Wang Ping, The Magic Whip
Review by Eve Youngdale

Wang Ping’s latest book of poetry, The Magic Whip, offers searing insights into complex aspects of human identity. In particular, she addresses the tangled issues surrounding the cultural and personal identities of immigrants to the United States, as well as the lengths to which one will go in order to fit into society despite its often cruel rules and expectations. Whether it is in exploring the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding, or the eastern and western preoccupation with hair and all of its connotations, she exposes ways in which each country and time-period impose different, often painful, ideals and standards on its people. Wang’s voice is strongest as one of witness to the pain of those who have suffered due to imposed ideals of identity, especially ideals of beauty, gender, and culture, and it testifies to her own struggle in trying to bridge two cultures.

Born in Shanghai amid the political upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, Wang Ping’s strongest ambition was a college education, but for a member of the middle-class like Wang, the only way to that goal was through "reeducation" in the countryside at a commune. So, at the age of 15 she headed for the People’s Commune at Ganlan to work 12 to 15 hours a day without pay. Three years of cold, heavy labor later, she was recommended for a foreign-language school from which she later moved on to Beijing University. In 1985 she left China with "functional" English and very little money for New York to continue her education. To support herself she worked illegally in restaurants while attending college on Long Island and at NYU.

Some of Wang’s most insightful poetry originates from her experiences in the transition between cultures, often illustrating how drastically these experiences can affect identity. In "I Curse Because" she speaks from the voice of the immigrant relating her expectations and disappointments. She outlines the initial expectation of many immigrants in the first stanza: "You say the streets are paved with gold / You say even the maids have maids. / If we work hard, our dreams will be fulfilled. / So we come—on foot, / by boats, ships, planes." This is scathingly juxtaposed in the next stanza by, "’Do me a favor, and get a new name,’ said my boss. ‘Something American, like us’" (39). Few things carry identity more strongly than one’s name, and being told to change it succinctly illustrates the alterations to identity, both personal and cultural, that are forced upon many immigrants.

In interviews, Wang Ping herself tells that this scene comes from her personal experience and that she subsequently changed her name to Penny Wang to more easily obtain a job. She has said that she may have kept that name forever as she gradually grew more and more Americanized, were it not for a dream several years later in which she heard her two grandmas calling her name "Wang Ping." In an interview she explains, "They were calling me home for dinner, their voices sad, angry and disappointed all at the same time. I woke up, cold sweat dripping all over me. ‘Holy shit, what is happening to me? Who am I? What am I turning into?’ I asked myself over and over again" (A Magazine, Feb/Mar 1997, 2). Her Chinese name was a connection to her life in China and her family, as well as to her identity, and she chose to hold on to it when she realized what was happening despite western society’s preference for easy, homogenized names. "I Curse Because" details the immigrant’s struggle to survive in America, often working very low paying jobs and sending most of the money home, along with the pressures to conform that western society inflicts upon the immigrant’s identity. It is a harsh reality which Wang Ping unflinchingly details from her own and others experience so that it may not be forgotten or ignored.

Wang also does not flinch from portraying the horror inflicted by another societal ideal, this time one which began in the 3rd Century B.C.E. and persisted into the 20th Century, the Chinese practice of foot binding. Her poem "Aching Beauty" has its origins in a previous work of non-fiction by Wang of the same name that analyses foot binding in an academic manner.

However, Wang felt the need for a creative interpretation of what that tortuous experience must have been like and what the rationale for it might have been. In "Aching for Beauty" a mother binds her daughter’s feet for the first time and speaks to her of how to care for her feet, of how this will gain her beauty, respect and a happy life through a good marriage.

Small feet that fit into delicate shoes only three inches long or smaller, hooked like lotus-blossoms, were the ideal of beauty for which women of time period suffered greatly because it gave them the power of desirability and cultural acceptance and because they were given little other choice. As the mother in the poem says, "I know it hurts burning like hell but bear it in silence our secret weapon" (37). The poem "Fractured Allegory, Hand-Copied Manual" also focuses on foot binding and the desirability society gave to small feet as a marker of beauty and refinement, despite the reality that they are basically rotting, tortured flesh. Wang demonstrates how powerful societal and cultural ideals can be: "Twin red shoes, no more than three inches, / Peonies and butterflies for embroidery. / Wait till I tell my folks at home: / I’ll mortgage the house. Give up the land, / And wed with tiny feet as planned" (51). Identity and hope for the future were closely bound to ideals of physical beauty for women of this time period, and Wang bears witness to this fact in a way that is both honest and creative enough to picture the motivations behind the pain.

The title poem of the collection, "The Magic Whip," also details societal ideals of beauty as related to identity and power, this time through our preoccupation with hair and its connotations. Historically, in China, how you wore your hair signified different things about your identity: "It is the mark of / a virgin, / the yellow blossom girl / men would bid / to deflower—the black pigtail / that brushes its path" or "Tough hair on a girl equals stubbornness equals disobedience equals bad luck" (9, 11). Further, when the speaker arrives in America, she signifies the change in her life and identity by a change to her hair: "In Hong Kong, she cut the braids she’d kept for fifteen years. She arrived in JFK / the next day, the new C-bob perched on her scalp like a battered helmet" (10). She would need a helmet in the struggle for survival to come. After listing various names for hair cuts and hair dye, many of which imply the personality qualities and sexual desirability that accompanies the look, as in "upsweep with attitude," "down-to-there," "luscious body," "Nice ‘n’ Easy," "Consort," and "Just for Men," the poem end with the line, "The body dies, but the hair continues to grow" (12). After a list of statements made out to be facts by the speaker, but which are, in reality, simply societal assumptions about the significance of hair, Wang concludes the poem with the one fact about hair that may be at the root of human’s initial preoccupation, a mysterious ability to continue to grow after death. Throughout the ages, hairstyle has certainly been used as a marker of class, gender, power, and identity, and Wang uses all of these connotations to get at the way in which we tend to make physical characteristics signify inner qualities. The same held true for foot binding, which signified a woman’s suitability for marriage, class status and her overall level of desirability. By calling attention to this habit of equating outer with inner characteristics, Wang calls into question a practice that has held sway over many lives for thousands of years, but which looses some of its power when exposed for what it often is: a tool used for everything from humor, to sexual desirability, to a means of societal control. Thus, in The Magic Whip, Wang Ping delves insightfully into situations of human suffering, culture and identity with a voice that is both strong and nuanced, acting as a witness who will not let us forget or ignore what we accept as a society. Her own experience has been both wide and varied, and makes for an intriguing and powerful work.


Wang Ping’s The Magic Whip is available at Coffee House Press ($15.00).


Eve Youngdale is a graduate student at University of Hawaʻi-Mānoa and currently assistant editor of Hawaiʻi Review.