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Poetry and Footbinding: Teaching Women and Gender Relations in Traditional China

Yuan-Ling Chao


"At once beautiful and ugly, neither voluntary nor coerced, footbinding defies a black-and-white, male-against-female, and good-or-bad way of understanding the world."1    


     Footbinding in China seems an unambiguously wrong and hideous practice, confirming the most commonly held notions about Chinese women and gender relations in traditional China: that women were subjugated and literally hobbled by a Confucian and authoritarian patriarchal society.  However, as author Dorothy Ko pointed out, it is a complex issue.  Footbinding was practiced from the twelfth century well into the twentieth century, by elite as well as peasant women.  Why was a practice that was so obviously painful embraced by so many and last for so long?  The answer is that footbinding embodied multiple meanings over its long period of practice.  Footbinding as a symbol of women's victimization under oppressive patriarchal values largely emerged out of the modernization discourse of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Proponents of this discourse were seeking to eliminate "feudal" traditions in order to make way for the emergence of a modern nation.  The issue of footbinding thus became the site of debate over reform and modernization, and not just about women.  Much the same can be said for reformist Western and indigenous writing on "sati" in India.  Lati Mani in her work on the debate over sati in colonial India argues that the discussion about sati were not about women, but "women are neither subjects nor objects, but rather the ground of discourse on sati."2 And she goes on to say that "Indeed, as the nineteenth century progresses, at a symbolic level, the fate of women and the fate of the emerging nation became inextricably intertwined.  Debates on women, whether in context of sati, widow remarriage, or zenanas (seclusion of women), were not merely about women, but also instances in which the moral challenge of colonial rule was confronted and negotiated."3  Though the historical context differed somewhat in China and India, however, in both countries they came to represent "tradition." 

Figure 1
    Wealthy Chinese women with bound feet pose for a photo, circa 1900-1920.
    Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

     Therefore, to take this as the only meaning of footbinding is to blind us to the complexity of the practice and its multiple meanings through almost eight centuries.  It is a practice that is culturally and politically defined.4  The narrow focus by scholars and teachers on the victimization of women whose feet were bound inhibits our understanding of culture revealed by the practice.  These include changes in dynastic "warrior" ethos and ethic identity, class demarcation, as well as traditional mechanisms for defining masculine and feminine.  Foot-binding in China is thus a problem in world as well as Chinese historiography.  

     This image of the subjugated woman in traditional China is shaped and reinforced by historical developments and processes intertwined with the discourse on efforts to modernize China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The Qing (Manchu) dynasty (1644-1911) was much more successful in ruling over China as a foreign dynasty than the Mongols (Yüan dynasty 1279-1368), yet by the mid-nineteenth century she faced a series of internal and external crisis that threatened her existence.  Internally there was the increasing corruption and decline of the Manchu banner system, and large scale rebellions including the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64) that almost toppled the empire; externally there were the humiliating defeats beginning with the Opium War and the signing of a series of unequal treaties with foreign powers, culminating in China's shameful defeat by Japan in 1895 and the empress Dowager's reckless support of a group of boxers in the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.  It was within this context of national crisis that many believed in order for China to survive, she had to modernize and discard what were regarded as feudal traditions that hindered China's modernization efforts.   One of the symbols of this feudal tradition was footbinding.  Two groups in particular championed the end of footbinding: Protestant missionaries and Qing reformers and revolutionaries.  Protestant missionaries made improving the status of women in China one of their foremost goals.  They condemned concubinage, female infanticide, arranged marriages, and launched campaigns against footbinding.5  As for the reformers and revolutionaries, the famed reformer Kang Youwei led a campaign to abolish footbinding in 1882. He founded a society for the abolition of footbinding in Canton in 1894 and forbade his own daughters from binding their feet.  The emancipation of women from feudal shackles was seen as critical for China to move forward in her modernization efforts, the Chinese woman, hobbled by her bound foot, became the symbol of China in crisis, hobbled by her feudal traditions.   This discourse on women and footbinding was thus inextricably tied to the modernization discourse. 

