Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Chinese foot-binding: tradition or not, let's not celebrate it

This weekend we visited a favorite Chicago landmark, the venerable Field Museum of Natural History (more about that interesting visit, perhaps, on another day). Part of the fun is looking through the ever-vaster gift shops on the main floor across from Sue the Tyrannosaurus. Most of the stuff in the gift shops is just that: stuff, albeit nice stuff, from around the world. The inflated prices suggest that buying goodies from the Museum helps its bottom line, which is all to the good. However, one item in a special locked case really caught my eye. It was an antique Chinese lotus shoe. For those not familiar with lotus shoes, please take a look at this 1995 article by James A. Crites. In spite of long having known much of this background, I have most of my life just gone along for the ride when confronted with anything having to do with foot-binding (including on two extended trips to the Peoples Republic of China in the early 1980's, where it was not much flaunted, as the modern regime dealt with things it found denigrating to its image). But for whatever reason, this morning I was moved to address the following to the museum gift shop manager:
"I am writing to you as manager of the Field Museum Gift Shop regarding objects offered for sale in the store that deserve a second thought.
When in the shop this Saturday I saw for sale in a special locked case "lotus shoes" made for Chinese women with feet deformed by the traditional practice of binding. Although they are indeed objects of intrinsic beauty and craftsmanship, I would suggest that in the 21st century they represent more strongly a thousand years of cruelty (in the extreme) to children and institutionalized abuse of women, and therefore are inappropriate to include among the Field Museum's merchandise offerings.
I found this article on the subject to be thorough and well-written. If you are not already familiar with the process required to produce "lotus feet" you will learn a lot about it as well as the context in which it took place. I do hope it will inspire you to re-consider selling the beautiful little symbols of such a terrible practice."

Then I decided to look into the market for "lotus shoes" and found that it thrives. I too can appreciate the stunning craftsmanship that went into making these little treasures. But when I picture a 7 year old girl having her feet intentionally broken (without anesthesia, of course) and tightly bound for years (that is, if she survived the metabolic trauma of multiple broken bones and the ensuing life-threatening infections and necrosis) I think it might be time to re-examine the propriety of marketing reminder of such practices for profit.
The Field Museum's price tag for the comparatively simply fashioned lotus shoe was $400.

Photo linked from the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, thank you.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Hey, folks, it's NOT bey-zhing

Beijing: it's bey-djing. Isn't it easier to imagine how "bey-djing" might have been heard as Peking than "bey-zhing"? Will someone clue in all these media announcers, please!!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Is it really so weird?

Some time ago I was walking with my assistant across the university campus where we work. My assistant is a woman in her early 30s, exceptionally intelligent (and smart, too), and working steadily on completing her postponed college degree. Someone walked by with an irresistibly cute dog so we stopped to pat it; the owner declared the dog to be a labradoodle, a newly established breed created by crossing a standard poodle with a labrador retriever. As we went on our way, my assistant harrumphed, expressing the feeling that it’s “just not right” and “weird” to make new animal types by mixing existing breeds. Though it almost sounded like it, I am sure the origin of this was not some unconscious feelings about miscegenation–she herself is in a mixed-race marriage and has children. So where does this discomfort come from? I reminded her that all domestic dog breeds arose from the manipulation of man, and only the manipulation of man. Compare baseline domesticated dogs to the chihuahuas, beagles, german shepherds, and great danes, not to mention labradoodles, that everyone is familiar with, and think about how they came to their unique characteristics, I urged.
The other morning there was a piece on NPR about genetically modified corn and other crops, and world-wide concerns about using engineered seed stocks because of the potential–or likelihood–that the DNA of natively-developed hybrids would become contaminated by the introduced varieties through cross-pollination. While there are very important issues swirling around still to be satisfactorily answered (such as genetic contamination not just of endemic cultivars, but of native wild plants), all other things aside, the genetic modifications clearly vastly improve the ratio of usable to unusable yield and in many cases (e.g., golden rice) also truly enhance the nutritive value of food products in areas of the world where it is most urgently needed.
After all, though, genetic modifications developed in sophisticated university and corporate laboratories are driven by the same needs and result in the same kinds of improvements corn- and other crop-growers achieved so very laboriously through the ages, only at speed that is like lightning in comparison, and with a priori aims defined with razor-sharp precision. See http://www.genetics.org/cgi/content/full/158/2/487 for more history of the pre-Columbian development of maize/corn, for instance.

I’m not a scientist, not even an amateur expert on such matters. But I do think keeping issues like genetic manipulation and hybridization, that seem to make people so nervous, in historical and geographical perspective would go a long way towards rational discussion and ultimately, expediting improvement of the human condition.

(Labradoodle image borrowed from Valley View Dogs, thank you.)

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Where are they hiding all the kitty litter??

Is it just me? Do they hide the 25 lb bags of generic, unscented kitty litter when they see me coming? Yesterday my friendly local Wal-Mart had none; the Ultra Foods mega-grocery store next door was all out. Today, the Jewel store on Roosevelt Road had none either. I think it is a conspiracy and CNN better get on the stick!!