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.
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.