Much of what passes for scholarship in cross-cultural studies is based on bias, ignorance, and unfounded assumptions, and much feminist research has succeeded in uncovering and exposing subjective factors coloring traditional male research. An interesting dilemma is: why are we so poor at realizing when our own research is not conducted with the same careful objectivity we demand in others? Far too often our own biases, prejudices, and unfounded assumptions lead us to accept conclusions which have no objective foundations. This essay is an examination of one instance where Western feminist thinkers have cheerfully embraced an unsound conclusion which nicely fits their own social political agendas and presuppositions. The case in point is the Western feminist understanding and treatment of Chinese women. To a certain extent, the problem can be understood as part of the widely criticized phenomenon of marginalization of "third world" women in Western feminist discourse; (1) yet, the Western representation of cultural "others" in this case has its particular stereotypes and biases.
Recent years have seen numerous books and papers analyzing and criticizing the Western perception of Chinese women; (2) still, many more details of the subject need to be worked out, especially, the factors that gave rise to the image of Chinese women as nothing but victims in pre-modern China. What also seems to have no been emphasized enough is the fact that the problem of distortion and marginalization does not always exist exclusively in Euro-American literature on third world women. People who are writing from the under-privileged state or from the perspective of those within such a state can also bias their understanding by uncritically embracing Western values as universal truth and judging their own tradition as backward and inferior to their Western counterparts. This tendency was clearly revealed in the May Fourth analysis of China's cultural past and women's enslavement in the Confucian family system. Unfortunately, to a large extent, the May Fourth intellectuals' bitter complaint against the Confucian tradition and their unsubstantiated generalization of women's victimization in pre-modern China are still retained in much of the sinophone literature on Chinese women in contemporary mainland China. (3) An awareness of the close relation that the May Fourth tradition bears to the Maoist state ideology and its impact on the academic research conducted within the country can certainly guard scholars outside China against taking the contemporary Chinese materials at face value.
In this essay, I will try to highlight some of the dilemmas embedded in the Chinese May Fourth analysis and Western feminist representation concerning the status of women in pre-twentieth century China. Specifically, I have two main theses: (1) the construction of the image of Chinese women as nothing but victims of Confucian patriarchy in both the Chinese and Western feminist discourse is designed to further other ideological purposes and political agendas respectively; in both cases, the claim that Chinese women had suffered from a more abusive patriarchy is unsubstantiated, and probably, reflects the biases and assumptions of each political tradition more than reality; (2) by way of an example, from a cross-cultural perspective, the interpretation of the custom of footbinding as the sheer victimization of women by male sadism, which is held by both the Chinese reformers and Western feminists, has distorted the meaning and function of that custom in that such a depiction omits the complex details of the traditional Chinese social milieu which gave rise to footbinding. (4)
In the introduction to her book Teachers of the Inner Chambers, Dorothy Ko noted, "[T]he invention of an ahistorical 'Chinese tradition' that is feudal, patriarchal, and oppressive was the result of a rare confluence of three divergent ideological and political traditions--the May Fourth-New Culture movement, the Communist revolution, and Western feminist scholarship" (1994, 3). Indeed, despite their distinctively divergent ideologies and political agendas, these three schools unanimously agree that women in pre-modern China were uniformly oppressed by an extremely harsh patriarchy that had dominated Chinese society for more than two thousand years. However, the commonality shared by these three political schools is not merely a coincidence. The formation of the discursive image of women, as uniformly oppressed and victimized in feudal China, which unites these three political schools, has its roots in the history of Western economic expansion in China at the turn of the twentieth century.
In order to understand the factors that influenced the Chinese intellectuals' assessment of women's status during the May Fourth period, one needs to consider the issue in the historical context of Western economic expansionism in China and China's painful transition (beginning in the mid-nineteenth century) from its agricultural economy and traditional life to modernity. A brief discussion of some of the crises that China experienced during the early decades of the twentieth century may shed some light on the subject.
The May Fourth legacy as a distinctive ideological and political tradition received its name from a student demonstration on May 4, 1919. College students in Beijing protested the decision taken by the Allied Powers at the Versailles Peace Conference that year which supported the Japanese occupation of China's Shandong province, previously occupied by Germany. The patriotic demonstration later trigged a nationwide political and cultural movement that involved the critical reevaluation of China's entire cultural heritage. (5)
China during this time had experienced a series of national crises. These crises were manifested in widespread corruption, deterioration of government administration, warlord wars at the provincial level, and the economic poverty that caused nationwide starvation. The domestic crises were intensified by Western economic intervention. Since the latter half of the nineteenth century, after Chinese resistance to foreign trade was repeatedly defeated by the superior military might of Western countries, China was coerced into signing a series of treaties that granted extraterritoriality as an indemnity to Western and Japanese powers. By the early twentieth century, a large portion of the nation's economy was controlled by foreign powers.
