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In the tradition of Swift, contemporary Chinese writer Feng Jicai (Chrysanthemums, 1985) critiques Chinese society by focusing on the grotesque as he tells the story of one family's obsession with bound feet -- the perfect ""three-inch golden lotuses"" of tradition. Slyly observing that the idea ""that a portion of Chinese history lies concealed in the bound feet of Chinese women [is] preposterous,"" the narrator proceeds to demonstrate that ""when you're really into the story you can't tell the difference between the truth and lies."" Set in a small town in the early 1900's, the novel examines these lies and truths as -- exemplified in the Tong family -- they reflect Chinese attitudes to social change, sex, and to individuality. The head of the Tong family, a noted antiques dealer, has a special regard, shared by like-minded friends, for the perfect bound foot. These men debate the history of foot-binding, argue the finer points, and hold contests to determine the smallest feet in various families. When Tong glimpses the exquisite feet of Fragrant Lotus, a girl of humble origins whose feet had been bound -- the process is graphically described -- by her grandmother to assure a good marriage, he has her marry one of his loutish sons. Her arrival in the household provokes jealousies as the women scheme to display their own feet and win accolades. Fragrant Lotus soon gives birth to a daughter who mysteriously disappears just as her feet are about to be bound. The years pass, and Fragrant Lotus, now the family head, finds herself defending tradition as she battles the Natural Foot Society, led by the beautiful Pretty Flower. A superficially whimsical and picaresque tale of old Chinese society, luminously evoked, but with a deadly serious underlying subject that gives it a sobering edge.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1994
Page count: 208pp
Publisher: Univ. of Hawaii Press