Female oppression in shirley lim’S "ah mah"

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In this essay I am going to focus on the theme of female oppression in Chinese culture in terms of its cultural practice of foot binding. The character “Ah Mah” is seen as having a hard life in her society where the practice of foot binding is condoned. Ah Mah’s misery is suggested by the phrases ‘every bone in her feet/ had been broken, bound tighter/ than any neighbor’s sweet daughters’. I believe the writer, Shirley Lim, is trying to show the terrible life that the character grandma of “Ah Mah” had gone through. It is mentioned in the phrase “she tottered in black silk” in stanza 3 and “Ten toes and instep curled inwards” in stanza 6. Grandma has to totter when she is walking because her feet become smaller than normal feet. Her feet bones are broke and become deform.

Foot binding is a culture in Chinese where a young Chinese girl foot is wrapped tightly by her mother. It is started during Song Dynasty (Ebrey, P.B, 341-343). The foot will be small because the bones are broke and curling the toes under the ball of the foot. ‘Lily Feet’ were considered attractive and a sign of status (Lieberthal, K., 14). It is a common practice only in the wealthiest parts of China (“Chinese foot binding”).

The phrase “curled inwards, yellow petals/ of chrysanthemum, wrapped” suggested in Chinese culture, gold is associated with rich people from upper and middle class. Grandma perhaps is from a rich town of trading silk (“Suzhou”). It is mentioned in phrase “she tottered in black silk”. Her feet are bound together by a silk cloth which only can be done if she is from a rich family.

The speaker of the poem probably is a young child who is observing her grandma and describing about her physical appearance. She describes her grandma as “smaller than me at eight. Had she/ been child forever”. It is suggested that perhaps, her grandma is smaller than her, and she is wondering about it. She also describes that her grandma has a small face. This is suggested in phrase “as a knuckle, fan face”.

The poem is set in a Chinese culture. It takes place in China. Foot binding is originally for palace dancers. Later, in the Song Dynasty, the practice spread beyond the palace. It is considered as beautiful and admired (Levathes, L., 38”. The phrase “grandfather brought her/ Soochow flower song girl” suggested that grandma is from Soochow. Soochow is located seventy miles west of Shanghai (Kruger, R., 343). It is a fascinating city. The famous Great Pagoda becomes an attraction for this city. It is also known as Kingdom of Wu (Chiang Kai,76-77).

Soochow or Suzhou is famous with silk. Silk looms or silk machine for weaving cloth, counted by the tens of thousands were reported in Suzhou and Nanjing (Ray Huang, 224). In phrase “of fat anywhere, she tottered/ in black silk, leaning on” suggested that the bandage which bound grandma’s feet is made from silk. Since grandma is from Soochow, she is using a silk for wrapping her feet.

The speaker’s tone is sympathy. It suggests that grandma had gone through a hard life. The phrase “of fat everywhere, she tottered/ in black silk, leaning on/ handmaids, on two tortured” suggests that, grandma cannot walk properly like others. She has to rely on the servants to help her in daily life. Moreover, the phrase “Ten toes and instep/ curled inwards” is suggest grandma is suffering because she cannot walk like normal people do. Instead, all her feet’s bone break and badly shaped which makes her in pain.

The writer creates the oppressing life which grandma had gone through by using literary devices. Literary devices such as simile, imagery and comparison are used in “Ah Mah”. A simile is use in the phrase “as a knuckle, fan face” which means the physical look of grandma by mentioning how small she is with a small face.

The writer is also using an imagery in phrase “In his calloused flesh, her/ weightless soles, cool and slack/ clenched in stranger’s fever”. It creates an image of how grandma feels when grandpa warm hands while embracing the grandma’s feet. The word ‘soles’ is refers to the feet. The grandma’s feet is out of shape and deform badly.

Moreover, a visual image of the oppressing and suffering life which grandma had gone through is portrayed in this poem. This is suggested in the phrase “Helpless, hopeless” which indicates how grandma feels. There is nothing much she can do to make things going better. The only thing she can do is to except the fate.

In the phrase “than any neighbor’s sweet daughters”, the writer probably means that no one else has a feet bound as tighter as grandma. By using ‘than’, the writer is comparing the character, grandma’s feet with the neighbor’s feet. Even though both of them have a bound feet, but grandma has tighter bound feet.

