Wang Ping   Aching for Beauty  
Wang Ping    
Read an Interview with Wang Ping

Read an Excerpt from Aching for Beauty


A photograph--sepia-toned, slightly grainy--of two Chinese women. Both wear long, heavily embroidered brocade Mandarin-collar coats and skirts and heavy jade jewelry. Beautiful outfits, but the eye is immediately drawn to the barely visible feet in elegantly decorative shoes. The feet, never seen uncovered by any except the husband, are tiny and pointed from years of binding. Before that icon of pain and eroticism, a girl shifts uneasily from side to side in rubber flip-flops that, in time, will become habitual rather than seasonal footwear. One of the two women is my maternal great-grandmother. The girl was--is--me.

Whenever I happened across that photograph over the years, the bound feet never failed to evoke the same reaction of mingled horror and fascination. As a fourth-generation American, I had the Western feminist condemnations down pat: how barbaric, how oppressive, how shameful. No doubt, I once laughed, my insistence on wearing flip-flops all the time was a subconscious resistance to thousands of years of Chinese history. For some girls, a miniskirt and bare midriff represented the ultimate articles of sexual rebellion. For me, the flip-flops.

Yet the centuries-old tradition of footbinding--the ritualistic breaking and binding of a young girl's feet to form three-inch "golden lotuses"--can hardly be dismissed so easily. In her award-winning book Aching for Beauty, Wang Ping sets out to reclaim the rite of passage as a form of female empowerment within a heavily patriarchal society while drawing parallels between footbinding and contemporary forms of extreme beauty.

Passed down from mother to daughter, footbinding provided a way for women to find their place in the world. Not only did it teach admirable qualities such as discipline and responsibility to girls, the tradition also provided women with a measure of social mobility; a perfectly bound "lotus blossom" could attract an upper-class husband or a position in an upper-class household. The process also drew women together into tight-knit communities that produced their own secret languages and works of art.

In this issue of Bold Type, Wang Ping discusses the long tradition of footbinding and provides an excerpt from her book, Aching for Beauty.

-- Kelley Kawano

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  Photo credit: Chris Welsch

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