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Cinderella's Sisters A Revisionist History of Footbinding

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The Rhetoric of Tianzu, 1880s–1910s

The last assembly line of the last factory producing shoes for bound feet ground to a halt in November 1999. Using eight pairs of wooden lasts, old craftsmen in the Zhiqiang Shoe Factory in Harbin had been making three hundred pairs of “lotus shoes” annually since 1991, but lately over half of the inventory had languished in the warehouse. The customers were all more than eighty years old and dwindling fast. In a solemn ceremony, the factory donated the lasts to the Heilongjiang Museum of Ethnography. A curator voiced a widely shared sentiment: “The ‘three-inch golden lotus’ is a historical testament to the bodily and psychological damage that women suffered in feudal society. The sad songs of small feet would never be sung again; so much pain and tears are etched on the wooden lasts.” A reporter echoed: “Something as tiny as the lasts stands as a testament to the progress of Chinese women from being oppressed to being given a new life” (emphases mine).

Both the tone and terminology of the article are familiar; condemnation and pity are the only acceptable ways of discoursing on small feet in modern China. The sense of relief is palpable and heartfelt—as a remnant of a feudal past, footbinding can finally be relegated to the museum. Yet underneath the disavowal there lurks a wistfulness, as evinced by the repeated use of historical “testament.” The wooden lasts bear a contradictory witness, to past oppression and present liberation. Let bygones be bygones, but we cannot and should not forget. Footbinding as a haunting has been useful to the project of envisioning a modern China. It had to be present, displayed, and reiterated as modernity’s Other.

This disquiet continues to ignite the potency and relevance of the subject. The “Culture Fever” in the mid- to late-1980s that ensued from Deng Xiaoping’s reforms prompted renewed interest in traditional culture, resulting in a glut of books and articles on footbinding in the 1990s that are cut from the same cloth. In these works, the bound foot remains a shorthand for all that was wrong with traditional China: oppression of women, insularity, despotism, and disregard for human rights.Such reflections on the past are grounded in the present, affording a progressive view of history: things are getting better; our lives are freer than theirs. One troubling aspect of this view of history is encapsulated in the passive voice used by the reporter: women were so oppressed that they could not save themselves. Liberation depended on a bestowal of new life from a reformist state or the educated elite.

This degrading view of women with bound feet, a hallmark of the modern nationalist discourse, has seldom been challenged by feminist or Marxist scholars who share many of the nationalist’s modernist assumptions about freedom and agency. Curiously, a subject as incendiary as footbinding has thus been the most uncontroversial issue in and out of China. In troubling this consensus, it is essential to first examine the extent to which the imaginations of a modern Chinese nation were rooted in the rhetoric of “natural feet” and the social campaigns of the anti-footbinding movement in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. We begin, therefore, with the end.


At first glance, identifying the end of footbinding as a social practice in modern China seems an uncomplicated task. Successive regimes have issued prohibition edicts with titles and dates; offcial and unoffcial campaigns to eradicate footbinding have also left a long and visible paper trail. Tracing their incomplete and contested implementation, however, is a different matter. The magnitude of local variations also defies a generalized chronology of national patterns.Even more vexing is the problem of ontological ambiguity: in any given locale, did footbinding end when the majority of young girls ceased to bind or when adult women had to let their feet out? What do we make of the women who hid themselves from government inspection teams or reapplied the binders as soon as the inspectors left? Consider the tale of a defiant woman who handed a donut twist to the foot inspector dispatched by the state. 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. Unlike the cutting of men’s queues, footbinding is an irrevocable bodily process once the bones are bent and new muscular habits formed. “Liberated feet,” as they were called, were harder to walk on and more deformed than bound feet.

The end of a phenomenon as widespread and varied as footbinding is a drawn-out process. The decades from the 1880s to the 1930s witnessed the disintegration of the previously coherent subject of “footbinding” into three components, or three kinds of time: on the level of cosmology or episteme, the cultural prestige or justification of footbinding; on the level of customs and conventions, footbinding as a social practice; and on the level of personal experience, footbinding as individual embodiment. The end did not come in the form of a linear progression from bondage to liberation, in which the old gave way to the new overnight. Instead, the end meant linguistic and emotional confusion as the three kinds of time grew out of sync: in one locale the old raison d’être became dated but mothers kept binding their daughters’ feet; in another locale the age-old practice was outlawed, but people clung to the customary thinking of small feet as desirable.

The end of footbinding is thus characterized not by a clean break or a sense of finality but by its opposite: a lingering in-between-ness, a seesawing motion of time, sentiments, and fashion. By focusing on a cast of previously ignored characters—Chinese women reformers, unrepentant connoisseurs, girl students, women who struggled to let their feet out, foot inspectors, tabloid writers, and shopkeepers who collected picture postcards as a hobby, for example—this and the next two chapters seek to present an alternative picture of this transitional period. On the local if not visceral and bodily level, the demise of footbinding appeared to be more problematic than the story told from a linear enlightenment perspective penned by the leading male thinkers in the twentieth century.

The stubbornness of women’s bodies stands out as the most visible yet perplexing aspect of this alternative history. Time’s arrow traveled its course steadily on the level of individual lives as national time and global time, histories external to the women’s bodies, hurried ahead by leaps and bounds. This simple fact dictates that no state decree or social movement can truly end footbinding until the individual lives have expired one by one. The “voice” of these women—not articulated voices but murmurs from within their bodies—arose from an ambiguous space between individual and national histories. How do we hear them, in multiple tones and pitches, when the language they speak is often a language not of words but of the body, and is thus alien to us?

Anti-footbinding legislation and campaigns belong to the realm of “gigantic history.” Since they are traceable through public documents and amenable to the methods of political and social history, it is not surprising that they have been widely analyzed. But Susan Stewart has reminded us that there are two kinds of history: “We find the miniature at the origin of private, individual history, but we find the gigantic at the origin of public and natural history.” We know the miniature only as the contained, “a spatial whole or temporal parts,” whereas the gigantic is the container. Likewise, there are two rhythms of women’s history in China, one private-individual and the other public-national. We have mistaken the latter as the only narrative because the voices in it are familiar to us and require little translation, contained as they are by narratives of the nation with which we can identify.

We have heard the voice of the modern woman in Qiu Jin (1875–1907), the knight-errant who denounced footbinding, left her marriage, traveled to Japan, cross-dressed as Charlie Chaplin for the camera, and became a martyr for the republican revolution. We have also celebrated the career of Ding Ling (1904–86), who took lovers, traveled to Yanan, and became the resident feminist writer of the communist revolution.Theirs were journeys of the romantic hero in quest of personal and national salvation. In their pathos of political activism, self-realization, and sexual yearnings, we have found images of our cherished selves. We have thus succumbed to the seduction of their rhetoric: they speak the language of individual freedom and self-determination, but this individualism is in fact a reflected ideal that has no life outside the nationalist discourse. Their female voices were contained by, and were speaking in the terms of, the gigantic history of the nation.

There are many other female speaking selves on the margins of or outside gigantic history. Those of the illiterate footbound women constitute one example.Their voices, however, are not immediately audible to us. Two kinds of translation are necessary before these “miniaturized” or “contained” histories are brought to light. The first involves a translation from the silent presence of the footbound woman’s body to her hidden inner world. The second involves a translation from others’ writings quoting her utterances. In this and the next two chapters, we will strain to hear these secondhand voices, be they bodily murmurs, reasoned articulation, or screams of anguish. These are refracted instead of “authentic” voices, contained as they are by male narratives, gigantic histories, and other exterior concerns. But they are no less “real” because of that.

