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Western Views of Footbinding in China

No one is quite sure exactly how the process of footbinding was first started or how it, gained popularity. According to an account given by John MacGowan, an English missionary who helped start the anti footbinding movement in China, footbinding started in the Imperial court sometime between 497 and 501 AD, when one of the emperor’s favorite dancing girls, who had small, deformed feet, wore beautiful silk bandages and shoes in order to hide them. In order to try and gain the favor of the emperor many of the other women in the Imperial court took to binding their feet and covering them in the beautiful bandages and shoes . While this is generally the most excepted story of how footbinding started in China many other sources place the practice as starting during the Song Dynasty between the tenth and twelfth centuries. One thing that is agreed upon by all sources is that once the practice started among the rich women in the imperial palace, it then radiated outward among the rest of the empire and the lower social classes . Even though there was an attempt made by the Manchus to outlaw footbinding in 1645 because they along with the Mongols, Tibetans, and other minority groups did not practice footbinding, it was during this time under the rule of the Qing Dynasty that footbinding reached its peak in popularity .

When Western people began to arrive in China in the 1840s their eyes were opened to the process of footbinding. Criticism from Westerners and the urge from the Chinese for China to become a modern society caused the start of the anti-footbinding movement in China . The first anti-footbinding society formed by missionaries in China was founded in 1847 by John MacGowan and drew inspiration from the American prohibition movement of pledging members not to bind their daughters’ feet or marry their sons to bound girls . Despite its popularity for so many hundreds of years, around the turn of the century Mrs. Archibald Little (Alicia Little) was inspired by the work of MacGowan and formed a Western, non-secular footbinding movement that helped to bring about the end of footbinding in China . By looking at the writings of Alicia Little, John MacGowan, and other Western missionaries who observed footbinding in China and took part in the anti-footbinding movement, I will gain a better understanding of Western opinions of footbinding and the attempts made to stop the practice in China.

Because footbinding had been practiced in China since sometime around the eleventh century, many Westerners had an interest in the practice even though many of them had not seen bound feet in person nor were they fully aware of everything that was involved in the process. It was not until the 1840s when Great Britain received the island of Hong Kong from China that large amounts of Westerners began to travel to visit China and witnessed footbinding firsthand . When Marco Polo visited China at the end of the 13th century he mentioned that Chinese women were “very fair” and “very delicate and very angelic things” but he failed to make any mentioning of footbinding . It seems odd that if Marco Polo would have observed Chinese women and commented on their appearance that he would have neglected to mention footbinding at all. It is doubtful that he would have been familiar with the practice, at least not so familiar with it that mentioning it with his observations about China would have seemed unimportant. A possibility for his lack of mentioning footbinding is that the practice might have seemed so outrageous that he did not think that Europeans would believe him. He also might have omitted mentioning it due to fear that talking about such an uncivilized practice might have gotten him into trouble with the Church.

On the contrary to Marco Polo when the Franciscan friar Odoric of Pordenonne visited China in the 1320s he mentioned Chinese footbinding and treated it with a genuine curiosity. Based on his observations he thought that it was the goal of Chinese people to not only be able to distinguish the genders by the way that they wore their clothes and hair, but also to distinguish each other by the men growing their fingernails to make their arms appear longer and women binding their feet to make their legs appear longer . It is interesting to note that while Marco Polo ignored the practice of footbinding in China, Odoric acknowledged it and showed a great fascination with the body modification practices of men and women. Even though Odoric saw examples of bound feet, he does not give his opinion on the practice of footbinding itself so it can not be assumed that he actually witnessed the process of binding girls’ feet or was even aware of what all was involved in the process.

Closer to the time that the British took control of Hong Kong and more Westerners started to visit China, John Francis Davis visited China with the East India Company in 1816 and wrote about his experiences in The Chinese published in 1836. Davis commented that the stereotypes Westerners have of the Chinese is based on nothing and also talks at length on his opinion about footbinding. From the way that Davis explains his opinions about footbinding, he seems very interested and also very repulsed by the practice. When describing footbinding, he never really says “footbinding”. Instead, he refers to it as the mutilation and process of deforming women’s feet. “As it would seem next to impossible to refer to any notions of physical beauty, however arbitrary, such shocking mutilation as that produced by cramping of the foot in early childhood”. Davis also described the way women with bound feet walk in a similar way other people who have seen it firsthand described it. He says that it appears as if they are walking on the heel of their foot and are compared to “a willow agitated by the breeze”.

