Sybil Graham and Chaen-Li sat close together, exchanging short phrases. They spoke little, partly from Chaen-Li's minimal English and partly to preserve what little warmth they had. There was no fire and the silk drapings on the wall, with beautifully painted characters chanting moral principles, were little insulation from the cold.
Sybil and her father had been invited by Mr Li to share tea, and see if Mr Graham could offer any advice for his wife, who was ill. Mr Graham was obliged to accept since it was only polite, and he might lead them to the 'Light'. The Chinese may be more willing to hear the words of God when their superstitious antiquities fail. Mr Graham was very compassionate. He understood and allowed for their silly rites; soothed their troubles with his ready sympathy and assistance.
As he was persuading Mrs Hung to save herself from her path of damnation, a loud gasp, then "No" could be heard from the adjoining room.
There continued muffled voices.
"All girls bind feet," Chaen-Li attempted to explain in her broken English.
Girls binding their feet when they are but ten, only to endure pain for their remaining life! Was this what ti took to be a lady? Surely, there is an alternative to this cruelty.
"Can you not bind your feet?"
Chaen- Li frantically gauged for any signs that her parents may have heard. Not bind feet? Chaen-Li stared at her, her thin brows furrowed. She blinked rapidly and pursed her lips as her eyes directed itself to her feet. Not bind feet.
Sybil took her hand and patted it gently, understanding that it must be difficult for an uneducated person to process such a complex concept.
Chean-Li started to sob and shake her head vigorously. No. No. She burst forth,
"Me no find husband!" with all the evidence of corresponding perturbation. And yet, she felt equally ill thinking of her feet bound. Her thoughts wandered to her luck at being spared till now. Her sisters had their feet bound when they were but 5. She has lived near 10 years now.
"Run away," hearing no response, Sybil suggested a little louder, "run away." Anything was better than eternal pain. Though, even her father would disapprove.
Chaen-Li's dark pupils dilated to the size of orbs. Her mind drained of all thoughts, till all that remained was "disgrace to all her family, disgrace to all her family" lacing through her mind.
"No, binding, like... your clothes...your closet"
"Corset?" Sybil laughed softly, "No, not at all. We aren't forced to wear corsets; we just wear them because all ladies do. Your binding your feet, you can't choose now can you?"
At that moment, Mr Graham entered to retrieve his daughter, having failed to redeem Mrs Hung. Mr Li bowed as Sybil and Mr Graham took their leave, welcoming them to come again. He was glad in their departure, however. Mr Graham was wanting in humility, preaching to them the 'words of God'. These European barbarians have no concept of Confucius.
Strolling down the lively street, Mr Graham regretted Sybil's new friend being "not fitting for your company, but it must do." He thought of Chaen-Li's good fortune, "Mrs Hung, in her feverishness, told of her drowning two of her babies. Chaen-Li is the last daughter they could afford to keep. Such a crime it is, to drown God's gifts" He had expressed to Mr Li that Western fathers care very much for their children. No such dreadful acts. He had fondly told Mr Li that "love is the ties that bind" in Western culture.
Sybil observed the Chinese scurrying about their daily errands. Many a Chinaman farmer passed by, carrying a load on either side of their bamboo sticks, which was slung across the back. All of them wore pointed, wide rimmed straw hats. A poorly dressed woman scurried past, carrying an elegant lady on her back. Sybil's eyes wandered to the lady's tiny feet, reminding her of Chaen-Li.
"Oh father, it's terrible, Chaen-Li's feet will be bound soon!"
Mr Graham raised his eyebrow, "You must have been aware of that tradition?"
"Yes, papa, but isn't it terrible? How can they encourage such practise? Upon young women too!"
"I know nought, dear daughter, except that these Chinese have quite ludicrous traditions. They're neither helpful, nor fashionable. Bound feet! To arrive at beauty artificially!" He shook his head in disdain, "These Chinese are very vain. Vain of their appearance and vain of their wisdom and antiquity. That Mr Li would not hear on the subject of God. These Chinamen have been trained to be superstitious idolaters from a very young age."
"You must not blame them papa. They feel they must offer worship, and till a real knowledge of the true God can be planted in their midst, they will remain slaves to idolatry."
"Well said my dear."
Sybil enquired if Mr Graham would visit tomorrow to dissuade Mr Li from such an act of horror.
