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Aching for Beauty

Footbinding in China

2000
Author:

Wang Ping

Aching for Beauty

A fascinating and haunting exploration of the bound foot in Chinese culture.

Even though footbinding was not practiced by every woman in late Imperial China, the aesthetic, financial, and erotic advantages of footbinding permeated all aspects of language. In Aching for Beauty, Wang interprets the mystery of footbinding as part of a womanly heritage-"a roaring ocean current of female language and culture."

Aching for Beauty demonstrates the complexity and the manifestations of a civilization's obsession with the body-its beauty, its fulfillment, its destruction, and its transformation. Wang Ping writes with passion and an understanding strengthened by the female experience. This is a rich, necessary, and invaluable book.

Ha Jin, author of Waiting, winner of the 1999 National Book Award for Fiction

Why did so many Chinese women over a thousand-year period bind their feet, enduring rotting flesh, throbbing pain, and hampered mobility throughout their lives? What compelled mothers to bind the feet of their young daughters, forcing the girls to walk about on their doubled-over limbs to achieve the breakage of bones requisite for three-inch feet? Why did Chinese men find women’s "golden lotuses"-stench and all-so arousing, inspiring beauty contests for feet, thousands of poems, and erotica in which bound, silk-slippered feet were fetishized and lusted after?

As a child growing up during the Cultural Revolution, Wang Ping fantasized about binding her own feet and tried to restrict their growth by wrapping them in elastic bandages. Even though footbinding was not practiced by every woman in late Imperial China, the aesthetic, financial, and erotic advantages of footbinding permeated all aspects of language, ranging from erotic poetry, novels, and performances to food writing, myths, folk songs and ditties, and secret women’s writing, some of it hidden in embroidery. In Aching for Beauty, Wang interprets the mystery of footbinding as part of a womanly heritage-"a roaring ocean current of female language and culture."

She also shows that footbinding should not be viewed merely as a function of men’s oppression of women, but rather as a phenomenon of male and female desire deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture. Written in an elegant and powerful style, and filled with personal, intriguing, and sometimes paradoxical insights, Aching for Beauty builds bridges from the past to the present, East to West, history to literature, imagination to reality.

Awards

Winner of the Eugene M. Kayden Press Book Award (2001).

Aching for Beauty

Wang Ping, born in Shanghai, came to the United States in 1985. Her books include short stories, American Visa (1994); a novel, Foreign Devil (1996); and poetry, Of Flesh and Spirit (1998). She also edited and cotranslated New Generation: Poems from China Today (1999). She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from New York University and teaches creative writing at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Aching for Beauty

Aching for Beauty demonstrates the complexity and the manifestations of a civilization's obsession with the body-its beauty, its fulfillment, its destruction, and its transformation. Wang Ping writes with passion and an understanding strengthened by the female experience. This is a rich, necessary, and invaluable book.

Ha Jin, author of Waiting, winner of the 1999 National Book Award for Fiction

Aching for Beauty is one of the most stimulating and exciting books I have read in a long, long time-a work of cultural criticism and comparative study at its best. The idea regarding the translation of bound feet (nature) into art (culture)-as well as its direct connection with
violence, fear, sex, and language--provides not only a persuasive argument about the cultural meaning of footbinding but also offers us an entirely new set of insights in the universal notion of sexuality. Wang Ping has succeeded triumphantly in this provocative and engaging book.

Kang-i Sun Chang, Yale University

Aching for Beauty masks a festering feast of sex and death-the coming apart, and together, of a civilization-in impeccable, tightly wound, attractive trappings. Wang Ping, our cool, often sly, and scholarly narrator, presents herself as a woman of cultivation and taste through this house of Chinese wonders and horrors, while the physical book itself is prettily packaged in a bandage of a slipcover and sepia-printed hard covers that open boldly, violently into red leaves-red of course being a lucky color. Both beauty and talent count here. Starting with an unexpected stance on the universally reviled practice of foot binding-the book reclaims it as a vital component of Chinese women's cultural heritage-Aching unravels, in a good way, into the long continuum of Chinese culture itself. In the best tradition of cultural studies, Wang here takes on a giant storehouse of subject matter and glides through its labyrinthine corridors in fluid, often intuitive, moves, commenting eloquently in hit-or-miss fashion along the way. At its best, it's a genreless prose work, wandering freely through a forest of mostly inaccessible (to a general English-language reader) texts and subject matter. Wang herself is one of our most mutable authors-poet, novelist, short story writer, editor, translator, academic-and, while being an impressive researcher, she's artist enough here to guide us smoothly through this tangle of fascinating, esoteric, and not infrequently gleefully appalling material.

