I was seven years old when my mother took me out to the fields. There, while the buckwheat was in bloom, Mother bound my feet, tightly winding the cloth around them. She used a binding cloth to bind them tightly; it would [eventually] break the bones. When I cried, my mother just hit me. Ma said that my feet were too big; no one would want me, and I would not find a pojia [literally, mother-in-law family]. In the buckwheat fields, after she had bound them well, she made me walk back to the house. I did not rest. When we got back to the house, she just made me sit down and spin thread. At that time, they did not let girls go outside. When I was smaller, I could still go outside to run around, but when I grew, then I could not go out; I had to stay at home and work, spinning thread and weaving cloth. The yarn that I spun was very good. I also spun yarn for other people, earning money. Other people brought cotton to me, and when I had finished spinning, they came to take the cotton thread that I had spun. They gave me money or gave me mantou [steamed bread]. When I was young, I also wove straw hats. My father took them to market to sell.
—“Lovely Flower” (eighty years old), interview by the authors and team, Luochuan, Shaanxi, October 19, 2008
In the recent past, the debilitating custom of footbinding affected millions of Chinese girls and women.1 Footbinding forcibly compressed growing girls’ foot bones, toes, and arches so that the foot bones could not grow forward or outward. In its most extreme form, the binding permanently and painfully deformed girls’ feet and hindered their mobility throughout their life. Reaching this fixed shape took years. These “lotus feet” were essentially irreversible. When political movements required that women remove their binding tapes and allow the feet to spread beyond their previous confines, walking on these “let out” feet was painful or even impossible without rebinding. The bony architecture had been destroyed. Less demanding traditions of binding only narrowed the foot by bending the four lesser toes beneath the sole. These “cucumber” or “half-sloped” feet were easier to let out, although for many who removed their bindings, the toes remained embedded in the sole. Footbinding was widespread within the Chinese empire for centuries, lasting into the Republican period (1912–1949). Although binding young girls’ feet came to an end in the mid-twentieth century, many grown women with bound feet survived into the twenty-first. During this same era, ending at the Republican period, most Chinese practiced labor-intensive family farming. But how did rural Chinese women work with bound feet? Were they merely idle consumers—surplus labor in an overpopulated agrarian empire—or did they mainly raise children? This seems extremely unlikely for most poor families. This puzzle piqued our interest and motivated our research.
China scholars, missionaries, historians, and novelists have offered many perspectives on Chinese women’s bound feet. Questions about life and work with bound feet, however, have been either ignored or given superficial treatment. Few researchers asked the women themselves. The reasons for this may spring from old assumptions about women—for example, that peasant women rarely had bound feet, and if they did, they were merely housewives who did not contribute to the commercial economy. Additional reasons may be that the women’s limited mobility proved both a physical and a language barrier to interacting with researchers, mainly unrelated men, since women were kept so close to home. Finally, because most women’s work took place within the household’s private spaces of home and courtyard, women’s lives and labor were simply less visible to outsiders, even to the men in their own community. Our research instead focuses on the ways that the labor of women and girls is related to footbinding. We ask whether footbinding and its demise can be better understood by taking the changing patterns of girls’ and women’s labor into account.
The political instability of the late imperial and early Republican periods (1850–1949) produced radical disruptions of daily life across wide swaths of China’s territory.2 Disasters, natural and human made, and chronic warfare punctuated the lives of most ordinary people. Migrations and invasions, international and civil wars, and monstrous upwellings of popular dissent in the form of millenarian movements reshuffled people, possessions, and cosmologies. Among the major nineteenth-century political conflicts were the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, and numerous, lengthy regional rebellions. The early twentieth century was marked by the 1911 revolution, the Anti-Japanese War, and the Chinese Civil War that brought the Communists to power.3 Ecological disasters compounded political and military conflicts. North China in particular experienced extended droughts, famines, and floods that killed many millions.4 These dreadful events caused masses of villagers to uproot themselves and flee natural disasters, banditry, and warfare. Despite the rebellions and displacements, the dissolution of the empire, and rise of competing regional warlords, women continued to bind their daughters’ feet. Footbinding survived an enormous amount of disruption up to the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century.
