Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada

the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Three-Inch Golden Lotus

Feng Jicai

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Three-Inch Golden Lotus

Title: The Three-Inch Golden Lotus
Author: Feng Jicai
Genre: Novel
Written: 1986 (Eng. 1994)
Length: 239 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Three-Inch Golden Lotus - US
The Three-Inch Golden Lotus - UK
The Three-Inch Golden Lotus - Canada
Drei Zoll goldener Lotus - Deutschland
directly from: University of Hawaii Press
  • Chinese title: 三寸金蓮
  • Translated and with a Postscript by David Wakefield

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B : solid novel of specific times and traditions (that obviously obliquely also comment on near-contemporary China)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Intl. Fiction Rev. . 22 (1995) Jeffrey Twitchell
World Lit. Today . 69:3 (Summer/1995) Jianguo Chen

  From the Reviews:
  • "Feng is clearly fascinated by this ultra-refined, frequently bizarre, humorous, and just plain curious cultural practice. Yet simply describing it at such length cannot help but mock the intellectual and aesthetic absurdities built up around this mutilating practice. The novel is pervaded by a seductive nostalgia for a life that seems intent on aestheticizing the smallest details of everyday life, yet with the ever present sense of its excessiveness and imminent doom. (...) All of the inhabitants of his novel are interesting, and all are a bit foolish one way or the other." - Jeffrey Twitchell, International Fiction Review

  • "Rather than exploiting the sensational aspects of this subject, Feng Jicai explores its historical, cultural, and political implications (.....) Like Feng's other novels, The Three-Inch Golden Lotus has a strong flavor of Tianjin folklore, which is further spiced by the author's remarkable use of the local dialect within the traditional form of Chinese narrative. This style presents a challenge to which the translator rises admirably. The author's erudition on the topic and his stunning familiarity with local history render the book an interesting novel not only for readers to savor but for historians to scrutinize as well." - Jianguo Chen, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       The Three-Inch Golden Lotus is set in China in the late Qing Dynasty and then the Republic -- 1890 to 1930, translator David Wakefield dates the action in his Postscript -- bridging the time from when the practice of foot-binding was still very widespread to when it was no longer common. The horrific practice, of binding a young girl's feet -- at its (far too common) most extreme breaking the bones in the toes and feet -- to prevent normal growth and keep feet unnaturally small as a perverted ideal of beauty (and, of course, to literally hobble women, limiting their mobility) was, obscenely, an age-old tradition in China: "women bound their feet for a thousand years", as the novel's narrator notes.
       The central figure in the novel is the orphan Fragrant Lotus, raised by her Granny. Granny waits until the girl is six to begin the process of binding her feet -- relatively late, apparently -- but does so ... 'expertly'. It sounds even worse that one imagines: the toes broken and bent over -- and the girl forced to walk on them: "if she did not stand and walk, the bones in her toes would not break properly, and her bound feet would not form well" -- and bits of broken porcelain put: "inside the bandages, along the soles of her feet". Fragrant Lotus finds the torture hard to bear -- and even one of the neighbors wonders what Granny is thinking after all the screaming:

