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Posted on April 14th, 2014, by

In her article “The Body as Attire: The Shifting Meanings of Footbinding in Seventeenth-Century China”¯, Dorothy Ko focuses on the diversity of the meanings of footbinding custom and reasons for its popularity, considering its social, moral and political aspects, as well as raises an important issue of historical interpretations, claiming that the understanding of the peculiar history of footbinding significantly depends on the subjective positions of historians. Though it is easy to agree that it is almost impossible to be neutral in discussing the footbinding custom, further we will try to identify the conditions of Chinese cultural experience and the Confucian principles of social behavior in the area of gender relations that define the characteristics of Chinese forms of sexism, in particular those revealing in the footbinding custom, though not claiming to fully unravel all its overtones.

Above all, it should be marked that the analysis by Dorothy Ko is concerned about the objectivity of historical sources presenting the essence of footbinding. Indeed, these are typically either fully nationalist archives protecting the traditions, or anti-footbinding literature produced in the last two centuries by European and American researchers exposing the “national shame”¯ of China”¯[1]. Therefore the author claims that the multiple meanings of the footbinding custom may only be understood through the study of sources before the 19th century[2]. This, surely, imposes certain limitations on Ko’s research, though this probably may be seen as the only way to get deeper into the sense of traditions they initially had in the historical lens, before the intrusion of their “civilized interpreters”¯.

Thus, basing on 16th-18th century memorials, Ko finally comes up to the idea that historically, footbinding was regarded in the imperial China in three ways[3]: 1) as an expression of Chinese civility in comparison to barbarians, 2) as a marker of ethnic identity, and therefore, boundaries separating Han from Manchu, and 3) as embellishment of the female body. In this prism, the history of a bizarre custom of footbinding mainly has the meaning of marking national identity, advocating the reflection of cultural superiority of the Chinese, being the symbol of Confucian ethics, as well as determining certain traditional ideals of women beauty, femininity and fashion in order to express cultural identity again. However, while Ko is making the main accent on the strategic military-political and decoration meaning of footbinding, the way it was thought to be by its theorists factually differed from the way it turned to be in human mind being applied in social practice. In particular, it seems clear for us that footbinding as a decoration identify gender distinctions was also seen a marker for the position of women in the family and society, defining social roles in gender relations and class roles between elite layers and commons, as well as a marker of daughter obeisance and female virtue.

Thus, many other anthropological and historical evidences run that footbinding produced in social masses the strong effect of clear differentiation in social status, class and, generally, in perception of human qualities, which is not taken into consideration by Ko. In particular, Wolf and Witke’s arguments evidence that the prestige of a bride in the imperial China fully depended on the size of her feet showing woman’s belonging to the upper class and aristocratic origin, traditional education and qualities, her virtue, luxury status[4]. Thus, lotus feet factually were considered the main reflection of woman’s human qualities. Indeed, the Confucian logic supposed that the physical impotence and hence, moral obedience of women to their men served them to pay for the sins committed in a previous life, and thus, footbinding was the salvation of women from the horror of another such reincarnation[5]. Even the images reflected in the names of various forms of a arched foot assumed, on the one hand, women’s weakness (lotus, lily, bamboo shoots, Chinese chestnut), and on the other hand, masculine independence, strength and speed (raven with huge paws, monkey foot)[6]. Such masculine traits were not acceptable for women as a symbol of Yin energy.

Further, the reasons of the custom are basing on the Confucian family values and should be considered from this perspective. In China, family has always been an important organizational unit of the society; and in the society sharing the cult of female chastity, the main goal is to restrict the movement of women. Painful and continuous disfiguring of feet led women to the concept of Confucian moral of controlling one’s feelings, completely dependence of a woman on her family. Moreover, as a well-known American anthropologist Margery Wolf insists, comparing women to men was considered a radical idea in Ming times, and the equality of genders was unthinkable[7], but not because the “oppressor”¯ didn’t want to implement it, but because the idea of “equality”¯ implied by Western culture did not have any matter in the Chinese traditional way of thinking.

However, these philosophical groundings and factual beliefs existing among the Chinese people of those times are totally ignored by the author of the discussed article. Still, somewhere by the end of her research report, Dorothy Ko makes an excusing remark running that footbinding was probably an “amorphous practice that meant different things to different people, depending on their positions in ethnic, social, and gender hierarchie”¯[8]. Indeed, in our opinion, the meanings of footbinding include but should not be limited to the empire-building plans of the Chinese monarchs, measuring nation’s civility and distance from animaldom, and female adornment traditions, as in addition, footbinding became a part of general psychology and mass culture in China.

On a whole, we have to agree with Ko in the fact that it is important to consider the footbinding custom without criticism and not from the height of the present time, as it is the only possible way to understand its symbolism and social significance. Without aiming at justifying the inhumane practice of Chinese sexism that footbinding actually was in its physiological expression, we still believe that any discussion of China’s cultural experience should come out of understanding the specific Confucian sense of order in the world, where the difference between genders are deeply rooted – an order other than the one prevailing in our tradition, where the “lotus feet”¯ serve as a shameful symbol of oppression, ugliness and brutality, wild survivals of times past, way of discrimination against women and the product of severe patriarchal despotism. In this sense, Dorothy Ko’s work is one of the studies that widens the scope of viewing other cultures, by discussing their reasoning from their own perspectives.

[1] Dorothy Ko, “The Body as Attire: The Shifting Meanings of Footbinding in Seventeenth-Century China,”¯ Journal of Women’s History 8 (1997): 9.

[2] Dorothy Ko, “The Body as Attire: The Shifting Meanings of Footbinding in Seventeenth-Century China,”¯ Journal of Women’s History 8 (1997): 10.

[3] Dorothy Ko, 10.

[4] Margery Wolf and Roxane Witke, Women in Chinese Society (Stanford, 1975), 96-98.

[5] Howard S. Levy, Chinese Footbinding (Oriental Book Store, 1978), 75-78.

[6] Jack Belden, China Shakes the World (Monthly Review Press, 1970), 67.

[7] Margery Wolf and Roxane Witke, Women in Chinese Society (Stanford, 1975), 117.

[8] Dorothy Ko, “The Body as Attire: The Shifting Meanings of Footbinding in Seventeenth-Century China,”¯ Journal of Women’s History 8 (1997): 15.

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