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The Binding Chair or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society (2000)

by Kathryn Harrison

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5561533,343 (3.41)17
The author of The Kiss tells the story of two women whose lives intersect in turn-of-the-century Shanghai; a Chinese girl named Mai, and her Western niece, Alice. 50,000 first printing. In poised and elegant prose, Kathryn Harrison weaves in The Binding Chair; or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society, a stunning story of women, travel, and flight; of love, revenge, and fear; of the search for home and the need to escape it. Set in alluring Shanghai at the turn of the century, The Binding Chair intertwines the destinies of a Chinese woman determined to forget her past and a Western girl focused on the promises of the future. Beautiful, charismatic, destructive May, escapes an arranged marriage in rural nineteenth-century China for life in a Shanghai brothel, where she meets Arthur, an Australian whose philanthropic pursuits lead him into one scrape after another. As a member of the Foot Emancipation Society, Arthur calls on May not for his pleasure but for her rehabilitation, only to find himself immediately and helplessly seduced by the sight of her bound feet. Reforming May is out of the question, so love-struck Arthur marries her instead and brings her home to live with him, his sister and brother-in-law, and their two girls, Alice and Cecily. In Alice, May sees the possibility of redemption: a surrogate for a child she has lost. And it is to May that Alice turns for the love her own mother withholds. But when the twelve-year-old is caught preparing her aunt's opium pipe, she is shipped off to a London boarding school, far from the dangerous influence of the woman who will come to reclaim her and to control the whole family. The Binding Chair unfolds among scenes of astonishing beauty and cruelty, in a lawless place where traditions and cultures clash, and where tragedy threatens a world built on the banks of unsettled waters, from the bustling Whangpoo River to the lake of blood in the Chinese afterworld. By turns shocking, exquisite, and hilarious, The Binding Chair is another spellbinding literary triumph by the writer whose work Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times has called "powerful and hypnotic."… (more)
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» See also 17 mentions

English (14)  Dutch (1)  All languages (15)
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
I picked this book up as I was drawn by the blurb on the back which indicated that it would tell the tale of a Chinese orphan escaping her tradition-bound life which incorporated foot binding to create a new existence. However I struggled to like any of the characters and only finished it because I forced myself to persevere. Very disappointing ( )
  dolly22 | Jul 9, 2020 |
meh. became disengaged with it in the end. ( )
  reg_lt | Feb 7, 2020 |
There are three stories in this book - that of May, a former prostitute with bound feet who married an Australian expat in Shanghai, her niece Alice and Suzanne Petroska. I found May's story to be exceptionally compelling and really enjoyed reading about her life. However, as other have mentioned, when the story strayed to her niece or Suzanne, it lost some its magic. I think the author was trying to make us understand May and Alice's relationship by showing it from both sides, but in the end both came off an unsympathetic. ( )
  elleceetee | Apr 8, 2013 |
The hook was the title - perhaps a glimpse into the secret world of Chinese culture in times not too long gone by. The protagonist with her tiny feet and huge greed was quite a fascinating character, but when the focus changed to her extremely boring niece going to school it seemed the author had run out of steam and the book died for me. I tried several times to get back into it, but in the end, despite the pretty cover looking at me from the bedside table, gave it up. ( )
  Petra.Xs | Apr 2, 2013 |
Essentially, this is the story of Mae who is married to a silk merchant and is his fourth wife, she flees him to a life in a Shanghai brothel, which is preferable to her married life. In 1899 she meets and marries an Australian called Arthur. The time line does flit from past to present, which I found in part irritating,but nonetheless,I continued to read.The ending is both dramatic and unexpected. ( )
  AnglersRest | Dec 8, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
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Epigraph
You'll always arrive at this same city.
Don't hope for somewhere else;
no ship for you exists,
no road exists.


     --From "The City" by Constantine Cavafy, 1894
Dedication
For Jill
First words
The gatepost, stuccoed pink to match the villa, bore a glazed tile painted with a blue number, the same as that in the advertisement.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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The author of The Kiss tells the story of two women whose lives intersect in turn-of-the-century Shanghai; a Chinese girl named Mai, and her Western niece, Alice. 50,000 first printing. In poised and elegant prose, Kathryn Harrison weaves in The Binding Chair; or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society, a stunning story of women, travel, and flight; of love, revenge, and fear; of the search for home and the need to escape it. Set in alluring Shanghai at the turn of the century, The Binding Chair intertwines the destinies of a Chinese woman determined to forget her past and a Western girl focused on the promises of the future. Beautiful, charismatic, destructive May, escapes an arranged marriage in rural nineteenth-century China for life in a Shanghai brothel, where she meets Arthur, an Australian whose philanthropic pursuits lead him into one scrape after another. As a member of the Foot Emancipation Society, Arthur calls on May not for his pleasure but for her rehabilitation, only to find himself immediately and helplessly seduced by the sight of her bound feet. Reforming May is out of the question, so love-struck Arthur marries her instead and brings her home to live with him, his sister and brother-in-law, and their two girls, Alice and Cecily. In Alice, May sees the possibility of redemption: a surrogate for a child she has lost. And it is to May that Alice turns for the love her own mother withholds. But when the twelve-year-old is caught preparing her aunt's opium pipe, she is shipped off to a London boarding school, far from the dangerous influence of the woman who will come to reclaim her and to control the whole family. The Binding Chair unfolds among scenes of astonishing beauty and cruelty, in a lawless place where traditions and cultures clash, and where tragedy threatens a world built on the banks of unsettled waters, from the bustling Whangpoo River to the lake of blood in the Chinese afterworld. By turns shocking, exquisite, and hilarious, The Binding Chair is another spellbinding literary triumph by the writer whose work Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times has called "powerful and hypnotic."

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Beautiful, charismatic, destructive, May escapes an arranged marriage in rural nineteenth-century China for life in a Shanghai brothel, where she meets Arthur, an Australian whose philanthropic pursuits lead him into one scrape after another. As a member of the Foot Emancipation Society, Arthur calls on May not for his pleasure but for her rehabilitation, only to find himself immediately and helplessly seduced by the sight of her bound feet. Reforming May is out of the question, so love-struck Arthur marries her instead and brings her home to live with him, his sister and brother-in-law, and their two girls, Alice and Cecily. In Alice, May sees the possibility of redemption: a surrogate for a child she has lost. And it is to May that Alice turns for the love her own mother withholds. But when the twelve-year-old is caught preparing her aunt's opium pipe, she is shipped off to a London boarding school, far from the dangerous influence of the woman who will come to reclaim her and to control the whole family. The Binding Chair unfolds among senses of astonishing beauty and cruelty, in a lawless place where traditions and cultures clash, and where tragedy threatens a world built on the banks of unsettled waters-from bustling Whangpoo River to the lake of Blood in the Chinese afterworld.
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