Why didn’t Manchu women bind their feet?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:55 pm

It is well-known that even after the conquest of China Manchu women did not bind their feet. The Qing emperors took clothing and hair very seriously as ways of defining groups under the empire. Thus after 1644 all Han men were expected to wear the Manchu hairstyle of shaving their foreheads and growing a queue in back as a way of symbolizing their submission to the dynasty. At the same time the state was Manchuizing Han men via their hair it was ordering Manchu women to keep their feet natural (天足). This was one of many things that were done to preserve a specific Manchu identity.

In the seventh month of 1638 the Manchu emperor Hong Taiji (Abahai) decreed that the Chinese custom of footbinding was not to be adopted. “Those who imitate the clothes of another country or order their women to bind their feet, [they] have their bodies in our dynasty but their hearts in another country.”1 There were at least some who defied this order. In 1804 the Jiaqing emperor was furious to find that women of the Chinese Bordered Yellow Banner (ethnically Han, but politically “Manchu”) were binding their feet. (Elliot p.470) Still, in general Manchu women did not bind their feet. In 1911 when the banner population at Nanjing and Hankou were slaughtered women’s feet were the one marker of ethnic difference that could not be disguised.
manchu Feet
This illustration is from 1911 and is one of a series on Manchu women adopting Han dress. (Rhoades Manchus & Han)On the woman’s left foot she is wearing a typical Manchu “horse-hoof” shoe that makes it appear the wearer has tiny feet. The other foot is, maybe, being bound, even though she is far too old for it at this point. Although some Manchu women may have tried to sinify themselves in the last years of the dynasty, for 200 years before that they were quite willing to keep their natural feet

The question I have is: Why footbinding? Why was this custom chosen as alone of the “evil habits of the Han” (Elliot p.470) as the one that would be unambiguously rejected by the Qing state? More importantly, why did the Manchus accept this imperial order? They were more than willing to smoke tobacco and later opium, to quit learning Manchu and do all sorts of other things that the Emperors did not want them to do. Perhaps most interestingly, how can this be connected to the current scholarship on footbinding?

I think we can safely dismiss Hong Taiji’s apparent assumption that footbinding was something done to women on the orders of men. Dorothy Ko suggests looking at footbinding as “a device inscribing the Confucian ideal of a centripetal woman and as a central event in the development of a women’s culture in the boudoir [and] as a means women employed to cater to the erotic fantasies of men” (Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers p.263) Footbinding was, among other things, a way for Han women to demonstrate (mostly to other women) their self-cultivation and self-discipline. It was the feet of Chinese women that separated the Han from the non-Han.2

Pamela Crossley suggests that natural feet symbolized the active economic and political lives of Manchu women, and thus a rejection of women’s passive role in Chinese society. (The Manchus p. 27) There is probably a great deal of truth to this, but at the same time Manchu women seem to have embraced their own foot customs as coeval to and superior to those of the Chinese. Zhou Hong presents this Liaoning folksong as an example of Manchu women’s attitudes towards feet. (满族妇女生活与民俗文化研究p. 96, My apologies for the translation)


Get a carpenter’s adze to make the shoe-bottoms
Get a carpenter to make the outside of the shoes
Use a card of yarn
Eight lengths of fine cloth
Altogether it will take three years
To make a pair of embroidered shoes
Call a girl to try the shoes
Whether short or long
The girl stretches her foot
to fit the embroidered shoes
The shoe small the foot large
Constrained and uncomfortable
Awkwardly and crookedly to the back wall
The left foot crushing eight tigers
The right foot crushing nine wolves

This poem shows, I think, how Manchu women tried to appropriate the meaning of footbinding despite their big feet. Right from the beginning the comparison to Chinese customs is implicit but never stated. Manchu shoes involve violent re-shaping, but it is of wood rather than the body. The girl stretches her foot to meet the shoe, rather than shrinking the foot to meet it. The process of making the shoes is said to take three years, which seems a little long no matter how elaborate the embroidery is, but it matches the time and dedication that go into binding feet. The girl, once mounted on the shoes, moves just as awkwardly as a Chinese women, and like them her feet become the center of her potency. Being a Manchu she crushes tigers and wolves rather than attracting poets, but the idea seems the same.

