The Life of Tan Yunxian From Garden Delights to Healing Lights

To Live Is…

“A thousand years in the past, a thousand years in the future—no matter where you live or how rich or poor you are—the four phases of a woman’s life are the same,” Respectful Lady says.

“You are a little girl, so you are still in milk days. When you turn fifteen, you will enter hair-pinning days. The way we style your hair will announce to the world that you are ready for marriage.” She smiles at me. “Tell me, Daughter, what comes next?” “Rice-and-salt days,”

I answer dutifully, but my mind wanders. My mother and I sit together on porcelain stools under a covered colonnade in our home’s courtyard. It’s monsoon season, so the sliver of sky I can see is heavy with clouds, making the air feel humid, suffocating. Two miniature orange trees grow side by side in matching pots.

Other containers hold cymbidiums, their stalks drooping under the weight of the blossoms. Rain is coming, but until then, birds titter in the gingko tree that provides a touch of coolness on the summer day, and I can smell the sea—something I’ve only seen in paintings. The fragrance doesn’t, however, cover the unpleasant odor coming from Respectful Lady’s bound feet. “Your thoughts are elsewhere.” Her voice sounds as frail as her body looks.

“You must pay attention.” She reaches over and takes one of my hands. “Are you having pain today?” When I nod, she says, “The memories of the agony you felt during your footbinding will never leave completely.

There will be days from now until you die when the anguish will visit—if you’ve stood too long or walked too far, if the weather is about to change, if you don’t take proper care of your feet.” She squeezes my hand sympathetically. “When they throb or smart, remind yourself that one day your suffering will be proof to your husband of your love. Focusing on something else will distract you from the pain.”

My mother is wise, which is why everyone in the household, including my brother, Yifeng, and I, calls her Respectful Lady, the honorary title she carries as the wife of someone with my father’s high rank. But if she can tell I’m distracted, then I can see she is too. The sound of a woman singing reaches us.

Miss Zhao, my father’s concubine, must be entertaining my father and his guests. “You know how to concentrate… when you want to,” my mother goes on at last. “This ability—to be fully absorbed—is what saves us.” She pauses for a moment as male laughter—my father’s voice distinct in the appreciative choir—swirls around us like a fog. Then she asks, “Shall we continue?”

I take a breath. “Rice-and-salt days are the most important years in a woman’s life. They are when I will be busy with wife and mother duties—” “As I am now.” Respectful Lady gracefully tips her head, setting the gold and jade ornaments that hang from her bun to tinkle softly. How pale she is, how elegant. “Each day should begin early.

I rise before dawn, cleanse my face, rinse my mouth with fragrant tea, attend to my feet, and fix my hair and makeup. Then I go to the kitchen to make sure the servants have lit the fire and begun the morning meal.” She releases my hand and sighs, as though exhausted by the effort of getting so many words to leave her mouth.

She takes a deep breath before continuing. “Memorizing these responsibilities is central to your education, but you can also learn by observing as I supervise the chores that must be done each day: bringing in fuel and water, sending a big-footed servant girl to the market, making sure clothes—including those of Miss Zhao—are washed, and so many other things that are essential to managing a household.

Now, what else?” She’s been teaching me like this for four years already, and I know the answer she likes me to give. “Learning to embroider, play the zither, and memorize sayings from Analects for Women—” “And other texts too, so that by the time you go to your husband’s home, you will have an understanding of all you must do and all you must avoid.”

She shifts on her stool. “Eventually, you will reach the time of sitting quietly. Do you know what this means?” Maybe it’s because I’m feeling physical pain, but the thought of the sadness and loneliness of sitting quietly causes tears to well in my eyes. “This will come when I can no longer bring children into the world—” “And extends into widowhood. You will be the one who has not died, waiting for death to reunite you with your husband.

This is—” A maid arrives with a tray of snacks, so my mother and I can continue our studies through lunch without a break. Two hours later, Respectful Lady asks me to repeat the rules we’ve covered. “When walking, don’t turn my head,” I recite without protest. “When talking, don’t open my mouth wide.

