Wang Ping

Aching for Beauty:
Footbinding in China

Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
265 pages, preface, introduction
ISBN 0-166-3605-2, $US30.00

review by Victoria Cass

  1. The grim practices of footbinding—fracturing the foot slowly with constricting bindings, the subsequent risks of infection and gangrene, and the life-long debilitation and crippling—have long been a kind of miserable hallmark of femininity in traditional China. Embedded deeply in the culture, surviving and thriving for a thousand years, it took generations of reformers—male and female—to end it. Yet it has received scant attention from scholars. For, though much has been written about women in the domestic sphere, on women in modern politics and reform movements, and even women in the Imperial court, still this one area—though considered the cultural branding of femaleness—was neglected. Chinese scholars have isolated the custom and marginalised its cultural importance as 'feudal and backward,' dismissing it as a serious topic. Western scholars have hardly done better. The essence of what the West considered decadently 'oriental,' it has held the position of bastard child among scholars, seeming to be too embarrassing a subject to consider. The one exception was Howard Levy's 1966 study, The Lotus Lovers: The Complete History of the Curious Erotic Custom of Footbinding in China; but his work, though filled with useful sources and citations, is considered narrow and voyeuristic. In the nineties, however, scholars such as Evelyn Rawski, Paul Ropp. Patricia Ebrey, and of course Dorothy Ko, whose books on the subject follow Wang Ping's in 2001 and 2005 (Every Step a Lotus, Shoes for Bound Feet and Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding) all began reconsidering the practice.[1]
  2. With her study, Aching for Beauty, Footbinding in China, Wang Ping has taken on this difficult subject. Narrating the history of the practice, Wang first details its origins. Using ample citations from history, essays and poetry, she treats the folk associations of footbinding located in myth and oral tradition. She then details the surge in popularity of the practice and traces its history over 1000 years. Mining the compilation on footbinding, the Cai fei lu (The Record of Gathering Fragrance), by Yao Lingxi, Wang narrates the expansion of the practice from court culture of the Tang into courtesan, middle class and gentry cultures of the Song. She demonstrates, finally, the longevity of footbinding through the Late Qing and Early Modern periods, when reformers as well as shifting definitions of both feminine and masculine brought about its demise.
  3. Wang's work, however, is more than descriptive, for seeks to explore this culturally sanctioned mutilation, to understand how and why it remained so deeply embedded in the Chinese cultural landscape. Her task is largely anthropological; what is the deep structure of footbinding—as belief and practice—that links it to other cultural realities of traditional China. In what ways did the political, social, artistic, sexual, moral, ethical and economic features of China sanction and compel a mother to administer violence to her own daughter—to fracture the child's feet, restrict and distort her gait, and inflict on her a lifetime of pain.
  4. Wang's approach is bold, relying on the creation of cultural connections. She links footbinding to an array of features; noting that it mimics and sustains practices and beliefs from all over the cultural landscape, from concepts of masculine and feminine eroticism, to concepts of social hierarchies and power structures, to political construct s separating native and barbarian, to economic necessities, to notions of transgression and violence, spectacle and performance. To establish, for example, the role of footbinding in the definition of both male and female eroticism, she examines how sexual identity echoed both female and masculine identifications. She finds that the ideal woman in late Imperial China was characterised by 'illness and melancholy;' she was—in the ideal—constrained, cloistered, and withdrawn. For if middle class women in the West needed to exemplify 'sense and sensibility', Late Imperial women in China were to model the effete. Nor were they alone in their manufactured frailty. In the Late Imperial period men also modeled the effete. Wang asserts that the ideal male of of these centuries was defined by amateur artistic accomplishment, refinement and a highly nuanced sensibility. The ideal man of Medieval times was the conqueror: the ideal man of Late Imperial times was the aesthete. The bound foot marked the elite woman—especially Southern woman. It was the appropriate emblem for the marriage of the refined and the cultivated: it was impractical, infirm, hyper-refined and asthenic.