The anti-footbinding movement, started by Western people who were living in China, began to develop in the late 1800s. The whole anti-footbinding movement was really the result of two separate movements that happened at the same time one of these movements was the work of Protestant missionaries in China, and the other was a more secular group. Two people who were very influential during this time and at one point met to discus strategies for the anti-footbinding movement were the Protestant missionary Rev. John MacGowan and Mrs. Archibald Little . MacGowan was a missionary from England and was a part of the London Mission. He first witnessed footbinding when he arrived in China in 1860 after the Second Opium War. In 1875 he gathered sixty Chinese women together in his church to discuss the nature of footbinding. MacGowan preached to the women that they should not bind their feet because God created their feet and by binding and destroying them, they were going against God’s will. The women agreed with him and agreed not to bind their daughters’ feet. Mrs. Archibald Little (Alicia Little) was born in England in 1845 and spent much of her childhood traveling abroad. When she arrived back in England she published her first novel at the age of 23. Alicia spent the rest of the early part of her life writing novels, which often poked fun at higher English social life and took place in other countries . This might suggest that she did not really care for life in England and may be why she chose to take such an active stance against footbinding while she lived in China. By openly criticizing aspects of British and Chinese society, Mrs. Little showed that she was critical of aspects of society that she did not agree with. While she only made fun of British customs she did not agree with, she took things a step further with footbinding in Chinese society by trying to abolish the practice. In 1886, at the age of 41, Alicia married Mr. Archibald Little, a British businessman who lived in China. When Alicia initially moved to China, she spent much of her time learning about the country and its people. She toured around the country and met with different Chinese families to learn more about the Chinese culture. At this time, she started writing about different issues that Chinese women faced, as well as beginning to campaign against footbinding. In 1895, along with other secular expatriate women living in China, she formed the Anti-Footbinding Society of China and was elected its first president. Mrs. Little continued to speak all over China against footbinding and translated anti-footbinding material into English until her and Archibald Little returned to England in 1907. The society disbanded in 1908 because footbinding fell out of favor and was outlawed in China .

In order to understand the reasons for the start of the anti-footbinding movement in China, the reasons that footbinding was first started must be understood. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in China, women were considered inferior to men. It was thought that they were mentally and physically inferior to men and therefore were given very few rights. To help show this inferiority, women engaged in the practice of footbinding. Initially footbinding was just something that was practiced by the wealthy, but it soon spread to women of all social classes in China . After the higher social classes started practicing footbinding in China, it became an indication of social class. Women, who were of a lower social class and wished to move up in class, could bind their feet to try and emulate those who were in a better position than themselves. Once the practice started to become the norm, it was only a matter of time before small feet became a sign of eroticism in China. Men became attracted to small feet and this soon became ingrained into Chinese culture and thought. At this point women of lower social classes had no choice but to engage in footbinding once men became attracted to the practice.

Once footbinding became a cultural norm women engaged in it willingly. Mothers would willingly mutilate their daughters’ feet because they knew that was the only way that their daughters would be able to attract a husband and get married. “When their daughter was between four and eight years old parents would speak harshly to her and frighten her with severe expressions. They would oppress her in every conceivable manner so that the bones of her feet might be broken and the flesh putrefy. They would tell her that she would then be happy in her parents’ hearts, knowing that when she later got married they would be very proud of her.” This is a very powerful passage that helps to shed light on what the process of footbinding was like for girls to go through. When parents started the footbinding process on their daughters, they had good intentions in mind. Parents would bind their daughters’ feet because they thought that was what was best for their daughters. Going through the pain of footbinding would mean that the girls would be happier later in life.

John MacGowan was the first missionary during the period of the late nineteenth century to start the missionary anti-footbinding movement. At the time that church did not wish to take a stand about footbinding because they did not wish to anger the Chinese people. The Catholic Church in China was even more reluctant than the Protestant church to deal with the issue of footbinding. Ironically it was the churches’ indifference and lack of will to intervene in the manner that angered Chinese women so much. Since the Church as a whole was unwilling to deal with footbinding MacGowan and other individual missionaries dealt with the issue on their own.

MacGowan wrote extensively about the Chinese and footbinding during his time in China. During his first trip in 1860, he was immediately introduced to the custom of footbinding when he and his wife heard their neighbor’s daughter screaming. MacGowan explains in the book that unlike the English, the Chinese have an open door policy with their neighbors and that everyone knows everyone else’s business. Because of this, he and his wife went to investigate the situation. When they entered the house they witnessed their neighbor binding her daughter’s feet, amidst cries form the daughter that the pain she was suffering was so terrible that she would die if her mother did not undo the bindings .

The mother was extremely angry that MacGowan’s wife asked her to stop binding her daughter’s feet, and that MacGowan’s wife insisted she did not know what was best for her daughter. The mother explained this was the custom in China and the burden that was placed upon its women. “But you are an Englishwoman, and you do not understand the burden that is laid upon us women of China.” If the daughter did not have bound feet “she would be laughed at and despised and treated as a slave-girl.”

After the mother told all of this to MacGowan and his wife, his wife asked the little girl if she wished to continue to have her feet bound. The girl’s only response was to look silently at her mother as if to say that she did not wish to have bound feet, but at the same time did not wish for the terrible life of a slave girl, which, the life that she would have to live if she did not go through the pain of having her feet bound. Slave girls in China were usually treated cruelly by the mistresses whom they worked for, and were forbidden to wear anything besides plain blue cotton dresses with no jewelry. If a slave girl was ever seen in public wearing any sort of nice clothing she would be attacked and have the items taken from her. The hard life that girls would face as slaves helps to show why they went through the process of footbinding. The young girl not saying anything and silently looking at her mother when asked if she wanted to continue to have her feet bound, is evidence that while she would not want the process to continue, she would prefer it to the alternative.

After the event, MacGowan thought that any effort he made to try to end footbinding and stop the suffering of all the young Chinese girls would be futile. Footbinding had been just as brutal for all the centuries it was practiced, and yet it continued to be undertaken year after year. In spite of this, MacGowan decided it was his duty as a Christian ministry to try to abolish footbinding and all the problems that it caused for women and believed that God would help him accomplish his mission.