Reflection on these crises prompted the May Fourth generation of intellectuals, especially those who had studied in the West or in Japan, to become painfully conscious of China's low international standing and extreme economic poverty in contrast to the dynamism they had found in the West and in Japan. Much literature produced during this time revealed that generation's frustration with China's inability to defend itself, deep concerns with the national salvation, and enthusiasm for Western ideals of liberalism, democracy, and human rights. First published in 1915, New Youth, a journal edited by Chen Duxiu, who later became one of the founders of the Communist Party of China (CPC), certainly represents one of the most radical views of the time in advocating a whole sale of rejection of Confucianism. With little scholarly justification, the editors of and contributors to New Youth came to believe that Confucian thought and the traditional social organization, which resembled the patriarchal family structure, were the major causes of China's inability to defend itself against foreign invasion. The May Fourth leading figures further argued that in order to save the nation from the colonization of international capitalism and Japanese military invasion, the Chinese people must completely transform Confucian culture. (6) As New Youth became widely embraced by the students and even working class population, the iconoclasm became closely attached to the cause of national salvation during the following decade.
Women's issues became the focus of cultural discussions during this time because of their close association with the larger political and ideological concerns of the May Fourth intellectuals in reforming China. Influenced by a Western ideal of liberalism, the May Fourth radicals had seen the subjugation of women in feudal China as evidence of the most conspicuous aspect of the inhumanity of Confucian traditions. The custom of footbinding, together with others that promoted concubinage, female chastity, and arranged marriage were often cited by the May Fourth intellectuals as evidence of how much harm the Confucian tradition had done to women. The correlation between nationalism and patriotism, and the avocation of women's liberation, according to May Fourth activists, was that since women had been at the bottom of the social hierarchy regulated by Confucian ideals and had suffered the cruelest forms of oppression in the Confucian tradition, the social transformation leading to national regeneration should start with the liberation of women.
Given the historical context, the May Fourth radicals' iconoclasm and their analysis of women's status are understandable reactions to the national crisis; however, one cannot fail to notice that the manner in which the Chinese intellectuals came to regard their cultural traditions in light of their exposure to Western thought. It revealed an unequal treatment of the Chinese and Western ideologies. Christopher Lupke explains this inequality in terms of a perceived difference in the worth of distinct values and traditions (Chow 2000, 130). Modern Chinese intellectuals who have looked to the West as a source of models for reforming China often characterized traditional Chinese values "as 'backward,' 'superstitious,' and even 'cannibalistic'" (130). The discriminative attitude toward the Chinese and modern Western cultures is obvious in the following statement given by Luo Jia Lun, a student leader at The Beijing University during the May Fourth period:
Chinese culture and society are truly depressing these days. Not only are they depressing at the present, but they may be said to have been this way for two thousand years.... Autocratic thought is rooted in Confucianism, propagated by those who don't dare deviate from the sayings of the Master. (quoted in Schwarcz 1986, 123)
In contrast to the devaluation of the Chinese traditions, the May Fourth generation often assigned a privileged status to Western literature and thinkers. The enthusiasm in receiving Western ideas was best seen in the popularity of A Doll's House, the work of the Norwegian play writer, Henrik Ibsen. May Fourth generations embraced the story with great passion and took Nora, the heroine, as the model of individualistic rebellion against family system. Being trapped in the expectation to enter arranged marriages which are not their own choice, many young women in that generation followed Nora's footsteps by breaking up with their families. (7) However, it did not take long for them to realize the limitation of Nora's choice. The crucial question, of course, was what would happen to these young women after they left home? Even Lu Xun, one of the most radical iconoclastic writers during the time, had to write on the theme "What Happens after Nora Leaves Home" (Lu 1998, 1:150). In this essay, Lu warned young girls, who might have attempted to follow Nora's footsteps, not to forget that success after leaving home can be achieved only among the exceptional. As for those who are not mentally and physically equipped for their own survival in a society where there was no legal protection for women's economic rights and equality; their search for freedom could soon end in despair (150).