"Yes, yes. We shall visit them tomorrow. Someone ought to stop this nonsense. But, as to their foolish practices, why they can't help that now. I don't suppose their upbringing would have afforded them any intelligence."
Their visit was most unsuccessful on Mr Graham's part. Mr Li was as foolish as expect of a Chinaman. One would think, that since he was some minor official, that he might be more open to reason- evidently too much to expect.
Sybil had more success. Chaen-Li had pondered over this new alternative, and with a little further persuasion, was willing to try. Sybil was delighted by Chaen-Li's ability to think beyond her culture. She may be fit for a maid after all. If she is trained and brushed up a little, she shall pass as a fine maid. Some Western family who can't afford a proper maid might hire her.
While Mr Graham tried to appease Mr Li regarding his apparently outrageous suggestion, Sybil changed into some trousers and a blouse that Chaen-Li found from the servant's area, having decided that her corset and layers of dress would be too cumbersome. They slipped out the servant's entrance and swiftly walked down the crowded alley. They passed the little houses with flat roofs and the various stalls with their fresh fish, shrimps, rice, sugar cane, fruits and vegetable. Their pace slowed as they reached a noisy road, lined with little houses with curly roofs and various boards hanging in front, indicating the items the shops sell. Neither girl was familiar with her surroundings, for Sybil had never been here, and Chaen-Li seldom ventured further than the nearby market.
Suddenly, Chaen-Li broke into a run, and Sybil sprinted to catch up. She glanced questioningly at Chaen-Li.
That could not be. Mr Graham would not be leaving for a while, having no appointment until noon. Sybil glimpsed a white man running down the street. Indeed, his tall build and black coat distinguished him as Mr Graham.
They sped down the street, knocking over fruit stands. "Stop! Stop the runaways!" Cried a masculine voice. The bustling street was immediately hushed, interested to see who was bringing disgrace upon the family.
Just as they were rounding a corner, Mr Graham caught up with the girls, who were unaccustomed to running.
"Sybil!" cried Mr Graham in dismay, "What is this? No corset! In servant's clothing! What will people think! Gallivanting around the streets, with no chaperone and no proper attire!"
Sybil looked away, unable to give an explanation.
"You should not be running anyhow. Ladies walk!" Mr Graham remonstrated. "Helping Chaen-Li run away too!" Mr Graham's mouth opened, as if to give a further rebuke, but he only closed it again, for lack of anything to say.
They were drawing quite a crowd now. Women with children on their backs, Chinamen with goods in their hands, a barber still holding a man's plait and schoolmasters holding piles of books. Thank Confucius they don't know any Western barbarians, they muttered; else the barbarians would lead their children astray too.
Mr Graham ushered them home, walking as quickly as possible so as to prevent any Westerner from seeing his daughter's ensemble- or lack of.
"You will never behave as such again, Sybil! And neither will you, Miss Li" Mr Graham sank into a chair, convinced that Chaen-Li's want of education must have affected Sybil's rationalism. He rebuked himself for thinking that Chaen-Li's company was better than nothing. "How will you ever find a husband if you behave like this?" He sighed, exhausted by today's exertions. "We shall discuss this further young lady. I wish you to go to your room and think on what you have done. As for you Ms Li..."
Her fathers voice disappeared as she closed the door. She threw herself onto her kang (bed), sobbing violently. The soft cotton mattress was soon soaked by her anguish. It is only a corset! Why can she not wear what she liked? It wasn't like she was wearing men's trousers.
As her sobbing subsided, she heard footsteps outside, then a quick exchange of incoherent phrases. There seemed to be a reluctant murmur, then a pause. "Chaen-Li" could be heard in the garbled mandarin that followed. Chaen-Li was disgraced, but infinitely worse, she must have her feet bound. Sybil blinked back her hot tears. Why do they decide what ladies have to wear or do? They walk in their trousers and warm coats, not knowing pain or discomfort. Her thoughts returned to the corset, and then the binding cloth that Chaen-Li showed her and how it would become her source of pain. Neither material was comfortable. Why, they serve only to make ladies look pretty. All beautiful and do-nothings. They disable and confine them to petty accomplishments such as needlework. The ties that bind! Corsets and bandages, those are the true ties that bind!