While many writers have portrayed footbinding as an urban, elite practice in pursuit of beauty, historians of footbinding find that reliable records concerning its distribution and spread are scarce. The historian Dorothy Ko notes that from the twelfth century on, when Chinese male scholars mentioned footbinding, they did so in the form of fragmentary “jottings,” generally “origin discourses” in which “myths, hearsay, and history share the same page.” Up to the nineteenth century, footbinding was “taboo in such official genres as public history, local gazetteers, and didactic texts” (Ko 2005, 2, 110–111). Separating trustworthy eyewitness evidence from armchair speculation is extremely difficult. As a result, contemporary historians glean little specific information on the timing, regions, or social and economic associations of the practice. Nonetheless, Chinese scholars who mentioned it, whether admiringly or critically, contributed to the belief that early on it was an elite practice, particularly in cities and towns where elites tended to live and where agricultural work was uncommon. Elite Chinese women writers sometimes referred to their own bound feet, but female farmers, servants, and artisans were rarely authors. Nineteenth-century Western observers’ comments on footbinding were largely based on sightings of women working outdoors, usually commoners. The prevalence of footbinding among urban women, elite or commoner, who labored invisibly indoors is difficult to assess.5 The written record has produced few observations linked to specific places and socioeconomic situations. Despite impressions and generalizations made in good faith, the limited information currently available does not allow any confident assertions about the prevalence of footbinding among elites or lower classes in China’s cities and towns before the end of the nineteenth century.
Our study differs in important respects from most writing about footbinding. First, we write about villagers. We interviewed thousands of rural women in disparate parts of China, from the northeast to southwest. Second, we focus on footbinding in relation to the work performed by girls in the household economies in which they were raised and trained. Third, we provide firsthand, large-scale comparative information on the decline of footbinding, offering new insights into the forces that propelled families to reject a practice that had spread and stubbornly persisted for centuries. This project has taken us across China to uncover the scope of this painful and enduring custom that so constrained the bodies of young Chinese girls. Our intention is to correct current beliefs about footbinding and to reconnect girls’ and women’s lives to their livelihoods.
We interpret Chinese women’s homebound labor and footbinding by exploring their links to China’s changing rural economy. By examining how footbinding coexisted with heavy demands for female labor and how footbinding came to an end, we contribute to larger discussions concerning China’s economic transition. Our findings challenge current renderings of China’s economic history by reassessing assumptions about the productivity of labor in the preindustrial era. They also dispute current explanations for the end of footbinding that fail to consider the economic underpinnings of this change.
1. We conservatively estimate that hundreds of millions of Chinese women grew up with bound feet. The practice has been so poorly documented that any estimate has a large element of guesswork. A rough method of estimation is as follows: The late Qing dynasty population was about 450 million in 1900. Judith Banister (1987, 3) states that there were 430 million in 1851 and 583 million in 1953. Roughly 90 percent of 450 million (405 million) would be considered Han Chinese. If almost half of these 405 million people were female (using an estimated sex ratio of 110 males to 100 females that conservatively takes into account excess female mortality due to female infanticide, abandonment, and neglect [Jiang et al. 2012; Mungello 2008]), then there were around 192 million females. If only half of those women lived in regions where footbinding was practiced, then roughly 96 million would have been bound during the last half of the nineteenth century. If life expectancy was generously estimated at about forty to fifty years, and assuming a smaller population of 430 million in the early nineteenth century, another 92 million women could have been bound in the early nineteenth century, or nearly 200 million for the nineteenth century alone. These assumptions about the distribution of footbinding are not arbitrary, as shown by our survey data on mothers and grandmothers.
2. The late imperial period usually refers to the Ming-Qing period (1368–1911), while our interest is primarily in the later late imperial period, the nineteenth century, the latter part of the Qing dynasty.
3. The dates of these conflicts indicate the frequency of political clashes in the late imperial and early Republican periods. They include the Opium Wars (1839–1842, 1856–1860); the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864); the Nian Rebellion (1851–1868); the Muslim Rebellions in the southwest (the Panthay Rebellion, 1855–1873), in Gansu (1872–1878), in Shaanxi (1862–1873), and in Xinjiang (1864–1876); the Miao Rebellion (1854–1873); the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1900); the First Sino-Japanese War (1904); the Xinhai Revolution (1911–1912); the Anti-Japanese War (1937–1945); and the Chinese Civil War (1927–1937, 1945–1949).
4. The North China famine of 1876–1879 killed nine to thirteen million people. The drought and famine of 1920–1921 affected some thirty million victims, with estimated mortality at half a million. The North China famine of 1928–1930 killed an estimated ten million. See Lillian Li 2007, 284, for a list of major disasters and famines during 1850–1950, although the list curiously omits the 1887 flood when the Yellow River changed course and killed nearly one million people (Yellow River casualties include another nine hundred thousand during the 1937–1945 period).
5. Up to the mid-twentieth century, Chinese wives were often referred to as “inside people,” reflecting their responsibilities for indoor work in the home (Jacka 1997, 122).