Untwisting the Pastry

Rana Mitter

  • Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding by Dorothy Ko
    California, 332 pp, £18.95, December 2005, ISBN 0 520 21884 1

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.

Until recently, it seemed clear, in both China and the West, that these ‘feudal’ practices were to be condemned unequivocally. Whatever one thought of the social upheavals and cruelty of Mao’s regime, the ending of these remnants of the past had to be a positive development. Then, in the 1990s, a new interest in ‘pre-Liberation’ China emerged among historians in China and in the West. Many of the old certainties were questioned. The Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, which ruled China in the 1920s and 1930s, long condemned as a corrupt regime that deserved to fall, was reassessed; historians acknowledged that the regime had been violent and corrupt, but pointed out that it had also made real progress in building China’s industry and infrastructure, and had negotiated an end to many of the hated ‘unequal treaty’ rights that foreigners had enjoyed in China since the Opium Wars. Those same foreigners also came in for a more generous historical assessment. Having been condemned as tools of international imperialism and capitalism, foreign missionaries, doctors and scholars were now recognised for their contribution to the shaping of modern China. The Manchurian activist Yan Baohang, for instance, was just one of the future Communists who first learned about social justice and the need to relieve China’s desperate poverty at discussion groups run by the Chinese YMCA.

The story of China from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century had long been seen as a melodrama pitting heroic Communists against villainous Nationalists, warlords and foreign imperialists. In fact, both the major actors, Nationalists and Communists, had good intentions: the relief of rural poverty, an end to foreign control over China’s fate and a modernisation of industry and agriculture. But both parties were obsessed with violence, and neither could acknowledge the possibility of principled disagreement. In any case the devastating war launched by Japan destroyed any hope of a modernised state: the historian Huang Meizhen has estimated that over the eight years of war from 1937 to 1945, some 52 per cent of the industrial plant in Shanghai, China’s most advanced city, was destroyed. There is currently a strong interest in looking back at the early 20th century and working out what China could do differently today, now that it is again by and large a capitalist country, and again feels threatened – not this time by invasion but by the dark forces of ‘neo-imperialism’ and the new world order. The period before ‘Liberation’ is no longer simply to be discounted: many people believe there are lessons to be learned from it.

Having restored the Nationalist government and foreign powers, if not to favour, at least to freedom from the condescension of a history centred on the rise of the CCP, historians have been moving on to even tougher issues. Opium is one. Surely no one would argue that widespread opium addiction was anything other than an immense social evil, fuelled by British capitalism? Actually, yes. Zheng Yangwen, born in China but educated at Western universities, last year published The Social Life of Opium, an innovative and detailed study which argues that opium had a long medicinal and aphrodisiac use in China dating back centuries. Frank Dikötter, Lars Laamann and Zhou Xun, historians based at SOAS, had gone further in Narcotic Culture (2004), suggesting that a ‘narcophobic’ modern state had created a largely spurious panic about the evil effects of the drug.

Prostitution, too, has been subject to revisionist attention. Gail Hershatter, one of the most prominent historians of China in the American academy, suggested in Dangerous Pleasures (1997), that, while prostitution was exploitative in general terms, running a brothel provided one of the few opportunities for a woman in modern China to enjoy some autonomy in the business world. Many of these historians have used anthropological perspectives to persuade readers to consider the practitioners themselves and how they saw what they were doing. While this approach has been commonplace for years in the writing of Western history, Chinese history had been in thrall to narratives of ‘liberation’ and ‘feudalism’ for so long that it seems refreshingly iconoclastic.

In Cinderella’s Sisters, Dorothy Ko, who teaches Chinese history at Columbia, takes on one of the remaining big taboos: footbinding. ‘Condemnation seems the goal of history,’ Ko writes on the first page, but she seeks ‘an alternative history’, one which goes beyond simple anger. In doing so, she has produced the definitive history of the custom of footbinding in any language. It is meticulously researched, both in textual sources and in its use of material objects: the photographic plates and diagrams of shoes made for bound feet are unmatched elsewhere. While it sometimes nods in the direction of the opaque language of cultural studies, the book is clearly argued, and can be read by non-specialists without the need for translation from Foucauldian into English.

