Women and the Family in Chinese History

By Patricia Buckley Ebrey | Go to book overview

9
Gender and sinology
Shifting Western interpretations of footbinding, 1300–1890*

Historians of women often draw from travelers' accounts because features of male–female relations that the authors of one country take for granted may seem noteworthy to those from elsewhere. In the case of China, through the nineteenth century the richest outsiders' accounts were written by those from furthest away, from Europe and later the United States. 1 In the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries European visitors gave detailed descriptions of the practice of female seclusion, the ways finance entered into marriage arrangements, the cut of women's clothing, and the ways women made up their faces. By the nineteenth century, Western visitors, including some who had lived for years in China, brought up a wider range of topics, from women's opportunities for education, to child-rearing practices, the degree of sexual segregation in everyday activities such as eating meals, and regional and class variation in footbinding and women's work.

An historian of European cultural history could use these writings to analyze the ways changing Western social, political, and religious preoccupations found expression in changing attitudes toward distant non-Christian lands and China in particular. After all, travelers' accounts invariably reveal as much about themselves as about those they describe. But Western writings on Chinese women also are worth the scrutiny of historians of China interested in the intellectual foundations of their field. Western authors, while creating interest in the West in the topic of Chinese women, were framing the topic certain ways and focusing attention on some issues to the exclusion or neglect of others. Even today, when Western writing on Chinese women's history is based more on close study of Chinese texts than on travels through China, the vocabulary and concepts established by these earlier generations are still in use.

In this article I trace some of the elements involved in Westerners' creation of knowledge about Chinese women by looking closely at what they

____________________
*
This article was originally published in Late Imperial China, 2(2) (1999–34). Reproduced by permission. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the University of Illinois, the University of Victoria, and the Conference on Chinese Women's Studies for the 21st Century in Beijing, 1998. I would like to thank JaHyun Haboush, Nancy Abelmann, and Tani Barlow for their comments and suggestions on earlier drafts.

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