The dilemma that confronts Nora's Chinese audience, to a certain extent, reflects the perplexity that had troubled the radical May Fourth reformers at a deeper level. Some of them became increasingly impatient about the gradual changes that such a cultural campaign had brought to Chinese society. During this time the Marxist--Leninist idea of proletarian revolution seemed to have provided a new inspiration, especially after the news of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia had spread to China. Some of the liberal intellectuals came to believe that only through a social revolution involving the masses could the country gain its rebirth. Their commitment to violent revolution as a means of transforming Chinese society soon gave birth to the Communist Party of China (CPC).
Therefore, the connection between the May Fourth Movement and the CPC, which was founded in 1921, is ideological, political, and even personal. (8) In terms of ideology and politics, the CPC continued the iconoclastic and nationalistic tradition developed by the radical intellectuals during the May Fourth period and combined this legacy with the Marxist and Leninist theory of the proletarian revolution. Naturally, the Chinese communists carried on the May Fourth analysis of women's oppression, only adding to it a Marxist dimension. Women's victimization by the Confucian patriarchy was thereafter analyzed by the communists in terms of class domination. The image of victimized women, together with the promise of liberation of women by the communist revolution, was used as a powerful force in mobilizing women to participate in the communist camp during the anti-Japanese war and the civil war.
After the CPC founded the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the May Fourth views on the victimization of women were reinforced and established as the standard reading of Chinese women's history. Such a reading was often used to underscore the contrast between women's low status in feudal society and their achievement in socialist China, where gender equality and women's legal rights are supposedly secured. The contrast was stressed in order to suggest clearly the idea of a glorified communist revolution involving the successful liberation of women from the subjugation of the feudal gender hierarchy. Thus, the generations of Chinese who grew up in mainland China under Mao's regime hardly had access to any competing account of women's history. Only with the demise of Maoist radicalism in 1976 did scholars in China begin to question the success of the socialist revolution in elevating women to an equal economic and political standing with men. However, even today, the Chinese academic discussion of women's history in feudal China shows no sign of deviation from the theory held by the official Chinese communist government's view.
The readiness of Western feminists to accept such a portrayal of Chinese women is inseparable from their "ethnocentric feminist discourse" that accords Western women a higher social and political status than third world women (Mohanty 1991, 56). As Jinhau Emma Teng has observed, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, influenced by the methodology and political concern prevalent at the time, numerous Western feminist writings on Chinese women tended to focus on the notion of gender subordination (1996, 133). It is commonly asserted by these writers that Chinese women have suffered more than women in the Western world and that Confucianism is the source of women's subordination. Thus, Kay Ann Johnson once stated in an oft-cited remark, "Few societies in history have prescribed for women a more lowly status or treated them in a more routinely brutal way than traditional Confucian China" (1983,1). Such a belief that women in China suffered far more than women in Western societies was also shared by Judith Stacey, who wrote: "All agrarian civilizations rest on patriarchal familial foundations. Few patriarchal systems approach the degree of explication, elaboration, or hegemony Confucianism achieved in imperial China" (1983, 134). Johnson and Stacey's claims about Chinese women's suffering as the result of the dominance of the Confucian system, which very much echo the Chinese May Fourth iconoclastic rhetoric, are, however, not just a reiteration of the Chinese views. They are also conclusions derived from their own rather problematic research.
Two methodological problems can be found in their discussion of Chinese women. First, they have characterized Chinese women as a category that is uniformly victimized in the Confucian patriarchal family. Such a characterization is too superficial and oversimplified to illuminate the complexities in the real status of Chinese women of different ages, different regions, and different social standing. Second, both of their statements are based on the same assumption in which the Confucian tradition was considered to be a static and monolithic system that had dominated Chinese women for more than two thousand years. It is highly implausible to suppose that any belief system can exert such a power in dominating women for such a long time without any fundamental changes, much less Confucianism, since evidence has shown that development of Confucianism and sustaining of the system have involved constant construction and reconstruction by both men and women. Conducted from a Western perspective, Johnson and Stacey's research, which tends to treat Confucianism as a "natural order" which sanctioned a gender hierarchy, has failed to realize "the dynamic and multitudinous nature of the Confucian tradition" (Ko 1994, 19).