The difficulty that MacGowan faced while trying to get rid of footbinding was that since it had been practiced for so long, the idea of it had become permanently ingrained in the Chinese way of thinking and their views of the past. Trying to get people to change their long held mentality about footbinding would be the most difficult thing for MacGowan. As shown by his neighbor, neither the mothers enjoyed the torture that footbinding placed on their daughters, nor did the daughters enjoy going through the pain of having their feet bound. The trouble was that everyone just accepted that it was the right thing to do and did not question it because it would lead to a better life. People even acknowledged that bound feet, without bandages and shoes, on them were so hideous to look at, that not even the husbands of women with bound feet chose to look at them.

Despite his initial optimism in his crusade against footbinding, MacGowan was initially met with failure. While many of the women that he talked to agreed that footbinding was a terrible practice and they hated putting their daughters through it, they did not want to be the first ones to stop the practice and be the only mothers in town to have daughters without bound feet. There was no evidence of the process slowing down either. MacGowan writes about one instance where he was working in a hospital and a man brought in his daughter who had a truly ghastly look on her face. The doctors declared that the girl’s feet had been bound too tight and was killing her. This event deeply troubled the man who said that it was the daughter who wished the bindings to be as tight as they were, so that she would have the smallest feet in the village. Even though preaching the word of God and converting people to Christianity was MacGowan’s reason for coming to China, he realized that this was only way he would be able to end footbinding and show its horrors to the Chinese people.

MacGowan preached in China and attempted to gain converts in his campaign against footbinding but thus far he had been unsuccessful. He had been able to establish several successful churches in China and had started to convert some Chinese to Christianity, but that was as far as he was able to get. He knew that the Chinese he was able to convert were sincere about practicing their new faith because they all faced much criticism in doing so. The problem was that the Chinese parents were willing to take the criticism that their neighbors had towards them for becoming Christian, but they were not willing to force that criticism on their daughters by not binding their feet. The Chinese people were simply too afraid of what would happen to them or their daughters if their daughters did not have bound feet. They realized that because the idea of having bound feet was so ingrained in Chinese mentality, their daughters would be looked down upon as slaves for the rest of their lives if they did not have bound feet. At the time parents were unwilling to do that to their daughters.

His encounter with his footbinding neighbor, the trouble of getting Chinese to stop footbinding just by becoming Christian, and other similar instances he witnessed while in China, caused MacGowan to call together all the Christian women in Amoy. After he announced that he would be having a meeting for women to discuss footbinding, MacGowan learned that he had committed a revolutionary act. Chinese custom gave women many liberties and they would often talk together in their homes, but meeting in a public place to discuss something such as footbinding was something that was unheard of. MacGowan was even told by an important man in Amoy that there would be riots in response to MacGowan calling together a meeting of women. This encouraged MacGowan, who hoped that if rioting happened or the church was destroyed, it might call more negative attention to footbinding and help his plans to get it abolished. This event makes me admire MacGowan’s dedication to his cause. Once he realized he was doing something completely unheard of in China, he did not back down. He was even encouraged by the fact that if violence were to erupt, it could help his cause gain support.

Despite women gathering together being considered a ridiculous idea, sixty Christian women came to meet with MacGowan. They were mostly working class women who did not usually have a chance to have their opinions heard and MacGowan gave them an opportunity to express that even though they practiced footbinding, they were against it. MacGowan started the meeting by giving his opinions on the purpose for calling the meeting. He explained to the women that he and his wife had been trying for fifteen years, without any positive consequences, to get the Chinese people to see the problems with footbinding. He acknowledged that Chinese men could not understand the situation because they never had to experience the pain of footbinding, and therefore would not want to throw away an established Chinese custom.

This was the whole reason that MacGowan had called the meeting of women together. Because of the work he had already done to try to end footbinding, he knew that the Chinese would be very reluctant to get rid of something that made them so unique to the rest of the world. Since the men in China were not involved with the process of footbinding they were the most reluctant to get rid of the custom . MacGowan needed to try and reach out to the women of China because they knew first hand the pain involved with footbinding and if there was a chance of convincing anyone that the mutilation of their daughter’s feet should be stopped, it was them.

Once MacGowan was finished speaking, one of the women from Amoy spoke and expressed how happy she was that MacGowan had called the meeting and that he was doing something to end footbinding, even though the Church’s official position was to take no action. She confessed that at one time, her mind was divided on whether she should bind her daughters’ feet or not, but her faith in Christ made her decide against the practice. Even though people warned her that her daughters would never find husbands, the woman did not mind this because then they would be able to live with and take care of her. Another elderly woman who held a prominent position in the church, also spoke at the meeting, and agreed that her and her daughters had bound feet but she would not let her granddaughters’ feet be bound. By the end of the meeting, nine of the women agreed to join the newly formed “Heavenly Foot Society” and to not bind their daughters’ feet, no matter what the consequences were. Even though there was a high turn out for the meeting and everyone there supported the idea that footbinding needed to be abolished, not all of them were initially willing to join the society. Many of the women had to wait to join because they wanted to check with their husbands and mother-in-laws to make sure that they approved of not binding the girls feet. MacGowan was very happy with the meeting and it gave him a positive outlook for the end of footbinding. MacGowan’s efforts were a significant first step in the fight to abolish footbinding in China. The women who came to his meeting were against footbinding to start with, but they went along with the practice because that was what was culturally accepted. They all did it because they thought they were doing what was best for their daughters. The meeting that MacGowan held helped to show them just how cruel the practice was, and also showed them all that there were other people who also believed that the practice of footbinding was cruel.