Even when we have, on occasion, transcripts of interviews with village women describing their experience of binding feet, the linguistic terms they used and political awareness they exhibited were acquired after the fact. For example, when the filmmakers Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon interviewed three footbound grannies from Long Bow Village for their acclaimed documentary Small Happiness, one spoke of learning the word feng jian (feudal) from the communists, who invented it. The word enabled her to name the roots of her oppression (another invented word) in old China, but does not convey her actual feelings when she had her feet bound as a young girl.Because of this inevitable intervention of time and the intrusion of new linguistic categories that reorganize one’s memories, even female voices as seemingly unmediated as in face-to-face interviews are in fact secondhand voices that require translation. There is no “authentic” female voice.

Ironically, only by way of translation can we hope to be faithful to the multiple tonalities of a confusing time. The period from the 1880s to the 1930s comprised a transitional stage when the rhythms beneath the woman’s skin seem out of sync with the body politic at large. New visions of female and social bodies had taken shape, but old values, embodied by women with bound feet, remained concrete and visible. The footbound woman in modern China is thus a remnant; her presence demands attention and analysis, not condemnation. For it is in the corporeality of her presence that we seek her “agency,” in conjunction with what she purportedly wrote or said. In focusing on the cerebral voices of women writers and activists, our current picture of the range of experiences and subjectivities of women in modern China is woefully incomplete and disembodied.

If efforts to end footbinding were complicated by the stubbornness of individual bodies, the “end” should be seen not as an unequivocal moment but a confusing period of bind-unbind-bind-unbind. Somehow during the tug-of-war footbinding shrank in stature. It was not so much outlawed as outmoded; footbinding came to a virtual death when its cultural prestige extinguished. To put it another way, the end came when the practice exhausted all justifications within the existing repertoire of cultural symbols and values, even as myriad women continued to tighten their binding cloths every day. The lingering presence of footbound women as they were seen hobbling on the streets of treaty ports or pulling a plough in a Shandong village elicited pity and curiosity because they appeared dated and out of place. (See fig. 1.) They were not even supposed to walk or venture outdoors! These incongruities bring to the fore the contradictions that a woman had to embody as remnant of the old order and bearer of the new.


The invention of the term “natural feet” or “heavenly feet” (tianzu)—as the antithesis of “bound feet” (chanzu, guozu)—marked the point of no return in the cultural and social demise of footbinding. The public use of the English term can be traced to one morning in 1875 in the southern treaty port of Amoy ( Xiamen), when Rev. John MacGowan presided over a meeting that led to the formation of the Heavenly Foot Society. MacGowan (d. 1922), of the London Missionary Society, first arrived in Amoy on the heels of the Second Opium War, which opened up five treaty ports to foreign commerce and the interior to missionary penetration in 1860. Almost immediately, he and his wife learned firsthand the evils of footbinding when the shrieks of a neighbor’s daughter pierced the walls. Mrs. MacGowan hurried over to intervene, only to be greeted by a lecture from the girl’s mother: “But you are an Englishwoman, and you do not understand the burden that is laid upon us women of China. This footbinding is the evil fortune that we inherit from the past, that our fathers have handed down to us, and no one in all this wide Empire of ours can bring us deliverance.” If the daughter did not have her feet bound, “she would be laughed at and despised and treated as a slave-girl.”

The Reverend did not forget. Fifteen years later, prompted by a divine revelation, he called a meeting of all the women who attended Christian churches in Amoy. Amidst warnings of a riot in the city—so threatening was the idea of a female assembly—sixty to seventy showed up, all uneducated women of the working class according to MacGowan. After the Reverend spoke, a “tall, handsome-looking” mother of seven daughters rose from her seat: “Your efforts to arouse a conscience on the subject has made me think very seriously upon the wrong that we Christians have been doing in consenting to carry on a custom that is inflicting such sorrows upon ourselves and on the women of this city.” She vowed to leave her daughters’ feet unbound even if it meant they would not find husbands. Reverend Mac-Gowan recalled fondly that “here her beautiful face was lighted up with a smile that came from her very soul. ‘Then I shall keep them at home with me, and they shall cook my rice for me.’” Other women also spoke up. At the end of the meeting, nine women “signed” a pledge to eradicate the heathen practice in their homes and beyond by drawing a cross against their names written out by a Chinese pastor.

If the Reverend had not called the meeting— or written about it almost three decades later—these illiterate women would not have had a chance to speak up in a public assembly, let alone to have their words preserved for posterity. Although thoroughly contained by MacGowan’s gospel narrative with a gigantic title, How England Saved China, the mother of seven daughters impresses us as having a mind of her own that eluded the Reverend. What MacGowan interpreted as the determination of a heroic Christian soul can be construed as a veiled display of family status: my daughters would stay home and serve me because we can afford to feed them. It is perhaps no accident that she dared to speak first. As was customary in a Chinese social gathering, the senior members of a group tend to be the first and last to speak. Hence the woman who spoke at the end of the assembly was a seventy-year-old elder from a respected Christian family, whom MacGowan called “the mother of the Church.”

The tall mother’s pragmatic concern for her daughters’ future, couched in terms of “cooking rice,” echoed that of the Reverend’s neighbor fifteen years earlier. MacGowan’s theological perspectives on footbinding appear more abstract: “It had completely destroyed the grace and symmetry with which Nature had endowed the women. We are apt to forget that within the feet lies the secret of the exquisite poise and beautiful carriage that embody within them the very poetry of motion, and that add so much to the charm that women by a divine right seem naturally to possess.”Foot-binding is anti-Christian because Nature—the Creator—endowed women with integral, natural bodies. The doctrine of Heavenly feet is thus predicated on the construction of a God-given natural body.

In christening his anti-footbinding society “Heavenly Foot,” MacGowan foregrounded Christian doctrines while appealing to native belief and terminology. Although the concept of a personal God is unknown to Chinese, he wrote, their Heaven is a mysterious force that is “analogous to God” in some aspects. “The sages in ancient times had declared that men were the offspring of Heaven....If so, then women also were the product of the same great Power, and consequently the feet of the little girls when they were born had been designed with their exquisite beauty by It.”The doctrine of Heavenly feet is thus co-extensive with gender equality.

MacGowan’s hybrid appeal to Christian and Chinese reference systems is typical. In Chinese he was known by the moniker of Guangzhao (Shining light), a Buddhist-monk-sounding name.The Chinese name of the anti-footbinding society, too, adopted the indigenous rubric of “Jie chanzu hui” (Quit binding-feet society), an allusion to the “quit opium-smoking” societies. Yet all these efforts of linguistic indigenization only served to highlight the alienness of tianzu (heavenly or natural feet) in the mid-1870s. Although the concept of natural feet had been expounded as a Christian doctrine and hence was familiar to churchgoers, the translated term tianzu did not enter the Chinese lexicon until 1895, with the founding of the Tianzu hui (Natural Feet Society) by Mrs. Alicia Little in Shanghai.

Neither the concept of a natural, integral body nor attacks on footbinding were new to Chinese discourses.The significance of the category tianzu lies in the transnational context of its birth and its overt Christian justification. In 1878, a participant at one of the biannual meetings of the Heavenly Feet Society transcribed a long essay by a Reverend Ye entitled “Discourse on Quitting Footbinding” (“Jie chanzu lun”). The Chinese pastor displayed a malaise at being scrutinized by the world that was absent in MacGowan: “Looking around the world today, no women other than those in China bind their feet. This shows that when God made men, there was no divergence in the shape of male and female feet. This [lack of gender disparity] is a principle applicable to the past as to the present.” China was thus uniquely barbaric in world time and geography. Reverend Ye’s argument then turned to the body’s utility: “When God created human beings, He intended the four limbs and five senses to be put to their appropriate uses. This is true for both males and females.” Footbinding is a manmade contrivance, analogous to the tower of Babel, that paraded human wisdom as superior to that of God. It is thus a sinful act.