     In order to break out of this constructed discourse of the subjugated woman, we need to understand the motivation, meaning, and practice of footbinding and how they have varied over time.  While not ignoring the negative impact of the obviously painful practice, I argue that to see it only within the discourse of the late Qing modernization efforts is to eroticize and exoticize Chinese women, imprisoning them in a narrow cultural and historical space.  

     Recent scholarship has done much to revise this image of the victimized Chinese woman and presented fresh insights into the lives of women in China.6   In this article I will focus on four aspects of footbinding: 1) as cultural refinement, 2) as part of marriage politics, 3) as a way of constructing ethnic identities, and 4) as reflective of women's bodies as social bodies.  I will then conclude with a brief examination of elite women's active participation in the literary scene and complex attitudes towards moralistic Confucian ideas, leading to objections to footbinding even by traditional scholars.   These discussions will enable students to more fully understand the diverse factors that contributed to the persistence of the practice over centuries by placing footbinding within the cultural and political context of traditional China.

Footbinding as Cultural Refinement

We do not know exactly how the trend of footbinding began, but the most accepted speculation is that it began with the dancers in the court during the Song dynasty, and from there gradually spread to other levels of society.  We can examine footbinding as cultural refinement from two aspects.  Firstly, it is intertwined with changing notions of masculinity and femininity as China transitioned from the Tang (618-907) to the Song dynasty (960-1279).  Secondly, the shoe for the bound feet became the site for the expression of refinement through intricate embroidery.

Figure 1

    Louisa Lim, NPR


     The association of footbinding with cultural refinement during the Song should be understood within the context of the transformation of the elite,7  and the associated changing notions of masculinity and femininity.  The Tang nobility maintained much of a martial spirit of the nomads and the imperial family itself was half Turkish.  Athleticism was stressed, not just for men, but women also.  Scenes depicting women riding astride horses and men playing polo, a favorite sport of the aristocracy, could be found in paintings.   However as we move into the Song, the widespread use of the civil service examination in the Song dynasty led to a change in the composition of the elite.  As the civil service examination became the dominant mode of advancement instead of birth, a new class of scholar-officials emerged, displacing the noble families of the Tang, and "culture" came to distinguish the elite.  Culture and education thus became the defining characteristics of the elite and enabled them to secure power, status, and wealth.  This emphasis on education is also tied to a renewed dominance of Confucianism after centuries of strong Buddhist influence.8  It was "culture" that separated the elite from the masses. The masculinity that defined the aristocratic men of the Tang dynasty changed with the emergence of this new elite.9  Instead of riding on horseback, the literati were now riding in sedan chairs, and instead of playing polo, they were engaged in literary pursuits of painting, calligraphy, and poetry writing.   It became a way to distinguish Han refinement versus the military prowess of the nomadic barbarians, more will be said about this in the section on constructing ethnic identities.

     This changing notion of masculinity fostered a change in the notions of femininity where women were portrayed as frail, reserved, and delicate. Footbinding gained acceptance among the upper classes during the Song dynasty.  For elite women, it was not only Confucian moral values that separated them from the masses, where chastity and loyalty of widows were actively encouraged, but footbinding also provided them with a way of separating themselves from the peasant women; footbinding became a form of refinement, an indicator of social status.  The bound feet required careful and consistent care to achieve their desired shape, and thus a pair of shapely bound feet reflected a woman's diligence and leisure.  

     The shoes simultaneously kept the bound feet hidden and displayed at the same time, and the intricately embroidered shoes became sites and expressions of cultural refinement especially for elite women.  This became especially important as footbinding gradually spread to the other social classes.  The sewing of shoes and making of women's footwear had been part of the classical requirements of "womanly work" which was the basis of a self-sufficient agrarian economy,10 but changes in the fashion of the shoes and a growing market economy meant that in late imperial times during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the making of women's shoes became commercialized.  This became particularly true in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  But in an age of commercial production, the design and embroidering of shoes were deemed genteel women's work and the unique designs that elite women produced in their homes represented their cultural refinement.  Shoemaking was part of their everyday lives, usually the servants would be assigned the task of making the soles, while the mistress would design and embroider the upper part, the choice of fabric, color coordination, and design were all carefully chosen, and it was unlikely that shoes for respectable women were bought at stores.11

