Lily says that girls in her county have their feet bound starting at age six. Lily is still outside running, but Mama has already begun making bindings and shoes. She also creates a pair of miniature shoes to place on the altar of Guanyin as an offering. These miniature shoes are the first clue for Lily that Mama might care for her.
The miniature shoes express to Lily that her life might be seen as useful and she may receive love if her foot binding goes well. This further cements the idea that a woman's worth is tied to her body and her feet specifically.
When Lily and Beautiful Moon turn six, Mama and Aunt send for Diviner Hu to select an auspicious date to begin their foot binding. Lily is scared, as she's heard the screams of other girls undergoing the process. The diviner asks to see Lily in person, which is an unusual request, and he inspects her and deems her "no ordinary child." He suggests they consult with a matchmaker (a woman who arranges marriages), and Mama doesn't even ask Baba's permission to spend the money.
Lily, at six years old, doesn't understand what's going on, but she knows that it must be bad if Mama is willing to spend money to comply with Diviner Hu's suggestion. While this starts to create tension regarding Lily and what might happen to her, it also points again to her family's low standing and the idea of female bodies as currency.
The next day, the women rise early to make special tea and cakes. When Diviner Hu arrives, he has Madame Wang with him from Tongkou, rather than the local matchmaker. Lily says that the situation must be dire since Lily's family isn't expecting to see a matchmaker for several years, and then only for their older children.
A matchmaker usually begins the process of arranging marriages when girls are several years older. Thus the arrival of an unexpected matchmaker when Lily is so young builds tension, as everyone wonders what could possibly be different about Lily.
Madame Wang settles herself and then asks to see Lily. Lily studies her family members' faces, all of which are worried and anxious. Mama's face, however, shows lurking "male ambition." Lily stands in front of Madame Wang, who inspects her thoroughly. Madame Wang stands and instructs Lily to sit, which Lily knows would be a very rude thing to do. When Lily hesitates, Madame Wang picks her up and sits her down, and then takes off Lily's shoes to inspect her feet.
The comment about "male ambition" is certainly coming from the elderly Lily as the narrator. She'll continue to gender thoughts and actions throughout the novel, particularly in regard to Mama. This is especially poignant in this case, as it suggests that women are not supposed to have ambition—they should accept their lot in life and not hope for anything better. Even as a child, Lily is very concerned about following rules and being polite.
When Madame Wang reclaims her seat, Diviner Hu says that Lily's feet are underdeveloped, and so Mama needs to wait a year to begin binding them. He continues, saying that Lily's entire body is underdeveloped, as are many girls in the village, but her feet in particular have high arches and if things are done well, her feet could be perfect. Madame Wang adds that if Lily's feet are bound perfectly, she could marry into Tongkou, the best town in the county, and further, Lily may be eligible for a laotong relationship. Everyone is aghast, and Madame Wang and Diviner Hu leave.
For the first time, Lily is seen as possibly valuable to her family and not just a worthless girl. She gets the first taste that her life might be more than she ever thought possible, but again, she has that possibility because of her body. This suggests that while others may profit from a woman's body, she too can sometimes use her own body as “currency” in this system of objectification. It's in Lily’s best interest, then, to comply with what's asked of her.
Lily and Mama go upstairs. Mama slaps Lily across the face, and tells her that all this will bring Baba trouble. Lily knows that the slap is good luck and meant to scare away bad spirits, as nothing can guarantee perfectly bound feet, and the slap is further indicative of Mama's “mother love.” Lily tells the reader that while she doesn't know if her family decided her fate that day, her life changed. She and Beautiful Moon have their feet bound the following year with Third Sister. Mama beats Lily regularly, and Baba never looks at her the same way, since now she is possibly useful. Madame Wang visits periodically over the following year, but only views Lily as a means to profit.
This passage drives home the idea that Lily's worth is tied to her body. However, this possible worth is also tenuous, as many things can go wrong. Mama certainly means that Lily will bring a greater financial burden upon her family, even though she'll likely be worth more if things do go well. Lily also begins to suggest a link between being female, having worth, and experiencing violence. Foot binding is certainly an act of violence, but it, as well as these beatings from Mama, is described as being helpful and stemming from love.
Lily and Beautiful Moon's education in "house learning" begins in earnest. Lily shares that she would spend her entire life in an upstairs chamber, as dictated by Confucian society. She would be expected to obey her father, her husband, and then her son, as well as follow the Four Virtues that delineate proper behavior for women. She begins learning to sew, starts making shoes to wear during her foot binding, and Aunt starts teaching her nu shu. Lily explains the basic ideas of nu shu: it's phonetic, meaning that one must take care not to misinterpret meaning; it can be used to write letters, prayers, and autobiographies; it can be embroidered or woven; and it can be sung. Most importantly, men can never know of it or touch it.
The way Lily describes the standards of Confucian society indicate that she sees little problem with the arrangement. This reminds the reader that in order for things like foot binding to keep happening, the women themselves must buy into the system and perpetuate these customs. Because Lily is possibly very valuable in this system, she has little incentive to try to avoid it, and this complicity will follow her throughout the novel.
When Lily turns seven, Diviner Hu returns to find a date for her, Beautiful Moon, and Third Sister to begin their binding. He settles on the typical date, which is in the fall. Mama and Aunt make bandages and feed the girls soft foods to encourage their bones to be soft. The girls are congratulated on entering womanhood. Lily knows that foot binding will make her more marriageable, which will allow her to achieve the goal of having a son.
Notice here that foot binding is portrayed as the way that these girls will become women. Coming of age here happens when a girl can endure this level of pain and achieve this standard of beauty. The fact that a woman's greatest achievement is to produce a son is indicative of how undervalued women are: a woman is considered merely a vessel.
