Beverly Jackson,
Splendid Slippers
(Ten Speed, 1997)

American journalist, Asian art collector, textile scholar and world traveler Beverly Jackson became fascinated by the discarded Chinese practice of foot-binding when she discovered a tiny pair of shoes (less than 6 inches in size) in, of all places, Edinburgh, Scotland. The author's curiosity launched a research project that resulted in Splendid Slippers: A Thousand Years of an Erotic Tradition. This large, coffee-table-sized trade paperback filled with elegant color and historical photographs gives the former tradition a grounding in reality.

The book is divided into 10 chapters detailing every aspect of the subject. A fictional character, Phoenix Treasure, opens each section with comments on the practice of foot-binding as well as the changing culture surrounding it. Jackson waxes informative on the 1,000-year history of the custom and the necessary gruesome surgery and two-year process to achieve the 3-inch "Golden Lily" by breaking the foot into a shape also euphemistically known as a "Lotus Bud." The author also includes much data on the various types of shoes and the embroidery that adorned them, and the lore (erotic and otherwise) surrounding the practice, comparing this uniquely Chinese foot fetish with singular traditions of other cultures (such as the so-called giraffe women of Burma whose necks stretch from wearing an increasing series of necklaces).

In her clear and lucid prose, Jackson documents that the fanciful myths, legends and fairy tales about the origins of footbinding equal the cultural, historical and sociopolitical explanations for it. Splendid Slippers, containing both personal and cultural stories of Lotus Bud feet, offers an aesthetic, highly individual and deeply respectful exploration of the facts and fiction surrounding this fascinating and heretofore little-studied erotic custom which, interestingly enough, remained mostly confined to Han Chinese women of the past. (Manchus in the north and Hakkas in the south, as well as other ethnic minorities, never submitted to what they considered a barbaric custom.)

Jackson, at first attracted to the extraordinary beauty of the hand-crafted shoes themselves, then became enamored of the women who created them and wore them -- captivated by their marvelous creativity and by their terrible suffering which continued well into the 20th century. After reading this account of hobbled Han Chinese women, almost crippled at times with pain, designing and decorating their footwear as a major outlet for their ingenuity. One feels sympathy and is moved to respect greatly these martyrs to beauty. They strove and flourished as much as they could and fought back when modernization gave them the tools to do so. Splendid Slippers, a splendid book indeed, should be appreciated for its beautiful blend of photo documentation and illuminating text.

[ by Amy Harlib ]
Rambles: 25 June 2001

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