Reply: Comment on Mulan Article, American Dream in Imperial China, foot-binding

This is my reply to the letter published in my last blog entry:

Dear Caoyuan:

Yes, saying that “the American Dream prevails in Imperial China” in my Mulan article may be a stretch–I only mean that one aspect of the American Dream of the poor boy making good prevails in Imperial China. People may read into it many other aspects of the American Dream, so I will revise that sentence to “In fact, the idea central to the American Dream has prevailed long ago in Imperial China: anyone can aspire to the highest position in life. Stories of poor boys make good abound.” And I’ll footnote it with some poor boy make good stories. Good suggestion. Thank you.

Many of the poor boy make good stories are through the Imperial Exams: succeeding in the Imperial Exams means an automatic spot in the social elite, i.e. a post in the Civil Service. Usually economic gain follows. Prestige is very high for the Imperial Exam Laureates; the First Imperial Laureate, for example, is the only one besides the Emperor himself allowed to enter and exit through the central one of the three openings of the Imperial Palace’s various gates. Some examples of the Imperial Chinese success stories: the legendary Emperor Shun from purportedly 2233-2184 B.C., who is a peasant raised to the throne for his virtue. Zhu Mai Chen, d. 115 B.C. and held up as a model in the almost univerally read primer for children San Zi Jing, is originally a cowherd whose wife divorces him for his poverty. Lu Wen Shu, also extolled in San Zi Jing, is so poor when younger that he has to use his straw mat to write on instead of paper. Lu Meng Zheng, 944-1011 A.D., is supposedly so poor before succeeding in the Imperial Exams that the butcher barges into the kitchen to take back the meat bought on credit and the father-in-law tries to pressure Lu’s wife into divorcing him. The famous patriotic general Yue Fei, 1103-1142 A.D., is so poor when young that he uses sand and twig to learn to write. Examples go on and on.

As for foot binding, I never mean for the article to come across as condoning the practice for reasons of cultural relativism. I’ve thought that I’ve made myself pretty clear I condemn foot binding, having called it revolting and rightly so, foolish, and ignorant. In my mind, it’s a matter of advance in science and in health-related knowledge, not so much a matter of a moral scale of right or wrong, good or bad. The practice of cannibalism in Papua New Guinea, where one eats and thus internalizes the remains of one’s dead relative as a sign of affection and respect, is also revolting, foolish, and ignorant, because that practice is responsible for widespread Kuru, a disease of premature dementia, among those people. And I am pretty confident that one day people will condemn the practice of pulling at least 4 healthy teeth and then bracing the remaining as causing some deleterious health conditions later in life. These practices are deleterious and wrong for health reasons, not for reasons of deliberate cruelty or oppression of a segment of the population. No, the victims of these practices often feel privileged to be the recipients (only the daughters of affluent families get to have foot binding). My point in the foot binding paragraph is not to say that foot binding is right, but only to say that foot binding is not meant to be deliberately cruel and vile to females, and is not an example of female life being worthless in traditional China.

Not that I pretend there’s equality between the sexes, but I think female life is worth a lot more in traditional China than in some other traditional cultures.

Feng Xin-ming

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