MacGowan had very specific reasons for calling his new group “The Heavenly Foot Society”. This terminology helps to show that the reason MacGowan felt footbinding was wrong was because we were created by God and that binding feet is tampering with God’s work and un-Christian. MacGowan was very careful to use Chinese terminology and ideas to express his opinions about anti-footbinding so that he would have a better chance of convincing the Chinese to oppose footbinding. Chinese culture did not view God in the same way that Christians and Westerners did in the sense of a singular all powerful deity. They did however view Heaven in a sense similar to what Westerners viewed God and believed that Heaven had created everything. MacGowan used Heaven for his anti footbinding society to show that if Heaven/God created people and Chinese women were the only women in the world that bound their feet, footbinding was going against the will of Heaven/God .

Now that “The Heavenly Foot Society” had been formed, MacGowan had to make sure that people would stick with the society and the knowledge of it would grow. MacGowan and the mothers who had pledged to not bind their daughters’ feet knew that the young girls would suffer much criticism whenever they went in public. There was a good chance that the girls would be called slave girls and would have their personal respect attacked on a regular basis. Also, in an attempt to gain attention for the society, it was decided that The Heavenly Foot Society would meet every Spring and Fall to discuss footbinding and the progress that the movement had made since the last meeting. Also, the meetings would be a place for anyone, who either supported or was opposed to the abolishment of footbinding, to discus and debate the issue.

MacGowan knew, now that the society was formed, that the most important thing was to make sure that it would become an effective tool for ending footbinding. All of the women who came to the first meeting liked the fact that they were able to voice their opinions on the matter, so MacGowan thought that it was important for this to continue. Something else that made the meetings effective was that they allowed people who supported footbinding to come and share their opinions on the matter. This allowed for MacGowan to learn what the strongest reasons were that supported footbinding so he could fight against them more effectively. Also if debate among the people occurred, there was a chance that people who supported footbinding’s minds, could be changed to oppose it.

Meetings that took place over the following years confirmed what MacGowan’s fears had been from when he first set out to end footbinding. The strongest reasons for people opposing footbinding were that it was something that was part of China’s national identity, and was a tradition passed down through all of their ancestors. One man in particular that MacGowan talks about says that even though he is a Christian, he agrees that footbinding must be kept because of the history associated with it and how footbinding honors all the great things their ancestors did. MacGowan was easily able to counter the man’s arguments by pointing out that he was careful not to mention the pain that girls experienced during footbinding, that by becoming a Christian the man had done something that was against traditional Chinese culture, and also, the fact that all of the men in the room agreed that bound feet without the bandages on were disgusting to look at.

The comments made by the Chinese man and the subsequent rebuttal from MacGowan helped to show the lack of any concrete or legitimate reasons people who supported footbinding had for keeping the practice. The main point of the man’s argument was that since footbinding is part of China’s culture, not practicing footbinding would be going against their heritage. The irony of this is that by being a Christian, he has already done something that goes against Chinese heritage. Christianity was a completely new idea to the Chinese when Western missionaries started to visit the country. If the Chinese were willing to adopt the new teachings of Christianity, there was no reason why they also could not get rid of footbinding. Another reason why the man had a weak argument is his complete neglect of the pain of footbinding. By making sure not to mention the pain involved, he is acknowledging the fact that it is a terrible process. Also, by admitting that bound feet without the bandages on are incredibly unattractive, he is further acknowledging how footbinding does nothing but make the girls’ feet a deformed knurled mess.

For the next few years, MacGowan’s Heavenly Foot Society continued to grow and have success. Many young girls began to join the society and with their mothers’ help they were able to cope with the insults that they had to deal with whenever they went in public without bound feet. Even though those who were in favor of footbinding were silenced, many of the men continued to attend the meetings, but they could not express their opinions because they knew they had no good arguments to support them.

Despite all the positive effects from anti-footbinding, MacGowan still wished that the women who already had bound feet would be able to take their bandages off and walk normally again. Many of the women and English doctors MacGowan talked with agreed that bound feet were too mangled to be able to support of the weight of the women without the aid of the bandages. Despite everyone saying that it was impossible to gain normal feet after they had been bound, a woman with an especially strong devotion to Christ attempted to unbind her feet. Everyday when she bound her feet, she made the bandages looser and looser until after several weeks she could stand without the aid of bandages, and her feet had returned to normal.

The accomplishment of this woman, being able to walk without bindings after having been bound for most of her life, was a very big step for the movement. Nobody believed that someone could go from having bound feet, to being able to walk, without the support of bandages again. This woman helped give hope to all the women who had bound feet and were fighting so that their daughters’ feet would never be deformed. Now, they too would be able to have the “heavenly feet” that God gave them and meant for them to have.

One of the many books that MacGowan published during his life was Sidelights on Chinese Life, in 1907. In the book, he gives very detailed descriptions and also photographs and pictures dealing with different aspects of Chinese culture, descriptions of different occupations among the Chinese, and details of different Chinese cities. One section of the book is dedicated to child life, and in this part he talks about the horrors of footbinding for young girls.

