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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 “heav