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Web Event 3: Foot Binding and Feminism Unbound

Taylor11's picture


What is feminism unbound?  How does someone unbound feminism?  What bounds are feminists trying to break?  This three question I continued to ask myself as I tried to decipher the meaning behind this term.  I tried to wrap my head around the theory behind it and I tried to connect the dots.  Unfortunately to know prevail.  I understand that to be unbound you are no long constricted be something or someone, that you are no longer latched to something else, that I could figure out.  It wasn’t until I began to examine the way in which feminism was bound that I began to understand what being unbound could possible mean.  I began to examine feminism unbound in a very literal way and as an archaeology major and a history buff I looked into the past.  Instead of looking at past examples of women being unbound, I looked into ways in which we were bound.  When thinking of binding, I instantly thought about the Chinese history of foot binding.  In examining the history of foot binding I came across this song.  This song appeared in 1908 in a newspaper called “Chung Sai Yat Po”.  This newspaper in 1907 started to include a section devoted to poetry, essays, historical biographies, and short stories, this is where the song was found.  The song was entitled “No More Footbinding” and was written be an anonymous person.  However, due to the use of our and ourselves it can be inferred that this was written by a woman. (This is a translated version because the song was written in Chinese)

A girl’s feet, yes, a daughter’s feet-

A natural part of the body.

Be he a son, be she a daughter-

All born from the same mother.


The ten toes are like brothers,

Siblings living in harmony.

They wish for wholesome prosperity,

Sharing what heaven has endowed.


For what reason, ladies, may ask:

When did this evil custom begin?

What, be she young or old, rich or poor,

Shrink the feet to three inches?


A life in the inner chambers, a living hell,

In solitary confinement,

Beneath her hemline, bound into a tight bundle-

Layers upon layers of restriction.


Walking slowly, moving gingerly,

Ever fearful of toppling over.

Clogged circulation, congested respiration,

The pinching pain of pecking birds.


Such Suffering for one born a daughter:

No wonder she enjoys not longevity.

What crime has she committed in her girlhood?

Why subject her to such cruelty?


Narrow and pointed shoes are not for walking;

Why must we do such a thing to ourselves?

Why, must I ask the mother-

Why are you treating your daughter in such a fashion?


People say, a girl without bound feet-

No man would desire for a wife.

Such reasoning, such incivility-

All leads to sickness and disease.


This is biologically unsound;

A contradiction to a superior human race.

It is indeed good news: “Reform is here!”

The government has issued such a decree.


Manchurians and Hans may now intermarry;

The imperial house is showing its benevolence

The officials and gentry are earnest advocates,

Womenfolk should bear this decree in mind.


From Minster Xi, Minster Shen,

And the governors of Yunnan and Sichuan,

All written in plain words, circulated in newspapers.

People are amused by the decree.


Emperor Xuantong and his Prince Provost

Strictly enforce the new policy.

The governor of Sichuan and Grand Marshall Zhao

Make public speeches in every city.


Patrolling policemen would say:

The intention to reform this practice is not evil;

Another police officer would comment:

Minster Gao has sent orders to every department.


First reach the provincial capitals, then the entire province,

Make sure that the decree will be uniformly enforced.

Then send out officers and advocates,

Make people aware and responsive to the cause.


Superior people set the trends;

They’ll take the first step to loosen the bindings.

Now she can walk, attend school;

How can she not be happy?


School for boys, school for girls-

An idea as bright as candlelight.

An imperial edict, an order from the government;

There will be no going back to suffering.


Don’t worry that people will laugh at her-

A woman with feet as big as a boat.

Don’t believe what they say-

Skirts and daintily shoes are a perfect match.


Never a civilized country

Allows people to bend and twist their feet;

Never a civilized person

Speaks maliciously of another’s deeds.


No one should allude

That a woman with natural feet will have no proposal from any man.

No one should believe

That a woman with natural feet will not find a good husband.


From now on, let’s hurry the reform;

Everyone supports it in all sincerity.

Nevertheless, it will be enforced;

No one escapes the fines and penalties.


Factories for women workers; schools for young girls-

All require financial support.

Dear ladies, learn from this song:

Once, twice, thrice, until you remember it well.


Be brave, be gracious;

No need to be modest or reserved.

Don’t follow barbaric customs;

Don’t sever ligaments and break bones.


This is a call for compassion for our lives;

Kindness for humanity.

Without it, dear ladies-

Our life may be shortened and in jeopardy.


Impede mobility leads to illness-

You were digging your own graves at an early age.