Whereas MacGowan was sympathetic to the plight of mothers, Reverend Ye placed the blame squarely on them. “The [Christian] principle of loving others begins with loving one’s own children. How can you inflict pain onto your daughter’s feet at age five or six, binding them as tightly as a branding iron, blocking the qi from circulating like putting a cangue on the an-kle?...I see that during binding, the daughter often cries in pain, but the mother would strike her and make the pain even more unbearable.” If Reverend Ye had nothing but contempt for the mother, he harbored even less sympathy toward the daughter, a “seductress” (yaoji) who “beautifies her looks to promote licentiousness.” She has sinned in “drawing others’ gaze to her.” There is no mention of men’s responsibility or complicity.

This formulation of footbinding as sinful on three accounts—as cultural contrivance, as a violation of parental love, and as a sexual threat to the God-loving man—is Christian in logic and rhetoric. This early apology for natural feet set the tone for subsequent polemics by secular Chinese offcials, reformers, and revolutionaries at the height of the anti-footbinding agitation in 1895–98.All the essential elements of that agitation were rehearsed in Reverend Ye’s essays two decades earlier: a transnational awareness of China’s parochialism, a utilitarian view of the natural body as a machine, and the assertion of parity between males and females.Most importantly, the status of women became a yardstick for the civility of an entire country. The parity between China and the West depended on gender equality, which stood the Confucian principle of gender hierarchy on its head. For all of these progressive elements, however, the discourse of tianzu betrayed a male bias in perpetuating the view of women as femmes fatales and blaming mothers and daughters for their own misery. These less salutary elements, too, became more pronounced in subsequent Chinese nationalistic writings.

Who brought footbinding to an end—was it missionaries and foreigners or indigenous reformers? This question has been a matter of historical contention because Chinese agency and sovereignty remain cherished goals among nationalistic historians today. My limited argument here has been that tianzu is a linguistic category born of a new transnational traffc in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It was absent in the native vocabulary and became imaginable only by standing the familiar category of chanzu on its head. In time this logic of dichotomizing and negation spread, and tianzu became the antithesis of a host of larger deficiencies in traditional culture: gender inequality, parental authority, and, as we will see, class discrimination. Whatever its origins, tianzu (natural unbound feet) has thus remained the most poignant symbol of national self-determination, from its inception through the early years of the republic and unto today.


In the early years of the Republic, Chinese writers made various attempts to “nationalize” the origins and history of the anti-footbinding movement. Among them, the man of letters Xu Ke (1869–1928) offered a China-centered narrative of the birth of tianzu as a category and a social movement. Xu, author of “A Survey of Natural Feet” (“Tianzu kaolüe”) and its sequel, “Words of Knowing Feet” (“Zhizu yu”; zhizu is a pun meaning contentment and knowing feet) opened with the familiar global gaze: “Women of our country are known throughout the world for their bound feet, which has long been criticized by the people in Europe and America. In the year wushu of the Qing Guangxu reign [1898], scholar-offcials in Shanghai established the Natural Feet Society [Tianzu hui] and the Anti-Footbinding Society [Bu chanzu hui]. They issued books and gave lectures, spreading words of admonition afar. Women in the entire country were to preserve their naturalness [zhen] if they had not yet bound, or receive relief from their stricture if they had already bound. The development of their physique will be promoted, and the shame of the national citizens will be shed.”In coupling the establishment of anti-footbinding societies with the Hundred Days Reform of 1898 and in attributing the founding of anti-footbinding organizations to Chinese scholar-offcials in Shanghai, Xu recast the motive force of this movement from one of missionary salvation or foreign innovation to that of Chinese elite male agency.

In Xu’s eyes, the eradication of footbinding is prerequisite to China’s parity with Europe and America, hence it is an urgent nationalist project. Although Xu used the traditional rendition of time in terms of dynastic reign years, he showed an acute awareness of the forward march of global time against which China was to be measured. Yet an equally strong impulse was to rescue some progressive elements from tradition and native categories. Xu continued: “The tianzu [in ‘Tianzu hui’] means ‘natural foot’ [tianran zhi zu]. Only then did the two words ‘tian-zu’ become a noun, a name. Little did we know that in the ancient times, we had [the practice of ] natural feet, and it is in fact quite common in the recent past.” Later, in 1928, Xu Ke found a classical name to this practice: “Today if we say ‘natural foot’ [tianzu], everyone in the metropolis and urban areas would know what you mean. In ancient times there was no such term as tianzu; they called it ‘plain or unadorned feet’ [suzu].”

Mention of unadorned feet, however, was too vulgar to be preserved in the chronicles of old, controlled as they were by the literate elite. “But our common people [renmin] have long been accustomed to authoritarianism; the class distinctions between the rich and poor are deeply ingrained in their hearts. The scholar-offcials [shidafu] did not see what was practiced in the fields because it was different from their own custom, or even when they saw it, they chose to ignore it. Moreover, since the elite considered themselves ‘civilized,’ they regarded lands with natural feet as barbaric....I am enraged by them, by the extreme inequality that separated the rich and powerful from the poor and mean.”In this innovative formulation, natural feet stand for the wholesome but submerged culture of the plebeians, whereas bound feet signal the corruption and domination of the patrician class. The rhetoric of tianzu is thus harnessed as an apology for democracy.

Xu’s project of documenting the neglected practices of natural feet in Chinese history is nationalist in goal and intention. Further, his nationalism involves the leveling of hierarchies and distances on global, national, and local levels: parity of China with Europe and America as well as equality between the classes and status groups within China. “A Survey of Natural Feet” is thus an unabashed piece of revolutionary writing. Instead of discarding traditional culture altogether, however, Xu resuscitated a usable past, represented by the “unadorned feet” of the common people.

In his global awareness, political egalitarianism, and Chinese pride, Xu Ke shared the outlook of his more famous reformist contemporaries such as Kang Youwei (1858–1927), who helped found the Do Not Bind Feet Society (Bu guozu hui) in 1883.Xu, a native of Hangzhou and holder of a licentiate ( juren) degree, had one foot in the world of the civil service examination and another foot in the world of treaty port culture. In 1899, he left his minor bureaucratic post in Beijing and eventually settled in Shanghai, where his wife, He Mojun, worked as a school teacher, and his son and daughter were enrolled in new schools. His son was later sent to England and Paris for an advanced degree. Xu made a living as a writer and editor and was widely known as the compiler of A Classified Collection of Anecdotes on the Qing Dynasty (Qingbai leichao), a monumental collection of unique notations about the last dynasty.

Like the literati of old, Xu frequented wine shops and restaurants, building networks over drinking games and poetry contests. He later published his contributions, poems that document elegant gatherings in which men of letters in the Yangzi delta viewed antique ceramics and manuscripts, saw friends off on journeys, or inscribed each other’s paintings. Yet even as they sought to re-create the tranquil world of the imperial literati, the violence of the times showed through: a poem was crafted for a friend who was felled by assassins; they mourned the loss of a drawing of an ancient rock in a Suzhou garden during the 1911 revolution (or “military disturbance”).