In the book, MacGowan refers to footbinding as a time when the easy living conditions that girls enjoy comes to a stop, and “the great trial of her life begins”. He states that girls are usually around eight years old when they start the process of footbinding because their feet would not be able to handle the strain that is put on them if they were any younger than eight. He says that slaves and lower class families do not have the resources available to adopt this “polite custom”, and girls in wealthier families might start binding their daughters’ feet as young as six years old.

MacGowan says that the first few weeks of the footbinding process are the worst. This is when all the toes, except for the biggest one, are broken and forced under the foot. By continually doing this for several years, the instep is also destroyed, and the feet are made to fit into the between two and three inch shoes know as “Golden Lilies”. The daughters often beg the mothers to undo the bandages and release their feet from the torture, but this is only met by the mothers tightening and replacing the bandages every few days. To try and express just how terrible a process footbinding is, MacGowan spends most of several pages just describing how all the girls do while their feet are being bound is cry. At the same time that footbinding is an example of the torture that people will go through to achieve beauty and social acceptance, it also shows the amazing resilience of the human body. Girls would have to have their feet constantly bound because if they took the bandages off for even a day the feet would try to return back to their natural shape.

Another important book that MacGowan published in 1913, dealing with his missionary efforts in China, was How England Saved China. This book goes much more in dept into his efforts to eliminate footbinding from China in that over a third of the book is solely dedicated to those subjects. In the beginning of the book, MacGowan acknowledges that many “a savage tribe” has shown very unique ways to disfigure the human body, but in a way he admires the Chinese for developing something as complicated and terrible as footbinding . I think this statement by MacGowan shows how despite the practice of footbinding he still does not look down upon the Chinese. He recognizes that as a culture, they have been able to develop an advanced civilization, and as a people they are very intelligent. It is just unfortunate that with this intelligence they were able to think of a process of body modification, so ingenious and terrible, that not even people who were considered “primitive” could have developed it. Even though he is completely disgusted with the practice MacGowan is still very fascinated and impressed by it. It is remarkable that such a terrible practice would gain popularity and stay in popularity for such a long time. The fact that the Chinese were the only culture in the world to practice footbinding makes it even more remarkable. While different body modification practices may be more common in one culture when compared to another, evidence of tattooing and piercing different body parts can still be seen in many different parts of the world.

In the 1890s, missionaries published periodicals such as Young J. Allen’s The Globe Magazine, in order to help inspire the Chinese to resist footbinding and join the anti-footbinding movement. Similar to MacGowan the magazine said that the practice of footbinding was un-Christian in an attempt to discourage Chinese Christians from forcing their daughters to engage in the practice. Missionaries eventually forbid girls who practiced footbinding from attending Christian boarding schools; they even said that footbinding was blasphemy against God and the Bible. An issue of the magazine also stated that God created men and women with the same feet, and to try to alter women’s feet is to say that God’s work is not perfect and men know more than God. The strategy that Allen’s magazine used is very similar to that of MacGowan’s. Once missionaries started traveling to China, they started converting the Chinese to Christianity. Allen was hoping to use Christianity’s teaching to convince them that footbinding was bad, and if they practiced it, they were disobeying God and would go to hell. The work that MacGowan and other missionaries did, would later give rise to the work of other Westerners developing secular groups dedicated to fighting against footbinding.

In 1895, Alicia Little decided to take a different and secular approach to try to combat footbinding. Where the Christian missionaries focused on helping the poor with the main argument that footbinding is against the will of God, Alicia Little focused mainly on the rich and, that by ending footbinding the Chinese would be making their country a better and stronger place to live. Coincidently the whole reason that Mrs. Archibald Little was introduced to the anti-footbinding movement was because of John MacGowan. The two of them had a mutual friend, Dr. Timothy Richard. Dr. Richard told MacGowan if he could explain his cause to Mrs. Little, that she would become a powerful ally in the fight against footbinding. As soon as Mrs. Archibald Little heard of the anti-footbinding movement from MacGowan, she agreed to lend her support. She immediately started to call meetings for MacGowan to speak at as she traveled around China, and talked with businessmen and high-ranking politicians so that she could share her cause with them.

This meeting is almost a foreshadowing of the change that would happen with the anti-footbinding movement. When the movement originally started, it was missionaries focusing on Christians, going against God’s word. Once Alicia Little developed her own anti-footbinding movement, the emphasis was on all Chinese women improving China and the fact that footbinding was an unnatural and unsanitary practice.

Alicia Little did something remarkable by trying to put an end to footbinding. While she certainly was not the first Western woman to visit China, up until that point the anti-footbinding movement had been pursued by male missionaries. Also, upon coming to China, she was ignorant of Chinese history and much of Chinese culture. Though, she did have some advantages in her situation such as her enthusiasm, curiosity, and honest urge to want to help people and stop footbinding. She also enjoyed writing both novels and books, detailing her travels throughout China and spoke pleasantly with people when she carried out public meetings against footbinding.

