UCSC Review Winter 1996
Unbound Feet, Unbound Lives
by Barbara McKenna
Sometime between their sixth and eighth birthdays, the daughters of Chinese aristocrats and of those who aspired to aristocracy began the process of footbinding. Bandages wrapped tightly around their feet slowly forced the arches to break and all but the big toes to curl under. When a girl's foot had been compressed to the ideal size- three inches-it became difficult for her to walk without assistance.
Footbinding was commonly practiced in China for nearly a thousand years until it was banned in the wake of the 1911 revolution. "Despite the bodily harm that it caused," says UCSC assistant professor of American studies Judy Yung, "parents continued to subject their daughters to this custom because bound feet, like the Western practice of wearing corsets in the nineteenth century, were considered a sign of gentility and beauty."
The physical binding was echoed by a societal binding. A Chinese woman was expected to follow such Confucian tenets as the "Three Obediences," which prescribed that she obey her father before marriage, her husband after marriage, and her eldest son if widowed.
The first women to immigrate from China to America in the mid-1800s found life in the new country even more restrictive than at home. Not only were they limited by traditional cultural values, they also encountered pervasive racism. Confined to Chinese settlements by a hostile society and with almost no options for earning a living, most early female immigrants worked as prostitutes. Yung chronicles the lives of these early immigrants and those who came after them in her recently published book, Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco.
Using footbinding as a metaphor, Yung tracks the stages of "unbinding" that took place in the lives of these women between the turn of the century and World War II. "This is a pivotal period when Chinese women's lives begin to change dramatically," Yung explains. "You see the first glimmer of a raising of consciousness as well as the influence of westernization on the second generation." Yung follows the progress of these women as they emerge from kitchens and brothels to become labor organizers, factory workers, pilots, doctors, business owners, and artists. Yung has artfully blended historical documentation with the oral histories of nearly 40 women. The women she interviewed are elderly-many lived through the Great Depression-and about a half- dozen have died since she began the project fifteen years ago. "The information is locked in these memories, and there is this very strong feeling that if I don't do it now, their stories are never going to be told," she says.
During the years she devoted to the project Yung could often be found sitting in someone's living room with her tape recorder or haunting any number of libraries or the back rooms of various Chinese organizations. The former librarian and journalist scanned microfilm of 45 years' worth of articles from Chinese- and English- language newspapers, analyzed data from thousands of sheets of census forms, and pored over records and minutes of meetings from such women's organizations as the Square and Circle Club and the Chinese YWCA.
The work might sound tedious, but to Yung it was heaven. "This is the kind of thing I love to do. It's like being a detective and piecing together this puzzle. I can now walk through the streets of Chinatown and really imagine what it was like for women there at the turn of the century."
Yung, 49, spent much of her life on those very streets. The daughter of immigrants, she lived in a two-room Chinatown tenement with her parents, four sisters, and brother until she was eight. The stories of both Yung's mother, 82 year-old Law Ying Yung, and maternal great-grandmother are included in the book.
Despite the hardship endured by the women Yung interviewed, many of whom worked in Chinatown sweatshops most of their lives, no one regretted coming to America. For one thing, they found living conditions were better here than in the villages they left behind. But, more important, Yung says, "Daughters here are treasured."
Yung tells the story of a family in turn-of-the-century China that kept the news of their newborn child a secret because they were ashamed to have had a girl. Yung's family has coped with the same stigma. "My mother's relatives used to belittle her for not having more sons," she says. "But as she's gotten older she has come to understand our worthiness. Now she tells her relatives she is proud to have had five daughters."