One of the friends who exchanged poetry with Xu was a fellow sojourner Tang Yisuo (fl. 1904), a native of Suzhou. In his preface to Xu’s pamphlet on beautiful Suzhou women with natural feet, Tang recounted his early exposure to Christian advocacy of natural feet in the 1880s. Like Xu Ke, Tang received the tianzu rhetoric with a Chinese nationalist frame of mind. Stricken with a severe illness, he once sought treatment from an American doctor, Bai Lewen [Brockman?]. As follow-up, his tiny-footed wife Shi Jingkai frequented the doctor’s residence to renew prescriptions. One day Shi brought along a thirteen-year-old maid named Yilan. Mrs. Bai, the doc-tor’s wife, looked Shi in the eyes and said, “Footbinding and waistbinding are both bad customs. Look how charming is Yilan, with her two feet in their natural state [tianran], free from the sufferings of pretension. She must be a native of Suzhou, isn’t she? In my extended travels, I have discovered that within the area of several hundred li in Suzhou prefecture, not only do maids and peasant women have natural feet, but also those fishing, gathering firewood, selling vegetables and flowers, and porting. They mingle in the company of men and perform laborious chores requiring physical strength. Occasionally I see men resting and waiting to be fed, while their women toil away without complaint. Of course they are blessed with an obliging temperament, but who can deny that they also enjoy the convenience of having natural hands and feet?” Shi Jingkai felt these words deeply and conveyed them to Tang upon returning home.

Mrs. Bai’s valuation of female labor anticipated a national concern with women’s livelihood at the turn of the twentieth century. Cast in positive terms, women’s self-reliance (zili) or economic independence became the condition of their liberation and hence the strongest justification for their education. Often, however, the issue was cast in a damning light: women were parasites. In a seminal essay written in 1896–97, “On Women’s Education,” a leading reformist thinker, Liang Qichao (1873–1929), denigrated the female half of the population as “those with round heads but pointy feet.” Referring to a saying by Mencius that “those who dwell in leisure without an education are close to beasts,” Liang stated that since every woman “from the ancient times to the present day” has been unschooled, they have fared no better than beasts. Although the majority of men are also uneducated, he conceded, these men are at least ashamed of themselves, but the women are so ignorant that they do not even feel the shame. This is the root of China’s weakness. “All two hundred million of our women are consumers [ fenli, partakers of profit]; not a single one has produced anything of profit....No wonder men keep them as dogs, horses, and slaves.”

Liang Qichao, the most powerful polemist in modern China, used strong language to incite his readers to action. But in so doing, he perpetuated an insulting and erroneous image of women, erasing their traditional learning and domestic labor from the history of the nation. Unfortunately, so influential was Liang that the image of women with bound feet as parasites, beasts, and slaves remained the standard view. Shortly after the publication of Liang’s treatise on cultural reform, a New Year’s print from Yangliuqing, “Women’s Self-Strengthening” (“Nüzi ziqiang”), drives the same message home. The print shows a father sitting on one side of a square table while his dainty wife, a son, and a daughter beckon from the other side. The caption, written in a vernacular popular after the aborted 1898 reform movement, reads: “In China, most married men with a family to support are being weighed down. Do you know where the problem lies? It is not that men cannot make money, but that one man has to feed many mouths. A woman on a pair of tiny bound feet cannot exert herself in many lines of work. She has to depend on men for what she eats and what she wears. How can the men not be burdened?” The caption concludes, “China is weak; this is the most serious sickness.”

When these messages became commonplace in the 1900s, Tang Yisuo and Shi Jingkai had moved to Shanghai, Yilan had died, and the anti-footbinding movement was widespread in cities and towns. Tang regretted that Yilan did not live to see natural feet becoming fashionable. “If she had lived a little longer, I could have remonstrated in front of our relatives and friends that in my house we have a maid who was ahead of the times.” But Tang reported that his wife, by then fifty years old, decided to “unwrap her bandage to relax her toes.” Shi told her husband, “In the past, I intuited that what Mrs. Bai said about the convenience of hands and feet was right, but now I can experience the reason behind her words.”As recorded by her husband, Shi’s voice was calm and matter-of-fact. We do not know how “relaxed” her toes became. Although the subject of her speech was the changing consciousness of a footbound woman, no interiority was disclosed. The experience of her conversion is credible, but Tang Yisuo has framed the bodily process as a rational and linear one. Shi’s voice is true but incomplete.

To Shi, the natural body is an abstract concept, but its functionalist corollary, the convenience and use of a productive body, made a deep impression. She fantasized with her husband about an idyllic life spent in physical exertion after they retired: “If you have a plot of land to plough, I would bring lunch to you; if you have a mountain in which to gather firewood, I would bundle them up for you. If you only have a pond or a brook, I would pick lotus root and trap fishes and shrimps, take them to the market in the morning and return with wine in the evening. Forgetting the world, we can while the rest of our years away.” Against the stark reality of women and children slaving away in the Shanghai cotton mills during the early stage of China’s industrialization, Shi conjured up a pastoral and utopian picture of conjugal companionship built on shared labor in a primitive economy.

Tang’s essay reveals the subtle changes in concepts of bodies and the dimming of the cultural prestige of footbinding in the pivotal era of the 1880s to the 1900s. It also reveals how the value of natural feet was entangled with family pride and the pride of locale. He ended by recounting a conversation with Xu Ke, who declared: “The beauty of Suzhou women is famous. Yet people only know of the arched foot in the city, and are ignorant of the fact that the natural foot of rural women is even more beautiful. This ignorance is similar to that of the offcials in an autocratic country, who only recognize pedigree but not real talent.” This is a thinly veiled attack on the dynastic order. Also palpable is Xu’s awareness of China in a global world: “The Westerners have a saying, that the women of Spain are the most beautiful in Europe, and the women of Suzhou are the most beautiful in Asia. It is clear from this coupling of Spanish and Suzhou women that natural feet are desirable. The beauty of Suzhou natural feet is recognized by the entire world. Better still, it has existed from our distant past, before the promotion of the ‘new learning’ [xinxue] reformers today” (23b).

The coupling of Spain and Suzhou may strike us as odd, but these words encapsulate the commingling of global, national, and local awareness around the turn of the century. Xu has accepted without question the authority of the “West” (in the form of Spain) as the arbiter of taste and value. The natural-footed rural working woman, unsullied by habits of the city, was made the embodiment of a modern standard of Chinese beauty, a standard also espoused by Mrs. Bai. Furthermore, Xu’s and Tang’s endorsement of the tianzu doctrine involves a splitting of local history into the good and the bad, the latter being the imperial examination system, which sanctioned a hierarchical order. With this split, the new ideals of equality, freedom, and democracy can be pursued without discarding tradition altogether.

Xu Ke and Tang Yisuo were transitional figures. Chronologically they straddled the end of one millennium and the beginning of the next; politically and culturally they witnessed the collapse of the dynastic order and the shaky beginnings of the Republic in 1912. It is remarkable that they narrated these momentous transitions without a sense of rupture or struggle. Although schooled in the classics, they had little political or economic stake in the imperial system. The calmness with which they nationalized the rhetoric of tianzu, its attendant episteme of the functionalist body, and an egalitarian body politic bespeaks the extent to which the foundation of old literati culture had eroded. The aura of footbinding was dimmed and eventually extinguished in the process.