I suppose, then, that part of the reason Manchu women did not bind their feet was in part because it they were ordered not to by the Emperor and other men, who saw their feet as a marker (the marker) of ethnic difference. They were also able to gain all the benefits of footbinding, a visible symbol of their refinement and culture, without having to bind their feet.

1 “若有仿效他国衣帽及令妇女束发裹足者,等于身在本朝,心在他国.” I’m not sure how valid this quote is. 周虹 “满族妇女生活与民俗文化研究” 北京:中国社会科学出版社, 2005,p. 95, takes the quote from the 光绪朝东華錄. On the other hand, Elliot The Manchu Way p.470n61 says that he has been unable to locate the original edict, which makes me think their may be something wrong.

2 Dorothy Ko’s new book on footbinding is probably the best of the new scholarship, although I have not seen it yet. Wang Ping synthesizes some of the new scholarship in Aching for Beauty.



Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:01 pm

When President Bush cited Taiwan as a model for mainland China, though he wasn’t quite as aggressive as the headlines suggest, he raised some interesting historical specters: what if the Nationalists hadn’t lost China? Does the success of Taiwan validate the socialist Republicanism (and stages of political development) of Sun Yat-sen? And, of course, is Taiwan’s model of transition from single-party developmental state to multi-party (if still somewhat immature) democracy with flourishing high-value economy something that China could draw on?

Andrew Meyer, who’s been studying Taiwan and China for two decades or so has some thoughts on the plausibility of the president’s model.

This analysis, though [via Simon World] suggests that the Taiwanisation argument is in no small part wishful thinking to cover up the fact that we don’t like to admit the developmental success of (some) unfree societies.


Ling Long: Digital Women’s Magazine Project Relaunched

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 1:16 pm

I just found out that Columbia University has relaunched its project putting the Chinese women’s magazine Ling long (玲瓏, “elegant and fine”)online.

You can visit the newly updated site here:
The Ling Long Women’s Magazine

I have linked and blogged about the project before, even using the project as an example of a relatively easy way libraries can contribute to resources online in a way immediately useful to other historians, but there have been some great improvements in presentation this time. As before, you can view images from most pages of the magazine from 1931 to 1937. However, the site is now much more pleasant and sports a new interface for finding pages and viewing multiple pages while scanning through articles.

Also new is an article by my friend Elizabeth LaCouture, a PhD student at Columbia University about the magazine which is also available in PDF format, along with a bit more about the project and the collection.

The project is well worth visiting, and I can only hope that many more of these great sources make their way online.


Hero and Mao

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:21 am

I’m a little late to the Hero bashing party, but this post (Bourdieu Boy via Notes of a former native speaker) got me to thinking. I agree that Hero was a somewhat disappointing movie for me because despite being visually impressive and having some great fight scenes it was fundamentally about finding an accommodation with authoritarianism. I was very surprised how many of my American acquaintances missed this, which seemed obvious to me. I mean, it’s the story of Jing Ke. He’s supposed to try and kill Qin Shihuang and fail. Everybody knows that. When he agrees not to kill him its like the Crying Game. That’s what sort of made the growing tension work for me, even though I had heard what was going to happen in the movie before I even saw it.

I actually kind of like the movie because of this, and, as Bourdieu Boy points out, it is a much more Chinese movie than Crouching Tiger. You may not like Zhang Yimou’s answer, but the question of how one lives with authoritarianism is an interesting one for Chinese people. I always find teaching 20th century China to American students tricky because it is often hard to get them to understand the dilemmas Chinese faced. If you had to choose between national power and individual freedom what would you pick? What sacrifices would you, personally, be willing to make to bring political freedom or food to your fellow citizens? The usual answer, of course, is that as Americans we want power, political freedom, wealth, personal liberty and cheap gas and we expect to get them all for nothing. I like the American option too, of course, but it is not really a relevant choice when talking about Chinese history.

