The bas relief pictured above is a depiction of the May Fourth Movement in 1919, and is part of a series of eight on the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square commemorating key victories for the liberation of China from Imperialist and Dynastic rule.
My eye is drawn to the women and, specifically, the mystery of their feet.
They are unbound, natural. Yet the year was 1919.
For centuries it was tradition in China to break the feet of little girls, shape them in the most extreme arch possible, then wrap them with cloth. Ostensibly for marriageability. The result was mutilated feet that became rank with a putrid odor.
When the Manchurians conquered China in 1644, they banned their own women from partaking in the practice and tried to outlaw it for the Chinese. It didn’t work. The Han Chinese found a new value in the old tradition as an ethnic tie to the glory of the lost Ming dynasty.
In the 1898 Hundred Days Reform, the Manchus, who themselves considered educated women a sign of wealth, included in the reformation a school for girls in Shanghai, and another campaign to end foot binding.
Still, in 1919, the practice was more prevalent than not.* (In my own travels through China in 1988, I saw an old woman with bound feet.)
So, I wonder who these flat-footed women in the sculpture are: How were they lucky enough to be unbound in that day and age?
The protest captured in marble was of a movement merely eight years after the Nationalists were victorious dethroning the Qing Dynasty. The women featured in the relief would have been approximately twelve years old at that time, in 1911, And since the binding usually began when a girl was five years old, one would think the feet of these women would most definitely have been bound.
So what’s the explanation?
Perhaps, the answer is simple: That in 1952, the absence of foot-binding in the sculpture was ordered by the Communist Party to demonstrate progress and equality of the sexes?
But there is the possibility the women who protested in 1919 truly did natural feet.
The reason for this may be found in other aspects of the sculpture: One woman carries a book; another passes out pamphlets. This suggests that they were learned, had time to study, which meant they had to have money. Most likely they had access to literature from the West. They probably came from a privileged, progressive class, or at least, from a family who cherished the feminine voice, and valued the education of women.
The women for the New Culture were writers, readers, teachers, and advocates for new attitudes toward marriage, and sex. They were rebels against the confines of Confucian Tradition. They were vocal debaters on the role of the female in the New China. They wanted to have a profession, to contribute to society. They advocated human rights, independence, and the freedom to choose a life they wanted.
They were China’s first feminists. They believed that for China to progress, women had to be included. And they published works that said so.
They were up against a major current.
Historically, there had been mixed messages for females. One of the most famous female writers, Ban Zhao, born in 45 B.C.E., during the Han Dynasty, wrote a book for women that covered the complexities of astronomy yet also taught them how to be submissive to their husbands. Even behind closed doors, there was a dichotomy: Lu Xun, the most famous male writer promoting a break from Confucian traditions, and the emancipation of women in 1919, lived with a liberated, younger woman, Xu Guangping, but wouldn’t support her pursuit of her dreams; he wanted her to support his. (See pg. 65, Women in the Chinese Enlightenment. Zheng Wang, 1999.)
In spite of the barriers, the young women demonstrating on the streets all over the China on May 4th, 1919, demanded equality, a New Culture for China, and the right to attend university. In 1920, the first women were allowed to study at Beijing University. It was a monumental success.
Seventy years later, the women of May Fourth Movement 1989, students of Beijing universities, equally committed to a better China, equally brave, equally determined, took to the streets calling for democracy and freedom. But their protest will likely never be immortalized in stone, honored for generations to come.
Blog edited by Christopher Ross