In short, the interpretations of Chinese women's oppression and victimization offered by all three of the above mentioned political schools were designed to further other ideological purposes. Some recent post-colonial writers have indeed challenged the assumptions of homogeneity of women across cultures used in some of the Western feminist analyses of the non-Western women, and some have even challenged the idea that has formed the basis for Western feminist constructions of the image of "third world" women, including the image of Chinese women. (9) In what follows in this paper, I will focus on the examination of the accusation of Confucianism as the direct cause of women's victimization advanced both by the Chinese reformers and Western feminists and try to reveal how much this misinterpretation has distorted the nature and function of the Chinese tradition and the history of Chinese women, especially the truth concerning the custom of footbinding. The lesson can obviously be extended to other areas of cross cultural studies.
One of the problems embedded in the Chinese May Fourth criticism of the Confucian tradition, which was repeated by some of the Western feminist scholars in the 1970s and 80s, is that the Confucian tradition was treated as an immutable monolithic system directly responsible for both the crisis that China went through in the early twentieth century and the low status of women in that society. As is apparent in the works of Lu Xun, the foremost writer of the May Fourth Era, the notion of the Confucian tradition was very vague and encompassed everything from the sayings of Confucius and his disciples to the prevailing customs in twentieth century China. In his impassioned short story, "Diary of a Madman," Lu proposed that the essence of the Confucian tradition amounts to a license for cannibalism, a metaphor invoked to reflect the cruelty of a highly exploitative and oppressive social system that had dominated China during its feudal times (Lu 1998 1: 422-433). In the story, Lu depicted a madman, who alone has the ability to read between the lines of the Confucian classics and who discovers an awful truth on every page where the words "virtue and benevolence" occur; between these words is the hidden message: "Eat people!" (425) The political implication of the story was that Confucian morality, which represented nothing but lying and hypocrisy, had been used by the dominant class to cover up their cruelty toward the poor and the powerless.
Lu's story profoundly influenced twentieth century Chinese culture. Large numbers of intellectuals, especially the young iconoclasts who were students during the May Fourth era, enthusiastically embraced Lu's work for its vigorous attack on the Confucian tradition. During the successive decades, iconoclasm and its relevance to the salvation of the nation were the dominant themes of both political and literary discourse. During Mao's regime (1949-1976), when the governmental branch of propaganda mandated for decades that "Diary of the Madman" and Lu's numerous other iconoclastic essays be used in high school textbooks and literary studies, while rejecting all other competing views, his sweeping criticism of China's past was established as the standard reading of Chinese history. What the "madman" said about the Confucian tradition gradually was taken to be the impeachable truth and the word "Chi Ren de" (cannibalistic) became the most frequently used term when characterizing the nature of Chinese feudal society.
As powerful as it is in influencing the culture of twentieth century China and, to a certain extent, Western feminist theories, Lu's story contained a clear implication that cannot withstand any serious academic analysis. The problem is not that what Lu suggested, through the mouth of the "madman," about the cruelty manifested in human relations in feudal Chinese society was not true. On the contrary, the extreme popularity of the story may, at least partially, have been due to the fact that many people were able to identify with how the "madman" felt about the social reality at that time. The problem was instead with the fundamental claim, which was central to the critiques of Lu Xun and many other May Fourth authors, about the Confucian ideology being the source of all the evils that existed in feudal Chinese society. The indictments leveled against the Confucian tradition could have been legitimately maintained only if its critics had offered an adequate account of how the tradition had been preserved through different social contexts and had been the basis for the perpetuation of a highly exploitative and oppressive social system. However, as is evident in the works of Lu Xun and many other leading May Fourth critics, there was a failure to provide any meaningful account of the implications of Confucian values on, and their relationship to, contemporary issues. Instead, these critics born of frustration reflective of historical crises often blamed Confucianism for many problems that beset early twentieth century China that had no connection with the tradition.
The May Fourth analysis of women's status in feudal China bears a similar shortcoming in that it blames the Confucian tradition for women's oppression and victimization throughout history. That analysis presupposed the continued presence of an extremely cruel Chinese patriarchy regulated by monolithic and static Confucian principles. In failing to realize that the Confucian doctrine, like other classical doctrines, has the capacity to evolve through history through perennial reinterpretation, some advocates of women's liberation during the May Fourth period advanced criticism that rested on inaccurate ahistorical sources.
This mistake can best be seen in the May Fourth critiques of the principles of Sangang (the three bonds) which prescribed the duties of the prince, the father, and the husband in guiding their inferiors. Many of those who advanced the cause of women's liberation during the May Fourth period saw the wife's subordination to her husband, as prescribed by the three bonds, as the primary source of the evil that Confucianism had inflicted upon women. (10) However, a more careful study of the subject shows the historical formation of the principles of the three bonds to be much more complex than what the May Fourth critics considered it to be.
