Excerpt from Autobiography (3)

Ying recollects a childhood memory in his autobiography:

Summers at Warm Springs

The Summer Palace at the northwest corner of Beijing was the private retreat of the Empress Dowager Cixi. Ten miles north of the Summer Palace is a place called Wenquan (Warm Springs), which was our family’s summer retreat, and I still own our land there. On a huge piece of rock, in characters over six feet tall, the phrase “Shuiliu yunzai” is carved in my grandfather’s calligraphy. The phrase means “The water has floated away, but the cloudy mist remains.” The rock is on a very prominent hilltop and is a tourist attraction nowadays…

My family’s original residence there was lovely. We were quite wealthy, and there were three or four other families like ours who built summer homes in Warm Springs—but our houses were quite some distance apart. The other residents of the area were all local villagers.

Usually, just the adults would drop in for a visit, but sometimes they brought their children. My parents were very progressive and welcomed the poorer local families into their home as well. So when I went out and played with the children, it was more or less a mixture of rich children and poor children. We weren’t divided by class out in Warm Springs to the degree that we were in the city proper…

Our summer house was rather high up on the side of a hill, and there was a local family that lived in a house below ours with a little girl about my age. She was a lively girl and we children liked to play with her. One day when we were seven years old, she simply disappeared. We went to her home to try to find her.

We could hear her mother’s voice scolding her through the paper windows: “Don’t make so much noise! Every girl goes through this!”

We expected her to appear the next day and play games with us as usual, but she did not—and it took her about a month to reappear. We looked for her, we asked for her, but we heard nothing.

“She’s busy,” the grown-ups told us, as though that explained anything at all. She was only seven years old, how busy could she be?

Several weeks later, she emerged from her home, and wobbled along the mountainous area. We all stared at her feet, which seemed to be the cause of her trouble.

We surrounded her and asked her, “What happened to you?”

“My mom forced me to have my feet bound,” she replied.

We were all so curious. “Can we have a look?”

“No,” she said, “No one is supposed to look at them.”

The binding of feet was still going on in the countryside at that time, even though it had already been banned. I only vaguely understood what it was. All of the elderly women in that village had bound feet, of course, and I knew that these women had the procedure done when they were very young.

We children continued asking this little girl about why her mother had done this to her. She answered bashfully, “My mom says no one will marry me if I don’t have my feet bound.”

Just then, her mother appeared and shooed us away, shouting her own answer to our question: “It’s quite true. Who’d marry a girl with huge feet? Dajiaopian! Big Flat Foot! Who’d marry a girl with feet like that?”

We children scurried in all directions.

“And you’re not allowed to play with her anymore!” her mother called out after us.

I never did get to play with her again. Her mother treated me a bit more carefully than the other boys, however. They were just local neighbors, whereas in her mind, I was a possible future suitor for her daughter’s hand.

That poor girl did have a pretty little face.