Dorothy Ko, in what is bound to become a classic on the topic, “Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding”, has pointed out that the final decline of footbinding as a general practice in China was, to a certain extent, linked to what she calls the “global episteme”. Though by no means the only reason for the decline, it has been the basis for much of the rhetoric of the tianzu (natural feet) and fangzu (letting feet out) movement starting in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the wake of the Opium Wars and the Unequal Treaties, China, the “Middle Kingdom” that had been largely fenced off up till then, found itself suddenly confronted with a mostly hostile outside world that criticized the country for what it perceived as barbaric practices such as footbinding. China was dragged into the international community, only to find it had become the laughingstock and the subject of humiliation. It came as a shock. The great intellectuals of their time, such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, made the eradication of footbinding one of the central themes of their nationalist discourse. The Chinese women and their lotus feet, which in the heydays of the practice had been THE distinguishing factor between us (the Chinese) and them (the barbarians, whose women didn’t bind), became yet again the body where the political discourse of the time was almost literally written onto. Only this time the “writing” was exactly the opposite of what it once had been. China’s weakness in the global community was blamed on the bound feet of women, which made them almost useless to play a serious economic role in a world that was quickly industrializing. It should come as no surprise that the advocates of the anti-footbinding movement (apart from the foreign missionaries, of course) were mostly people that had studied abroad or traveled extensively outside China.
Looking at today’s context, I couldn’t but see certain similarities with respect tot that “global episteme”. Today’s tokens are not bandages, exposing heavily deformed feet, being taken away, or wooden soles, guaranteeing the bound foot to be well arched, to be turned in to the fangzu officials. But one could say that now it’s blindfolds coming off.
Nobody will contest any longer that China has woken up after a century of wars and has emerged from the ruined wasteland left by the Cultural Revolution. It is stepping again on the international stage and entrusting the country with the organization of the Olympics is like the pinnacle of the “festivities” marking the re-entry in the global community … And then the first thing the Chinese get to see is the Olympic torch (“ the “Sacred Torch”) being attacked by activists. And they are shocked yet again by the miscomprehension of the outer world. How come the world seems to pay so much attention to some rebel rousers in a far off part of China, while apparently missing out, or at least disregarding, the enormous progress it has and is still making ? China is unmistakably taking notice of what the world thinks, but where it had thought the way to the Olympics would be strewn with rose-petals and jubilant cries, it once again is confronted with a lot of hostility and I’m not sure they understand where the hostility is coming from. I’m not sure whether I understand it myself. But the blindfold that has held the Chinese happily unaware of what was in wait for them certainly has come off. The wake-up call is not some silent melodious music but a noisy buzzer hurting the ears. The world is telling China that, like in a sports match, it will side with the underdog fighting the giant, even more if the underdog can add if not entirely, at least a sense, of legitimacy to it’s claim. And it is telling China that the judgment it will bestow on a country is only partially linked to it’s economic prowess, but even more to it’s answering to a set of values deemed universal.
But, unlike at the beginning of the twentieth century, also in the “outer world”, the blindfolds are coming off with respect to China. The world is starting to see what a formidable contender has newly entered the arena and it starts to get worried. Realizing that it is nearly impossible to live a normal life without products coming out of China (the ubiquitous “made in China”-label), therefore letting China have control of part of your life and then to realize that you nearly have no clue of what today’s China is about is a rather scary experience. Seeing China buying large chunks of the world’s oil reserves is an equally scary thought and by the time Chinese companies tread en masse in the footsteps of Lenovo, Huawei and some others and grab their piece of the Western marketpie, we’ll be scared out of our wits. The Western world is answering to a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more it says the rise of China will break-up the current status quo (in which of course the West still has a perceived advantage), the more the status quo is being torn down, for fear weakens your position. The West, by demonizing China, is still focusing on the threats and forgets about the opportunities. By he time the Olympics are over – the best ever, there is not a trace of doubt in my mind in that respect, but let’s now quickly get it over with, so we can all move on – the world will be even more aware of the hunger and the energy of the new kid on the block who’s here to stay and better sets it’s strategy accordingly.
So Dorothy Ko’s “global episteme” is still fiercely influential, but whereas the vibes it radiates once were unidirectional, they have now become multidirectional and everybody feels the heat. Unlike the bound foot, that “twisted dough”, that could never be untwisted after having been bound for some many years, we can only hope that the eyes of the Chinese and the rest of the world, now that the blindfolds are coming off, can still adapt to the light and see things in their real perspective.