The lack of struggle—for both Xu Ke and his wife—about the liberation of feet in his personal memoirs recurred in Tang Yisuo’s Huang Xiuqiu, a long novel named after its heroine. Its first twenty-six chapters were serialized in New Fiction (Xin xiaoshuo) in 1904 or 1905; the final four chapters were added when it was issued under separate cover in 1906 or 1907. New Fiction, a monthly founded in 1902 by Liang Qichao in Yokohama, was the earliest and one of the most influential of the literary journals. As a result, Huang Xiuqiu ranks as one of the better known examples of progressive late-Qing fiction. In its linking of the liberation of feet to national salvation and its focus on a speaking female protagonist, the novel presents a prototype of the modern Chinese womanhood scripted by the history of the nation.Huang Xiuqiu is set in Freedom Village, situated in the temperate zone

in the eastern half of Asia and home of the Huang ( Yellow) clan. The male protagonist is a man in his thirties, Huang Tongli (enlightened principle, or one who understands reason), who sought to overhaul village custom and politics in a gradual manner. His wife, Huang Xiuqiu, unwrapped her binding cloths and then convinced Tongli that the best place to start his campaign was to set up a private girls’ school. Together, they battled the superstition of nuns, the corruption of Manchu offcials, and the conspiracy of a clansman Huang Huo (yellow peril). In the end, they managed to export the successful girls’ school model to a neighboring village, champion local self-government in a village meeting, and organize male and female militias. Although not much is known about Tang Yisuo apart from his friendship with Xu Ke, it is clear that Huang Xiuqiu is a straightforward statement of the progressive beliefs of its author.

In its global awareness, glorification of the female will, and valorization of unimpeded circulation ( jiaotong ), both within individual bodies and between trading nations, the novel places the liberated woman at the center of a new episteme. Tang’s global awareness takes the form of a fascination with the earth as a ball-shaped object. The gigantic and abstract concept of “the globe” is miniaturized, assuming concrete shapes and vivid colors: desktop globe; watermelon; egg. The earth is inhabited by five races, Huang Tongli told his wife, but only the yellows and whites matter. Whereas Tongli referred to geography (dili) to describe the struggle of the two main races, Xiuqiu referred to astronomy (tianwen) to describe her doctrine of the equality of the sexes. Revising traditional Chinese cosmology, which construes heaven (tian) as a dome-shaped sphere covering the square earth (di) like a lid, Huang Xiuqiu said: “We now know from astronomy that heaven is egg-shaped instead of dome-shaped. Earth is encased by heaven, like an egg yolk, not a detached piece of square. Heaven and earth are interconnected; it is impossible to deem heaven higher or superior” (177). Between them, they are describing a new cosmology and global politics marked by the ideals of equality and the reality of struggling for survival. In struggle or in parity, China can be defined and located only in relation to other countries and races.

The cosmology of the egg also teaches the lesson of gender equality. “Woman is egg yolk. Although she is inside, surrounded by egg white and shell, without the yolk there would be no white nor shell.... All the heroes among men, even emperors, are born of women. So women should be valued higher than men. Why are they being oppressed instead? These days one hears the words of equal rights and equal status [pingquan pingdeng ] between males and females....Since the two sexes are united, there should be no distinctions of... high or low, big or small... between them” (177). This argument for gender equality, however, is built on a paradox: although woman is superior to man in function and equal in status and rights, her location remains “inside” and is in fact enveloped by the egg white that stands for man. Furthermore, the value of woman is realized in the act of giving birth.The Confucian gendered division of space, which construed the ideal woman as the inner person, thus found a new expression in the doctrine of gender equality. This incongruity bespeaks the confusion about a woman’s proper place and roles in late-Qing society.

In Huang Xiuqiu, the egg is thus at once a metaphor for different-but-equal gender relations, global social-Darwinian politics, and Copernican cosmology. The conjoining of these three realms is in itself nothing new; Confucian cosmology has long held the correlative links between individual, social, political, and heavenly bodies. The egg-as-globe, however, teaches a new episteme because it requires a new perspective, looking from the outside in. China can be viewed in its entirety, not in parts, only after it is brought down in size and placed within a global community of nations; similarly the earth appears as a globular object only when the viewer is suspended in space. In other words, the totality of the nation and sphericity of the globe are products of miniaturization. Miniaturization, in turn, is possible only with the viewing subject’s detachment: stepping back from the object of vision and looking from a distance.

Astronomy (tianwen, phenomena of the sky) and geography (dili, principles of the earth), subjects born of this new way of seeing, became popular in school curriculum around the turn of the century. In Sichuan province, a local son whose father ran a private school (shishu) for boys, Zhang Xiushu (b. 1895), recalled his love of history, geography, and astronomy. Seventy years later, he could still recite the bulk of several primers on these subjects taught to him between ages three and thirteen. Particularly eye-opening and memorable was a geography primer, The Globe in Rhymes (Diqiu yunyan). Although the volume was no longer in Zhang’s possession, he remembered details about its author, Huang Zhi, a juren scholar who studied in Japan and who was the principal of a local upper primary school (gaodeng xiaoxue) in 1903. Fascinated by the primer, Zhang Xiushu sought Huang out to audit his geography course, only to discover that the subject Huang was teaching was the Confucian classic Book of Songs.36

Published between 1898 and 1903, The Globe in Rhymes consists of songs in five-word and seven-word lines. Each song takes up a lesson in physical and human geography. The perils of colonialism and the lure of democracy were themes in several songs still etched in Zhang’s mind: Sichuan province, inner and outer Mongolia, Africa, and America. Opening with a song on the imperial capital, the primer leads the student through lessons on the five continents, China’s eighteen provinces, inner and outer Mongolia, capital cities of global nations, and concludes with China’s treaty ports. The ordering of songs taught the nascent national consciousness by beginning with the political center of China and ending with its devolution and loss of sovereignty. The new global episteme, which taught that the globe was populated by sovereign nation-states represented by their capitals, had a distinctly nationalistic hue. Consciousness of the nation is thus wrought of two opposite processes: that of distancing, or viewing China in a global community of nation-states, and of centering, or an obsession with the dissipation and loss of Chinese territories and sovereignty.

The boy student was also fascinated by astronomy. Besides The Globe in Rhymes, Zhang’s other favorite primer was Songs of Phenomena in Heaven and Earth ( Tianwen diyu gekuo), which offered lessons in the evolution of the stars, the planetary system, the orbiting of the moon, the longitudes, prime meridian, and latitudes, thunder, snow, and rainbows. The earth, visualized on different scales, appears as a slightly flattened round object, one of the planets evolving in oval orbits, a ball whose surface was marked by navigators into grids, and surrounded by an atmosphere governed by ther-modynamics.Although Zhang did not recall seeing a globe in his father’s classroom—his father-teacher was probably too poor to afford props—he effectively visualized the spherical globe in its miniaturized form by way of rhymes and songs.

Pictures of the globe were quite popular in the first decades of the twentieth century. In a pioneering effort in 1898, China’s first women’s journal, Chinese Girls’ Progress (Nü xuebao), published an illustration of a classroom in a girls’ school showing six students huddled in front of a model of the globe on the teacher’s desk. On the wall behind the lady teacher hangs a huge map of Asia.The cover of The Continent magazine (Dalu) published in Shanghai in 1902 features a globe in the clasp of a flying dragon. In the Republican era, the globe remained a fetishized object signifying a modern way of seeing and a national awareness. In Beiping Women’s Normal College (Beiping nüzhi shifan xueyuan), the training ground for many Republican women writers, professional women, and feminist activists, students organized a Globe Society (Diqiu she) and published a monthly entitled The Globe (Diqiu) in 1929.