The story is told in what might seem to be reverse order: the first part is about the campaigns against footbinding and its eventual disappearance in the early 20th century; the second goes in search of the origin of the custom and explores its heyday. There is a logic to this inversion. A central part of Ko’s case is that footbinding is ‘not one practice but many’. The late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, saw China increasingly under the influence of ‘linear enlightenment perspectives’. This was the era when the imperial powers were carving up China ‘like a melon’, in a phrase of the time. Reformers began to condemn the aspects of Chinese life which came under most criticism from the West, particularly from missionaries. Opium and prostitution were among these, and so was footbinding. What had been a varied practice, involving different degrees of binding with different social meanings, was now subsumed into one category: ‘bound feet’ were defined in opposition to ‘heavenly feet’ (i.e. natural feet), and campaigners made full use of the distinction.

By the early 20th century, the ‘warlord’ of Shanxi province, Yan Xishan, had launched an aggressive campaign against footbinding. But in doing so, he acted in a way typical of many of the most outspoken campaigners of the era: he conflated the practice with the women who had undergone it. Inspectors were sent round to examine women’s feet and force them to unbind. While unbinding allowed young girls quickly to recover the size and feel of natural feet, older women found that their feet had been bound for too long: simply undoing the binding cloths would not miraculously make them grow out again. Ko cites the story of a woman who confronted one of the inspectors with a pastry shaped into a twist. ‘She would let her feet out, she promised, if he could undo the frying and untwist the pastry back into a piece of pliable dough.’

Perhaps more important, the reform movement refused to acknowledge the enormous importance of footbinding in the self-image of older Chinese women. For generations, not to have bound feet was to risk unmarriageability and social ostracism. ‘I pity you so, you ignorant women,’ Yan Xishan thundered. ‘Hurry up and get rid of your old bad habits, don’t let my concern for you be in vain.’ This was emancipation as an extension of the warlord’s egomania. It was deeply distressing to an older generation simply to hear that, almost overnight, such social norms had ceased to be viable, that not only the custom, but the women who maintained it, were now symbols of national shame. Xue Shaohui, an educator who wrote at the end of the 19th century, though not a supporter of footbinding, saw little sense in forcing older women to release their feet: ‘No magical pill can grow a new set of bones; a severed head cannot be reattached.’ Her moderate solution was to stop the new generation from footbinding, but leave the older women alone. In a time of nationalist fervour, however, when every aspect of China’s traditional culture was coming under examination, and the elites were more concerned with China’s global image than with the realities of life in the rural villages of the hinterland, there was little chance that footbinding would be viewed in such a measured way.

This public airing of the issue was in sharp contrast to the attitudes of preceding centuries. For although the practice had become near-universal by the time of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), ‘the subject of footbinding was taboo in such official genres as public history, local gazetteers and didactic texts.’ Such discussions as can be found occur in more informal writings, mostly by male scholars. This has made it hard to ascertain exactly when footbinding began, and why. Ko acknowledges that she has not been able fully to satisfy herself on that question, but she is ingenious in her analysis of what evidence there is. China has always been a text-based culture, and classical tradition has sought answers in the precedents provided by previous authors. According to Hu Yinglin (1551-1602), a scholar of the Ming dynasty, who looked back at texts of earlier dynasties to find references to feet and footbinding, there was evidence to suggest that shoes for elite men and women looked very similar before the Song dynasty (960-1276), and that it therefore cannot have been introduced before that period. Hu also tried to give some context to the practice by noting that it was in some ways similar to another Chinese innovation, printing: ‘Both flourished during the Song, reached extremes during the Yuan, and have reached even newer heights today.’ In an aside, he gave some indication of why, nonetheless, its origins are far less clear than those of printing: ‘Footbinding is a trivial female matter, hence scholars have neglected to study it.’

It was not just its ‘triviality’, however, that prevented information on footbinding from being recorded. In the 18th century, the scholar Zhao Yi noted that taking off one’s socks was ‘defilement’ bordering on ‘obscenity’. The widespread adoption of footbinding meant that ‘female footwear had become charged with erotic connotations and direct descriptions of feet were too provocative to enter respectable discourse.’ In these circumstances, it was never going to be easy to track down the practice’s origins. ‘There is no smoking gun,’ Ko observes ruefully, but the tenth century is ‘as close to the origins of footbinding as we can locate in knowable history’. She also points out that the practice changed radically during its 900 or so years of existence. Originally an elite custom, it seems to have become extremely widespread during the Qing. The reasons for this, again, are frustratingly elusive. Was it to do, perhaps, with the fact that the Qing dynasty was ethnically Manchu, not Han Chinese, and therefore even non-elite families took up the practice as a mark of ethnic solidarity against their rulers? This seems plausible, yet it is hard to find decisive proof.

