Through an intertextual reading of Xiao Hong’s short story “Hands” and other examples culled from the broader print culture of the Republican period, this article traces the rise of a kind of “hand fetish” in modern China and examines the array of cultural meanings embedded in this particular imagination of modern femininity. The hand fetish came in vogue in a time when the woman’s body became the site and symbol of modernization and national rejuvenation in the wake of the antifootbinding movement. To a certain extent, women’s hands are elevated to the glamorous status from which their now demonized other, the bound feet, have been eternally banished. As the modern replacement of the stigmatized bound feet, hands now emerge as the female body part associated with civilization, progress, hygienic modernity, and glamour and grace of intelligent and independent women who embody the new universal standard of modern beauty.
Despite all the hype about the apparent disparity in meaning attributed to the different parts of the female body, however, I argue that the foot fetish and the hand fetish are related to each other by a hidden continuity or affinity. Women’s elegant and dainty hands, much like their bound feet in the past, express an elitist distance from labor and engrave the notion of class within the notion of femininity. But to simply assert that the hand fetish is nothing other than the survival of the old class bias in a new form is to miss the complexity of the picture. What makes the Chinese fetishization of clean and elegant hands particularly fascinating is the extent to which familiar categories of gender and class become “raced” in the process of their rearticulation. Xiao Hong’s story alerts us to the operation of what I’d like to call “the logic of internal racialization” in both elite and popular imaginations of modern femininity. While those who want to project an image of being modern are eager to conform to a white ideal of beauty, they fixate their contrastive other in a fragmentary image of blackness. The realization of this logic is partly achieved through frequent invocations of the discourse of hygiene, the scientific arm of racist ideologies, in representations of lower- class women. The discourse of race thus provides the old categories of difference—gender and class—a new language for self- representation, a new aura of legitimacy and respectability, and a new life.