In the time and place of the novel, unless a girl was very poor and destined to be a servant (like Yonggang), she would have her feet bound starting at six years old. The goal was for a woman's feet to be between 2.5 and 5 inches long when fully grown—the smaller the feet, the more beautiful the woman was considered to be. The painful process of foot binding also prepared a girl to weather the pain of the rest of her life, which would include the emotional pain of a mother-in-law who would never truly accept her and hopefully, the pain of childbirth. A woman's feet, then, become a symbol of the pain she's endured, and a reminder of the pain she must endure throughout her life once her foot binding process is over, simply by virtue of being female. While Lily conceptualizes her first few years of life with unbound feet as the only freedom she ever experiences, she also looks down on women with unbound feet and sees their lives as sad and limited. Because those women don't carry the evidence of their pain in the form of bound feet, they're denied other rites of passage (like marriage) and the ability to move up in society.
Feet Quotes in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
For us, the pain didn't lessen. How could it? But we learned the most important lesson for all women: that we must obey for our own good.
"A true lady lets no ugliness into her life," she repeated again and again, drilling the words into me. "Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suffering will you find peace. I wrap, I bind, but you will have the reward."
"I would rather keep her on this earth unmarried than lose her forever."
"Then she would have no purpose and no value," Aunt reasoned. "Your mother love tells you this is no future."
"My mother bound my feet—and me to the chair—even tighter the next time."
"You can't fight your fate," I said. "It is predestined."
With her bold act, I realized the true purpose of our secret writing. It was not to compose girlish notes to each other or even to introduce us to the women in our husbands' families. It was to give us a voice. Our nu shu was a means for our bound feet to carry us to each other, for our thoughts to fly across the fields as Snow Flower had written.
And then the strangest thing happened. An image of my mother came to my mind. I remembered that as a child I'd wanted her to love me. I'd thought if I did everything she asked during my footbinding, I would earn her affection.