Footbinding as part of marriage politics

The practice of footbinding spread from the elite to other levels of society through the centuries, and by late imperial times, even peasant women were binding their daughters' feet.  Footbinding's meaning shifted and expanded to become part of a requirement for marriage, and it was believed that a secluded daughter with a pair of small bound feet could fetch a better bride price.   As the hereditary elite gradually disappeared in China, making social mobility more flexible, marriage was one way to achieve upward social mobility.   Thus for elite women, desirable qualification for a good match included properly bound feet, erudition in the classics, and embroidery skills.  Bound feet were "a bodily sign connoting wealth, leisure, beauty, vulnerability dependency, respectability, and sensuality."12

     However footbinding as a requirement for marriage was not restricted to elite women.  As its meaning expanded, its practice also extended to all levels of society by the Ming and Qing dynasties.  Although there is indication that peasant girls often began binding their feet at a later age, and frequently relaxed them after marriage, it was nevertheless regarded as an important aspect in the arrangement of a good marriage.  It was believed that one could not make a good marriage without bound feet, and matchmakers often did not ask about the beauty of the girl, but about the size of the feet, because as one woman pointed out, "A plain face is given by heaven but poorly bound feet are a sign of laziness."13  Having a pair of properly bound feet was also an indication of the work ethic of the woman. 

     There were few alternatives for women who did not marry, and as in most patriarchal societies, marriages were arranged to match families of equal or higher social and economic status.   For elite women in particular, while this Confucian emphasis on the authority of the patriarch highlighted the moral authority of virtuous women, and by the mid-Qing there was a clear emphasis "that wives and mothers inside the home embody the moral autonomy and authority on which husbands and sons must rely to succeed outside,"14  it also led to increasing seclusion of women within the inner chambers, and women lost many of the inheritance rights and legal protection that were prevalent during the Song dynasty (960-1279).   But as will be discussed later, many educated women also found expression in literary works and were active in literary discussions.   The spread of footbinding in the Ming and Qing was therefore a complex issue tied to changing familial structure and the impact on women varied between the elite and lower classes.

Footbinding as way of constructing ethnic identities

Footbinding demarcated the separation of "us" and "them," distinguishing the civilized Han Chinese and barbarian foreign conquerors.  This was true during periods of foreign rule in China, such as the Mongol Yuan (1279-1368) and Manchu Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.  The small delicate bound feet of Chinese women, shrouded in elegantly embroidered shoes, stood in contrast to the "large" natural feet of the "barbarian" women.  It contrasted Han female refinement against the barbarism and coarseness of the foreign rulers.15 

     During the Qing dynasty, the Manchus had attempted to end the practice of footbinding by issuing several edicts against it, but the practice persisted among the Han population.  The Manchus forbade their women to bind their feet, intending to preserve Manchu custom and culture so that they can maintain their separate identity as rulers of the Han Chinese. The Manchu had imposed their political and military dominance over the Han Chinese, and even forced Chinese men to adopt their hairstyle: the queue, as a symbolic sign of submission to Manchu rule.   Adopting the queue involved the shaving of the front part of the head and the rest of the hair braided into a queue, and the shaving of hair was seen as an assault on the masculinity and cultural tradition of Han men.  But through the tradition of the bound feet, Han women could prove their cultural superiority with their refinement as expressed in the bound feet in contrast to the subjugation of Han men. Later, there were instances where Manchu women wore heeled shoes to simulate the wavering walk of the bound feet. 

Bound feet and women's body

In considering the problems associated with the binding of the feet, and the accompanying problems that emerge with the practice, it is interesting that one rarely finds any mention of bound feet in medical texts on women or in medical texts in general.  Traditional Chinese physicians apparently did not regard the bound feet as a medical concern, and probably women did not consider the deformity of the bound feet a medical issue.  On rare occasions when the bound feet are mentioned in a medical text, it is usually on pain relief, and there were some texts that gave recipes for softening the bones.  Most of the medical texts on women, called fuke, were concerned with reproduction, gestation and birth.  They saw the female body as a body of reproduction.16  This brings us to the Chinese perception of the female body and notions of eroticism.

