Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding

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9780520218840: Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding

The history of footbinding is full of contradictions and unexpected turns. The practice originated in the dance culture of China's medieval court and spread to gentry families, brothels, maid's quarters, and peasant households. Conventional views of footbinding as patriarchal oppression often neglect its complex history and the incentives of the women involved. This revisionist history, elegantly written and meticulously researched, presents a fascinating new picture of the practice from its beginnings in the tenth century to its demise in the twentieth century. Neither condemning nor defending foot-binding, Dorothy Ko debunks many myths and misconceptions about its origins, development, and eventual end, exploring in the process the entanglements of male power and female desires during the practice's thousand-year history.

Cinderella's Sisters argues that rather than stemming from sexual perversion, men's desire for bound feet was connected to larger concerns such as cultural nostalgia, regional rivalries, and claims of male privilege. Nor were women hapless victims, the author contends. Ko describes how women—those who could afford it—bound their own and their daughters' feet to signal their high status and self-respect. Femininity, like the binding of feet, was associated with bodily labor and domestic work, and properly bound feet and beautifully made shoes both required exquisite skills and technical knowledge passed from generation to generation. Throughout her narrative, Ko deftly wields methods of social history, literary criticism, material culture studies, and the history of the body and fashion to illustrate how a practice that began as embodied lyricism—as a way to live as the poets imagined—ended up being an exercise in excess and folly.

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From the Inside Flap:

“Dorothy Ko's daring in taking on the difficult subject of footbinding has resulted in a tour-de-force. In Cinderella's Sisters she rises above nationalist, feminist, and Orientalist polemic to place footbinding clearly in the domain of the history of fashion. Her ingenious narrative strategy—putting the modern story of foobinding's disappearance at the beginning—sets up her historical account of its premodern heyday as a story of concealment—of hidden sources, hidden bodies, and hidden meanings. As illusion, footbinding reveals women's sisterhood in responses to being objects of desire."—Charlotte Furth, author of A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China's Medical History: 960–1665

" Cinderella's Sister's is the long-awaited, definitive work on Chinese footbinding in English.The work also plugs into current concerns with the history of the body and of fashion. But it also does much more: at every turn it tells us something new about late imperial and republican-era Chinese society and history. It is remarkably rich in fascinating detail. A great read."—William T. Rowe, author of Saving the World: Chen Hongmou and Elite Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century China

About the Author:

Dorothy Ko is Professor of History at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is the author of Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet (California, 2001) and Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China (1994). She is coeditor of Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan (California, 2003).

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