By Audrey Ronning Topping
“What induces a mother to impose such suffering upon a daughter? How my heart aches for all these little Chinese girls. When I think of myself in Iowa at the glorious age of 10, running and leaping on my horse, galloping over the fields and jumping the creeks and these poor children have no freedom at all and can barely walk.” – Hannah Ronning, China missionary, 1891
Throughout the ages many customs have been developed by mankind seemingly to enhance or control women. In the West, there were laced corsets and stilettos. In China, there was the cruel practice of binding the feet of young girls so that they would be only three inches long.
Folklore has it that around the year 700, an empress gave birth to a girl with a clubfoot. To change her deformity into a model of beauty and elegance, the emperor made it mandatory for all young girls in the higher classes to break and bind their feet. The fetish lasted almost 1,000 years and was imposed upon concubines and wives to keep them from straying or escaping a beating. My American grandparents, the Rev. Halvor and Hannah Ronning, who went to China in 1891 to serve with the China Inland Mission, became directly involved in curbing this cruel custom.
The first student in my grandmother’s missionary school for girls in the interior of China was not a member of the gentry but a 10-year-old she had rescued from the slave market for the price of a few silver dollars. It was unusual to find a slave girl for sale that had bound feet for it was only the privileged classes that perpetrated that horror upon their little girls. The servant class and lowly peasants let the feet grow normally, enabling them to do the hard work expected of them. The orphaned girl had been kidnapped. When Hannah found her, she was hysterical with fear and suffering from pain in her tightly bound feet.
Back at the mission, Hannah unwrapped several yards of filthy bandages that tightly bound the child’s broken feet. The girl screamed in agony as the blood suddenly rushed to her toes. Hannah lowered her feet into a bucket of warm water with soothing oils. The child sighed in relief, but Hannah was horrified. “I saw with my own eyes what the Chinese call ‘killing the feet,’” Hannah later wrote in a letter to mission headquarters in Minnesota, imploring officials there to send funds for a hospital.
“The smell was quite revolting, but we tried not to notice. Her poor feet had been forced into line with the leg and the toes doubled under the soles of the feet. The big toes had been forced crooked to overlap the others. The bandages had been applied with a cruel amount of pressure. The child’s feet were blue and the skin cracked and indented where the circulation had been completely cut off. Fortunately, she is not yet permanently crippled as her young bones are still soft.
“It must be the cruelest custom ever inflicted by man. Mothers sleep with sticks, which they use to beat the child if she disturbs the household with her wails and if that doesn’t work, they sometimes lock her in an outhouse. The poor darlings are in such pain that their mothers give them opium to stifle the agony. We are told that the pain lets up after three years, but many of the girls die of gangrene or shock before that. Some go mad and others become opium addicts. When they grow up, they are crippled for life. They get no exercise, because they can only walk on their heels with the knees stiff. The feet are no longer than a hand’s width. The muscles of the calf never develop and the lower legs are like broomsticks with drooping folds of skin. But, thank God, our little girl will not suffer this. She will recover in time and we will do everything we can to give her a good education. Halvor baptized her and we have named her Sarah.
“I cannot imagine that the Chinese men find it attractive, but they say it is so. They call these hideously crippled feet ‘golden lilies,’ but the operation transforms the woman into a fetish, and thus, a pure object of love. They call it the ‘code of love,’ but I call it a code of suffering and tears imposed on women for control. No gentleman will marry a girl with natural feet and to have an unmarried daughter is the ultimate disgrace for a middle-class family. Now I see that we must first unbind the minds before we can unbind the feet.”
When the winter plum trees bloomed to herald the spring of 1894, the missionaries hung posters on the town bulletin boards announcing the opening of a free school for all children regardless of sex or social standing. Books and writing materials would be furnished by the mission. This was shocking news for the local gentry. There had never ever been a school for girls in the interior of China. Only boys of the upper classes were to be educated. To ensure success, the mission school was to open on the propitious ninth day of the ninth moon, Sept. 9, 1894.
