I’ve been traveling, for a niece’s wedding, so I appreciate my son Political Sphere filling in for me last week. (I’d like him to write more here, but it’s not that easy to fit writing time into a busy law-student life, so we appreciate what we can get.)
It’s been a week since I finished reading the latest book club book, but it’s still on my mind. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a novel by Lisa See, about the life of women in pre-modern China. Her writing is well done, and her research is thorough. Still, it takes something of a strong stomach to read this. I kept having two competing thoughts: I thought ancient China was always held up as one of the world’s great civilizations. But this is not civilization.
The Spherical Model description of civilization is different from the usual. You’ll probably see large cities, great art and architecture, and books and learning. But there’s more. Here’s a review of what civilization looks like:
In the northern circle that is the goal—Civilization—families typically remain intact, and children are raised in loving homes, with caring parents who guide their education and training, dedicating somewhere between 18 and 25 years for that child to reach adulthood, and who then remain interested in their children’s success for the rest of their lives.
Civilized people live peaceably among their neighbors, helping rather than taking advantage of one another, abiding by laws enacted to protect property and safety—with honesty and honor. Civilized people live in peace with other civilized people; countries and cultures coexist in appreciation, without fear.
There is a thriving free-enterprise economy. Poverty is meaningless; even though there will always be a lowest earning 10% defined as poor, in a civilized society these lowest earners have comfortable shelter and adequate food and clothing—and there’s the possibility of rising, or at least for future generations to rise.
Creativity abounds; enlightening arts and literature exceed expectations. Architecture and infrastructure improve; innovation and invention are the rule.
People feel free to choose their work, their home, their family practices, their friendships and associations. And they generally self-restrain before they infringe on the rights and freedoms of others. Where there are questions about those limits, laws are in place to help clarify boundaries of civilized behavior. When someone willingly infringes on the rights or safety of another, the law functions to protect that victim as well as society from further uncivilized behavior from the offender.
What we see in the world Lisa See shows us has a lot of poverty, even among the more well off. There is some possibility of rising from a lower class to one a little higher, but it takes a lot of luck and favoritism. Most disturbing, among many cruelties, is the disdain for women. Everyone accepts this, including the women. They all know that only boy babies have value. A woman’s only value is accrued by birthing boy babies. And her only hope is to get the opportunity to marry up and provide sons—and then there is some respect for her in her old age, which is likely to end around age 40 (but in this novel, the storyteller lives to an unusually ancient 80-something).
How does a woman gain the interest of a husband who might be a step up? (Rather, she gains the interest of the families and matchmakers who arrange the whole thing; the husband won't know her before the marriage.) She must be trained to serve and meet his every need—while moving around on tiny feet. Very tiny. The size of a thumb. Which is, of course, not physiologically possible. So the way they get to this goal is to take young girls, starting around age 6, and binding their feet, breaking the bones and distorting them to fold under themselves into a grotesque and unusable stubbiness. A woman can, if lucky, sway “gracefully” to get slowly from spot to spot. But walking distances is made undoable. So, even though poverty-stricken, she cannot travel without bearers carrying her on a palanquin, or with some man being willing to give her a piggyback ride. She spends her days either in the kitchen, doing her drudgery while handicapped, or in an upstairs room, doing hand-sewing and looking out on the world she hasn’t been able to experience since early childhood.
The author gives a fair amount of detail about that binding process—the pain inflicted by the elder women, with a distorted combination of passing on the pain they experienced and fear that if they don’t do it, they condemn the daughter to a life of enslavement. Infection and death are relatively common, but considered worth the risk. The pain would probably be less if feet were simply amputated.
One insight from the book is that, despite their efforts to the contrary, parents do have caring feelings for their daughters; they can’t help themselves. Even in these often unhealthy family situations, love for family is practically unconquerable.
The distortion, however, got me thinking. There were, of course, some signs of civilization in China. Those could only appear where the laws of civilization are followed. But the decay tends to accompany and tear down. The foot-binding had to be such a decay, a distortion of what is beauty.
Do we have distortions in our world? I think we do.
Stratification is always a problem: the belief that one level of people is more innately valuable than others, by virtue of birth circumstances, rather than character. Blind justice, and the American Dream of being able to work hard and move up—those are civilized ideas most of the world, now and historically, has failed to experience.
Then there’s the decay-inducing problem of objectifying people. Whether it is women who are objectified, or people of a race or other group, it’s wrong. And yet we have signs of it increasing around us. The idea that a woman is only lovable/valuable if she looks like a sex object (a standard even Victoria's Secret models don’t meet without photo editing) is a distortion. Real women don’t typically look like that. Real women have all kinds of varieties of shapes and sizes that can all be beautiful. The belief that only those who fit the model deserve love—and the accompanying wealth and happiness that are supposed to come from marrying up—leads to bodily distortions: anorexia and other eating disorders, obsession with exercise to earn worth rather than to improve health, botox, breast implants and other body-and-face-reshaping plastic surgery…. There may be healthy reasons for some of those things (recovery from scars of accident or cancer surgery, for example), but earning worthiness to be loved is not one of them.
Another distortion of womanhood is the idea that being less like a woman and more like a man leads to greater value. Running the business, being ruthlessly dedicated to the job, instead of tied down to family—as if that makes a woman more valuable than making the choice to be a mother who raises children. If a woman has to choose against her nature, in order to “earn” her worth, is that any less distorting than foot-binding?
If I spent more time on this reflection, I’m sure I’d find more distress signals of decay in our civilization. But this is enough for one post.
It continues to be true that civilization—growth into thriving civilization, and keeping it—requires living the laws of civilization. The formula always includes honoring and obeying God, who provides us with our inalienable rights—and worth; and protecting and preserving family as the basic unit of society, in order to teach the love for one another (and ourselves) that God wants us to enjoy. Whatever “foot-binding” we come upon, let’s stop it, and love each other instead, as innately valuable children of God.