Until today, I didn’t know my grandmother’s name. Many of my Chinese friends can similarly attest to this unknowing. We call our grandmothers nai nai or po po, based on whether they are our maternal or paternal grandmother. It is impolite to call elders by their names, and, since I never remembered seeing any mail lying around or documents with my grandmother’s Anglicized name spelled out in English letters, growing up, I didn’t even consider that she had a name other than po po.
This woman without a name, who turned 104 years old this year, was born two years after the Qing dynasty and the fall of Imperial China, had her feet bound in preparation to form the shape of little lotuses, left home in Hubei at the age of eight and never saw her parents again, studied Chinese literature at Beijing University, fled the Mainland for Taiwan with Chang Kai-shek in 1948, was respected in her community as a teacher and vice-principal at the Zhongshan Girl’s High School, retired in America, and lived by herself in a one-bedroom apartment until she was a hundred years old.
At the age of four, my grandmother cried and cried while handmaidens held her down and, stopping just short of breaking them, forced her feet into the desired lotus shape. My grandmother’s toes were powdered and bent, squeezed beneath the soles of her feet, and tied with strips of cloth to restrict their growth. Lotus feet didn’t stop growing, but rather than growing longer, they grew inward, gnarled and twisted into themselves like the roots of a tree with nowhere to go.
Two years ago, during a spell when my grandmother was lucid as she has mostly been these past few years, I asked her to tell me about her experiences having her feet bound. All day long, she had been quietly staring out the window, unresponsive to the discussions happening around her, absentmindedly chewing food when it was handed to her. But when I asked about her feet, an incident in childhood that dated back nearly a hundred years ago, she came alive. Sitting straight up, she held her left hand out and pulled her fingers down with her right hand, tucking them into her palm. Gleefully, she said in Chinese, They did it like this! One, two, three, four, all five toes. I cried so much I was beyond consciousness. At night, finally, unable to stand the pain anymore, I would untie them in the dark. The smell of my feet after days or weeks of being bound, contained the stink of death.
In the morning, she was reprimanded, held down, the work she had done inside the private economy of her own desire eradicated in an act of dispossession, her feet taken away from her and transformed again into a fetishized commodity. This ritual went on, and on and on, week after week. What are we going to do with you, her parents asked, with such a bad girl? What this was for, the pain and the mutilation, was of course all in the service of her father betrothing her to an older man. At the age of four, her life, her body, was no longer hers.
Binding a little girl’s feet was considered obligatory for her prosperous future. This commodity would allow her the possibility of gaining passage to a life where she would never have to leave her home except for the rare occasion when she would be carried aloft in a palanquin, where servants would tend to her needs, and where she could spend the years reposed on a daybed eating longan fruits and drinking tea. Without lotus feet, no man from the higher social class would want to marry her.
For the next hour after answering my question about binding her feet, my grandmother continued to pull and yank on her own hand, her monologue a repetition that could not be stopped or stripped of its jouissance. It was in the recollection—no, reliving, of this long-ago incident that brought my grandmother from a state of catatonia back into animation again. I saw in her exuberant speech, a loop feeding back on itself, the circumscription of the void, an endless circling around trauma, which in itself is unspeakable and unimaginable.
The little girl who never stopped resisting eventually succeeded in her efforts to reclaim her own body. Her father deemed her unfit to be married, and if she had no lotus feet, her future husband did not want her. She went off to school, and at the age of seventeen, enrolled at Beijing University, commonly referred to as the Harvard of China. She studied classic Chinese literature and music, and was one of the few females attending the university at the time.
Four decades later, after she met my grandfather at the university, after they married and had five children, after they continued fleeing south from Beijing to the Sichuan province escaping first the Japanese and then the Communist Party of China, after they followed Chang Kai-Shek to Taiwan, after tightly wrapping my mother as an infant in cloth and placing her in a drawer so that she could go teach a class and praying that she would not return to a dead baby, after they retired and immigrated to Los Angeles, and lived in different apartments, only then would she finally be untethered from being someone else’s subject: daughter, mother, wife. In her sixties, a single woman, she lived a life exactly as she wanted.
Though my grandmother is too humble to label herself as such, she’d always been for me the ne plus ultra of women who break the boundaries of social roles and gender equality. But where in the territory of intersectional feminism in 1950s Taiwan did sexual liberation belong for a married woman? A woman’s right to control her own sexuality had no place in the patriarchal structures of the time that refused women autonomy in the participation of sex and choosing sexual partners.
The last time I visited Los Angeles, my mother told me that she’d heard, many decades ago from her younger brother, that he’d seen my grandmother holding hands with one of her former male students (who was at that time already an adult) when she was teaching Chinese literature at one of the highest-ranking schools in Taipei. Romantic consort with an older woman continues to this day to be a stronghold in the taboos of Chinese culture. He saw them walking through the streets, holding hands, no shame at all. My only thought in hearing this information about my grandmother was this: Good for her.
After all, what I had previously known about my grandmother was that she had raised five children more or less on her own while my grandfather lived and worked in Tainan, a city in southern Taiwan. Their respective full-time teaching jobs facilitated their separate lives. She suffered daily emotional abuse from her live-in mother-in-law. With her work in education, rearing five children, all the domestic duties she was solely responsible for, and caring for an elderly woman, what personal life and freedom did that allow my grandmother?
Holding hands with a younger man. Whether this instance went beyond hand-holding in the streets, whether it was an anomaly, or a constituent arrangement revealing a secret part of my grandmother’s life, or if nothing else a moment of rupture when her son saw her not as his mother but as a woman with her own desires and will outside of maternal and matrimonial structures, I will never know. I like to believe that she had affairs, many of them, and that these relationships provided her with the love and care that she needed not only as a woman but as a person in the world.
At her birthday this year, I asked her to tell us what wisdom she had to impart on us after a hundred and four years of being alive. Responsibility is the most important thing in life, she said. Responsibility at work, to your family, to your community. Responsibility to yourself.
I often think about women’s work, women’s responsibility, the emotional and domestic labor we perform. While my grandfather spent the majority of his life exempt from any responsibilities outside of teaching and writing books, it was my grandmother who not only raised their family but also built a successful career in academia. She never parsed life into binary distinctions of what was right or wrong, the guilty or the innocent, failure or success. There was never any blame ascribed to my grandfather. There was only adherence to the idea of responsibility, and perhaps, when she was holding hands with someone walking down the street, it was an act of responsibility to herself.
Today I asked my mother what my grandmother’s name is. 屠忠餘, my mother wrote down. It means loyal, abundant.