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Cinderella's Sisters by Dorothy Ko

Cinderella's Sisters

by Dorothy Ko

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Ko, presents arguably the most nuanced view of footbinding, attempting to place it as an important practice within Chinese culture. Unlike most historians examining footbinding, Ko goes out of her way to avoid condemning the practice. Ko recognizes the leading role played by missionaries, but she prefers to look at other actors that she believes have been overlooked, seeing that the debate took place in everyday life as opposed to solely in writings and churches.

Anti-footbinding movements were ultimately successful, but Ko wants to look at the subtle processes involved rather than the relentless pressure suggested by others. She argues that anti-footbinding movements were most successful when attacking the cultural value of footbinding, which is where it was most firmly entrenched. Opponents of footbinding turned the arguments of the defenders against them. For instance, when defenders claimed that footbinding was a cherished cultural icon for more than a thousand years, anti-footbinding activists argued that this demonstrated the stagnation of Chinese society, which was the root of Chinese weakness in relation to the West and Japan. Footbinding was the most prominent symptom of that stagnation, so eliminating it was a necessary step towards modernizing the country and returning its dignity. Another, almost equally effective argument, was to take the argument that big-nosed barbarians cannot understand the culture of the Middle Kingdom and to demonstrate that those barbarians are laughing at Chinese culture, largely because of what they saw as the barbarity of footbinding.

The success in reducing the cultural value of footbinding led to the slow death of the practice. She looks at the slow decline of the practice, which drew out until the 1930’s. She also looks at the even slower decline of foot-bound women in society. She particularly sees the “stubbornness of individual bodies” as prolonging footbinding in society. Ko is quite critical of anti-footbinding activists, whom she accuses of being uncaring towards women with bound feet. She argues that some women chose to bind there feet for reasons of status, others had little-to-no choice in the binding of their feet and for all of them footbinding was largely irreversible. Even if footbinding was reduced or eliminated, unbinding women’s feet did not return them to their natural state. In addition, attacking footbinding and scorning foot-bound women was essentially an attack on the character of the women. Ko argues, echoing Levy, that the intense hatred of footbinding blinded activists to the feelings of the Chinese women involved.
Even as Ko emphasizes secondary players, she does not neglect the role of missionaries. She acknowledges their leading role in attacking the cultural value of footbinding. She provides a deep analysis of the demise of footbinding, looking at the effects as much as the motivation and rhetoric. She looks at a variety of sources, including the standard missionary publications and the responses from footbinding’s defenders. She also looks at writings of individuals and how they worked within the struggle. This powerful work is arguably the most thorough on footbinding to date. ( )
  Scapegoats | Jan 1, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0520253906, Paperback)

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 Sisters argues 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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:44:45 -0400)

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