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Reviewed by:
  • Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding.
  • Paul S. Ropp (bio)
Dorothy Ko . Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2005. xix, 332 pp. Hardcover $29.95, ISBN 0-520-21884-1.

Dorothy Ko's new history of footbinding is a wonderfully imaginative, wide-ranging, and provocative study of a subject long in need of revisionism. She argues persuasively that there is not one footbinding but many, and that therefore any history of footbinding has to recognize first and foremost the multifaceted complexity of the phenomenon. She handily meets this challenge. She also suggests at numerous points in her study that the study of footbinding has been dominated by antifootbinding views and by the discourse of men, so much so that we have seldom been privy to the views of the women themselves who had their feet bound and who in turn bound the feet of their daughters and granddaughters. Cinderella's Sisters is likely as close as we are to come to a study of footbinding from the perspective of the Chinese women themselves who carried out, managed, and experienced firsthand this widespread custom, with all the pains and benefits it brought them.

In her Introduction Ko briefly notes earlier explanations of footbinding such as Freud's theory of fetishism, Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption, and Laurel Bossen and Hill Gates's development of a Marxist-feminist view of the mystification of female labor. She also notes the widespread perception (as illustrated in Ida Pruitt's well-known biography of Ning Lao T'ai-t'ai) that women bound their feet mainly for the sake of upward mobility in seeking a good marriage.1 All these views illuminate the custom, Ko suggests, but they suffer from the assumption that footbinding was a single uniform custom with a single uniform cause. Ko has the advantage, over all these studies, in developing a multifaceted book-length treatment that ranges from antifootbinding discourses of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to scholarly works tracing the origins of the custom, to discussions of the aura of footbinding among male scholars during the custom's heyday in the Ming-Qing period, to an incisive discussion of women's shoes as items of fashion, concealment, and women's "self-fashioning."

Just as footbinding was complicated, so was its termination. In part I, "The Body Exposed" (chapters 1-3), Ko provides "an alternative history" of the final abolition of footbinding, from the 1880s to the early 1940s. She notes these developments in terms of "three kinds of time: on the level of cosmology or episteme, [End Page 305] the cultural prestige or justification of footbinding; on the level of customs and conventions, footbinding as a social practice; and on the level of personal experience, footbinding as individual embodiment" (p. 11). As changes occurred on each of these levels in different ways at different times and places, there was a great deal of cultural turmoil and confusion in the ways the custom gradually died out.

Both foreign missionaries and Chinese nationalists developed the antifoot-binding strategy of photographing and exposing the misshapen foot whose appeal had long depended on the allure of its concealment in the inner quarters and its covering with the elegant embroidered cloth shoe. One of Ko's most striking conclusions is that, with the exception of a few women (such as the radical Qiu Jin, beheaded by the Qing police in 1908), the Chinese abolitionists were primarily male, and their main arguments concerned not the pain of women but rather the weakness of the Chinese nation and the humiliation and embarrassment caused the nation by such a backward custom. She criticizes the antifootbinding movement as misogynist toward women with bound feet, indifferent to the pain caused by unbinding, and less successful than many have claimed. "One woman's pride and freedom was predicated on another woman's shame and bondage" (p. 68). Although not mentioned in her bibliography, an excellent complement to Ko's analysis that in my view corroborates many of her insights on the complexities and ironies of the turn-of-the-century antifootbinding movement is...


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