In the absence of detailed written descriptions, Ko reconstructs the history of the practice from the material artefacts left behind: women’s shoes. There was not just one style of binding, but several. One style of shoe, which Ko dubs the ‘kayak’ because of its narrow, sleek shape, required a binding that reduced the spreading of the toes, ‘possibly by folding the four digits downward’. Another style, shaped like a canoe with a high stem, suggests that it was made for feet bound with the toes turned upward. The common idea that the most beautiful foot was seen to be the smallest, the ‘three-inch golden lotus’, is not reflected in the wide variety of bindings and shoes that have emerged from archaeological excavations. In its earliest days, from the Song to the early Ming dynasty (that is, from the tenth century to around the 15th), it seems to have been narrow rather than small feet that were prized; soles were left flat. However, Yu Huai, writing in the 17th century, praised the new fashion seen among the ultra-chic ladies of Suzhou, whose feet were not only bound but arched, enabling them to wear particularly high-heeled shoes. Although this process did not involve the feet actually being broken, the metatarsal bones became atrophied, and a cleavage was created on the underside of the foot, around which fatty pads grew, turning it into ‘the locus of erotic excess’.

In short, footbinding followed the dictates of fashion in the same way as dress, food or leisure: a style that was de rigueur in one time or place would look painfully gauche just a few years or miles away. In the high Qing dynasty (17th century), northern and southern Chinese women acted out age-old rivalries by criticising each other’s feet. For northerners, it seems to have been small size that was valued most, and they derided the ‘bulging feet’ of the south. Southerners, in contrast, praised feet that were bound to create ‘straight, pointy toes and gently curved insteps – a bamboo shoot’, and in turn mocked the northerners as having feet that were ‘groping the stem of the boat’. No greater logic underlay these distinctions than contemporary concerns about brands of jeans or mobile phones, and they were held with equal – and equally ephemeral – fervour.

Ko’s declared aim is to move away from simple condemnation of the practice and to consider instead what motives men and women had for participating in it. She makes a powerful case that ‘at once beautiful and ugly, neither voluntary nor coerced, footbinding defies a black-and-white, male-against-female and good-or-bad way of understanding the world.’ In particular, she shows convincingly that it is ahistorical simply to project back our own ideas of free choice onto the past. From the 16th century onwards, ‘any daughter from Han Chinese families whose economic circumstances could remotely allow them to bind would,’ and would do so not merely as ‘an announcement of status and desirability to the outside world’, but also as ‘a concrete embodiment of self-respect’ for the woman herself. It seems anomalous to us to see footbinding as empowerment, but historical context demonstrates that at a certain time and place to have what were regarded as big, ugly, flapping feet was to lose status. The early 20th-century reformers were arrogant, patronising and frequently blind to the social pressures and physical reality that meant that older women could not simply drop their bindings and walk free. Ko’s evidence shows clearly that their enthusiasm for their cause often had the effect of alienating the people they wanted to convert.

However, we should also give them credit for the fact that their movement succeeded. In Yan Xishan’s Shanxi province, in just six years from 1928 to 1934, the proportion of the female population with bound feet dropped from 17.8 per cent to 8.63 – not bad at a time of constant civil war, drought and famine. More widely, in the space of a few decades, a custom that had lasted nearly a thousand years was made to seem old-fashioned and unnecessary. Ko illustrates this beautifully in her chapter on a bizarre and semi-pornographic magazine of the 1930s and 1940s and its ‘Picking Radishes’ column, in which lovers of ‘lotus feet’ asked readers to send in pictures and descriptions of them. The tone of the column made it clear that not only were ‘lotus feet’ now a sight that few men could hope to see in the flesh, but that even expressing open interest in them marked the reader out as someone with a slightly perverted nostalgia who had to be self-conscious about his proclivities. Just a few decades after anti-footbinding campaigns had begun, it was no longer legitimate to take your daughter and crush her feet so that she would never be able to walk naturally. China’s 20th century offered little scope for female emancipation. In this context, even with the myths stripped away, the ending of footbinding counts as a success.

‘I hope to create an open-ended space,’ Ko writes at the end of the book, ‘in which each reader will not only come to his or her own conclusions, but also continue to reassess them.’ Even a reader uneasy with the idea that footbinding should not be condemned will be forced by this book to rethink their assumptions, just as other historians have brought us to reassess opium and prostitution in terms understood by those who lived with them as daily realities. The ‘liberation’ which shapes history as defined by the CCP may not have been recognisable to those who were being ‘liberated’.