In Asian Values and Human Rights, WM. Theodore De Bary argued that part of the so-called "Confucian" doctrine, the principle of "the three bonds," simply has no firm basis in the Confucian corpus, (11) and was a concept later adopted by the tradition (De Bary 1998, 124). De Bary also pointed out that the original articulation of the "the three bonds" can be traced to Baihutong (The Comprehensive Discussions in the White Tiger Hall), a first-century text that represents a record of seminars on Confucian classics held by the imperial court (125). De Bary explains that the discussions on the Classics and on Confucian themes held at the imperial court are "typical of the process by which the Confucian doctrine became codified through state patronage" (125). The purpose of this kind of discussion was to delineate the limits and boundaries of public morality based on a certain regime's interpretation of classical scholarship. It is unclear what specific aphorism of Confucius the notion of "the three bonds" was based on; it does not, in principle, contradict the idea of the hierarchical relationships prescribed between the rulers and the subjects and between the sons the fathers. However, in the Confucian classics, which usually emphasize the complementary nature of the relationship between men and women, one cannot find anything comparable or similar to the notion of the wife's total obedience to her husband as it is stated in "the three bonds."
It is also true that, in the long history of Chinese feudal society, the Confucian emphasis on family and social hierarchical order was often abused by the rulers of the family and society and used by them to cover their domination over those under them. In order to legitimize their domination, these rulers often took Confucian doctrine out of context and emphasized the obedience and subservience of the underprivileged parties. It seems that many customs and examples of women's victimization (concubinage, widows' chastity, for example) criticized by the early Chinese reformers belong to the cases of abuse of this nature in which the sacrifice and obedience was forced in the name of Confucianism. What is missing in the May Fourth analysis of these cases was the recognition that the principles of the three bonds is a later dynasty's interpretation of the Confucian text whose consistency with the tenet of Confucianism concerning human relations is subject to argument. A genuine understanding of the doctrine will reveal that the Confucian ideal concerning human relations does not necessarily imply or justify women's domination by Chinese patriarchy; rather, the abuse of women in Chinese society was caused by distortions of the doctrine.
Largely shaped by the concerns and agendas of the iconoclastic movement, the May Fourth radical critics saw the custom of footbinding as an indication of cultural backwardness and an extreme symptom of patriarchal oppression. As portrayed in Chen Dong Yuan's work, A History of the lives of Chinese Women, footbinding is a mutilation of women's body to meet the standard of beauty perceived through the Chinese male's eyes, and a symbol of women's subordination to the sexual tastes of men (Chen 1928, 223-5).
In contemporary Chinese literature in mainland China, the analysis of the custom of footbinding still cannot break away from the iconoclastic framework. Thus, the May Fourth rhetoric was repeated by many contemporary writers on women's studies in post-Mao China. Du Fangqin, one of the most influential writers on women's history, claimed that the practice of footbinding, in essence, was men's conspiracy to keep women home as slaves physically and mentally, and to turn them into sheer objects of men's lust and perversity (Du 1989, 378). Similar to the May Fourth iconoclastic discourse, Du's discussion of the custom of footbinding is designed to enumerate the evils of Confucian patriarchy.
The subject of footbinding held a particular fascination for Western feminist writers. Being largely informed by the Chinese May Fourth iconoclastic analysis of the subject, Western feminists often used the Chinese practice of footbinding as an indication of the pernicious character of the Confucian patriarchy. This point was expressed by Stacey in the following words: "Footbinding is the most infamous of the uniquely Confucian variety of brutal patriarchal practices. ... One result was a woman's inability to take any but the tiny, minced steps that produced the lilting gait so admired by Confucian men" (1983, 40-41). Stacey is not alone in claiming that footbinding is a torture for women which originated from males' fantasy. Other Western feminists also made explicit assertions of footbinding as the result of male sadism. In Johnson's writing, for example, footbinding simply "stood as an expression of one of history's most powerful sadomasochistic male fantasies" (1983, 1). A similar view was also expressed by Mary Daly, who portrayed footbinding in terms of men's decision to torture and mutilate women to satisfy their erotic desires (Daly 1978, 134-152).