On the morning the binding is to begin, Lily, Beautiful Moon, and Third Sister offer the Tiny-Footed Maiden rice balls, and Mama and Aunt offer their miniature shoes to a statue of Guanyin. They gather their supplies, and Lily goes first. Mama washes Lily's feet, rubs them with alum, cuts her toenails, and begins wrapping wet bandages around her feet to pull her toes under her foot. Aunt wraps Beautiful Moon's feet and then it's Third Sister's turn, but she's nowhere to be found. Lily's feet ache as she listens to Mama and Aunt drag Third Sister out of a neighbor's house and berate her. When they return to the women's chamber, Aunt, Grandmother, and Elder Sister hold Third Sister down while Mama wraps her feet. Third Sister screams the entire time.
Alum was used to help keep the skin dry and keep infections from starting; it's the same thing that's found in modern antiperspirants. Lily again proves herself obedient and compliant while Third Sister acts as though she's above or apart from this process. We see how the tradition of foot binding, while painful and hard to read about, is normalized for the characters and turned into a ritual with the offerings. Then it's perpetuated from generation to generation: as Mama's mother inflicted this pain upon her, so she now inflicts it upon her own daughters.
When the wrapping is finished, Mama and Aunt instruct the girls to get up. Lily's feet are throbbing, but Mama yanks her up and tells her to walk. Mama, Elder Sister, and Aunt lead Lily, Beautiful Moon, and Third Sister back and forth across the room on their folded toes. After ten round trips, they're left alone. The pain is unimaginable, and Elder Sister does her best to comfort the girls.
While Lily has tried thus far to be brave in the face of the pain, she's starting to realize that this transformation from girl to woman is going to be very difficult. However, she's still willing to comply. This begins to build the sense that Lily is always stoic and accepting, especially in regards to tradition.
Lily, Beautiful Moon, and Third Sister are made to walk again the next day, and the day after. Every fourth day, Mama and Aunt soak off the bandages and rewrap them tighter than before. As the weather gets colder, Grandmother stops walking with the girls and only sits and watches them.
Remember that the pain of foot binding is supposed to prepare a girl to withstand a hard life as an adult woman. This pain, then, foreshadows what's to come in these girls' lives—there may be no relief at all waiting for them.
One day while Lily is walking, she hears the crack of one of her toes breaking. Mama sharply instructs her to keep moving through the excruciating pain. When Mama rewraps Lily's feet a few days later, she tells Lily that she will have only have beauty through this pain and suffering, and that a lady lets no ugliness into her life. Beautiful Moon's toes break a few days later, but Third Sister's toes won't break despite extra efforts. When the girls' bandages are next removed, the blood and pus from Third Sister's feet are different, and her skin is bright red.
The moment Lily's toe breaks is grotesque, visceral, and violent, as Mama forces her to keep walking on her broken feet. When Mama tells Lily about the relationship between beauty and suffering, she begins to plant the seed that platitudes or traditional sayings can both justify violence like this and act as a stand-in for actually experiencing pain and emotion.
When it begins to snow outside, the bones in Lily's mid-foot break. Third Sister becomes feverish, and one day when Mama and Aunt are downstairs, Elder Sister allows Third Sister to lie down. When Elder Sister pulls up Third Sister's pant leg to massage her legs, she sees red streaks running the length of her calves. Elder Sister fetches Mama and Aunt, who begin boiling water after taking in the scene. Mama unwraps Third Sister's bindings to expose rotting flesh, and the stench makes them gag. Mama and Aunt decide to continue to bandage Third Sister's feet, though, because if they halt the binding process she'll be crippled and unmarriageable.
The decision to continue binding Third Sister's feet is telling of the harsh views of society. At its heart, this decision indicates that it's better for a woman to be dead (as now that infection has set in, death is far more likely) than to have big feet and be unmarriageable. Notice too that the decision here is coming primarily from kind and loving Aunt—even she can't escape societal pressures with her kindness.
Baba fetches the doctor the next day, but the doctor is unable to help. The doctor also notices that Grandmother is very ill. Mama, as the first daughter-in-law, is tasked with caring for her, while Beautiful Moon and Lily care for Third Sister. As young girls they don't know the words to comfort her, and she dies in a terrible amount of pain. Grandmother dies the next day.
This introduces the reader to the idea of a married woman's role in her household. Her first duty is to her mother-in-law, not her own children. Notice that Third Sister dies in pain, and that Lily ties this specifically to the fact that she and Beautiful Moon don't know the proper words to comfort her. This reinforces Lily's belief in the comforting aspects of tradition (particularly as tied to language).
As the ground is too hard to dig graves, Grandmother and Third Sister's bodies spend the winter under the snow. The women's chamber becomes even more disciplined as Beautiful Moon and Lily make sure to not resist, and Mama, Aunt, and Elder Sister vigilantly watch for infection. Lily tells the reader that she heard many sayings during those months and didn't understand their meaning, understanding only that her foot size will determine her worth—it will be an indicator of her ability to endure pain and misfortune, and to behave obediently. She shares too that while she didn't know it then, her feet would later be a source of fascination for Lily’s husband, even when the rest of her body was no longer enticing.
Third Sister becomes a cautionary tale of what happens when a woman resists the path that's set out for her by her family and society. Remember that she believed she was loved, as a son would, and she dramatically resisted foot binding. Lily and Beautiful Moon, on the other hand, seem to be rewarded for their obedience, as they escape contracting dangerous infections. Also notice that once again there are traditional sayings meant to help individuals through their own personal pain.