     Medical anthropologists have argued that it is impossible to understand physical bodies or their representations abstracted from their social and political dimensions, and that the experience and perception of the body is thus culturally defined.  In traditional Chinese medicine, the body was conceived of not in anatomical terms, but within a cosmological and functional scheme that emphasized the interconnectedness of the body and the cosmos.  How was the female body perceived in traditional China?  We find that during the Song there was an increasing focus on the female body as a body of reproduction, separating it from a body of eroticism.17  This trend continued in the Ming and Qing and was closely tied to intellectual trends and changes in the family. 

     The Song dynasty witnessed a proliferation of medical texts on gynecology and obstetrics that reflected changing notions of the female body.  The physicians' concern with obstetrical practice was closely connected to changing gender norms in the larger society and seeing the body as a social body.   This is reflected in medical texts where there is the subordination of the erotic body to that of the social body, and emphasis on women's roles as mothers. Although this was not something new and had been a long-term historical trend, the Song spread of Daoxue (or neo-Confucianism) and support of agnatic (patrilineal) lineages emphasized the social value of maternity, thus the texts on gynecology and obstetrics supported the well-being of the family as a multigenerational collective and saw the female body within this context. This is different from the West where the husband and wife were considered the central unit of the family. Daoxue texts moralized about social motherhood and emphasized the ritual significance of first wives. There was also increasing emphasis of the chastity of widows and diminishing legal rights for women in property and inheritance. The female body was thus first and foremost a social body critical to the moral well-being of the multigenerational family.

     Within this social body, the bound feet was simultaneously concealed and displayed by intricately embroidered shoes. Its attractiveness and function was in its delicate nature and concealment, but was also an unambiguous display of the moral and cultural virtues of the family. Thus, as "Daoxue served as a elite strategy for repressing the erotic domain, through the bound foot a woman's sexualized body reappeared in an even more secret and private form, hidden from all but the most intimate gaze."18

Lives of Late Imperial Women

So what were the lives of women in late imperial China like and what does this tell us about gender relations during this period? Scholars such as Dorothy Ko, Patricia Ebrey, Francesca Bray, and Susan Mann have done much to show that women in late imperial China were able to cultivate a meaningful and productive existence within a strict Confucian and patriarchal family system. The vibrant cultural and economic scene gave vitality and complexity to this period's gender relations where satires on the Confucian moral code and challenges to restrictive practices such as footbinding came from scholars. The emerging lively urban print culture and commercialized economy provided women with a space within which they could express their emotions and interact widely with others in the literary community. This period saw women, elite women at least, become more active and participate in intellectual pursuits. They wrote in various genres, including poetry, manuals for embroidery, including embroidery for shoes, linking this activity with literary pursuit, there were various collections of poems with embroidery themes. The eighteenth century poet Yuan Mei was famous for supporting women in poetry writing.19

     One aspect of the eighteenth century fascination with scholarship was a renewed interest in women's education, both among male scholars and in the discussions of women themselves. Eighteenth century Qing China also witnessed a boom for the publication of instructional books for women, the most popular included Ban Zhao's Lessons for Women, which had called for attention to education for girls. The main reason for this emphasis on women's education was their role as mothers, whose moral and intellectual fitness was important to the fetus20 while in the womb and providing education to their children when young.

     At this time criticisms and satires of the oppressive aspects of Confucian patriarchy and on footbinding also sharpened. For example novels as Flowers in a Mirror, written in the early nineteenth century by Li Ruzhen, criticized both concubinage and footbinding. Publications of erotic stories flourished and joke books where the main characters were sophisticated brides and intimidating wives were popular.  Thus in late imperial China, debates about the harsher aspects of Confucianism were sharpening, especially among the elite in the most commercially developed region of the Lower Yangzi. A flourishing urban print culture, vibrant literary scene, growing reading public, and active literary pursuits by women drew pointed debates and discussions. Therefore later criticisms of a singular "feudal" China ignore the complexity and vitality of the literary scene and changing gender relations in late imperial times.