The other difference in how someone from China might view the film is that it has a whole different resonance if you know the original story. This is one of the things that usually messes up these Chinese history movies for foreigners. I remember watching, I think it was The Emperor and the Assassin and when Lao Ai Li Ao [thanks to JR for the correction] came on stage I was impressed with his general creepiness. In a Chinese movie for western consumption he would need a scene of vileness to establish his character, just like the bad guy in an action movie needs to do something violent at the beginning to establish what they are. Of course for a Chinese audience all he has to do is step on stage and say “Hi, I’m Lao Ai.” In Hero the “try to kill the Emperor” option is always there even if the movie never states it. You can sort of feel the tension of the debate between the two options throughout the movie even if it is not there for those who don’t know that history. In the same way a non-traditional performance of Shakespeare is always happening in the context of Elizabethan drama no matter what you do with it.

Self introduction

Filed under: — motoe @ 8:44 am

Dear 井底之蛙 members

My name is Motoe Sasaki-Gayle. I am a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at Johns Hopkins University. Although my major is American history since my dissertation involves China, Konrad kindly let me join the group.

Currently I am writing a dissertation on American professional women who went to China and attempted to create the so-called ‘New Woman’ in China from the 1900s to the 1930s. I am looking the initial success and the decline of their projects, including the changing gender relations and national identities in both America and China, as well as interactions betwen New Women on both sides.

During the past several years I have lived in Canberra, Australia. Now I am living in Leiden and feel very fortunate to have the chance to be a part of the intellectual exchange in this blog.

Sincerely yours,
Motoe Sasaki-Gayle


Last night I saw upon the stair a little man who was not there

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:53 am

Elvin’s The Retreat of the Elephants has a section on dragons. Specifically, why reliable, skeptical observers like Xie Zhaozhe, who published his Fivefold Miscallany in 1603 claimed to have seen them. That people should believe that dragons existed is of course not surprising. I believe in Australia despite the fact that I’ve never seen it and at lest half the stories about it are obvious fantasies. Xie was a good skeptical observer. His work on a local gazetteer convinced him that historical records were problematic, he was skeptical of dream visions and felt that heavenly portents were more likely “a literary artifice used by historians [to convey their disapproval of the emperor’s confidants]” then a sign of heavenly displeasure.

On the other hand he himself had seen a dragon

I journeyed in 1579 with my paternal grandfather,…when he was in charge of the official travel arrangements [for the commissioner to the Liuqiu Islands]. We were halfway there when a typhoon arose. Thunder, lightning rain and hailstones all fell on us at the same time. There were three dragons suspended upside down to the fore and aft of the ship. Their whiskers were interwound with the waters of the sea and penetrated the clouds. All the horns on their heads were visible, but below their waists nothing could be seen. Those in the ship were in a state of agitation and without any plan of action, but an old man said: “This is no more than the dragons coming to pay court to the commissioner’s document bearing the imperial seal.” He made those attending the envoy have the latter write a document in his own hand bringing the court audience to an end. The dragons complied with the time so indicated and withdrew. That the authority of the Son of Heaven is effective over the manifold spirits is a principle about which there can assuredly be no doubt. If I had not witnessed this event personally, it is unlikely that I would not have considered this principle to be false.

How to explain this? More broadly, how does one explain China’s non-transition from pseudo-science (defined as a systematic collection and organization of data that somehow does not rise to the level of science) to real science? Neither Elvin or I am particularly interested in the old “why is China not like the West” questions, but I found this section of his book very interesting in that it explains the concepts behind Chinese thinking about the natural world

Many Chinese observers tried to fit phenomenon into the Five Elements theory, which Xie has no use for. Although he was convinced that Heaven was conscious and had moral concerns, he was not convinced that these could be fully understood. Although he praised the calendrical experts Luoxia Hong and Yixing for thinking “deeply about the numbers that express what is of the essence” he also scoffed at the Song Neo-Confucian efforts to explain the entire universe in terms of pattern-principle (li). Some things were beyond comprehension.