  5. The practice of footbinding served other social purposes besides style and status marker for the elite marriage, for if gender definitions among the elite were served, so were moral prescriptions of the social conservative. Wang establishes the ways moral advocates exploited the custom of footbinding in times of significant social upheaval, using this violent regimentation of the feminine to stifle the subversion of the established domestic construct. In Late Imperial China, from the Song era through the Qing, Neo-Confucians were concerned with the disruptions brought by urbanisation, anonymity and social change. They saw in this period of immense prosperity and social drift frightening forms of social experimentation: the reversal of hierarchies among family members and between sexes, they saw gender bending and women who refused to marry and the glorification of homoerotic affiliations. For reformers such as Zhu Xi, women needed constraining. Footbinding enforced strict sexual and social roles—sexual definitions were writ large, and the defiance of custom seen in Southern cities among the prosperous had a natural enemy in the bound foot. Ancient forms of domesticity were preserved per force. So despite the fact that footbinding was the essential symbol of female sexuality, it was, nonetheless, deeply conserving of social and domestic hierarchies.
  6. In establishing the extensive cultural roots of footbinding, Wang makes use of Western critical works; indeed, some of her more engaging analyses are based on the critical paradigms of Bataille, Derrida, and Scarry. In the light of current theories of sexuality and violence Wang Ping considers the question of the fetishising of the female foot as sexual symbol, exploring how the crushed foot—distorted, often reeking, obviously painful—became the mark of feminine sexual identity, obsessively described by men, meticulously clothed and attended to by women. Wang finds that the bound foot solved the essential problem of 'civilization and its discontents' by defining sexuality as both shapeable and tamable. She cites Bataille, 'The image of the desirable woman would be insipid and unprovocative, if it did not at the same time also promise or reveal a mysterious animal aspect. The beauty of the desirable woman suggests her private parts, the hairy ones, to be precise, the animal ones' (p. 11). In Chinese culture, especially in Chinese domestic culture, sexual undercurrents were deadly in their capacity for creating chaos. The bound foot, so contorted and shaped by violence, so thoroughly a mark of dependence, served as a grotesque, but safe, symbol of the instinctual. In a culture that retained strict controls over social codes to a miniscule degree, the bound foot represented the necessary evocation of desire, but it was desire marked by violent and rigorous control.
  7. Likewise did food preparation and footbinding share a similar cultural space; they were described in overlapping terms, cross-identified in literature and language. Their similarities were more than linguistic, they were structural, for both shared the same connection to the primitive. Raw food is the raw symbol of man the animal, the creature of necessary appetites; prepared food, presented often in ritual contexts, separated appetite from atavism. Footbinding, like the rituals of food preparation, regulated and adorned sexuality, separating it from the instinctual and base. Wang Ping even argues that footbinding, in becoming the mark of civilized sexuality, became the mark of civilization itself. She ascribes the increased popularity of the practice to increased fears of foreign—'barbarian'—encroachment, for footbinding marked the Han identity as opposed to the alien. For Wang argues that political writers claimed the bound foot marked China as distinct from the barbarian; it was the symbol of civilised China.
  8. If I have one caveat, it is to find that Wang's critical focus shifted occasionally from the mythology and practice of footbinding to an analysis of a specific text. Reading occasionally like undigested literary criticism, her arguments might have been reshaped, some few times, to focus more sharply on footbinding and its cultural ramifications. But, in general, her arguments succeed brilliantly—taking us into the wide expanse of social affiliations, values, and institutions. In the process we learn much, not only about footbinding, but about women's associations, women's work and women's self definitions. We learn about 'female script' associations, female stage performers, women's art forms such as tan ci , and about poetry clubs. We learn about lay and religious affiliations for women, publishing for female audiences , social, and political affiliations, as well as homoerotic alliances among women and among men. Wang Ping creates a wide framework for her analysis, but takes the practice of footbinding out of the realm of the isolated and marginalised and into the cultural contexts that kept it alive for over one thousand years.


    [1] In addition to studies by scholars, Beverly Jackson has published Splendid Slippers, A Thousand Years of an Erotic Tradition, Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 1997—a lavishly illustrated book that contains many useful references. This is less a work of analysis and more a work of personal impressions by an interested, life-long collector.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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