Mrs. Little was originally introduced to the anti-footbinding movement due to the efforts of The Church Mission at Hangchow, establishing a school for girls in 1867. One of the requirements for the girls to be able to attend the school was that their feet had to be unbound. Mrs. Little spent time at the school helping the little girls to get husbands that did not mind if their wives had unbound feet. Mrs. Little’s personal attempt to end footbinding began in 1895, when she started the “Natural Feet Society”. She acknowledges that up until that point, all of the people in China who were involved with the anti-footbinding movement, were male missionaries. She was very excited that she was able to find a group of ladies in Shanghai who were willing to join her committee and help with the society.

I find it curious that Mrs. Little would explain details about the girls’ school she helped with, but she provided few details about how her Natural Feet Society was founded. John MacGowan spoke highly of Mrs. Little in his book and brought up the fact that they were introduced through a mutual friend. It seems very odd that Mrs. Little would make no mention of MacGowan or their friend in her book. She makes it seem like the idea was completely hers, and helping with the school gave her inspiration towards the idea.

Shortly after the founding of the Natural Feet Society, Mrs. Little called a meeting of all the ladies who were part of her committee. They gathered together in a drawing room at Chungking, and discussed all of their ideas about how to proceed with the issue. They all offered suggestions as to places that they knew of where footbinding was not popular, and some of the Chinese ladies told of how they had unbound their feet and the process that was involved with it.

The most success that the anti-footbinding movement saw was when Chinese officials started to offer their support. When an examiner from Peking’s father died, he was no longer allowed to hold his position. Upon returning home and hearing his daughter cry because of the pain that was involved with having her feet bound, he started writing to try to get the practice abolished. Since he had been an official, he used the help of his friends to add their testimony and endorse the pamphlet. Mrs. Little soon received a copy of the Suifu Appeal, as it came to be known as, and used it to help spread the word against footbinding.

The main area that Mrs. Little was most effective in gaining support from people was the Chinese officials. Since her husband was a British diplomat, she was mostly around rich Chinese people, which is why she focused on this group of people. Convincing officials of the dangers of footbinding was important because they actually had an effect on if laws could be made to outlaw the practice or not.

Sometime between when the Natural Feet Society was developed and 1906, Mrs. Little took an anti-footbinding tour through China in order to see the progress of and show support for the movement. Since she had mostly lived in the far Western part of China, Mrs. Little’s main focus for the tour was in Southern China. Her first stop was in the city of Hankow, where she gave a speech about footbinding to the officials that had gathered there. The meeting in Hankow was met with great success, and all of the officials who were present spoke in favor of abolishing footbinding. After the meeting in Hankow, Mrs. Little went to another successful meeting in Han-yang. Here, all the women who were present said that they had all unbound their feet and children were very anxious to get information about the movement for their parents. I think it is very interesting to note that it seems like Mrs. Little had very few, to no problems at all, during her trips to Hankow and Han-yang. Even though the movement had been happening for a number of years before Mrs. Little joined, from reading about her experiences I get the feeling that she is trying to make everything seem more positive than it really was.

Mrs. Little’s next stop during her trip was to the city of Canton. This trip was run similarly to the stops in the first two cities, where she spent her time speaking at meetings that were in favor of footbinding. Similar to the other cities, all of the people who came to the meeting were very eager to do their part to end footbinding, and after the meeting they all paid to become official members of the Natural Feet Society. Something unique to this visit was that Mrs. Little held a meeting that was exclusively reserved for women who still had bound feet. Mrs. Little was very surprised when nine women showed up to the meeting; she did not expect the turnout to be so high. She was very pleased with her efforts and that even though the meeting had to be cut short, all nine women agree to join the Natural Feet Society and go about the process of unbinding their feet. Once again, I find it strange that there is unanimous support to get rid of footbinding in all of these cities. I realize that the movement had gained a lot of support at this point, but it seems odd that everyone in the town would agree on the issue. If everyone in town supported the Natural Feet Society I do not see the point of Mrs. Archibald Little going to visit.

For the first time during her journey, Mrs. Little met opposition to her Natural Feet Society when she met with Li Hung Chang, a Chinese Viceroy. Mrs. Little described a very interesting debate that she had with the Viceroy, in which they discussed the pros and cons of footbinding. The Viceroy did not like talking about footbinding, so he tried to avoid the subject, and according to Mrs. Little, he did not have many legitimate reasons to continue the practice of footbinding. His arguments for why footbinding should be kept were, that he never hears girls complaining about it, everyone in his family had practiced it, and, in general getting rid of it was beyond his powers. Also, in his opinion it would be too difficult too be able to get shoes for all the women in China if they all had different size feet. One of the more interesting points that he made was out of fear for the government’s power. The Viceroy believed that if footbinding was abolished, all the women and men in China would become so strong that they would overthrow the dynasty. It seems like, once again, Mrs. Little told about this section in order to try to make herself look good. She wanted to show that there was opposition to her movement, and that she was able to defend her point of view. It is interesting that the Viceroy was worried that if footbinding was abolished, the people would overthrow the government. This is a point that other people who supported footbinding had never mentioned.

Mrs. Little held another successful group of meetings when she visited Hong Kong. At this meeting there were so many people who wanted to attend that there were not enough seats for everyone. The servants of the mistresses were made to wait outside the hall and the little girls who were in attendance were made to sit on the floor. Once again this proved to be a successful meeting for Mrs. Little with forty-seven women and several of the young girls joining the Natural Feet Society. Many of these women already had bound feet, and had started the process of unbindding them.

