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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