When standing, don’t rustle my skirts. When happy, don’t rejoice with loud laughter. When angry, never raise my voice. I will bury all desire to venture beyond the inner chambers. Those rooms are for women alone.” “Very good,” Respectful Lady praises me. “Always remember your place in the world. If you follow these rules, you will establish yourself as a true and proper human being.”

She closes her eyes. She’s hurting too. Only she’s too much of a lady to speak of it.

A squeal from my little brother interrupts our shared moment. Yifeng runs across the courtyard. His mother, Miss Zhao—free of her performing duties—glides behind him. Her feet are also bound, and her steps are so small they give the impression she’s floating like… “Like a ghost,” my mother whispers as though she’s read my thoughts.

Yifeng flings himself at my mother, buries his face in her lap, and giggles. Miss Zhao may be his mother by birth, but Respectful Lady not only is his ritual mother but has formally adopted him as her son. This means Yifeng will make offerings and perform all the rites and ceremonies after my mother and our father become ancestors in the Afterworld. My mother pulls Yifeng onto her lap, brushing the bottoms of his shoes so the soles leave no dirt or dust on her silk gown.

“That is all, Miss Zhao.” “Respectful Lady.” The concubine gives a polite nod and then quietly slips out of the courtyard. My mother turns to the afternoon’s teaching session, which Yifeng and I share. We will spend each day learning together until he reaches his seventh year, when the Book of Rites orders that boys and girls should not sit on the same mat or eat at the same table.

At that time, Yifeng will leave our company and move to the library to spend his hours with private tutors in preparation to take the imperial exams. “Harmony should be maintained in a household, but everyone knows how hard this is,” Respectful Lady begins. “After all, the written character for trouble is composed of the character for roof with the characters for two women under it, while the character of one woman under a roof means…” “Peace,”

I answer. “Good. A pig under a roof means…”

“Prison.” “There is no written character with a man under a roof. Whether animal or woman, we are a man’s possessions. We women exist to give him heirs and feed, clothe, and amuse him. Never forget that.” While my brother recites simple poems, I work on my embroidery. I hope I’m successful at hiding my disappointment.

I know Miss Zhao wasn’t the only one entertaining my father and his friends. Yifeng was also being shown off. Now, when he forgets a line, Respectful Lady glances at me to complete it for him. In this way, I’m learning what he’s learning too. I’m older, so I’m much better at memorizing. I’m even good at using words and images from poems in my thoughts and when I talk. Today, though, I stumble on a line. Respectful Lady purses her lips.

“You will not take the imperial exams or become a scholar like your brother,” she points out, “but one day you will be the mother of sons. To help them in their future studies, you must learn now.” It stings to disappoint her when, on a good day, I can recite poems from the Book of Odes and read aloud from the Classic of Filial Piety for Girls. Today is not one of those days. In the late afternoon, my mother announces it’s time to move to the studio.

Yifeng and I follow Respectful Lady at a proper distance. The folds of her gown billow, and her sleeves are picked up on the breeze—just like in a painting. The air moves enough that we are awash in the odor that comes from her bound feet. A special aroma will eventually come from my own feet, my mother likes to remind me when I cry during my binding, and it will fascinate my husband.

Today, the scent from my mother’s feet is far from pleasing. I swallow hard as a wave of nausea washes through me.

I have no memories of ever being outside our compound, and I may not pass through the main gate until I’m in my hair-pinning days and am taken to my husband’s home in marriage, but I don’t care. I love our home, especially the studio, with its whitewashed walls, simple furniture, and shelves filled with books and handscrolls.

My mother sits on one side of the table; my brother and I sit across from her. My mother watches as I grind the ink on the inkstone and mix in water to achieve the perfect density and blackness. I hold my brush in one hand and with my other hand pull my sleeve up and back so it won’t get stained. Respectful Lady has said that each calligraphy stroke must be fluid, yet bold.

Want to read more?