The Body as Attire: The Shifting Meanings of Footbinding in Seventeenth-Century China
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The Body as Attire: The Shifting Meanings of Footbinding in Seventeenth-Century China Dorothy Ko Footbinding was superfluous in the colonial age: its prestige had waned and its aura dimmed but the practice lingered, more stubbornly than the abolitionists had anticipated. I have been probing this disjuncture by subjecting the bound foot to historiographical inquiry. This essay is a preliminary report. My premise is simple: for a historian, there is no neutral or objective knowledge about footbinding. Whatever knowledge we can gain depends on who we are, who wrote the texts, when, and why. The impossibility of coherent, objective knowledge is compounded by the peculiar history of footbinding. It was neither a uniform practice across regions, nor did it sustain a timeless and essential core of meanings. The unanimity of condemnation in modern times masks the multiplicity of practice and the instability of meaning that is the only salient truth about footbinding. Footbinding as History: The Problem With the Archives Behind the uniform label of "footbinding" lay a colorful variety of local traditions and distinct practices that have fascinated anthropologists and medical missionaries since the nineteenth century. The practices they have documented range from pressing a girl's four toes toward the heel with cloth binders, hence bulging the foot into an arched shape, to wearing tight socks for a slender look. The local variations in method of binding , desired length and shape, age of initiation, required paraphenalia, public and private rituals, shoe patterns, and terminologies of footbinding were so great that it was impossible to produce a master narrative. Historians have encountered a different problem in writing about footbinding, which defies the conventional approach of seeking meaning, if not truth, from archives. Footbinding is a puzzling anomaly. On the one hand, what it is about seems painfully obvious to its modern critics, who condemn the practice as the most hideous bodily mutilation inflicted on women by patriarchs (often dubbed "Confucian") to serve male interests. First, footbinding kept women in a hobbled and subservient domestic state; second, it rendered them sex objects to satisfy certain perverted erotic fantasies of men. These are dead certainties to our modern minds. Yet on the other hand, we hardly know what footbinding is about because © 1997 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 8 No. 4 (Winter) 1997 Dorothy Ko 9 the archives fail to answer even the most rudimentary questions. Legends aside, when did it start? How did it spread through time, across geographical regions, and across class lines? And, most important, how did women feel about it? Upon scrutiny, our certainties may turn out to be dead wrong, based as they are on an uncritical imposition of modern perspectives onto a Chinese past that thrived on values and body conceptions alien to ours. In order to answer questions about the history of footbinding we need to re-ask them in more self-reflexive ways. To begin with, we need to recognize the modern nationalist bias of our sources and informants. Much of our present knowledge of footbinding is colored by China's search for a virile identity under the traumas of imperialism. Our "factual" knowledge about the practice derives almost exclusively from nineteenth- and twentieth-century writings, drawings, or photographs: literature produced by anti-footbinding societies, missionary accounts, medical reports, field-notes of Japanese anthropologists, interviews with footbound women.1 These materials would not have been produced without the intrusion of Euro-American missionaries into the heart of China since the 1860s and the colonialization of Taiwan by Japan in 1895. Couched either in a scientific tone of objective observation or as an impassioned plea for abolition, these accounts cannot be accepted at face value. They document less the sociology of footbinding than the vehemence of "national shame" as China was exposed, in a feeble and dependent state, to the scrutiny of the community of nations. Stated tacitly or loudly, the authors' goal was the same: to eradicate the practice as the epitome of "tradition." Yet all of the classic treatises on footbinding, from Howard Levy's Chinese Footbinding: The History of a Curious Erotic Custom in English to Okamoto Ryuzo's Tensoku monogatari [The story of footbinding ] in Japanese, have used this...


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