Untwisting the Pastry

Rana Mitter

  • Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding by Dorothy Ko
    California, 332 pp, £18.95, December 2005, ISBN 0 520 21884 1

The term ‘Liberation’ (jiefang), usually granted a celebratory capital letter, is still commonly used in China to describe the Communist Party’s victory in 1949. In the West, too, it was for decades a mainstay of academic writing, marking the absolute dividing line between the ‘old’ China of backward practices and the ‘new’ China of socialist modernity. Now that China is moving rapidly to embrace social Darwinist turbo-capitalism, the events of 1949 appear to have been less the inauguration of a brave new world than a social experiment that the CCP seems anxious to disown as fast as possible. Still, the term ‘Liberation’ lives on, not least in the official name of the immense People’s Liberation Army. When pressed, a Chinese high-school history student will still come up with a decent list of just what China was liberated from: foreign imperialism, for example, and opium addiction and widespread prostitution and gambling. Among the most prominent of such ills was the practice of footbinding: the deliberate restriction of the growth of young girls’ feet, so that throughout their lives their feet would be no more than a few inches long.

Until recently, it seemed clear, in both China and the West, that these ‘feudal’ practices were to be condemned unequivocally. Whatever one thought of the social upheavals and cruelty of Mao’s regime, the ending of these remnants of the past had to be a positive development. Then, in the 1990s, a new interest in ‘pre-Liberation’ China emerged among historians in China and in the West. Many of the old certainties were questioned. The Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, which ruled China in the 1920s and 1930s, long condemned as a corrupt regime that deserved to fall, was reassessed; historians acknowledged that the regime had been violent and corrupt, but pointed out that it had also made real progress in building China’s industry and infrastructure, and had negotiated an end to many of the hated ‘unequal treaty’ rights that foreigners had enjoyed in China since the Opium Wars. Those same foreigners also came in for a more generous historical assessment. Having been condemned as tools of international imperialism and capitalism, foreign missionaries, doctors and scholars were now recognised for their contribution to the shaping of modern China. The Manchurian activist Yan Baohang, for instance, was just one of the future Communists who first learned about social justice and the need to relieve China’s desperate poverty at discussion groups run by the Chinese YMCA.

The story of China from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century had long been seen as a melodrama pitting heroic Communists against villainous Nationalists, warlords and foreign imperialists. In fact, both the major actors, Nationalists and Communists, had good intentions: the relief of rural poverty, an end to foreign control over China’s fate and a modernisation of industry and agriculture. But both parties were obsessed with violence, and neither could acknowledge the possibility of principled disagreement. In any case the devastating war launched by Japan destroyed any hope of a modernised state: the historian Huang Meizhen has estimated that over the eight years of war from 1937 to 1945, some 52 per cent of the industrial plant in Shanghai, China’s most advanced city, was destroyed. There is currently a strong interest in looking back at the early 20th century and working out what China could do differently today, now that it is again by and large a capitalist country, and again feels threatened – not this time by invasion but by the dark forces of ‘neo-imperialism’ and the new world order. The period before ‘Liberation’ is no longer simply to be discounted: many people believe there are lessons to be learned from it.

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