San Francisco Bay Guardian

Wang Ping’s relationship with her subject is a fascinatingly tortured mix of personal and academic, feminist and explicator/defender of Chinese culture.

Washington City Paper

Examining the imagery and fetishes associated with footbinding, Wang views it not just as something that victimized women and enforced patriarchy but as a vehicle for blurring gender boundaries. Wang offers readers a deeper understanding of a complex and horrific cultural practice.

Women’s Review of Books

After immigrating to the United States with her ‘stunted’ size six feet, Wang Ping saw a pair of lotus shoes for the first time. Stunned to discover that traditionally bound feet were hook-shaped appendages only three inches long, she embarked on an all-consuming journey deep into the history of footbinding, a quest that ultimately led to a fresh and daring exploration of gender roles and the interface between the individual body and the body politic. In this revolutionary study’s harrowing first chapter, Wang Ping answers the most basic, if somewhat prurient questions: how exactly is a foot bound, and what does it look like? . . . Because the author is also a poet and a novelist, her literary gifts are everywhere evident, particularly in her deft analysis of the language and literature of the golden lotuses. . . . But Wang Ping’s most striking revelations evolve from her study of the relationships among women of the golden lotuses. She muses on the tight bond (to employ a nearly unavoidable pun) between mothers and daughters, observing that because a woman’s future depended on the perfection of her golden lotuses, there was no greater act of love than a mother’s binding of her daughter’s feet. . . . Wang Ping has done more than perform great feats of scholarship and interpretation. By beginning with a disturbing strip tease that exposes the vulnerability and, to our eyes, grotesqueness, of lotus feet, and then carefully, even reverently, binding them up again with layer after layer of meticulously crafted and keenly sensitive extrapolations of their profound social, aesthetic, moral, and spiritual significance, she carries her readers beyond the pornographic into the cathartic. Wang Ping awakens empathy and wonder, and helps us see that we are all kindred in spite of our extraordinary and precious differences.

Ruminator Review

This book describes the chilling and tragic history of beauty via footbinding in China that began around the 11th century, flourished in the Ming Dynasty, and was eclipsed in the Qing Dynasty in 1911.

Library Journal

Wang’s complex analysis does not just portray footbinding as a brutal patriarchal method to keep women dependent; she explores how different aspects of Chinese culture intersected around footbinding, reinforcing its importance.

Pacific Reader

Aching for Beauty is an exhilarating and exhaustive study of the Chinese custom of footbinding, as well as all the literature surrounding it, much of it previously unavailable to Western readers.

Rain Taxi

Wang Ping looks to language and literature in examining the deep cultural and power structures involved in this agonizing tradition. Ping’s spirited study should appeal to those intrigued by the mysterious link between violence and beauty.

Publishers Weekly

Aching for Beauty

Contents

Preface
Acknowledgments

PART I. CHINESE EROTICISM AND FEMALE ALLURE

1 Three-Inch Golden Lotuses: Achieving Beauty through Violence
2 A Brief History ofFootbinding
3 Footbinding and the Cult of the Exemplary Woman
4 Edible Beauty: Food and Foot Fetishes in China
5 Silken Slippers: Footbinding in Chinese Erotica

PART II. FOOTBINDING IN WOMEN'S LITERARY TRADITIONS

6 Binding, Weaving, Chatting: Female Bonding and Writing
7 From Golden Lotus to Prime Minister: A Woman's Tale Living from Mouth to Mouth
8 The Fabric of Masquerade

Conclusion: Aching for Beauty and Beyond

Notes
Bibliography
Index