The correlation between the orbiting globe in perpetual motion and unhampered circulation in individual bodies was not lost on observers. A loathing for the stagnant female body, so out of sync with the times and the new cosmology, contributed to the appeal of tianzu as a linguistic category and a social program. The word tian conjures up a modern sensibility, not only because tian-as-naturalness promises deliverance from the contrivance of Chinese culture, but also because tian-as-heaven suggests the orbiting of heavenly bodies in a clockwork universe. If the pursuit of science and the global episteme cast the footbound woman as out of step and out of place— the traditional other of China’s modern self—the fate of the Confucian classic in which all male reformers were schooled was more ambivalent. Huang Zhi taught The Book of Songs in his primary school instead of geography. We do not know his rationale, but his composition of songs as pedagogical tools bespeaks his interest in orality. As literature of the common people, the Songs are compatible with the populist sentiment in modern nationalism, already expressed in Xu Ke’s discourse of suzu, unadorned feet.

Another Confucian classic, The Book of Changes, supplies the language of a generative universe in which the modern anti-footbinding arguments were couched. Thus opens a 1917 essay entitled “Discourse on tianzu”: “The Book of Changes says that in the beginning there was heaven and earth, and the myriad things followed. From the myriad things there emerged the man, from the man there emerged husband and wife.... The Han Confucianists came up with the theory that husband is the bond [gang ] of the wife, and that the woman’s proper role is to follow others in docility.” This Han degeneration from a natural universe resulted in “an artificial contrivance” and a “loss of natural genuineness” (tianzhen) which, the author implied, accounted for the eventual rise of footbinding.

The anti-footbinding movement was an effort to return from culture to nature as described in The Book of Changes. “The women’s world is under a different sky. We tremble at the self-generating power of the evolving tian [tianxing zhi ziqiang ]; we are pained by the [footbound women’s] diffculty in taking natural strides [tianbu]. This is the reason for the growth of the Tianzu hui.”The substitution of tianbu for tianzu underscored the value placed on movement, footsteps, and traffc in the early years of the republic. This valorization of speed, in turn, was part and parcel of a larger picture of a universe in perpetual motion with its evolving globe. This equation of tianxing and tianbu, of evolving universe and walking bodies, however, fostered a view of the body as an abstract entity or a metaphorical site. This erasure of the physicality of the female body, so prevalent in the anti-footbinding discourse, rendered any realistic description of pain diffcult. There is no better illustration of this than the novelist’s treatment of Huang Xiuqiu’s footbinding experience and its undoing.


This erasure of the physical body is central to Tang Yisuo’s portrayal of Huang Xiuqiu’s agency, which was almost entirely wrought of her self-awareness and volition. An orphan, she suffered indignities and neglect in the hands of the maternal aunt who raised her. Concerned that Xiuqiu would not be able to marry, the aunt took great care in binding her feet despite the girl’s screams and tears. These early pains formed a sediment of determination, which one day propelled Xiuqiu to make something of her life by working side-by-side with men (8–12). Tang Yisuo was careful to ascribe Huang Xiuqiu’s awakening to a latent strength inside her, not to foreign inspiration or her husband, who was supportive but at first incredulous. It is significant that Madame Roland, a heroine of the French Revolution, came to her in a dream the night after Xiuqiu liberated her own feet (16–19). However, it is equally significant that Huang Tongli and Madame Roland supplied the “theory” that guided Xiuqiu’s subsequent actions, the latter by transmitting three books and the former by explaining them.

Huang Xiuqiu’s agency is established by her changing her name, from Xiuqiu (elegant autumn) to Xiuqiu (embroidering Earth). Brushing aside her husband’s warning that if she unwraps her binding cloth she may not be able to walk and that she will be laughed at, she declares: “As a person I stand on the surface of the earth. If I fail to do something, I fail to become a person; that would be truly laughable. Now I am letting out my feet; it is nobody else’s business. If anyone laughs at me, not only am I not afraid, I will persuade all the women in our village to let theirs out....I may feel uncomfortable in the first couple of days, but in ten days or so, I will be able to fly and run. Just watch” (13–14). What a statement of the ideal of the volitional agent! Ironically, the logic of Huang Xiuqiu’s ambition is that of the male Confucian gentleman as presented in the classic Great Learning: rouse one’s will, improve and brighten up (“embroider”) the village, then the neighboring village; then the whole country can be transformed.

Having let her feet out, Huang Xiuqiu is present and active throughout the story. She is poised, courageous, and wise, a fitting heroine for new China. The change from bound to unbound is a point of departure for Huang Xiuqiu and the novel. She is thrown into jail for seditious gender-bending. Binding and unbinding are construed as social and political problems, not personal or bodily ones (145–46). After her release, however, there is scarcely any mention of her feet. As a symbol footbinding is vital to the story, but as an embodied practice or firsthand experience it is marginal if not irrelevant. Footbinding is a symbol of her early humiliation, and unbinding, a sign of her will to be a public agent. The unbound foot does recur, however, as a sign of the new culture: Dr. Bi, a well-traveled woman doctor from the south, is big-footed (dajiao, 58; tianzu is not used in the novel).And later, Huang Xiuqiu insists that her school will not admit footbound girls (213–14). Above all, the bound foot is a metonymy of the congested body, a symbol of the Chinese interior which was choking to death on its own phlegm (81). It is not surprising that the novelist—a stickler for robust circulation in the body—would name as his heroes explorers and colonialists who circumnavigated and civilized the globe: Columbus, Magellan, and Livingston (131–32, 224).

To the novelist, the bound foot is an external sign useful in its symbolism, not an embodied reality. Xiuqiu’s feet cease to be an issue after she “liberates” them: she travels, reasons, and acts, willfully ignoring the pile of bent bones, the donut twist that could not be straightened or uncooked. The body of the footbound woman appears as though feet were a change of clothes that could be refashioned at will. Huang Xiuqiu’s agency is built on her will at the expense of her absent body. Despite great attention paid to her words, motives, and reasoning, she has no interiority. Herein lies the male perspective of the novel. Contained by this male reformist perspective, the female voice in Huang Xiuqiu is an inflected voice that arises not from the depth of her body but from the ephemeral realm of her will.

When the body does appear in the novel, it has the same instrumental and symbolic quality as Huang Xiuqiu’s feet. Hence Huang Tongli pontificates: “A person has a body like a tree has branches. No matter how sorry a shape the trunk is in, the branches would still grow. No matter how unworthy is the person, if he or she can eat bitterness and toughen his or her will, no one can fail to be a useful vessel” (132). This is the functionalist body described above by Tang’s wife, Shi Jingkai. The feeling and sensuous body is erased. The body-as-machine makes for a convenient signpost whose use is advertised on its surface. A signpost has no use for interiority.

Specifically, the body in Huang Xiuqiu is a signpost for displaying one’s cultural allegiance. Shanghai girl students decked out in fashionable dress, bobbed hair, and leather shoes are renegades who prostitute themselves to fashionable causes and Westernized playboys (73–74, 76–77). The New Party reformers, too, incurred Tang Yisuo’s wrath. Chanting slogans of “Love my country; save my race,” they plotted to murder their parents. These hypocrites are always clad in Japanese-style hats or straw hats and leather shoes (80, 119). “These people should be put on display at the Chinese Exposition, ridiculed by people from countries east and west” (80). Fully-clothed, embodied people, male and female, have taken on the symbolic poignancy of China’s national shame usually imputed onto one female body part, the bound foot.


Tang Yisuo’s suggested punishment of public display bespeaks an awareness not only of the global context that China found itself in, but also of the heightened importance of visuality in transactions between nations. To be the object of eyesight is an unequal exchange that often confers humiliation. In particular, educated Chinese men’s awareness of being in the transnational world took the form of an awareness of being-looked-at. Men’s queues and women’s bound feet became eyesores only after they came under the scrutiny of people in advanced nations. It is thus not surprising that the first generation of native reformers who rallied against footbinding had traveled outside China or had extensive dealings with foreigners. We have already seen the embarrassment expressed by Reverend Ye, MacGowan’s colleague in Amoy. Other salient examples include Wang Tao (1828–97) and Zheng Guanying (1842–1922).