The next stop on Mrs. Little’s multi-city trip was to Macao, where she made contact with other groups that were part of the anti-footbinding movement. The city had been under the control of the Portuguese for a long time and had already started trying to convince women to unbind their feet and to refuse to bind their daughters’. Mrs. Little also made contact with the Roman Catholic Sisters and a group of Protestant missionaries, and noted that the Catholics and Protestants were unwilling to work with each other. I think this part was important because Mrs. Little wished to show how she was interacting with other groups to help her cause. While throughout the book she tries to make it look like she is doing the most work, she still give some credit to other groups that she meets during her travels.

During this section Mrs. Little also makes note that the China Merchants’ Company, the Hong-Kong Canton Macao Company, and the Douglas Lapraik Line all gave her passes to ride for free on their steamers. Even though she is getting free travel by boat, she actually complains that hotels did not give her free room and board. This, among other things, makes me question Mrs. Little’s motives for going on her tour of China in order to promote the anti-footbinding movement. While I don think she really does want to stop the practice of footbinding and try to make women and China, as a country, stronger in the process, it seems like she has additional motives.

Mrs. Little acknowledges the work of fellow reformers in the next two towns she visited, Swatow and Amoy. In Swatow, in order to get some work out of the children, they do not start the binding process until the children are around twelve, once the feet have already started to form. Because of this, the people there would only be able to curl the toes under the foot, not break the arch in the foot. The women would then wear shoes to make their feet appear smaller than they actually were. By the time Mrs. Little arrived in the town, she acknowledged that the footbinding process was almost completely gone from the town, due to the work of Kang Yu Wei. She also acknowledged John MacGowan’s work that he had done in Amoy when she visited that city. She was very happy with the work that had been done in Amoy. She said that due to the work done by MacGowan and the fact that the city was ruled over by a Manchu, none of whom had ever practiced footbinding, all she had to do in Amoy was encourage everyone’s efforts and cheer them on to keep doing a good job. Once again, I find it very odd that while John MacGowan would talk highly of Mrs. Little and how he was the one to introduce her to the anti-footbinding movement, she makes very little mention of him. She only acknowledges him in one sentence, where she says that he started the anti-footbinding movement in Amoy. It is possible that MacGowan exaggerated his influence in getting Mrs. Little involved with the anti-footbinding movement, but based on both their writings, it seems more likely that Mrs. Little understated MacGowan’s influence on her.

After visiting Amoy, Mrs. Little next presented in a guild hall in Foochow, where she received the highest complement she had gotten during her time as a reformer. The Taotai of Foochow compared her to Kwanyin Pusa, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, and most of the officials of the town confessed that none of the women in their houses had bound feet. This helps to show just how grateful the Chinese people were that Mrs. Little was helping them. Whatever her intentions were, Mrs. Little still put a great deal of time and effort into her Natural Feet Society, and it is good that the Chinese people acknowledged the sacrifices she made. The fact that the comment was made by a Chinese official, also speaks more highly of her character rather than if it was an ordinary Chinese woman who would have been affected by footbinding.

The last place that Mrs. Little traveled to during her trip was the city of Soochow. She had several meetings with different groups of people, who were all interested in the anti-footbinding movement. She addressed two different groups of medical students, one of which was interested in starting its own anti-footbinding society. This shows that the work Mrs. Little was doing was inspiring other people to go out and help the movement as well. The anti-footbinding movement would not have been successful if there had only been one or two groups taking part in it. More manpower and many groups all with different ideas about how to get their message across, was what made the movement a success. The group of women that Mrs. Little met with was one of the largest groups she had ever spoken to, which gave her hope. She compared the city to the “Chinese Paris” in the sense that Paris is a city very concerned with fashion and so was Soochow. After the meeting, many of the women had decided that they were going to start unbinding their feet. Mrs. Little hoped that this idea would become a popular fashion in the city, and all the women there would follow suit.

When looking at the anti-footbinding movement, something that absolutely must be looked at and taken into consideration is the differences and similarities between the religious and the secular anti-footbinding groups. While many different missionaries made it their goal while trying to convert the Chinese to Christianity to also abolish footbinding, the most successful of these reformers was John MacGowan. In contrast to the numerous religious men who tried to get rid of footbinding, it seems the only Western secular person who made any attempts to end footbinding was Mrs. Archibald Little. It could have also been that she was the only successful reformer, and therefore the only one worth mentioning.

To begin with, the reasons why MacGowan and Mrs. Little got involved with footbinding are somewhat related to each other. MacGowan’s initial reason for coming to China was that he was a missionary and wanted to help the people of China by converting them to Christianity. Mrs. Little’s sole reason for coming to China was that her husband was a British diplomat who was stationed in China. From the very beginning, MacGowan seemed like he more genuinely wanted to help people. I believe that Mrs. Little was definitely devoted to her cause and honestly did want to help the women and people of China, but from reading her books I get the feeling that she took up the cause as something to do while her and her husband were living in China. It seems like she could be compared to a modern day celebrity who visits a country after a horrific event. They are legitimately concerned with helping the people, but while they are there they make sure they are seen helping. Since MacGowan came to China with intentions of helping, and Mrs. Little just happened to be there it seemed like he was generally more interested. Also, while Mrs. Little was in England, she spent her time writing books in which she criticized upper class society. It seems as though when she arrived in China she simply switched from criticizing upper class society, to criticizing the process of footbinding.

