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Journal of Women's History 17.4 (2005) 142-147

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Corporal Transactions:

New Perspectives on Traditional Practices in China, India, and Africa

Dorothy Ko. Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet. Berkeley: Bata Shoe Museum and University of California Press, 2001. 162 pp.; ill.; maps; table; ISBN 0-520-23283-6 (cl); ISBN 0-520-23284-4 (pb).
Ping Wang. Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. 320 pp.; ill.; ISBN 0-8166-3605-2 (cl).
Veena Talwar Oldenburg. Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 288 pp.; ill.; ISBN 0-19-515072-4 (pb).
Stanlie M. James and Claire C. Robertson, eds. Genital Cutting and Transnational Sisterhood: Disputing U.S. Polemics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. 176 pp.; ISBN 0-252-02741-8 (cl); ISBN 0-252-07273-1 (pb).

These four books, though situated within different disciplines and centered on African, Indian, and Chinese practices respectively, nevertheless share a common objective. Their authors seek to illuminate how cultural practices that are often regarded as iconic touchstones of patriarchal violence against women by feminist and non-feminists alike need to be seen from the vantage points of African, Indian, and Chinese women participants instead. Although the authors are unanimous in their assessment that, at some level, the particulars of these practices are designed to control women's sexuality, they nevertheless take issue with the militant Western feminist characterization of these acts as being particularly virulent forms of patriarchal savagery. Accordingly, these books contextualize these practices historically and culturally in order to make sense out of what appears, at first glance, to be senseless, grotesque, or barbaric. In each instance, through the disciplinary approaches of history (Ko and Talwar Oldenburg), literature (Wang), and anthropology (James and Robertson), they succeed in moving beyond "the troubling stances of arrogant perception" (James, in James and Robertson, 90). To varying degrees, these studies seek to revisit the legacy of nineteenth-century Western imperialist ideology and science, which, despite the many social and legal restrictions that were imposed upon [End Page 142] European and American women at the time, nevertheless not only ranked other nations and cultures according to how well they treated women, but also made anti-female violence and female oppression in other continents a pretext for colonial intervention. By offering technically precise accounts of these practices, by regionally situating them within the varied cultures of Africa, India, and China, and by elucidating women's investments, these volumes offer a revisionist perspective of what made footbinding, genital cutting, and dowry socially and individually compelling for the women involved.

Both Dorothy Ko and Wang Ping address footbinding, a practice that, unlike female genital cutting or sex-specific abortion, has been discontinued, which undoubtedly attests to the power of the modern Chinese state to institute socially normative behavior. Conceived as a companion piece to an exhibition at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Ko's Every Step a Lotus looks at the shoes made for bound feet as historical documents in order to account for what Ko deems "the single most important experience in a [Chinese] woman's life between the thirteenth and nineteenth century" (12), even if, as Ko readily concedes, class and ethnicity meant that many women living in the Chinese empire did not bind their feet. Part of the book's intent is to provide a brief overview of bound feet as a symbol of sensual grace of dancers at court to an icon of the Confucian cult of domesticity among gentry women. More importantly, perhaps, Ko seeks to desensationalize footbinding practices through a detailed examination of the shoes themselves. Ko shows that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, depending on climatic and economic factors, shoes from different provinces assumed distinctive regional styles. No matter what their provenance, Ko observes that feet were not necessarily as small as the shoes, but rather that a variety of shoemaking techniques were designed to make the feet appear as small as possible...


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