This discussion on how to look at footbinding in traditional China shows that far from being the oppressed and victimized beings depicted by late nineteenth and early twentieth century missionaries and reformers, women occupied important cultural, economic, and political spaces. They held a moral authority within the family that was supported and reinforced by Confucian values. Footbinding was used over time as expression of refinement, whether highlighting distinctions between elite and peasants, or between Han and foreign barbarians, and as an asset in competition for social advancement for the family. This defies one uniform characterization of women's roles and gender relations in traditional society, be it Indian or Chinese.

Yuan-Ling Chao is Associate Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University at Murphreesboro, Tennessee. She can be contacted at


1 Dorothy Ko, Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 227. Her other works on footbinding include the article "The Body as Attire: Footbinding and the Boundaries of Alterity in Seventeenth-Century China" in Journal of Women's History 8 no. 4 (Winter 1997), 8-27; and the book Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

2 Lata Mani, "Contentious Traditions: the Debate on Sati in Colonial India," in Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, eds. Recasting Women: Essays in Indian and Colonial History (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 117.

3 Ibid., 118. For other readings on sati, see For sati, see Ashish Nandy, "Sati: A Nineteenth Century Tale of Women, Violence, and Protest, " in V.C. Joshi, ed. Rammohun Roy and the Process of Modernization in India (Delhi: Vikas, Press, 1975), 168-194. Pompa Banerjee, Burning Women: Widows, Witches, and Early Modern European Travelers in India (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). John Stratton Hawley ed. Sati, the Blessing and the Curse: the Burning of Wives in India (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). Veena Talwar Oldenburg, "Dowry Murders in India: A Preliminary Examination of the historical evidence," in Meredeth Turshen and Briavel Holcomb, eds. Women's Lives and Public Policy: the International Experience (Westport, CT.: Praeger, 1993).

4 In addition to Ko's works, see Patricia Ebrey, "Gender and Sinology: Shifting Western Interpretations of Footbinding, 1300-1890" in Late Imperial China  20 no. 2 (1999), 1-34.

5 In a recent article, Angela Zito examines how footbinding was used by missionaries to create a universal body devoid of cultural meanings. See Angela Zito, "Secularizing the Pain of Footbinding in China: Missionary and Medical Stagings of the Universal Body" in Journal of the American Academy of Religion 75 no.1 (March 2007), 1-24.

6 See works such as Patricia Ebrey's "Women, Marriage, and the Family in Chinese History," in Paul S Ropp ed., Heritage of China: Contemporary Perspectives on Chinese Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 197-223, and Inner Quarters: Marriage and the Lives of Chinese Women in the Sung Period (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). Dorothy Ko's book Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in China, 1573-1722 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994) focuses on the seventeenth century while Susan Mann's book Precious Records: Women in China's Long Eighteenth Century (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997) focuses on the eighteenth century.

7 Peter K. Bol, "This Culture of Ours": Intellectual Transitions in T'ang and Sung China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992) discusses the major transformations of the elite from one based on birth to culture and education.

8 The form of Confucianism that became important during the Song came to be known as Daoxue (School of The Way) or neo-Confucianism.

9 For a more detailed discussion see Patricia Ebrey's article "Women, Marriage, and the Family," in Heritage of China ed. by Paul Ropp, 197-223.

10 Francesca Bray's Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997) explores different views of gender relations and patriarchy in late imperial China through the lens of technology and women's roles.

11 See Dorothy Ko's Cinderella's Sisters, especially Chapter 6.

12 Susan Mann, Precious Records: Women in China's Long Eighteenth Century (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 56.

13 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967), 22.

14 Mann, Precious Records, 15.

15 Ko, "The Body as Attire," 11-12.

16 Charlotte Furth, A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China's Medical History, 960-1665 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999),8.

17 See especially Ch. 3 on Song medicine in Furth, A Flourishing Yin, and Francesca Bray's Technology and Gender, Part III.

18 Furth, A Flourishing Yin, 135.

19 Mann, Precious Records, 92-93.

20 In Chinese taijiao (fetal education) was considered an important factor in the development of the child in the womb, the most critical element was the mother and her conduct and thoughts during pregnancy.


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