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Cinderella's Sisters

Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding

Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: 1
Pages: 351
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  • Book Info
    Cinderella's Sisters
    Book Description:

    The history of footbinding is full of contradictions and unexpected turns. The practice originated in the dance culture of China's medieval court and spread to gentry families, brothels, maid's quarters, and peasant households. Conventional views of footbinding as patriarchal oppression often neglect its complex history and the incentives of the women involved. This revisionist history, elegantly written and meticulously researched, presents a fascinating new picture of the practice from its beginnings in the tenth century to its demise in the twentieth century. Neither condemning nor defending foot-binding, Dorothy Ko debunks many myths and misconceptions about its origins, development, and eventual end, exploring in the process the entanglements of male power and female desires during the practice's thousand-year history.Cinderella's Sistersargues that rather than stemming from sexual perversion, men's desire for bound feet was connected to larger concerns such as cultural nostalgia, regional rivalries, and claims of male privilege. Nor were women hapless victims, the author contends. Ko describes how women-those who could afford it-bound their own and their daughters' feet to signal their high status and self-respect. Femininity, like the binding of feet, was associated with bodily labor and domestic work, and properly bound feet and beautifully made shoes both required exquisite skills and technical knowledge passed from generation to generation. Throughout her narrative, Ko deftly wields methods of social history, literary criticism, material culture studies, and the history of the body and fashion to illustrate how a practice that began as embodied lyricism-as a way to live as the poets imagined-ended up being an exercise in excess and folly.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94140-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
    (pp. xix-xx)
    (pp. 1-6)

    Of footbinding, my colleague Stephen West has this to say, in his characteristic deadpan manner: “It was.”¹ On a subject that has engendered lengthy treatises, strong emotions, and endless fascination, I wish to emulate Professor West’s lack of sentimentality in this book even though his economy is beyond my reach.

    I started with a simple goal: to write a history of footbinding, which has never been attempted except in derision. All of the erudite books and articles that bear titles to that effect, I maintain, are histories ofanti-footbinding. They begin with the premise that footbinding is despicable and generally...


    • 1 GIGANTIC HISTORIES OF THE NATION IN THE GLOBE: The Rhetoric of Tianzu, 1880s–1910s
      (pp. 9-37)

      The last assembly line of the last factory producing shoes for bound feet ground to a halt in November 1999. Using eight pairs of wooden lasts, old craftsmen in the Zhiqiang Shoe Factory in Harbin had been making three hundred pairs of “lotus shoes” annually since 1991, but lately over half of the inventory had languished in the warehouse. The customers were all more than eighty years old and dwindling fast. In a solemn ceremony, the factory donated the lasts to the Heilongjiang Museum of Ethnography. A curator voiced a widely shared sentiment: “The ‘three-inch golden lotus’ is a historical...

    • 2 THE BODY INSIDE OUT: The Practice of Fangzu, 1900s–1930s
      (pp. 38-68)

      The tianzu movement acquired national urgency in 1898, when the reformer Kang Youwei submitted a passionate memorial to the Guangxu emperor, urging him to ban footbinding because it put China at a disadvantage in global competition.¹ Encouraged by the furor, a Madame Shen spoke up about her suffering in a letter to Xue Shaohui (1855–1911), editor-in-chief of the journalChinese Girls’ Progress (Nü xuebao).Xue, a classically educated gentrywoman, was one of eight founders of the Chinese Girls’ School (Nü xuetang), which was masterminded by none other than Liang Qichao, author of “On Women’s Education,” and Jing Yuanshan, head...

    • 3 THE BOUND FOOT AS ANTIQUE: Connoisseurship in an Age of Disavowal, 1930s–1941
      (pp. 69-106)

      From hindsight, the most significant achievement of the anti-footbinding movement lies in the new visual and textual knowledge about feet that it created and circulated. The luxury of hindsight, which makes a complete history of footbinding possible, is afforded by an encyclopedic compilation,Picking Radishes (Caifeilu),which contains all that there is to know about binding feet. The project was the labor of love of Yao Lingxi (1899–ca. 1961), a man of letters from Dantu, Jiangsu province, who wound up in the British Settlement of the northern treaty port of Tianjin after a string of minor bureaucratic posts.¹ First serialized...


    • 4 FROM ANCIENT TEXTS TO CURRENT CUSTOMS: In Search of Footbinding’s Origins
      (pp. 109-144)

      In the three chapters that comprise Part I, we have witnessed the waning of footbinding’s aura in a modern, global world. As the bound foot was demystified and brought into the open for all to see, its images and meanings were altered by its very availability. Distinctly modern images of footbinding circulated in new textual and visual mediums, acquiring the mantle of timeless Truth. Most familiar is the prevalent history of the nation authored by Christian missionaries and Chinese reformers in which the bound foot symbolized national shame. Equally poignant is the counter-discourse, a nostalgic connoisseurship literature which construed the...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • 5 THE EROTICS OF PLACE: Male Desires and the Imaginary Geography of the Northwest
      (pp. 145-186)

      In stark contrast with philologists who perpetuated the mystique of footbinding with downcast eyes, less academically inclined male writers from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were unabashed in their fascination with the subject. In travelogues, notation books, vernacular plays, and songs, they depicted the bound foot as an alien object that is alluring but dangerous. We will see in this chapter that the visceral appeal of this image was part and parcel of an exotic landscape called the Northwest. More than a geographical location, the Northwest was a cultural imaginary in which indecent male desires could find concrete and socially...

    • 6 CINDERELLA’S DREAMS: The Burden and Uses of the Female Body
      (pp. 187-226)

      What traces does the body leave behind after life expires? What remain of the sensations and sentiments that render each life singular and each woman with bound feet the mistress of her universe? These questions flashed in my head as I turned to examine with white-gloved fingers the exhibits in the conservation room of the National Silk Museum in Hangzhou. A pair of shoes, two pairs of socks, and one set of binding cloths from the Yongle era (1403–24) of the Ming dynasty sat on two felt-lined trays, recent discoveries from a lady’s tomb in Jiangsu province (see fig....

    (pp. 227-230)

    The pursuit of beauty, status, sex, culture, money: footbinding is implicated in every one of these human desires, but in themselves these drives forselfbetterment or gratification cannot account for the ferocity with which footbinding spread, sprouting a surprising array of literary forms and material cultures along the way. Envy, cruelty, violence, objectification: these horrible things that men do toothersare also part of the story, but they are inadequate explanations for the longevity of the practice and the stubbornness with which women embraced and perpetuated it. At once beautiful and ugly, neither voluntary nor coerced, footbinding defies...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 231-292)
    (pp. 293-300)
    (pp. 301-320)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 321-332)