The vantage point of reformers’ anti-footbinding discourse is thus situated outside China; it is one of a Chinese man looking at China from the outside in, and in so doing, he also looks back at the Westerner or Japanese who looks down on him. This politics of seeing is inter-national, and eyesight— physical and metaphorical—is instrumental to the imagining of a new Chinese identity or ethnicity in a global context. Like the free-floating globe that cannot be espied in full until one travels to space, modern Chinese national consciousness is by definition transnational in reference; it originated from the gaze from the outside in.The narratives that then sprouted are “gigantic” in their abilities to invent a point of view that lies outside the boundaries of the national body.

If the anti-footbinding rhetoric was born of an offshore vantage point, the passion of the most famous “defender” of footbinding, Gu Hongming (Ku Hung-ming, 1857–1928), is explicable only in the same transnational context. Gu became an icon—the lotus lover—because no other educated person in the modern world had such ridiculous taste. Gu’s love of small feet, which he allegedly called China’s national essence, stems from the peculiar nature of his nationalism, which was underscored by his even more peculiar appearance. One of Gu’s students at Peking University, where he was a professor of English literature, thus remembered him: “When we looked at Gu Hongming after the establishment of the Republic [1912], on the surface he did appear to be a stubborn conservative: a thinning queue dangled at his back, a gown and a riding jacket from sometime in the Qianlong-Jiaqing-Daoguang reigns [1736–1874] covered his body, an old and worn-out hat sat on his head, and cloth booties on his feet. All were shabby and dirty. His desolate appearance invited derision and laughter.”He looked the part of his self-chosen identity after the fall of the imperium, that of the leftover elder. His nationalism took the form of nostalgia for the last emperor.

Ignored or maligned by generations of Chinese scholars, Gu’s antiquarian tastes are seldom seen as what they really are: badges of authenticity for an outsider. Critics and admirers alike overlook that Gu was an overseas “Chinese”—a colonial subject no less—whose Chineseness had to be acquired, tested, and worn on his sleeve. Gu was born in Penang, Malaya, to a Chinese father who descended from a long line of professional elite in the service of British colonizers. Gu remained resolutely silent about his mother, about whom nothing is known, prompting widespread rumors that she was European.Educated in Europe (primarily Edinburgh and Leipzig ) from the age of thirteen to twenty-two, Gu had no home nation or culture to call his own until he embraced Chinese culture and the Chinese patriotic viewpoint with ferocity around 1879–81. Gu likened this turning point to a religious conversion, after which he was made to “become again a Chinaman.”

Gu’s use of “again,” implying that he had a secure Chinese identity before his European education, was misleading. Gu grew up with only rudimentary knowledge of Chinese language and cultural practices. Although as a child he learned the Amoy dialect spoken by the “Babas” of Malaya, he did not read a word of Chinese. A maverick proficient in Malay (his first language), English, German, French, Japanese, Greek, and Latin, Gu formally learned classical Chinese when he became a secretary and foreign affairs advisor to Zhang Zhidong, governor-general of Hunan and Hubei, at age thirty. Some legends describe how Zhang hired tutors to teach him a text as rudimentary as the Analects; others relay how he sought to master the language by reciting the arcane Kangxi Dictionary. Decades later, his students reported that the characters he scribbled on the blackboard often had missing or extra strokes. So accustomed was the public to thinking of him as a Chinese scholar that when admirers asked for his calligraphy, a customary flattery, they were shocked by the awkward proportion and spacing of his scrawl.

In fact, Gu was schooled in a different learned tradition: a disciple of Thomas Carlyle, his prose was said to rival that of Matthew Arnold. Most heartening to Chinese readers were his correspondence with Tolstoy, his meeting with Somerset Maugham, and his being the subject of philosopher fan clubs in Germany. In gossip and bantering, the Chinese loved to relate his ability to beat the Westerner at his own game and to stand the latter on his head. For example, Gu, who introduced Goethe to China, was said to read German newspapers upside down on a train because otherwise it would be too boring; his genius in English involved the recitation of Paradise Lost backward fifty times. Invariably, the unsuspecting foreigner who set out to ridicule him was shamed.Gu’s Western learning, then, was a matter of nationalistic pride in the eyes of his compatriots. His valorization of classical Chinese, couched in terms of his infamous opposition to the introduction of vernacular literature, was the homage of a hybrid prodigal son. A tribute to him that circulated in Beijing expressed the sentiment: “After the Boxer indemnities, if there weren’t a Gu Hongming propping up the face of our country, those Westerners wouldn’t even think that the Chinese [are advanced enough to] have noses on our faces!”

From personal experience, Gu was acutely aware of the linkage of visuality with national pride in the global world. His liberal colleague at Peking University, Hu Shi, related a story Gu told of his early days in Scotland: “Everyday I stepped outside, children on the streets followed me and shouted, ‘Look! A Chinaman’s pigtail.’” Another story relates that when Gu disembarked at Southampton, a hotel maid mistook him for a girl because of his queue and tried to stop him from entering the men’s bathroom. Later in life, as if to spite the Europeans, Gu wore his queue as “a badge and insignia—almost a religious symbol—the flag of Chinese nationality.”The fact that Chineseness was an identity that Gu self-consciously embraced, as a response to being ridiculed, is often lost on his critics who condemned his support for the monarchy, concubinage, and footbinding. While we will return to Gu’s ultraconservatism below, here it is important to recognize the distinction that Gu made between “to observe others” and “to be observed by others.”

Gu once was turned off by the smirk on the face of a finely-attired late-Qing offcial whose photograph appeared in a newspaper. He recounted (or perhaps invented) a lesson about appearance and class he learned in England as a teenager. One day he chanced upon an aristocrat wearing a coat embroidered in gold and a hat adorned with bouquets sitting in a handsome horse-drawn carriage. Before he could finish feasting his eyes, a servant emerged from the market and drove the carriage away. When Gu mentioned the scene to his landlord, the latter told him that the gentleman in finery was in fact the servant and the shabby servant, the master. “It is because an exalted person only wants to observe others, not to seek to please others.” Gu concluded with a story closer to home: “Actors have always been despised according to our Chinese custom; it is exactly because their daily exercise consists of ‘seeking the other’s gaze.’”Politicians who publicized their photographs—who offered themselves visually to the public—were thus inverting the hierarchy between high and low. So sensitive was Gu to the power inequalities between the seeing and the seen that he couched them in terms of the starkness of class distinctions.

Gu’s valorization of concealment or self-effacement should not be taken too literally, for after all he acquired global fame by flaunting a queue in Republican Beijing. Observers have noted that Gu was a born contrarian who delighted in scandalous provocation. Perhaps the same spirit accounts in part for Gu’s love of the bound foot. There is also a deeper nationalistic logic underneath Gu’s defense of traditional Chinese culture, as embodied in a superior Chinese femininity. In two crucial aspects Gu shared the premises of his progressive colleagues who championed tianzu and new culture: a belief in women’s status as the marker of a civilization and a profound understanding of the humiliation implied in being the subject of unilateral gaze.


The “society women” of the West, Gu wrote in 1904, “exemplified the decline and degeneration of European civilization in the present age” in their robust, gender-bending masculinity. “In China, these busybodies have tried to reform our wonderful women with small feet” so that the latter would turn into the same type of manlike women. In a rare written defense of foot-binding, Gu explained that he saw it as female self-protection: life in China was so impoverished that women were forced to bind their feet, thus excusing themselves from the most exhausting forms of labor. In contrast to the chaotic gender relations in Europe, a gender harmony built on male-female distinctions signals the superiority of Chinese civilization.

