ow did you become interested in the topic of footbinding? I know that it was a very personal story for you.
My paternal grandma had bound feet. I grew up watching her hobbling around on her heels. Her deformed feet scared and fascinated me a great deal. I never dared ask her questions, but in my child's mind, I asked plenty, and made up many stories. All my female members in my family have small feet (unbound except for my grandma), and they were objects of praise and pride. So when my own feet reached size six at the age of nine, I couldn't bear the humiliation any more, and decided to change my "steam boats" into something smaller, prettier. So I wrapped them with elastic bands secretly, hoping it would stop my feet from growing. It only lasted about a few months. When I came to New York and saw a pair of lotus shoes in a friend's place, all the memories about my grandma and my childish effort for smaller feet rushed back. It launched my journey to the world of footbinding.
I thought Aching for Beauty was particularly intriguing for your reading of the footbinding tradition as one of female empowerment, rather than the commonly held interpretation of oppression. It allowed women to form a close-knit community, in which they would talk and create works of art, unbeknownst to men. That's powerful! If men had known of this, would they have allowed women to continue footbinding? I'm thinking specifically of that section of The Golden Lotus in which the wife takes over the estate.
Probably not. Chinese men have always been aware of such female power, or such turn of power. That's why for hundreds of years, women have been regarded as "flood of disaster," and must be kept at home at any cost.
How is footbinding perceived in modern China?
On one hand, it's been perceived as a national shame, a symbol of barbarity and backwardness. No one wants to talk about it. On the other hand, small feet of size 5 (no bigger than 6) are still prized and regarded as beautiful, feminine, erotic.
I was struck by your discussion of the politicizing of the female body, particularly men who tried to gain power by projecting the female body on their own through castration, mutilation, and less extreme forms of footbinding.
Bodies, be it women's or men's, have always been sexualized and fetishized for different agendas, erotic, political, moral, and others. In other words, a body can be used as a bridge to power. In patriarchal cultures, it is easier to fetishize women's bodies and claim them as a symbol of the male dominance. But throughout history, and in every culture, men's bodies have also been fetishized, sexualized, and politicized.
As China became preoccupied with communist ideals, there seemed to be a breakdown in sexuality that paralleled the breakdown in class structure. Clothing became plain and more unisex and women stopped binding their feet, becoming less of a commodity. Is there a connection between this and the modern Chinese family's preference for sons rather than daughters?
Chinese family's preference for sons has hundreds of years of history. It is rooted in Confucius ideology and structures for a state and family: juju, Chechen, fife, ziti (the prince acts like a prince, the subject like a subject, the father like a father, the son like a son). Everything is based on the male, and passed on along the male line. Of course, Confucius built this on the structure of economy, i.e., men till and women weave. No wonder a son is the most important matter for a family. In the past, if a woman couldn't produce a son, she could be divorced, punished, cursed, or the husband could use it as an excuse to buy himself a concubine. The communist region shook the structure deeply, but the root is so deep, several thousand years deep, and it is hard to uproot it within a few decades. In the cities, however, where industrial economy dominates, such concept is changing quite rapidly.
One of the most popular areas of the Met's latest exhibit at the Costume Institute, "Extreme Beauty," focuses on bound feet. Interestingly, one of the reasons cited for the recent popularity of Dai Sijie's novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, is the striking cover of a pair of very small red shoes. Why do we still have a fascination with footbinding?
Chinese lotus feet have always been the object of eroticism, not only for Chinese, but also for the West. In the West, such fascination is also mixed with the notion of exotic, mysterious, and the other. We have to remember that when the West colonized China in the early 20th century, Chinese men's queues and women's lotus feet were the objects of their ridicule, their evidence of China's barbarity and backwardness to justify their exploitation and invasion. Even now, footbinding can still stir up different emotional responses from a Chinese and a Westerner.
You've compared contemporary methods of beauty--corseting, breast enhancement, stiletto heels, anorexia--to footbinding in their shared violence. Why do we still have this relationship between beauty and violence? Has a modern female community emerged from this?
Such relationship will probably go on as long as civilization continues. It's a constant battle between nature and culture, chaos and order, savageness and civilization, writing and speaking…The list can go on. Yes, a modern female community has emerged from this, or many, and still, we are battling with other forms of footbinding, other extreme violence on the body. The most important thing is to become aware of what is going on, why we are doing this, before we pass our judgment on others.
Do you think that footbinding is a subconscious reason behind the fetishization of Asian women today?
Probably. As I said before, footbinding was part of the history of the Western colonization of China, and it still affects many Westerners' consciousness and unconsciousness, for example, the stereotype notions of Asian women being passive, obedient, quiet, petite, etc.
You've written both fiction and poetry, but Aching for Beauty was your first nonfiction book. Do you prefer one more than another?
I did this for my Ph.D. It's very different from writing poetry and stories. When I finished, I told myself I'd never do it again. But now, I think a bit differently. Maybe I'll have the urge and courage to do it again, and it will be quite different, I think. At least, I don't have to worry about whether my dissertation committee will pass it or not.
Are you working on anything else right now?
I just finished a manuscript of poetry, and working on two novels and stories.
-- interview by Kelley Kawano