Footbinding as Fashion
Ethnicity, Labor, and Status in Traditional China
- PUBLISHED: February 2019
- SUBJECT LISTING: Asian Studies / China, Anthropology
- BIBLIOGRAPHIC INFORMATION: 272 Pages, 6 x 9 in, 7 b&w illus., 6 maps, 18 tables, 9 charts
- ISBN: 9780295744407
Previous studies of the practice of footbinding in imperial China have theorized that it expressed ethnic identity or that it served an economic function. By analyzing the popularity of footbinding in different places and times, Footbinding as Fashion investigates the claim that early Qing (1644–1911) attempts by Manchu rulers to ban footbinding made it a symbol of anti-Manchu sentiment and Han identity and led to the spread of the practice throughout all levels of society. Detailed case studies of Taiwan, Hebei, and Liaoning provinces exploit rich bodies of previously neglected ethnographic reports, economic surveys, and rare censuses of footbinding to challenge the significance of sedentary female labor and ethnic rivalries as factors leading to the hegemony of the footbinding fashion. The study concludes that, independently of identity politics and economic factors, variations in local status hierarchies and elite culture coupled with status competition and fear of ridicule for not binding girls’ feet best explain how a culturally arbitrary fashion such as footbinding could attain hegemonic status.
Authors & Contributors
John Robert Shepherd is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Marriage and Mandatory Abortion among the 17th-Century Siraya and Statecraft and Political Economy on the Taiwan Frontier, 1600–1800.
It’s a comprehensive and convincing look at footbinding as a whole that will serve as an invaluable resource for further research on the practice, especially in Taiwan.- Taipei Times
Footbinding as Fashion demonstrates convincingly that local social status hierarchies and the desire for respectability were the key influences on the spread or curbing of footbinding.- Louise Edwards, author of Women Warriors and Wartime Spies of China
Shepherd argues that footbinding was merely a fashion, but one closely linked to marriageability, and thus important to status competition.- William Lavely, University of Washington
This book is a bravura performance: scientific anthropology, historical anthropology and sinology combined to deal with Chinese footbinding through ethnographic analysis, a skillful disaggregation of data sets, and an orientation towards theory guided by a critical (and convincingly dismissive) examination of pre-existing hypotheses regarding footbinding and the factors supporting it in late imperial China. By isolating footbinding as 'fashion,' Shepherd succeeds in a revisionist interpretation of this crippling practice, one offering a far better understanding of its very mixed acceptance by the Han Chinese.- Myron L. Cohen, professor of anthropology, Columbia University
John Shepherd confronts the hypothesis that the Qing conquest government attempted to proscribe footbinding in China soon after it captured Beijing in 1644, and that these policies produced a reaction among Chinese elites that made footbinding as a marker of Chinese identity in the conquest state, eventually accruing even more ideological significance in relation to subordination of women and anxieties over economic competition. Shepherd re-examines the evidence for the Qing period and adds a deep case study of turn-of-the-century Taiwan to suggest that that these hypotheses are too grand. Instead, he reinstates contemporary commentary both Chinese and foreign, and clarifies past explanations by anthropologists and sociologists, to argue that the meaning of footbinding was not identity, or the entanglements of male eroticism, or economic anxieties, but mundane concerns of beauty in the eyes of self and of the beholder, shaped by the enduring thrall of conformity.- Pamela Kyle Crossley, author of A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology