The Fall 2006 issue of China Review International (on Project Muse) contains a review of what looks to be a fascinating and comprehensive reanalysis of footbinding in China: Dorothy Ko’s Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding (U. California Press, 2005). Here are some excerpts of the review (not the book itself).
Dorothy Ko’s new history of footbinding is a wonderfully imaginative, wide-ranging, and provocative study of a subject long in need of revisionism….
Both foreign missionaries and Chinese nationalists developed the antifootbinding strategy of photographing and exposing the misshapen foot whose appeal had long depended on the allure of its concealment in the inner quarters and its covering with the elegant embroidered cloth shoe. One of Ko’s most striking conclusions is that, with the exception of a few women (such as the radical Qiu Jin, beheaded by the Qing police in 1908), the Chinese abolitionists were primarily male, and their main arguments concerned not the pain of women but rather the weakness of the Chinese nation and the humiliation and embarrassment caused the nation by such a backward custom. She criticizes the antifootbinding movement as misogynist toward women with bound feet, indifferent to the pain caused by unbinding, and less successful than many have claimed. “One woman’s pride and freedom was predicated on another woman’s shame and bondage” (p. 68). Although not mentioned in her bibliography, an excellent complement to Ko’s analysis that in my view corroborates many of her insights on the complexities and ironies of the turn-of-the-century antifootbinding movement is the inventive novel by Feng Jicai, Sancun jinlian (Three-inch Golden Lotus), published in Chinese in 1986 and in a fine English translation in 1994 (trans. by David Wakefield, University of Hawai‘i Press). Set in Tianjin, Feng’s novel brilliantly reveals the power of social and political fads and fashions in a society as old, as competitive, and as fluid as China’s….
Whereas Ko believes we can never know the origins of such a complex custom with any certainty, she surveys a variety of origin discourses. The Song scholar Zhang Bangji (fl. twelfth century CE) argued that the custom began in his own time. The great Ming literatus Yang Shen (1488–1559) traced the custom back as early as the Six Dynasties (222–589). His foremost critic, Hu Yinglin (1551–1602), argued that footbinding began to spread along with the development of printing in the tenth century CE, insightfully seeing both developments as cultural institutions and material practices. Zhao Yi (1727–1814), the great bibliophile and historian, noted the prevalence of the custom throughout the empire, and he echoed Hu Yinglin in tracing footbinding’s origins to the tenth century. One of Zhao’s most striking insights was to tie the origins of footbinding with the development of household furniture; as women began to sit in chairs rather than on the floor, footbinding became ergonomically possible, and sitting in a chair with her feet dangling down provided a woman the opportunity to display her feet discreetly….
This chapter is one of Ko’s strongest and most original. It is particularly striking that none of her historians on footbinding cite the need to prevent the mobility of women as a justification for the custom, and none cite Confucianism as having any connection with it….
Patricia Ebrey argued years ago that the binding of women’s feet in Song times had less to do with the rise of neo-Confucianism and more to do with popular culture, economic developments, marriage customs, and even China’s relations with its nomadic neighbors. Ebrey pointed out that Chinese masculinity was redefined in the Song to be more refined and aesthetically sensitive, and less active, martial, and athletic than in earlier times. Such a redefinition of masculinity might well have required the parallel development of a new view of femininity that was softer, more delicate, and more effete than before. Footbinding was a way to construct femininity in this softer, weaker, more compliant vein. Ebrey also noted the Chinese reaction against the nomadic cultures on the northern and western borders as another possible factor in promoting the spread of footbinding that came to be seen as a marker of China’s unique civilization in contrast to its nomadic neighbors.