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Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China

Published with assistance from the Margaret S. Harding Memorial Endowment honoring the first director of the University of Minnesota Press.

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"Wang Ping is a fearless, phenomenal writer." - Louise Erdrich


Why did so many Chinese women over a thousand-year period bind their feet, enduring rotting flesh, throbbing pain, and hampered mobility throughout their lives? What compelled mothers to bind the feet of their young daughters, forcing the girls to walk about on doubled-over limbs to achieve the breakage of bones requisite for three-inch feet? Why did Chinese men find women's "golden lotuses" - stench and all - so arousing, inspiring beauty contests for feet, thousands of poems, and erotica in which bound, silk-slippered feet were fetishized and lusted after?

When Wang Ping was nine years old, she secretly set about binding her feet with elastic bands. Footbinding had by then been outlawed in China, women's feet "liberated", but at that young age she desperately wanted the tiny feet her grandmother had. By first examining the root of her own girlhood desire, she unleashes a fascinating inquiry into a centuries-old custom.

Wang Ping interprets the mystery of footbinding as part of a womanly heritage - "a roaring ocean current of female language and culture." She claims that footbinding should not be viewed merely as a function of men's oppression of women, but rather as a phenomenon of male and female desire deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture. Written in an elegant and powerful style, and filled with personal and intriguing insights, Aching for Beauty builds bridges from past to present, East to West, history to literature, imagination to reality.

"Aching for Beauty demonstrates the complexity and the manifestations of a civilization's obsession with the body - its beauty, its fulfillment, its destruction, and its transformation. Wang Ping writes with passion and an understanding strengthened by the female experience. This is a rich, necessary, and invaluable book." - Ha Jin, author of Waiting, winner of the 1999 National Book Award for Fiction.

Random House issued its paperback in the spring of 2002 "Aching for Beauty is one of the most stimulating and exciting books I have read in a long, long time - a work of cultural criticism and comparative study at its best. The idea regarding the transformation of bound feet (nature) into art (cultural) - as well as its direct connection with violence, fear, sex, and, language - not only provides a persuasive argument about the cultural meaning of footbinding but also offers us an entirely new set of insights into the universal notions of sexuality. Wang Ping has succeeded triumphantly in this provocative and engaging book." - Kang-I Sun Chang, Yale University

Aching for Beauty was the 2001 finalist for the Minnesota Book Award and winner of the University of Colorado's Eugene M. Kayden Book Award for "the best book in the humanities published by an American university press." Random House issued its paperback in the spring of 2002.

Browse an image gallery below of footbinding in China - click images to enlarge.

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