The Golden Lotus Tarnishes
Only one unrelenting force lies behind the saga of mankind: Time. It treads wearily along while all the events of history unfold around it; lands are formed and reformed, great empires rise and fall, countless nations unify and splinter, trends come and go, and people climb to glory one minute and are overthrown the next the Golden Lotus and its most exalted possessors are no exception. Feng Jicai's novel, The Three Inch Golden Lotus, describes a peasant woman's rise to greatness and her subsequent fall into obscurity. The very same quality with which she entered the upper class and thrust herself to fame and fortune ultimately served to hasten her demise, the golden lotus had finally tarnished. By means of multiple foot contests, conniving and cunning sisters-in-law, varied and diverse ways of discussing foot binding, and the eventual intervention of the Europeans, Jicai masterfully illustrates the plight of Chinese women in trying to function in society through the tradition of foot binding and later, with the entrance of the Europeans, the quest of the elite, whose status was indeed produced by foot binding, to save this honored tradition from the vulgar ways of the West.
In the course of the novel, there are two main foot contests that serve to further the epic of Fragrant Lotus. Feng Jicai purposefully presents the contests in this manner so as to maximize their effectiveness in showcasing Fragrant Lotus' rise in the family. She was first brought into the family because her small feet won her the marriage of Tong Ren-an's oldest son, but once within the family, the foot competitions adversely affect in what regard she will be held. From the time Fragrant Lotus first entered the Tong family residence, she had noticed "the envy in the eyes of Golden Treasure and Autumn Scene [the second the third daughters-in-law of Tong Ren-an], an envy so palpable you could put it in your teeth and grind it like a knife blade." With such vivid imagery, Jicai has no trouble in expressing how important bound feet were when interacting with other women, especially in determining the status of oneself in contrast to another. However, the most penetrating example of the importance of bound feet follows two chapters later; Chapter 6, the chapter immediately following the results of the foot contest begins simply with one sentence, "defeat in the foot competition tumbled Fragrant Lotus to rock bottom." The description continues, "Golden Treasure's manner turned harsh. The very polite treatment she had shown when Fragrant Lotus first crossed the family threshold disappeared completely." But even more stunning than the change in temperament is the fact that "the entire family now revolved around her [Golden Treasure]
even Tong Ren-an was powerless." The foot competition is paramount when deciding which woman commands respect within the household. Jicai purposefully places this contest first so that the reader can understand just what kind of power and based in these competitions; if one does not win the competition one acquires the contempt of the winner and no one has the power say otherwise. Finally, the second foot contest is indeed won by Fragrant Lotus, and exemplifies a complete reversal in her fortune. She suddenly commands the respect of the others, which is a sharp contrast to her near peasant state after the first competition. It is unknown if Jicai meant for such an analogy to be drawn, but it can be seen that Fragrant Lotus' situation is comparable to that of China during the late 1800's and early 1900's. Thought of as a backward eastern nation earlier in history by the western powers, it is merely thought of as a land of savages. However, after exploration (like the second foot contest) China was found to be rather advanced and quite a wondrous place. More pointedly, Jicai's novel makes a sharp commentary on how foot binding was not just a formality in order to win oneself a...
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