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.
LRB 11 May 2006 | PDF Download