- Footbinding as Fashion: Ethnicity, Labor, and Status in Traditional China by John Robert Shepherd
Footbinding has offered scholars a platform to explore the political, economic, social, and cultural landscape of China. A historical account might trace its origin to the Song dynasty (960–1279) and follow its spread to the literati, eventually trickling down to commoners. An ethnographic survey might analyze footbinding as a practice among the ethnic Chinese. A sociological perspective might explore the influence of footbinding on marriage patterns. An economic approach might link footbinding to particular household or agricultural economies. Shepherd's study engages with all these approaches. Drawing from palace memorials, literati writings, census data, surveys of agriculture and handicrafts, missionary reports, and ethnographies, Shepherd questions some long-standing explanations for the persistence of footbinding, proposing instead an interpretation that emphasizes the role of social pressure.
The book is divided into eight main chapters, surrounded by an introduction and conclusion. Chapter 1 starts with the early decades of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Shepherd challenges the notion that foot-binding became politicized in the transition from the Ming to the Qing dynasty. His analysis of Qing memorials and literati writings shows no evidence of a 1645 ban on footbinding or of the use of footbinding as an ethnic marker of Han identity that symbolized political opposition to [End Page 632] the Manchu rulers of the Qing. Hence, the spread of footbinding throughout the Qing should not be interpreted as an expression of anti-Manchu sentiment.
Shepherd continues to contest the "ethnic marker hypothesis" in Chapters 2 through 5, which focus on Hoklo—Hakka relations in early twentieth-century Taiwan, and Chapter 8, which focuses on Han—Manchu relations in northeastern China, also in the early twentieth century. The Hoklo and Han practiced footbinding, whereas the Hakka and Manchu did not. The ethnic marker hypothesis holds that footbinding would be most pronounced in ethnic communities that had frequent contact with other ethnicities that did not practice footbinding. Therefore, higher rates of footbinding would be expected in communities that bordered other ethnic groups. Shepherd argues, however, that in Taiwan, intra-ethnic competition contributed to the persistence of footbinding within Hoklo communities and that rates of footbinding were lower in Hoklo communities adjacent to Hakka communities. In northeastern China, Han—Manchu interactions led to the decline of footbinding among the Han population. Dismissing the relevance of the ethnic marker hypothesis, Shepherd states instead that social pressure played the key role in maintaining the practice of footbinding. The judgment of peers was strongest within the Hoklo communities, where footbinding was accepted as normative, desirable, and even necessary, to be respectable.
Chapters 6 and 7 counter economic explanations for the geographical distribution of footbinding. The general assumption is that footbinding was more common in areas where dry agriculture was practiced; wet agriculture made it difficult for women with bound feet to engage in farmwork. Shepherd uses Taiwan as a counter-example, finding rates of footbinding unaffected not only by farming practice but also by tenancy rates and degrees of urbanization. He also disputes the "labor discipline hypothesis" that views footbinding as not only compatible with, but also necessary for, female textile work. Mining the economic data about handicrafts, Shepherd finds no correlation between footbinding and handicraft production that would confirm an economic explanation for the persistence of footbinding.
Shepherd's interpretations of the data to counter conventional views of footbinding is commendable. However, the data do not support a monocausal explanation centered on social pressure to have small feet, making Shepherd's conclusion more suggestive than definitive. Moreover, given that the majority of the book focuses on Japanese-occupied Taiwan and frontier zones in northeastern China in the early twentieth century, the application of its conclusions to the rest of China or to the period conventionally considered "traditional," which would predate the twentieth century, is suspect. That aside, Shepherd has presented data and posed arguments that are sure to attract specialists and stimulate debate. [End Page 633]