Halvor and Hannah Ronning had invited the local officials for tea and explained that reading and writing would be taught first in Chinese and then in English. Halvor pointed out that the merit system established by Confucius was to be highly recommended but that it allowed for only one boy in a whole village to be educated, whereas the Mission School would give every child the opportunity to go to school. Hannah pointed out that they wanted to restore the educational opportunities that girls enjoyed during the great Tang Dynasty (618-907) when China was at the height of its glory and girls had the same opportunities for education as boys.
“The elite group,” wrote Halvor later, “listened with an air of apathetic indifference, which seems to veil the inner feelings of most polished Chinese gentlemen.” He was soon to discover their real feelings.
At 6 a.m. opening day, Halvor dressed smartly in a mandarin scholar’s robe tailored to fit his tall Nordic frame. Then he placed a long false queue or pigtail attached to a satin skull cap to hide his wavy, fair hair and set out for his new schoolhouse with long, purposeful strides. He was full of enthusiasm, but it was not the auspicious beginning he had anticipated.
“When I came to the schoolhouse,” he wrote, “I found one small, ragged urchin sitting on the steps. That was all! Just one! Two with my adopted son Peter. However, I welcomed the child warmly and carried on classes as if I had a full house.
“The next day the boy, whom I discovered was the nephew of our loyal gatekeeper, came back with a friend who looked so bedraggled and frightened I had to laugh. That was a mistake. He ran off crying and Peter had to fetch him back. So now there were three. I taught them how to count. The boys learned quickly. They were proud of themselves and left promising to spread the good word. The next day, there were five. That’s what we call progress, isn’t it?”
While Halvor was making progress, Hannah was despondent. Hers was to be the first girls school in the interior of China, but in spite of their earnest campaigning, not a single girl had appeared on the first day. This was not surprising considering the history of women in China since the downfall of the Tang Dynasty in 907. Educating females was a revolutionary idea. Women, the Chinese believed, were necessary for the proliferation of the species, but inferior by nature. The sages stressed the danger of educating women or letting them go freely about lest they gain the upper hand. There are two old sayings that reveal the attitudes at that time: “At the bottom of every trouble there is a woman” and “If women take to learning, what will men do?”
With this way of thinking inured in the minds of the Chinese for centuries, it was no wonder that my grandparents had a difficult time getting girls to go to school. Beggars, servants and the poorest peasants were often freer than an upper-class woman, who could be divorced if she dared to venture alone on the streets. If called upon to go on an errand without her husband, she had to ride a mule with an escort or travel in a curtained sedan chair carried on the shoulders of two bearers, who reported her every movement to their master. If she was accompanied by her husband, she was obliged to walk three paces behind.
Three days after Sarah’s feet were unbound, she became the first girl to attend Hannah’s school. A week later, another 10-year-old girl was brought to the mission by her father, a well-to-do gentleman in the salt trade who had been converted to Christianity by Halvor. The salt merchant set an example by bringing his daughter to school and soon others followed. The only criterion for entrance was that the girls must unbind their feet. Two weeks after the opening, Halvor wrote: “I have 11 small boys and Hannah has five girls. We must not be discouraged. Building has begun on the dormitories and the mission work is expanding rapidly.”
Today, the school they founded is comprised of grades one to 12 with a spacious campus and track where the girls can run freely. The complex contains the largest middle school in Hubei Province. Grandmother’s tombstone still stands in the courtyard of the elementary school. When my husband and I visited the school last year with some of our children, we were cheered by 4,000 students, causing my grandson (Halvor’s great-great grandson) to remark. “Hey Grandma, in China, you’re a rock star!”
Audrey Ronning Topping’s new book “China Mission: A Personal History From Imperial China to the People’s Republic,” published by the Louisiana State University Press Oct. 7, is available for discount preorders on Amazon.com.
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