Don’t treat this matter as trivial talk;

Don’t’ take this policy ever too lightly.

(source: Young, Judy. Unbound Voices: A Documentary History of Chinese women in Sa Francisco. Pp. 196-199)

At the time in which this song was written, footbinding in China had been around for over a thousand years.  Footbinding was a very painful process that included wrapping the feet of young girl so tightly until all four toes were bent toward the bottom of your foot and the whole foot was compressed to a few inches in length.  This process was extremely painful and it literally bound women to remain in the household because they could not physically walk around that much.  Besides physically binding women, bound feet became associated with the image of Chinese women.  It was a very deeply rooted belief that if a woman’s feet were not bound then they would not be able to find a husband.  So footbinding not only physically bound women but it became part of the image of the ideal women in China, causing women to become bound to this practice and force their daughters to also go through this extremely painful process.  Providing an historical example of how feminism was bound physically and also binding the idea of women in society.


This song shows the beginning of this movement for women to no longer bind their feet.  Providing an example of feminism unbound.  The song brings to attention how barbaric footbinding truly is.  The author points out that no civilized world would subject a group of people to this kind of pain and brought awareness to the fact that footbinding shortens your life.  The author created this image that if women no longer practice foot binding that they will be able to go to school and become educated and get their own job.  The author also reassured that women with unbound feet would also be able to find husbands (another binding characteristic but one step at a time).  This author wants women to take control of their lives by unbinding them from the image foot binding created and physically unbinding them from a forced life within a household.  This song provided me with an example of unbound feminism, that this author and other women who were beginning to stop binding their feet, were unbinding the idea if a Chinese women.  It is important to point out that this song was a head of its time because it wasn’t until after the revolution and the Republic of China had been established in 1911, that those policy that the author refers to in this song really became enforced. Also after 1911 Chinese women in America were also beginning to denounce footbinding and stop practicing it themselves.


Today feminist are trying to unbind us from gender and gender roles.  Gender is a binding force and in not recognizing gender feminism will become unbound.  For by examining the past it allowed me to fully understand feminism unbound today.  Even though gender is not as visually constricting as footbinding, they are still both examples of binding forces. The idea that gender is a social construct is an idea that is not fully known or accepted.  For example, I had to give my family a gender studies lecture because they did not fully understand the purpose of the use of non-gender specific pronouns.  In a certain way I participated in feminism unbound, by educating my family on gender and how it can be seen as a binding force, I exemplified need for unbound feminism to “take to the street” and educate the masses about gender and the problems with it.  


By examining the past it allowed me to make sense of the present.


If you are interested in footbinding and the movement Chinese American women in San Francisco, I would recommend reading Unbound Voices: A Documentary History of Chinese Women in San Francisco by Judy Yung.


Anne Dalke's picture

high heels?

Well, this was a surprise topic--as you say, Lindsay, you are taking the question of "unbinding" quite literally here!

The history of footbinding is a fascinating one, and/but I'd like to hear more about why people did this for so many 1000s of years--what was the logic/the rationale? You start right in with the poem/critique, and your own language is very sharp, about "how barbaric footbinding truly is," how "no civilized world would subject a group of people to this kind of pain"...but of course a civilization did, and did so for a very long time. How can we understand that?

Knowing this history might help us understand how (as nia.pike says) we can "break from the binds that hold our mindset." Knowing this history might also help us understand the ways in which we most certainly have not broken from it: see "Snow Flower": Food Binding, High Heels and the Cost of Beauty. WHY DO WOMEN DO THIS?

You don't pause @ high heels, but go straight to the much larger claim that "gender is a binding force." So why (as with the bound foot) do we choose to bind ourselves with it?

nia.pike's picture

Unbinding history

I found your post really interesting! History truly does define our culture and our culture has a large impact on who we are. Society relys upon the past as an experience to learn from, but also a basis upon which to rely. I agree that it is important to learn from our past, yet we must also seperate oursleves from our past and forge our own journeys. To me, your web event speaks to this form of unbinding. In China, young girls were forced to have their feet bound, then when they became mothers they allowed their own children's feet to be bind because they saw no other alternative. Sometimes another path is not avaliable, thus one must build it themselves. Even though society told mothers their children's feet must be bound, as the poem says they did not have to, they could still find husbands without bound feet. This lesson is relevant today in relation to feminism, gender, and sexuality. In order to progress as a society, we must break from the binds that hold our mindset, we must forge new ways of thinking and new actions, based not on if society says it is the way, but if we believe it is right. We must have the confidence to go against society, to forge new paths, and hope others follow in our footsteps.