What often surfaced in the writings of the Chinese nationalists and Western feminists were two main claims: (1) the spread of footbinding is a symbol of male dominance generated from the Confucian gender hierarchy, and (2) the custom of footbinding is a product of male sadism; that is, men were the agents behind the mutilation, demanding it and enforcing it. A more careful study of the subject reveals that in the case of these claims there are serious discrepancies between theory and the fact. The problem with the first claim is that the blame placed on Confucian thought, which often implied that the doctrine was deliberately designed to oppress women in the most brutal of ways, has failed to give any meaningful illumination of the connection between the Confucian doctrine and the emergence of the custom of footbinding. After all, in what sense could the Confucian doctrine, contained in the classical texts complied hundreds of years before the common era, be responsible for the custom of footbinding, which did not become wide-spread until the twelfth century? The problem with the second claim is that it conflicts historical facts. If the custom of footbinding was merely the result of men's power to use women's body as the object for their erotic desires, then how does one explain the fact that footbinding was always an exclusively female heritage passed down from mothers to daughters? And many male Chinese scholars throughout history seriously questioned the rationality of the custom and many of those men protested against the custom long before the beginning of twentieth century Chinese social reform. (12)
To reject the conventional association of the custom of footbinding with Confucian thought is not to deny any connection between Confucianism and the emergence and persistence of the custom. Indeed, the Confucian biases, as they are expressed in the classical texts, certainly exerted an important influence and helped form and reinforce the gender hierarchy and unequal treatment of women in many areas of traditional Chinese history. Some of the Confucian biases may actually have been responsible in part for the spread of or the rationalization for the practice of footbinding. However, in order to explain the relevance of the Confucian doctrine to the custom of footbinding one has to explain how the doctrine, as the product of constant adaptation and reinterpretation by scholars to realign it with changing social realties, was actually involved (if only indirectly) in encouraging and rationalizing the practice of footbinding.
My disagreement with the May Fourth and some of the Western feminist accounts of footbinding is not that it is untrue that Chinese women had suffered from footbinding. For any one who has basic human compassion, it is always a heartbreaking experience to review the history of footbinding and the pain that this custom inflicted on Chinese women. However, the sympathy and empathy for the victims of footbinding does not automatically guarantee that one can correctly identify the source of the problem. Thus, for anyone serious about the historical truth surrounding the issue of footbinding, it is crucial to recognize the fact that it is not Chinese men, but Chinese women, who played major roles in upholding the custom. To recognize this fact does not mean simply to blame women themselves for the spread of footbinding but to try and achieve a more accurate understanding of the factors that had given rise to and sustained the custom.
The history of footbinding is very complex; numerous factors can be held responsible for the development of the custom. It is beyond the scope of the paper to address them all in detail. However, it is worth mentioning some of the important aspects of the custom that the May Fourth and Western feminist accounts have failed to address.
Footbinding might have started as a fashion among women from a few elite families, but once it became widespread during the twelfth century, it became part of the training which prepared girls for their roles as married women in the traditional patriarchal family. It took six to ten years to complete the formative treatment. During those years, a girl from the elite family normally was taught the art of poetry, painting, and fine needlework or embroidery; but a girl from the poor family was taught to spin and weave and all the skills needed to produce practically useful goods for the family's survival. While learning these practical skills girls also learned values of diligence, orderliness, the virtue of filial piety, frugality, modesty, and industry. Thus, in traditional Chinese society, the bound feet were taken as one of many indications of girls' home education and training. As the Chinese saying goes: "A pair of well-bound feet not only makes a woman beautiful but also good and virtuous" (Wang 2000, 151).
In traditional Chinese society, a marriage was usually arranged by parents. Men and women were not given many chances to know each other before they were married. Instead, they were chosen for each other by parents and matchmakers. Since a girl's bound feet were commonly regarded as an indication of her proper upbringing, mothers naturally desired to have a daughter-in law with bound feet. It is often the case that the mother in-law's preference and judgment in choosing a particular kind of girl to be her daughter-in-law was more crucial than the son choosing what kind of woman he wished to marry. Therefore, when the marriage market reinforced footbinding, it gave mothers a motive to bind her daughter's feet with the hope that she would grow up like a lady and be married into a good family.
