- Footbinding and Women’s Labor in Sichuan by Hill Gates, and: Regulating Prostitution in China: Gender and Local Statebuilding, 1900–1937 by Elizabeth J. Remick
The two books that are the subject of this review may at first glance seem like an odd pair. While both touch on issues that are often featured in Chinese women’s studies—the book by Hill Gates looking at footbinding and the book by Elizabeth Remick focusing on prostitution—their authors come from different disciplinary fields, address very different problems, and use different methodologies. What links the two books is a turn away from what has been a dominant trend in the study of Chinese women’s history. Over the last several decades much of the best work in women’s and gender history has been influenced by cultural studies approaches, using literary sources to understand the lives of women in “traditional” Chinese society, exploring the representations and discourses that surrounded women’s lives.1 This approach has made great strides in exploring the lives of upper-class women, but has had little to say about the lives of the middle and lower classes who could not read or write and who have left few records of their lives and none of their thoughts.
Gates and Remick have shifted the spotlight from the world of upper-class genteel society, where well-educated women expressed their feelings in letters and poems, to the lives of poorer rural and urban women. Gates draws on a large database of interviews with elderly women in Sichuan, and Remick uses records kept by local governments to explore efforts to regulate prostitution in Guangzhou, [End Page 196] Hangzhou, and Kunming. Each of the books presents a nuanced argument about the lives of women in the lower ranks of Chinese society and also offers insights that should stimulate discussion about broader issues in Chinese society. Remick’s analysis closely examines three case studies of regulation of prostitution as a way to track different local approaches to state building, and Gates’s work, which argues for the link between footbinding and handicraft work, provides a window for reconsideration of many of the prevailing ideas about the role of girls and women in the twentieth-century Chinese family economy. Each book raises questions about and offers approaches to understanding the ways in which women’s bodies and labor were controlled, in the case of Gates’s book by the family and in Remick’s by the local state. In both cases, control of a woman’s body was directly linked to controlling the income that resulted from her labor.
Footbinding and Women’s Labor in Sichuan draws on a large survey of interviews in Sichuan conducted by Gates and her Chinese collaborators from the Sichuan Provincial Women’s Association. Her informants from ten counties in Sichuan were born during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and through their own experiences and their recollections of the experiences of their mothers and grandmothers they provide data on the practice of footbinding and its relationship to marriage practices and work within the family from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Although this is not the first book that has used interviews with footbound women as a source, the size and scope of this sample allows for more sophisticated statistical analysis than previous work on the relations among footbinding, work, marriage patterns, and a host of other questions, and it goes a long way to answering questions about the actual practice of footbinding in early twentieth-century rural China.
The book combines arguments based on the survey data with densely argued chapters that critique some of the classic explanations of the practice of footbinding. Gates notes at the outset that she is not going to consider questions about the origins of footbinding or its spread from the...