Did you know that one of the earliest recorded versions of the Cinderella story was written down during the Tang Dynasty in China around 850 AD? It was recorded by Duan Chengshi but he says it is about a woman who lived a thousand years before.
The two most famous versions of the Cinderella story are the ones by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault involving glass slippers, pumpkins and mice as well as a wicked stepmother and two ugly stepsisters – seared into our collective memories by the Disney animated movie. Both these versions were recorded around the 1700s and 1800s AD in Western Europe.
Always an inch smaller…
In the Tang Dynasty version, the heroine’s name is Ye Xian. The key elements are as in the Western version although the twists and turns of the story differ. The Chinese Cinderella is bullied by her wicked stepmother and two evil step-sisters and she goes to a ball in disguise, wearing a sumptuous green or blue outfit and golden slippers. She runs away from the ball, dropping a slipper. The slipper is tiny and delicate – and in some versions, no matter who tries it on, it is always one inch smaller than can fit their foot – and the king wants to find its owner.
When he finds Ye Xian, she has the other slipper and when she puts both of them on, they fit perfectly and her beautiful gown appears on her and she is transformed from skivvy into a woman fit to be queen. The king takes her as his Exalted Queen.
Footbinding and Cinderella
What is interesting for me is that this story was written during the Tang dynasty, which was the time when small feet were starting to become fashionable. It was Emporer Li Yu whose concubine danced with small feet and caught his imagination… (which I portray in a scene in Bound Feet Blues)
According to the Wikipedia page of footbinding:
The general consensus is that the practice is likely to have originated from the time of Emperor Li Yu (Southern Tang Dynasty, just before the Song Dynasty). Emperor Li Yu asked his concubine Yao Niang (窅娘) to bind her feet in white silk into the shape of the crescent moon, and performed a lotus dance ballet-like on the points of her feet. Yao Niang was described as so graceful that she ‘skimmed on top of golden lotus’. This was then replicated by other upper-class women and the practice spread.
In the Chinese fairy tale of Ye Xian, the details of the slippers and her feet are also fascinating for me. Her small feet are emphasised as are the tinyness of the slippers. The magical quality of the lost slipper in some versions is beguiling but also chilling in the context of what we know about the competitive nature of footbinding – it is always an inch smaller than the feet of anyone trying them on other than their true owner…
Find out more
I was alerted to this story in the book “Footbinding: A Jungian Engagement with Chinese Culture and Philosophy” by Shirley See Yan Ma
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Picture from Asia One Education with thanks
Yang-May Ooi is an award-winning TEDx speaker, bestselling author and story performer. Her work uses the power of personal narrative to inspire women to develop authentic confidence and become collaborative leaders. She is currently rehearsing a one woman story performance, Bound Feet Blues, which will be showcased in London’s West End in Oct 2014.