It is also useful for the understanding of footbinding to look at the social and cultural circumstances that had given rise to the aesthetic preference of small feet. In Teachers of the Inner Chambers, Ko offers some insight in this regard. She locates the practice of footbinding in the context of a society regulated by the Confucian vision of the separate spheres. She explains this vision in the following words:
[A] man was responsible for keeping order in the family, local community, government, and the world at large; his private morality was the root of public good ... A woman, too, was to be incessant in her moral cultivation. Her contribution, however, stopped at the "ordered household."(1994, 144)
In other words, a man's virtue was judged according to his economic, social, and political achievement, whereas a woman's virtue was judged by her performance confined to her role in the domestic sphere as a wife, a mother, and a care giver to the family members. Ko also points out that the Neo-Confucian ideology not only prescribes to men and women separate spheres but also reinforces the demarcation between the inner and outer sphere to prevent "disorder" (144). According to Ko, the spread of the custom of footbinding was evidently linked to the effort of strengthening the gender distinction. She cites Patricia Ebrey's insight to support this point. According to Ebrey, during the Song Dynasty (960-1276), in which footbinding had reached its peak, women's desire in having smaller feet was a response to the refined image of the ideal men in the upper class. When the image of the ideal upper class Chinese male became refined, gentle, and frail-looking, the image of women in the same class was expected to look even more exquisite and delicate (148). Thus, the spread of this custom, in Ebrey and Ko's views, allowed Chinese men to refine themselves without becoming too feminized (148). This theory is plausible in accounting for the connection between the Neo-Confucian's concern with the blurred gender distinction and the derived aesthetic interest which may have in fact encouraged the custom's spread among women of the gentry families.
Ko also characterized in a picturesque way how the 17th century Chinese women from gentry families embraced the custom: "Women exchanged poems eulogizing small feet; mementos such as embroidered shoes were as widely used as poems in cementing female friendships." Ko's discussion is significant in countering the conventional association of footbinding with male eroticism; however, her theory that some Chinese women of the gentry class had enjoyed footbinding should not be overstated, since life in feudal Chinese society was not as pretty for the majority of women as the life of a few elite gentry families. Life for the women of poor families was not so much concerned with artistic embroidery and reading and writing of poetry, but about producing useful goods and managing household chores. Women's labor in poor families normally included cooking, weaving and making clothes and shoes for the whole family in addition to taking care of children. The intensive labor performed by working class women evidently had made their lives with bound feet a lot more painful than their counterparts in the gentry class. However, nothing had stopped footbinding from becoming widely spread even among the poor and working class women. The custom of footbinding reflected, most of all, the desires of all classes in teaching their daughters female virtue and propriety, so that when the young girls grew up their appearance and manners would be admired and appreciated on the marriage market. The Chinese saying "if you love your daughter, you have to be cruel to her feet" reveals the complex feelings that mothers had in passing the custom on to their daughters. Many generations of mothers in feudal China, after going through the tremendous pain of footbinding themselves, insisted on having their little girls' feet bound for this reason.
Given what has been said above about the genuine meaning of footbinding for women in feudal China, one can understand why the May Fourth and Western feminist views about the strange sexual aspect of the custom cannot be taken as correct representations of the custom. Those who have held such a view may draw some support from the folklore literature and legendary stories; these typically associate the origin of the custom of footbinding with an emperor's attraction to a certain woman dancer's small feet or a male erotic obsession with the "lotus" shape of women's feet produced by tight binding. However, they have never been able to cite any historical evidence for the claim that Chinese men demanded bound feet from their brides or were directly involved in the practice. There is no evidence in the literature that the majority of women who had their feet bound ever knew anything about men's lewd thinking. Such a characterization of footbinding not only, "leaves out the complex motives and feelings of the mothers and daughters involved" (Ko 1994, 148), but also rendered women as nothing but mindless and foolish accomplices to male sadism.
Besides, the contention that footbinding is the result of men's erotic desires is based on a lack of adequate knowledge of Confucianism. Confucianism, with its emphasis on righteousness and duty, would never encourage people to give priority to the satisfaction of desires. It seems that Chinese May Fourth discussions and Western feminist discourse committed a simple logical error when they argued that footbinding was the result of both Confucianism and male eroticism. The logical error resides in the fact that if footbinding had been the direct result of Confucian doctrine, then it was not a result of men's eroticism, and vice versa. The two are ideologically incompatible.
In today's mainland China, the image of Chinese women as victim of the Confucian tradition is still exerting powerful influence, in spite of some important changes that have taken place in other areas of academic research and state ideology. For those who still adhere to the Maoist and post Maoist socialist view, the maintenance of this image is necessitated by their glorification of the communist revolution in liberating women from enslavement. For others, it may be just a matter of time before any radical breakup is to take place. I hope to have shown in this paper that the construction of this image during the May Fourth time is based on bias and unfounded assumptions, and that the usage of the image of victimized women by the May Fourth and Maoist intellectuals served their iconoclastic and nationalist purposes. I also hope to have shown that the May Fourth problematic scholarship, coupled with "ethnocentrism," has led western feminists to perceive third world women as particularly oppressed and victimized. These biases, unjustified assumptions, and ignorance have hindered the May Fourth intellectuals and Western feminists from achieving any meaningful understanding of the custom of footbinding. In consequence, their perceptions of footbinding as sheer victimization of women by male sadism have distorted the truth of that custom. Finally, I hope to have shown that an accurate understanding of the history of Chinese women requires studying them within the context of their own traditions, values, and practices.