The feminine ideal in China, Gu argued, consists of a selfless devotion to others. The perfect woman is at once cheerful (“debonair”) and bash-ful.Although he did not articulate it, following this logic, footbinding can be understood as the bodily expression of the most admirable quality of Chinese women: passivity and serenity. Just as the shabbily clad English servant who was the true master, the demure Chinese woman was exalted in status in refusing to draw attention to herself. Gu’s love of footbinding thus rests on an idealized womanhood that is saintlike and sovereign, a sphere of inviolability in a turbulent age.

That the two “defenses” he furnished for footbinding—as self-protection from hard labor and as an expression of passive virtue—are contradictory does not matter. Nor does it matter that his views are at odds with the sociological reality of his times. The historian Hui-min Lo, the most authoritative and clear-eyed biographer of Gu, has observed that the colonial plantation in which Gu grew up was “in the backwoods of the island [Penang ]”; he was “surrounded by people, including his parents, who knew next to nothing about China or Chinese culture beyond fanciful hearsay and dubious versions of occasional rituals performed by hired Tamils.” Therefore, as an adult Gu suffered the need—and enjoyed the freedom—to invent a picture of a pristine, timeless China to suit his politics. “With his literary gifts and exceptional imagination, Ku Hung-ming [Gu Hongming ] created for himself a picture of his people and their civilisation which could only ‘exist’ in wishful thinking.”

What kind of a lotus lover was Gu Hongming in everyday life? In their remembrances published in the early 1930s, not long after Gu’s death in 1928, colleagues Hu Shi and Zhou Zuoren as well as his student Luo Jialun, all famous intellectuals associated with new culture, did not mention Gu’s predilection. Accounts that appeared in Taiwan in the 1970s were more graphic. These stories talked of his two daily medicines: his wife, allegedly a footbound Hunanese beauty, was his stimulant whereas his natural-footed Japanese concubine was his sedative. Whenever Gu suffered from writer’s block, he would summon his wife to his side and squeeze her “lamb’s trotter.” Gu was also said to have muttered a seven-word mantra that summarized the mysterious beauty of bound feet: “slender, small, pointy, arched, fragrant, soft, and straight.” One anecdote had him equating the delight of bound feet to eating fried fermented beancurd and rotten eggs, native delicacies that no foreigner would touch.

Given how famous or infamous Gu Hongming was as a lotus lover, it is surprising that he did not discuss it at length in his writings, that none of his contemporaries described it in writing, and that when it was reported later, the limited number of anecdotes were reiterated and embellished in subsequent accounts. Instead of trying to separate Gu Hongming’s person from legend, it is more fruitful to focus on the two interlocking processes of mythmaking surrounding Gu: his own idealization of “traditional China” and the public’s fascination with his idealization. His love of footbinding was always recited as part and parcel of his alleged apologies of concubinage, caning, infanticide, eight-legged essays, opium smoking, spitting in public—all signs of Chinese backwardness perpetuated by a century of missionary writings.Although few Chinese readers had stomach for these vices, they relished the ridiculous attempt of someone talking back in a quixotic gesture of defiance: What you take as national shame, we take as national pride.

Such is the irony of Gu Hongming, born a British colonial subject and a descendent of compradors who devoted his entire life to ranting about imperialism. So radical was his critique that he had to manufacture and idolize a perfect China before the violence of colonial contact. The radical implications of this posture lie in his tactic of exaggerating the distance between China and the rest of the world: China is to be judged not by Enlightenment standards, but by its own definitions of womanhood, justice, and human value. This deliberate distancing stems from the same nationalistic impulse as the reformers’ eagerness to seek parity by the “catching up” rhetoric embedded in their linear history of the nation as we have seen in Xu Ke and Tang Yisuo.

Gu was clearly not a feminist who championed women’s liberation; but in being a defender of Chinese culture he was a nationalist, even a patriot. His idealized Chinese woman, in fact, was a metaphor of the sovereign Chinese nation who could resist not only the foreigner’s gaze but also his way of seeing. Indeed, Gu Hongming was an even more fervent nationalist than such reformers as Zheng Guanying or Liang Qichao because he refused to take Western standards of progress and civilization as Chinese yardsticks. He alone could talk back in German, French, or English and declare them parochial tongues. When footbinding found its sole defender in such an odd character, we can only conclude that it had ceased to be a prestigious or even relevant practice during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Therein lies the success of the tianzu movement that Reverend Mac-Gowan had called into being over a quarter-century earlier in Gu Hongming’s ancestral home of Amoy.

In sum, the linguistic category of tianzu gained currency in a key transitional period in modern history: the 1890s–1900s. Under the watchful eyes of foreign powers, the Qing multiethnic empire sought to reinvent itself as a modern nation-state; Chinese culture lost its footing and became an open question. In this era of uncertainties, the discourse of tianzu offered moral and ontological certainty. It did so in part by way of its logic of assertion-negation: the new “natural feet” became imaginable only by standing the native practice of chanzu on its head. As such, the rhetorical power of tianzu is both destructive and constructive.

The constructive power of tianzu manifested itself most strongly in the progressive view of history it facilitated: modernity as negation of tradition. The discourse of tianzu engendered not only a new valuation of the body, but also a new way of looking at the world, hence of being in the world. In specific terms, the tianzu movement promulgated an enlightenment episteme: one founded on faith in circulation within the individual body, in the social body, and on the surface of the earth. As such it ushered in a global awareness of heightened visuality, a nationalism built on strong bodies, and a social vision of gender equality.

The establishment of the new, however, required the denigration or dismissal of the old. So overwhelming was the destructive power of tianzu that we seldom take stock of the detritus littering its path: the stubborn body of Huang Xiuqiu, the pastoral yearnings of Shi Jingkai, the anticolonial conservatism of Gu Hongming. They are out of sync and out of place. Nor have we paused and analyzed the two mechanisms of the rhetorical power of the tianzu discourse, containment and visual exposé. The strategy of containment works by minimizing perspectives or voices that do not fit, as we have seen in this chapter. In its power to miniaturize other views of the body and the world, tianzu is integral to gigantic histories of the nation in the globe.

The strategy of visual exposé, in turn, works by shaming the other by subjecting her to one’s unilateral gaze. In this chapter, we have seen how this visual logic was rooted in the humiliation that China and the Chinese suffered under the patronizing eyes of missionaries and foreigners, which Gu Hongming keenly felt. By the beginning of the Republican era, chanzu had been thoroughly photographed and dissected, hence exposed and discredited as China’s national shame. (In chapter 2 we will examine how the Chinese reformers relied on the same strategy of exposé in anti-footbinding rallies, as if the women could be humiliated into submission.)

The thesis of this chapter is that the rhetoric and discourse of tianzu contributed to the extinction of the aura of footbinding. The unquestioned acceptance of the tianzu episteme by such a range of writers as Liang Qichao, Xu Ke, Tang Yisuo, and even to a significant extent Gu Hongming signals that footbinding had lost all its cultural prestige or justification by the 1910s. On the levels of social practice and individual reception, however, the orderliness of the enlightenment episteme broke down. As people listened to speeches in stadium rallies or glanced at a poster on a lamppost, they took from them only those partial truths that fit their lives and outlooks, essentially miniaturizing the gigantic narratives by cutting them down to size. A fuller assessment of the anti-footbinding movement, therefore, must also include an examination of the local conditions of its implementation from the 1900s to the 1930s, to which we move in the next chapter.