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people placed bowls of urine inside their homes to create a stench so vile that soldiers would not e

A woman with very small feet was considered a very desirable wife." WANG ZAIBAN, CENTER, WITH WU XIUZHEN, LEFT

people placed bowls of urine inside their homes to create a stench so vile that soldiers would not enter for fear of illness

Living Memories of Bound Feet, War and Chaos in China


AT ages 84 and 83, Wang Zaiban and Wu Xiuzhen are old women, and their feet are historical artifacts. They are among the dwindling number of women in China from the era when bound feet were considered a prerequisite for landing a husband.

No available man, custom held, could resist the picture of vulnerability presented by a young girl tottering atop tiny, pointed feet. But Mrs. Wang and Mrs. Wu have tottered past vulnerability. They have outlived their husbands and also outlived civil war, mass starvation and the disastrous ideological experiments by Mao that almost killed China itself.

In recent years, drought drove them out of the mountains of Shaanxi Province to this farming village beside the Yellow River in Inner Mongolia. They now collect cigarette cartons or other scraps for recycling, or they help in the fields. They are widows, grandmothers, mothers and, more or less, migrant workers.

At this particular moment, they are resting.

“You look a little different,” Mrs. Wu said to a small group of foreigners who approached them one afternoon near dusk.

“I’m going deaf!” shouted Mrs. Wang as a warning.

They had been chatting beside the Yellow River, sitting on the bank and taking in the view. The river was brown, and the hillsides were colorless and pebbled with stones. Haze from factories downstream curled around a tight bend.

Mrs. Wang wore a white cloth wrapped around her head. A blue scarf framed Mrs. Wu’s sun-baked face. They had grown up together in a mountain village outside the city of Shenmu, located a few hundred miles to the east.

When they were teenagers, China’s raging civil war between Mao’s insurgent Communists and the ruling Nationalists had almost overrun them. Every household, the women remembered, feared the Nationalist soldiers. Some people placed bowls of urine inside their homes to create a stench so vile that soldiers would not enter for fear of illness. Parents feared their daughters would be raped.

“None of the parents wanted to keep older girls at home,” Mrs. Wang recalled. “When the Nationalist soldiers came to Shenmu, young girls fled into the mountains, cut their hair and covered their faces with dirt.”

Mrs. Wang said she was married at 15. Asked about her feet, she laughed, slipped off a blue, canvas slipper and flapped the top half of her stunted foot back and forth like a swinging door. “My feet were wrapped when I was 5 years old,” she said. “No one wanted you unless you bound your feet. That is what my mother told me.”

“A woman with very small feet was considered a very desirable wife,” Mrs. Wang added.

They are just feet to her now.

“They don’t peel and they don’t hurt,” she said. “But the bone is broken.”

By 1933, she said, the Communists took control of the Shenmu region and forbade old customs like bound feet. “When I was 12, they were unwrapped,” she recalled, explaining why her feet are slightly larger than those of other women of her generation. “When Chairman Mao came around, binding feet wasn’t allowed anymore.”

MAO remains a warm, if vague, memory, a giant rather than a monster. But the chaos that Mao ultimately inflicted upon China also became a memory. Mao’s disastrous program to collectivize agriculture and industry — the Great Leap Forward, from 1958 to 1960 — left as many as 30 million people dead of starvation.

“We were a big collective at the time,” Mrs. Wang said of her region. “The people of all the different villages ate from the same pot.”

Often, they ate weeds. “No one starved, but there were people who were hungry and got sick and died.”

The Cultural Revolution followed and brought the arrival of angry Red Guards heeding Mao’s call to root out “bourgeois elements” from every corner of China. “It was dangerous,” Mrs. Wang said. “They gathered all the landlords on the edge of a cliff and tossed them over.”

These ideological campaigns passed through like violent, destructive winds, storms of different duration. But they did pass through. For most of their lives, Mrs. Wang and Mrs. Wu lived in isolation typical for peasants of their generation, never traveling far from their mountain village.

“Where do you live?” Mrs. Wu asked a photographer.


“That is far,” Mrs. Wu decided.

The women say they did not notice when China opened itself to the outside world in 1978. Nearly three decades of astonishing economic growth have followed. They say they have not noticed that, either. Drought is what they noticed, and it finally pushed them out of the mountains. Mrs. Wang’s son left several years ago and found land beside the river in Laoshidan in western Inner Mongolia. One by one, family members followed, and now the son supports nine people.

Laoshidan is decrepit, with battered brick homes, mud stables and dirt paths for roads. During the Cultural Revolution, Laoshidan was one of the thousands of rural villages that housed city youths “sent down” to work with peasants in the countryside. “They couldn’t do anything,” recalled Gao Zhenlin, a woman with brown teeth and a cockeyed baseball cap who has lived in the village for almost 30 years. “They were incapable. They didn’t know how to farm.”

BUT the end of the Cultural Revolution meant the city kids could return to the city, and they left immediately. Now farm kids are flowing into the cities all over China, as the country now has more than 150 million migrant workers. Villages like Laoshidan are dying, except that Laoshidan has water from the river. So it, oddly, is a migrant destination. The village has 90 families who have come from seven provinces. Everyone grows corn.

The youngest wear T-shirts and watch TV. The oldest, Mrs. Wu and Mrs. Wang, find their entertainment sitting beside the river.

“Our houses aren’t very nice,” Mrs. Wang said. “We like to watch the river. When I don’t feel good, I come by the river.”

Mrs. Wang carried a few cucumbers in a nylon sack, gifts from her son, and offered one to her guest. Mrs. Wu’s husband died three years ago but she has three sons, two daughters and 17 grandchildren. (The one-child policy is often more a concept than a reality in the most remote farming villages.)

“Since we got here, life is O.K.,” Mrs. Wu said. “But it is punishing to still work the land. It is cruel to be so old and still working.”

It was a melancholy note but it passed. Mrs. Wang and Mrs. Wu later rose off the ground and began to head home for dinner. The two women with unbound feet laughed and found a bit of satisfaction from at least one of the changes wrought in their long lives.

“Back then, if you wanted to curse women, you could curse them,” Mrs. Wang said. “If you wanted to hit them, you could hit them. But now women are women.”

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