     What's wrong with you ? Why didn't you do it earlier ? When girls are young, the bones are soft. Who'd do such a thing to a six-year-old ?
       A neighbor-girl, whose poorly-bound feet are a shocking six inches long -- hence the nickname 'Miss Bigfoot' -- admires Fragrant Lotus' petite feet and tells her she shouldn't whine, that the pain is worth it:
Just wait till your feet are finished and then everybody who looks will praise you. And as you grow up, your precious feet will get you everything. They'll bring suitors to your door, get you a good husband, and guarantee you fame and fortune for your whole life.
       So Fragrant Lotus gets on board with the programme, and lets Granny do what she must. And Granny is very good at this, and so the girl's feet turn out very well -- foot-bound ideals.
       The story jumps ahead to when Fragrant Lotus is seventeen, when she catches the eye of the owner of a business she comes to work for, Tong Ren-an. When he becomes aware of her -- and her stunning feet -- he decides to marry her to the eldest of his four sons, Shao-rong. He's not exactly a prize -- he's a "half-wit" -- but he's still the first son, and that in a very wealthy and important family; it is a great step up in the world for Fragrant Lotus .
       Tong Ren-an owns the: "Nourish the Ancient antique shop" -- different from most in that: "He never sold anything real; he sold only fakes". Indeed, he has his own 'forgery workshop'. The question of authenticity, and the differences between 'real' and fake' -- and the difficulties in ascertaining where the line lies -- is one of the interesting themes in the novel (indeed, arguably, the most interesting one), and Feng presents various examples that Tong Ren-an deals with over the course of the novel. Naturally, the bound feet also come into play here as well.
       Tong Ren-an and many of his cronies are small-foot devotees -- or rather: (small-)foot fetishists, as there is obviously a (strongly) perverted/eroticized aspect to all of this. It is almost entirely look-but-don't touch, but the leering alone is pretty disturbing. Typical is a scene such as one bound-foot-display:
     They stared and stared, until finally they saw a magnificent, shining, golden foot step over the threshold, like a gold chick breaking out. Mr. Qiao shrieked in a strange falsetto. Never in history had any one seen such a small golden shoe.
       They really are quite obsessed -- notably swooning Mr. Qiao:
This is just like poetry, painting, song, dreams, mist, and wine; if it leaves us enchanted, intoxicated, mindless, even dead, it is worth it. If a person can enjoy tiny feet at this exquisite level, he needs nothing else in life !
       Over the course of the novel, there are several contests, beginning with one among the wives of the Tong sons. Following the lead of Tong Ren-an, they took this very seriously:
In the Tong family if your feet were bad you were finished. This family was like a chessboard, and bound feet were the individual chesssmen. One false move and the game changed completely.
       Fragrant Lotus is in an advantageous position, both as wife (and then, mercifully soon, widow) of the eldest son and because of her near-perfect feet -- but she does face challenges, notably from the number two. Despite some setbacks, she manages to assert her position well -- it's all in the feet -- and so also then against outside competition. Among the challengers to her primacy is a Miss Teng, with feet a mere 2.2 inches long (easily toppled by Fragrant Lotus from any claims to the perch ...), as well as then a man who seems to have a: "pair of perfectly feminine tiny feet" (but, as Tong Ren-an has shown, things are not always what they seem, and appearances can be deceiving).
       Before her husband died, Fragrant Lotus did get pregnant, and -- like all the other Tong wives -- she has a daughter. After a few years, they too all are to be subject to foot-binding -- it is Tong Ren-an's dying wish -- but when the time comes Fragrant Lotus' daughter, Lotus Heart, disappears. She thus escapes what her mother had to go through, and while readers long suspect that it was her mother who engineered the disappearance, to save her from this fate -- despite it being one she herself has fully embraced for practically her entire life -- this part of the story only comes to its (predictable) close late on, many years later.
       With the fall of the Qing Dynasty, anti-footbinding sentiment quickly spread, including through organizations such as the Natural Foot Society, and the last few chapters of the novel present this evolving struggle between old and new. A final competition of sorts takes place -- a foot, rather than shoe competition (bound feet are, for obvious reasons, presented and admired in appropriate footwear) -- with Fragrant Lotus shocked by the sight of a natural, unbound adult foot, knowing that beneath the bindings hers: "look just like chunks of roasted yams".
       The Three-Inch Golden Lotus gives a graphic and fairly in-depth overview of this peculiar practice, and Feng does build some interesting personal stories on it. It works quite well as a family-tale, too, the story of the Tongs -- very traditional, with a rigid hierarchy in place, and competition among the different wives regarding their places in the pecking order -- quite engaging, though the most interesting parts are those focused on the actual business, the making and selling of fakes (though in some of this the family patriarch's actions and observations are too abrupt). It does make for discomfiting reading, but there is quite a bit of humor to this too, as well as some decent drama. Overall, one has the sense the story would have benefitted from being fleshed out more, but it's a reasonably well conceived novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 January 2021

- Return to top of the page -


The Three-Inch Golden Lotus: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       Chinese author Feng Jicai (冯骥才) was born in 1942.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2021 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links