Based on my close analysis of a poem ‘Ah Mah’ by Shirley Geok-lin Lim, I can conclude that the persona of this poem, which is grandma, is living under an oppressive culture. A culture where women are treated like an object of exchange, so man can admire woman is very oppressive. Moreover, foot binding process makes women lives become suffer. It highlight an oppressive culture that woman has to go through.

‘Ah Mah’ by Shirley Geok-lin Lim

“Chinese foot binding” http://www.angelfire.com

Ebrey, P.B. Chinese Civilization A Sourcebook, 2nd edition, Revised and Expanded. The Free Press A Division of Macmillan, Inc., 1993.

Eastman, E. Lloyd. Chiang Kai-shek’s Secret Past. Westview Press. 1993.

Kruger, R. All Under Heaven A Complete History of China. John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2004.
Lieberthal, K. Governing China : From Revolution Through Reform. New York : W.W Norton & Company, Inc., 1995.
Levathens, L. When China Ruled the Seas. New York : Simon and Schuster, 1994.
Ray Huang. China : A Macro History. New York : M.E Sharpe, Inc., 1997.
“Suzhow” http://www.wikipedia.com

Shirley Geok-Lin Lim (b. 1944). Born in Malacca, Malaysia, Lim first attended the University of Malaysia and later came to study in the United States in the 1960s; she earned a Ph.D. from Brandeis University in 1971. Of her four published books of poetry, Crossing the Peninsula won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1980, a first both for an Asian and for a woman.

Of Chinese origins in a non-Chinese cultural landscape, Lim writes best about the culturally colonized and marginalized individual. Her poetry is dominated by sharp delineations of fragmented identities, and sustained by a strong, penetrating style and an ironic, unsentimental delivery. She has furthered this theme significantly by addressing the question of her female identity within the context of her received patriarchal culture.

Lim's work has appeared in various anthologies, including A Private Landscape, ed. David Ormerod (Kuala Lumpur, 1967 ); The Second Tonque, ed. Edwin Thumboo (Kuala Lumpur, 1976 ); and Under Another Sky, ed. Alistair Niven (London, 1987 ).

Her published works include two short-story collections and several editions of critical studies and anthologies focusing on gender and Asian American issues, including The Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American Women's Anthology (1989), which won an American Book Award. She is a professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

(Source: “Shirley Geok-lin Lim” Poetry. Bedford-St Martin’s LitLink. 2001.


Read more: Shirley Geok-lin Lim Biography - ( 1944 ), Crossing the Peninsula and Other Poems, Another Country and Other Stories http://www.jrank.org/literature/pages/9597/Shirley-Geok-lin-Lim.html#ixzz1EMeFAgos

Female Oppression
Shirley Lim’s poem “Ah Mah” unfolds a story about Chinese women of yesteryears who had to be subservient to ancient culture and tradition which victimized women. Ah Mah or grandma has to endure the agony of having her feet bound which stunted the growth of the feet bones causing deformed feet. It is also by tradition that Ah Mah has to marry the man who bought her (as his concubine), thus freeing her as a Suchow flower song girl. Now she has to serve ‘grandfather’ who is her new master. Read this poem below and answer the question given.

Ah Mah
Grandmother was smaller

than me at eight. Had she

been child forever?
Helpless, hopeless, chin sharp

as a knuckle, fan face

hardly half-opened, not a scrap
of fat anywhere, she tottered

in black silk, leaning on

handmaids, on two tortured
fins. At sixty, his sons all

married, grandfather bought her,

Soochow flower song girl.
Every bone in her feet

had been broken, bound tighter

than any neighbor’s sweet
daughter’s. Ten toes and instep

curled inwards, yellow petals

of chrysanthemum, wrapped

in gold cloth. He bought the young

face, small knobby breasts

he swore he’d not dress in sarong

of maternity. Each night

he held her feet in his palms,

like lotus in the tight

hollows of celestial lakes.

In his calloused flesh, her

weightless soles, cool and slack,

clenched in his stranger’s fever.

Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s “Ah Ma”:

  1. The poet provides a physical description of her grandmother as well as clues to her personality and emotional life. How are all these elements similar?

  2. What is the grandmother’s relationship to the world she lives in and to her husband in particular?

  3. Discuss the tradition of ‘foot-binding’ in the Chinese tradition. How is this tradition seen as oppressive for women?

  4. Does this poem have a feminist overture? If so/not, why and how?

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