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Book Review

Beauty in China: Bound Up in Pain

ACHING FOR BEAUTY Footbinding in China By Wang Ping University of Minnesota Press 268 pages, $27.95


As a young girl growing up during the Cultural Revolution in China, Wang Ping was horrified by her size 6 feet, which she saw as a pair of "steamboats," a Chinese fortunetelling omen that she was born to be a maid or a servant. To remedy the situation, she secretly tried to bind them into "golden lilies" or "lotus feet." After six months of burning pain, she gave up--though she had managed to stunt further growth.

Many years later after immigrating to the United States, Wang saw a pair of beautifully embroidered lotus shoes at a friend's apartment and began to wonder if beauty was innate or cultural, socially imposed or self-imposed by a personal concept of beauty. What began as a doctoral thesis evolved into "Aching for Beauty," which examines through history and literature the tradition of foot binding and its ideals of femininity, beauty, class and eroticism.

Wang traces foot binding to the 21st century BC, when Emperor Yu, the legendary founder of the Xia Dynasty, married a woman reputed to be a fox fairy with tiny feet. The practice, however, didn't become widespread until the end of the 11th century.

For the next 900 years, girls between the ages of 5 and 7 endured the extremely painful ritual of foot binding. Tight bandages were used to bind the toes and heel together. Feet became inflamed, flesh rotted and bones broke. This so-called "breaking" process lasted about two years and was accelerated by forcing girls to walk. The ideal foot was 3 inches long and a half-inch wide in the front, but women were admired and praised if their feet were even smaller. These tiny vestiges were seen as highly erotic. The smaller, the better; the more fragrant (a combination of perfume and, of course, the rotting flesh), the sexier.

In time, lily feet would become not only a symbol for feminine beauty but also a way for young women to move from the servant class upward to the marriage and service markets. Although foot binding left women barely mobile, the feet were immune to the aging process. As Wang points out, "A beautiful face may wrinkle, a slender body may become fat and saggy, whereas a pair of lotus feet keep their charm as long as a woman lives."

Toward the end of the 19th century, Chinese intellectuals began to campaign against foot binding as part of a larger movement for reform, modernization and female equality. The reason was not so much that the practice mutilated women or created sexual playthings, but rather that it made China "an object of ridicule in the world, prevented the nation from taking its rightful place in international affairs, and weakened the country to a perilous degree by producing weak offspring."

In addition, foot binding was becoming an economic burden at a time when the country was going through massive social, political and cultural change. The foot-bound woman became a symbol of an uneducated, backward, putrefying feudal country, while natural-footed women were suddenly seen as educated, healthy and modern contributors to society. It was a revolutionary concept.

While Wang confines herself primarily to the history and implications of this horrific Chinese tradition, it would be a mistake to place value judgments on the practice without looking at some of the things Western women do to make themselves "beautiful." Liposuction, silicon injections and implants, chemical peels, nose jobs, breast enlargements and reductions are not only common but are now often given as graduation, Christmas, bat mitzvah, sweet 16 or pre-wedding gifts in an effort to make us more desirable (read marriageable) or economically viable (read thinner, younger, less ethnic-looking).

These are all things that we let others inflict upon our bodies, but the quest for beauty often doesn't end there, so that here we are at a time of tremendous prosperity and we have girls literally starving themselves to death through anorexia and bulimia. Why? So they might look better in that highly sexualized Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera outfit that a parent, grandparent or aunt may have bought for them.

In China, the song "A pair of tiny feet, two jugs of tears" covered the same territory as a mother in this country saying to her daughter, "In order to be beautiful, one must suffer." In China, they say, "A woman makes herself beautiful for the one who loves her." In our culture, we say, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." In China, a thousand painful years of foot binding; in the West, we still wear stiletto heels that we know have negative physical effects.

Is beauty innate or cultural, socially imposed or self-imposed? What makes "Aching for Beauty" interesting is not what it says about the strangeness and barbarity of another culture, but how it reminds us of the strangeness and barbarity of our own.


Lisa See is the author of the memoir "On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family" and the mysteries "The Interior" and "The Flower Net."

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