Of Human Bondage

Wang Ping's personal study on Chinese foot binding reflects on the pain of freedom

"My teenage experience was very different from most people's. I was so busy just trying to survive." At the time, Wang thought that she, like Andersen's Little Mermaid, was paying the price for freedom. She eventually got her wish. After three years in the country, she was recommended for Hongzhou foreign-language school. Next she moved on to Beijing University. In 1985, with functional English and almost no money, she left China and her family behind. She had no clear idea of what she would do abroad; she wanted only to continue her education. In New York, she worked illegally in restaurants while taking classes at Long Island University and, later, New York University.

At the urging of one of her professors, the poet Lewis Warsh, she also began to write. "I was so scared at first," she says. "I couldn't imagine I could do it. But it's like karma--once the wheel starts rolling." Though she was further from her childhood home than ever, Wang now began returning to Dinghai in her fiction.

In Foreign Devil, especially, Wang wrestles with her immigration as an impossible choice between cutting all ties with a country that's gone half mad and remaining bound in a provincial wasteland. In one striking passage (whose central image acts as a leitmotif), the narrator's grandmother describes Pacific birds who, once they've left their home island, must remain aloft forever:

"I would do anything at any cost to have a pair of feet as small and shameful as my mother's and sisters'": Poet and novelist Wang Ping
Dan Monick
"I would do anything at any cost to have a pair of feet as small and shameful as my mother's and sisters'": Poet and novelist Wang Ping

 

Those birds didn't build nests. They laid their eggs on barren rocks. The chicks had to learn how to live with nature on the day they were born. Many didn't, but those who survived grew up strong and tough. When the flying time came, they followed their parents to the top of the island. From there, they hopped down as fast as they could. Their hopping was awkward, but once they were in the air and their powerful wings wide open between the blue sky and the blue sea, they turned into the most magnificent creatures on earth."

 

As in the birds' flight, the exile of the narrator, Ni Bing, becomes a choice between death and life as a "hungry ghost." The journey is long and solitary. "Often I walked as if on a road full of knives and broken glass," Wang writes, in an echo of both foot-binding stories and Andersen's fairy tale. "It is the only path I have, and it is worth it, I kept telling myself in the dark."

 

Although Aching for Beauty draws only sporadically on Wang's personal experience, it might also be read as an act of reconciliation--as in the author's fiction, a brave attempt to understand the power of pain to transform, as well as the cost of that transformation. Indeed, Wang prefaces her literary exploration with an account of her own secret childhood ritual: "Why did I think that small feet look better than natural big feet and voluntarily suppress them during a period when anything beautiful, natural or artificial, was considered dangerous and bad, and therefore, outlawed?...Whatever it was, my motivation was strong and clear: I would do anything at any cost to have a pair of feet as small and shameful as my mother's and sisters', so I could be included in the class of the noble, civilized, and fortunate."

Foot binding seems at first a metaphor for the constriction of China's caste system, reinforced as a symbol of the feminine mystique for generations of women. "Foot binding started as a safeguard," the author explains, "a border between genders to separate men and women. It was the borderland for gender, class, and sex. But as the practice went on, the border became blurred. You even see that in today's America. Look at the politicians; they now wear heavy makeup."

Though Wang draws striking parallels between foot binding and Western rituals like cosmetic surgery, body art, and corseting, Aching for Beauty is also steeped in the literature of China, much of which remains unavailable in English translation. And, though Wang uses occidental literary criticism to uncover her subject, she also posits foot binding as something distinct from Western mores: Through foot binding, the mother transmits an entire cultural history to her daughter. The binding process thus becomes an initiation, not only to the erotic masque of the golden lotus, but also to what Wang calls "an ocean current of female language and culture." As in the parable of the Little Mermaid, it is a metamorphosis achieved only through agony.

Indeed, Wang reads foot binding less as a symbol of women's suppression than as a complex interplay between decay and illusion, male and female, beauty and death. There is a phrase in Chinese, teng ai, which, she explains, captures her thesis. The latter character means either "love" or "hidden treasure." The former is "suffering." This apparent paradox--bodily rot covered with the illusion of beauty, a mother's love transmitted through pain, women empowered through erotic adornment--is the same mixture of shame and pride that prompted Jin Suxin to bind her feet a century ago.

It is also perhaps not so different from the trove of fondness and regret Wang uncovers in the fictional unraveling of her own past. The ties that bind, it seems, also keep us securely tethered in the floating world. Or, as Wang says, "For me, escaping was never the goal....What restricts you also becomes your source."

 

Wang Ping reads fromAching for Beauty 8:00 p.m. Thursday, October 26 at Ruminator Books in St. Paul; (651) 699-0587.

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