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Xiufen Lu, Wichita State University
I am grateful to the faculties in the philosophy department at Wichita State University for their colloquial comments on the first draft of this article. I would especially like to think Dr. Debby Soles and Dr. Robert Feleppa for their numerous helpful suggestions and comments on the second draft. My deepest appreciation goes to Dr. David Soles whose polishing and editing on various drafts of this article greatly enhanced its clarity and readability.
(1) The most influential spokesperson in critiquing the problem of marginalization of third world women so far is, perhaps, Chandra Monhanty who provides an insightful analysis of the politics of representation in Western feminist discourse. For more discussion on the subject, see Monhanty, Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991) 1-41, 51-74.
(2) Works on this subject include Dorothy Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994); and Rey Chow, Women and Chinese Modernity: The Politics of Reading between West and East (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).
(3) Since Du Fang Qin first published her book, Nuxing guannian de yian bian (The transformation of views on women) in 1988 in which her main thesis is to argue that throughout history up to the twentieth century Chinese women had been at the bottom of the Confucian social and familiar hierarchy, no competing theory has ever been published in China to challenge her theory.
(4) In criticizing the distortions of the custom of footbinding, I certainly do not have any intention to defend it. In consideration of the tremendous harm that this custom had caused women both physically and psychologically, I firmly believe that footbinding should have been abolished and that it is a great thing that it was abolished. However, the correction of misinterpretations of the custom is still important because meaningful cross-cultural studies require a better understanding of the context, especially the social dynamics that sustained the practice.
(5) As a matter of fact, a critical reevaluation of China's past had actually already begun four years earlier when liberal circles inaugurated the New Culture Movement. Reflecting upon the failure of the Republican Revolution (1911), Chinese intellectuals during that time believed that it was the persistence of the conservative tradition (epitomized in Confucianism) that kept people from embracing any radical social and political reform. The New Culture Movement emerged as a campaign in advocating a radical break away from the Confucian tradition. However, due to the high illiteracy of the general population, the impact of the New Culture Movement did not reach many outside the small intellectual circle until the May Fourth movement took place. During the May Fourth period, the patriotic sentiment added a new dynamic to the earlier elite cultural movement and its agenda of reforming culture and people's minds was carried out, and strengthened much further only after a large number of students and member of the working class joined the cause. Thus, for most scholars of the subject, the May Fourth -New Culture Movement(s) has come to be recognized as a distinctive historical period that includes both the New Culture Movement and the May Fourth Movement. For more information on the history around May Fourth time, see Wang Zheng, Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) 9-10.
(6) For more information about the relation between women's issues and the nationalist concern during the May Fourth time, see Wang Zheng, Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 12.
(7) For more information about the impact made by Ibsen's work, A Doll's House, on Chinese society, see Vera Schwarcz, "Ibsen's Nora: The Promise and the Trap" in Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (January-March 1975).
(8) The personal connection between the May Fourth movement and the CPC can be explained by the fact that numerous founders of the CPC, including the three most important figures of the Communist Party of China, Chen Duxiu, Li Da zhao, and Mao Zedong, among others, were all May Fourth activists.
(9) See Mohanty, Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, 1-41, 51-74.
(10) For more May Fourth criticism on Confucianism, see Chen Duxiu, "The Way of Confucius and Modern Life" in De Bary's Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press.1960) 815-818.
(11) The orthodox Confucian texts include the Four Books and the Five Classics. The Four Books are: The Great Learning, The Doctrine of Mean, The Analects of Confucius, and Mencius; and the Five Classics are: The Book of Songs, The Book of History, The Book of Changes, The Book of Rites, and The Spring and Autumn Annals.
(12) Lin Yutang provides an insightful discussion of how some well known Chinese male literates during the eighteenth- century had protested against footbinding. See Lin's discussion in "Feminist Thought in Ancient China" in Li Yu-ning's Chinese Women through Chinese Eyes (New York: M.E. Sharpe. Inc. 1992) 34-52.…