Another difference between how they both tried to end footbinding relates to who among the Chinese community they interacted with the most. While neither person turned anyone away who wanted to learn about the anti-footbinding movement, John MacGowan focused his efforts mostly on poorer people, and Mrs. Archibald Little mostly focused on meeting with richer people. Whether it was planned or not, it was good for the movement that MacGowan and Mrs. Little chose to concentrate on Chinese people of different social classes. MacGowan became more involved with the poorer people of China because they were the type of people that missionaries usually helped. It was much more common for missionaries to go into smaller cities and villages in China and work to help improve the lives of the people by teaching them about God and Jesus. By helping the poorer people of China, MacGowan was doing his job as a missionary.

At the same time, it would appear that the reason Mrs. Little worked mostly with the rich was because that was who she associated with. Since her husband was a diplomat, she had access to Chinese officials and resources that MacGowan might not have been able to get. While both methods were effective and important for ending footbinding, when one looks at how footbinding was started, it would make more sense to target the elite of China. Since footbinding originally started in the Imperial palace and was adopted by the lower classes, in theory, it would make sense to try to get rid of it the same way, by convincing the rich to abandon the practice and hoping the effect would be adopted by the lower classes.

The biggest difference between the two groups was the one that caused them to be two separate groups MacGowan started the religious anti-footbinding movement and Mrs. Little started the secular movement. Concentrating on the aspect of religion was another thing that helped the movement to be successful. MacGowan tried to use teaching about God, in order to convince people they should give up footbinding. His main argument was that God made us the way he wanted them and by practicing footbinding people were basically telling God that he was wrong. He was able to convert many people to Christianity, and then use that to convince them that footbinding was a sin. Since Mrs. Little did not focus specifically on Christians, she could reach a group of people that MacGowan might not have been able to.

Regardless of how they were originally introduced to the anti-footbinding movement, they both contributed a significant amount and the anti-footbinding movement might not have been as successful without both of their efforts. With MacGowan talking to poorer Chinese and using God to talk about anti-footbinding and Mrs. Little focusing on richer Chinese officials and having a secular approach they both talked with groups of people the other one might not have interacted with.

In the end, the efforts of the Heavenly Foot Society and the Natural Feet Society were successful. In 1905, the Empress-Dowager issued a decree proclaiming that footbinding was harmful to the welfare of women, and that everyone of Chinese decent should convince their family members to stop the practice so that it could be abolished. She was also very careful not to use the words “we prohibit”, so that corrupt officials would not be able to attack people who chose not to give up the practice. In addition to this, Heavenly Foot Societies were formed in every town, so that people could join together, in order to completely destroy the custom of footbinding. Pamphlets were even distributed to households, so that everyone could become more informed on the issue. It was further decided that, in the first year of the rule of Emperor Kwang-su, all homes would be inspected, and no girls under the age of ten were allowed to have bound feet. If there were any girls between ages eleven and sixteen with bound feet, their names would be taken down, and whoever was responsible would have to pay a fine.

It was also found that due to the Imperial decree and the popularity of unbound feet, girls were starting to stuff their shoes in order to make their feet look bigger than they actually were. It was around this time, that officials in Shanghai also decided that all of the anti-footbinding societies that were run by foreigners should turn over control to Chinese officials. While John MacGowan and Mrs. Archibald Little were both very happy with how successful the anti-footbinding movement was and the power that it gave to Chinese women, they both still acknowledged that there was a long way to go before China solved all of its problems.

Works Cited

Cameron, Nigel. Barbarians and Mandarins: Thirteen Centuries of Western Travelers in China. New York: Walker/Weatherhill, 1970.

Ebrey, Patricia. “Gender and Sinology: Shifting Western Interpretations of Footbinding 1300-1890.” Late Imperial China December 1999, Vol. 20 No. 2, pp. 1-34.

Hong, Fan. Footbinding, Feminism, and Freedom: The Liberation of Women’s Bodies in Modern China. Portland: Frank Cass, 1997.

Huang, Haoshen, “On the Relationship between Footbinding and Strength of the Country”, Current Affairs, No. 35, 8 Aug. 1907

Ko, Dorothy. Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Little, Mrs. Archibald. Intimate China. London: Hutchinson and Co., 1899.

---. Land of the Blue Gown. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1909.

MacGowan, John. How England Saved China. London: Adelphi Terrace, 1913.

---. Sidelights on Chinese Life. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Truber and Co., Limited, 1907.

Mackie, Gerry. “Ending Footbinding and Infibulation: A Convention Account.” American Sociological Review Dec. 1996, Vol. 61 No. 6, pp. 999-1004.

Tao, Chia-lin Pao. “The Anti-footbinding Movement in Late Ch’ing China: Indigenous Development and Western Influence.” Google Scholar. 3 Feb. 2010 http://www.mh.sinica.edu.tw/images/e/women/w002/w002-07.pdf

Zito, Angela. “Secularizing the Pain of Footbinding in China: Missionary and Medical Stagings of the Universal Body.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion Spring 2007, Vol. 75 No. 1, pp. 1-24.

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submitted by: Jdubbs
on: 30 March 2011
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miss victoria
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