According to Elvin

“Each phenomenon possessed a distinctive pattern-principle of its own, which was conceptually atomic. In other words, it was intuitively understandable only as a whole and not in terms of any constituent parts. It was also operationally monadic in the sense that it did not interlock structurally with other pattern-principles in any exact sense…..these two properties of pattern-principle, namely conceptual atomism and operational monadism, were obstacles that prevented the scrutiny of pattern-principle from giving rise to a process of analysis with enough momentum to lead in the direction of modern styles of scientific thinking.”

Elvin goes on to point out that what was lacking in China was not observers but ‘facts’ a cultural construct that was “a publicly recorded and accessible statement about an observable aspect of the world, set in the context of a systematic evaluation of the evidence that that yields an approximate probability of its being true, and subject to a continuing public scrutiny and re-evaluation, with the results and the evidence being publicly recorded and accessible. ”

As Elvin points out there was a context in which the creation and exchange of knowledge in China did lead to something like modern science facts, which is the case of textual studies, as discussed by Benjamin Elman. Why the difference? I would suggest that part of it is a different idea of Heaven. I once heard a paper by Chen Wei-chi where he talked about George McKay, a missionary/naturalist who did a lot of work on the flora and fauna of Taiwan. For McKay the naming and categorizing of things was part of uncovering God’s plan, and uncovering things in Taiwan was part of bringing the island into a Christian and scientific world.

Unlike Xie’s li and qi, which simultaneously explained “too much and too little”, the western conceit of a creator God who has a plan encourages systematic and collaborative attempts to figure out what that plan it. In the case of classical philology in China it was universally assumed that there had once been a true and authentic version of the classics which had been lost and could be recovered, and it was a Good Thing to contribute to this cause. Natural science was not the same, because the only possible final destinations were 5 Elements, which did not work, or a random hodge-podge of interesting but useless data. Initial assumptions seem to matter a lot.

Wei-chi Chen, “The Natural History of Formosa is as yet an Unwritten Book: George Mackay, a Missionary Naturalist in Taiwan, 1872-1901” Paper presented at MARAAS 2001, Slippery Rock PA


Korean History Weblog Launch

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 4:29 am

Today we are launching our new collaborative Korean history weblog. You can read more about the goals of the site here.

I’m going to start it out with a series of postings this week on early Western perceptions of Koreans in the late 19th century and colonial period. I’ll later post a summary of some of the work out there on Japanese perceptions of Korea during the same period for comparison.


Searching Google Print for Old Books on China

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 1:44 pm

Google print, which is scanning thousands of books in major research libraries, is useful when you want to scan across many English language books for terms. It only offers you a few pages, but will show you all the hits for words in given books, the pages they are on, and what pages surround them. Many books are not yet available, and you will find that some important books on East Asian history, both old and new are frustratingly missing will less common works are there. However, instead of going to the index of books you own, if it is on Google Print we have an increasingly quick alternative to consulting indexes.

For example, didn’t Poshek Fu’s book on collaboration in wartime Shanghai mention an organization called the Shanghai Association of the Theatrical Circle for National Salvation? Ah yes, Google Print tells me that it is mentioned on page 74, and in a footnote on page 188. I can then login to my google account and view that page, and in many cases a few pages surrounding it.

You can also completely search the contents of a work by of our own Alan Baumler, the leading contributor here at Frog in a Well – China. His Modern China and Opium: A Reader is already scanned up by Google through the University of Michigan’s library.

Now, most of us know that Google has been scanning lots of books no longer protected under copyright. Thanks to this announcement, it is easier for me to get at them.

Go to Google Print and search for China related books, for example, with this search term:

china date:1500-1923

You can also use other search elements to limit by author for example (eg. author:smith) or title (eg. intitle:language).

This could develop into a very useful searching tool for us in the future, since every page of these public domain books can be searched and viewed through google.

Update: See more interesting examples of old google print text searching over at Cliopatria.


Frog In the Well Index, Logo, and Buttons

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 7:55 pm

I have uploaded a new index page for us here at Frog in a Well. It displays our new Frog in a Well logo, based on a painting by Joseph Y. Lo, who has kindly given us permission to use a modified version of it throughout the website.

In addition, I have prepared two buttons that you are free to use when linking to us:



Additionally, stay tuned as we will soon be launching the Korean history blog here!

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