Nearly a century ago, in the Forbidden City, China's last emperor reigned from his dragon throne. Although he was only a boy, the imperial decrees issued in his name echoed in every corner of the country. Every man had to shave his head and wear a single pigtail to symbolize his submission to the emperor, and every woman was second in importance to the men in her family. Women were obedient to their fathers and brothers and later to the husbands in their arranged marriages. Certainly no woman was encouraged to attend school or to show any independence.
Into this world, in a village in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, White Lily was born. She had a happy childhood, running and playing, until, at the age of four, she was forced to undergo the painful procedure of foot binding required for all females of her social class. But White Lily has her heart set on more than a traditional role in society, and she enlists the support of her beloved elder brother. Together they devise a plan to defy tradition and convince their father that White Lily's feet and mind must be allowed to grow.
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February 04, 2003
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Excerpt from White Lily by Ting-Xing Ye
Nearly a century ago, deep in the center of the Forbidden City, China's last emperor reigned from his dragon throne. Although he was only a boy, the imperial decrees issued in his name were shouted in every corner of the country, binding his subjects with the stout bonds of custom and law, taxes and tribute, rules and regulations. Every man was required to shave his head, leaving a single pigtail to grow from the crown down his back, symbolizing his submission to the boy-emperor. And every woman was second in importance, even in her own family, for the burdens of law and tradition weighed much more heavily on females. They were called to obey their fathers and brothers as young girls, to comply with their husbands after their arranged marriages, and to yield to their sons if they were widowed.
Into this world, one day, in a village in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, a baby girl was born.
Lee Family Village was no ordinary place.
As far as the eye could see, jade-green rice paddies dotted a land crisscrossed with canals. The many quiet ponds were home to the most beautiful lilies in the nation. When in full blossom, they bathed the air with their sweet fragrance.
Nor was the newborn an ordinary girl. Her father, Master Lee, was the wealthiest man in the area, and his family the most prominent. As if to prove her worthiness to belong to such a clan, the baby cried out so lustily that she silenced the cicadas droning rhythmically in the trees, complaining far too hot! far too hot! Her shrill wails brought the villagers rushing to the gates of Master Lee's house, each anxious to be the first to extend his congratulations and best wishes.
The richest merchant arrived first, followed by his wife and household. Next came Master Lee's tenant farmers, slapping dust from their tattered trousers with their straw hats as they hurried along. Far behind waddled the local scholar, encircled by a flock of students.
"May I have the honor to make a proposal, noble Sir?" intoned the merchant when all had assembled. "I request that your beautiful child be promised in marriage to my Number One son, who is five years her senior." He held out a red silk pouch filled with silver coins.
With the heavy pouch resting in his palm, Master Lee responded, "I accept this proposition, Sir, and from now on we are relatives."
The crowd cheered the announcement as the head farmer stood out and made a deep bow. "Distinguished Master, we wish your precious girl good health, long life, and all the happiness in the world. May her daughterly obedience and virtue last as long as the universe!"
Behind him, the farmers pressed forward. Hens cuddled under their arms, strings of wriggling fish dangled from their hands, and fresh vegetables and fruit piled on pans were suspended from their shoulder poles. A group of ducks scurried worriedly to and fro under the watchful eyes of a pair of white geese. All this the farmers offered as gifts to the family.
Master Lee accepted the tributes with a silent nod.
"In my humble opinion, respected Lord," wheezed the scholar, puffing from his walk, "your baby girl is the purest among the pure and the finest among the best, like this precious flower." He presented a single, long-stemmed lily in full, white bloom. "May I suggest she be named White Lily?"
"Then White Lily she shall be," Master Lee declared, barely concealing his disappointment that the newborn was not a boy.
White Lily was a happy child. She began giggling before she could stand up, and she learned to laugh, louder than her cries, before she was able to wriggle her chubby toes and walk on her own. But her happiest times were those when she pulled off her socks and scampered barefoot across the wooden floors, or outside in the courtyard where the spring sun warmed the cool flagstones.
There she played with her elder brother, Fu-gui, and chased after sparrows. However, her running and jumping and shrieks of delight often earned Grandmother's -- Nai-nai's -- angry scolding, Father's frowns and grumbles, or Mother's gentle criticism for disrupting the household peace.
White Lily was sure that it was not her beating feet that displeased Nai-nai and upset her father, because for as long as she could remember the thump of feet was a familiar noise in their house. It came from Mother and Nai-nai.
In White Lily's eyes, the difference between these two important women in her life was as wide as the sky. While Nai-nai was short and chubby, almost balloon-shaped, Mother was tall and slim, much like the lily stems that stood in the ponds. Mother spoke in a soft, quiet manner that would hardly startle a bird, but Nai-nai's voice was loud and firm, as if a brass gong had been struck with a wooden mallet. Mother wore either a long skirt or a full-length robe, often in colorful prints. When she walked, her hips swung rhythmically while her pointed shoe-tips peeped in and out from under the hem. Yet Nai-nai seemed to know one color and one style only. She had chosen to wear black ever since Grandpa had passed away two years before White Lily was born. Her shapeless pants were wide and loose around the hips but narrow at the legs, wrapped tightly at her ankles with black ribbons.
But there was one thing that Mother and Nai-nai had in common -- their feet. They were almost as small as White Lily's. Mother's and Nai-nai's richly embroidered silk shoes were even shorter than their own outstretched hands. How could that be possible? White Lily wondered, looking down at her own plump feet, which seemed to grow with every passing breeze.