsien's baba, my maternal grandfather, is a silly man given to reading foreign books, catching unneeded fish and babbling foreign thoughts in his sleep. It's a fact, they say, that if he keeps dozing with foreign books in his lap, he'll absorb the White Devil tongue and become a follower of the Christian god who smacks his lips as he devours children. The women make fun of Baba, but they like his kind heart and quiet voice. They appreciate these qualities more than beauty. In China, a woman's freedom from total male dominion of her words and actions comes only from kind men.
Baba loves his library. Books, unlike his wife, are open and shut and susceptible to being read at a gentlemanly pace. Peace, unlike criticism, invites sleep, so he naps in a room lined with quiet texts. His favorite spot is a kind French chair that replaced an unforgiving, hardwood cherry Kiangsu seat that was designed by the enemy of happy backs. Perhaps he dreams that his little daughter has caught a fish.
Her screams cascade down the grand staircase to bounce off the domed ceiling and he jerks awake, his book--Balzac?--tumbling onto a thick Tehrani carpet.
He is tall with a full head of jet-black hair, a long, straight nose, a handsome, rectangular face, large eyes, thick hands and broad shoulders rounded by years of good reading and zealous fishing. His thoughts resemble the movements of his bearlike body--slow, hesitant, reflective.
Little Missy! Foggy from sleep and foreign thoughts, he finds himself bounding up the stairs, abandoning his well-earned reputation for inaction and caution, a reputation that allows him to avoid family squabbles and the tiring monetary frictions of gentry clan management. He moves well for a big man, but his sprint up the stairs alarms the servants--only the uneducated are authorized to exert physical effort.
Panting, he enters an upper room. The women are dressed up with red cheeks, fine clothes and coiffed hair in a riot of shining peach, azure, burgundy and sea-green silks. Black-gowned Auntie Gao is at the center of the group, her hair fallen over an eye. He thinks: A party! The household ladies in one place, closely packed, looking so young. They gawk as if they were men and he were a woman who had stumbled into the strictly male-only ancestral hall. Unknowingly, he has crossed a closed border few men have seen. His daughter is struggling on the table.
So, this is how they do it. She's scared . . . this is wrong, very wrong. . . . He fumbles for a word, any word. "No?" he tries.
This is new for them, Old Father giving orders, even orders that come like questions, so they shrug and go back to work. The girl cries furiously and tries to twist free as her toes are bent farther and farther.
Baba hisses and thinks, shaking his right hand as if a bee had stung him. They are not obeying him. Think! He's not a physical man. He slams the door, hard, roars, "STOP!" Everyone jumps, including him.
One woman falls on her bottom. A man yelling in this house of women is unheard of! They're panicked, especially Auntie Gao, who knows the warning signs of male rage. She winces, her tender heart stopped, ready for hard blows.
"Ayy! Keep going, Sister!" shouts Da-tsien's mother, holding her heart. "Sahhhhh, Husband! You scared us! Why do you say stop?" she asks with her great frown of many wrinkles and her one ferocious eye.