“At home or abroad, in holiday robes or in plain clothing, the heart of a Chinese female seems to be at all times ready to overflow with mirth and good humor.” This description comes from a Western observer’s account of life in China, and the character of its people, during the 19th century. Its focus: the painful process of foot binding.
Such a quote may suggest a positive take on womanhood during the 1800s, and the account positions itself as compassionate towards those it describes. However, the author presumes to see women as the helpless victims of Chinese males and Confucianism in general. He has a clear bias against many of the cultural practices observed by the women he seems to praise.
Westerners' letters and stories from this era appear to paint a rather negative picture of life for Chinese women. Many of those who wrote them were, after all, missionaries, doubtless hoping to convince others of the necessity of ‘saving’ these women from the perceived barbaric practices of their culture.
Looking back at Chinese culture with the eyes of people living in a completely different time, it’s hard to know exactly what life would have been like for women during those years. However, perhaps by examining these vintage photographs, we can gain a glimmer of insight.
In this photograph from 1868, the bound feet of a Chinese woman are juxtaposed with a normal, unbound foot. The difference is incredible. The tiny shoe propped up against the wall looks like it was made for a small child, not a full-grown woman. Westerners in China, not least missionaries, criticized the custom. However, in response to such censure from one doctor, a correspondent living in Hangchow wrote, “I think the charge of this custom taking away ‘much from the enjoyment of life’ is somewhat overdrawn. Here in Hangchow the majority of women are small-footed, and certainly do not appear to be so wretchedly situated as the Dr. [Kerr] makes them to be.”
Here’s a sight that isn’t really that unusual, even today: two ladies, in this case Amoy women, sitting together for a bit of a chat. Quite a serious one too, if the looks on their faces are anything to go by! It's a pity there's no way to listen in. The contrasting borders and wide, distinctively turned-back sleeves of the tunic worn by the woman on left were part of the Manchu fashion of the time. The photograph was taken in 1871.
Pictured here, in another photograph from 1871, is a young woman from Taiwan, which was known as ‘Formosa’ in the 19th century. For women, one advantage (although it might not have been perceived this way) of being born into a poor family was that they were less likely to have had their feet bound, and were thus more suited to labor. This was not always the case, however; the eldest daughters of peasant families in Canton, for example, often had to undergo the painful process.
Seen here is one of the most widespread traditions of human society in any country, the wedding. The bride stands with her face covered, and indeed, it was quite normal for a groom not to see his bride before they were wed. Marriages were often arranged by matchmakers who liaised between the families of the prospective bride and groom. The couple were not really involved; how the parents viewed the other family was far more important. Once married, a woman would become part of her husband’s family and live with them, leaving her own family behind.
Seated here with her feet up is a ‘lily-footed’ woman – a term for those who had their feet bound as children. In the Chinese culture of the time, the size of a girl’s feet were as important (if not more so) than the appearance of her face, and to this effect potential husbands and their families were sometimes said to be presented with the future bride’s shoes when negotiating her ‘purchase’ price. The smaller the shoe, the more valuable the bride.
The woman in this photograph from around 1868 seems to be in a reflective mood. Life for Chinese women in the 19th century was strictly regulated. Their status came largely from their husband, whom they were expected to serve and obey in all things. The Confucian code traditionally followed in China meant women were required to be faithful, modest, and not overly educated. Yet, despite this, women have managed to play significant parts in Chinese history, not least Dowager Empress Cixi, known as one of the longest ruling and most powerful monarchs of all time.
This lovely looking lady could be either Tartar or Manchu; either way, we think her hairstyle is just adorable! To create those amazing ‘wings’, the hair was wrapped around a piece of wood at the back. “The [Manchu] style is simple and graceful, and must have been designed, one would almost think, to represent horns, enabling the wearer to hold her own against her antagonistic husband,” joked photographer John Thomson, who took many 19th-century Chinese photographs, including this one from 1869.
Here’s a universal image if ever there was one: a mother and her baby. It looks like a boy, which at the time was the more desirable sex for a child. Wives were often judged by whether they bore sons, because ancestral worship, as it was practiced in China, relied largely on sacrifices made by male offspring. Traditionally, women were expected to practice what were called the “three obediences” – that is, obedience first to their fathers, then to their husbands, and finally to their sons.
You might think this young Chinese lady is leaning on the table for effect, but it may just as well have been to keep her from falling over! As you can see from their tiny size, the feet have been bound, a practice that was covered in depth by Environmental Graffiti here. In short, young girls had the bones of their toes and feet broken so that they could be pressed and bandaged into the desired ‘golden lotus’ size and shape. It was an extremely painful process that took years to complete. An extreme fashion that, most would argue, the world is better off without.
The Empress Dowager Cixi rose from the position of concubine to become the most powerful woman in China, in a reign that lasted 47 years – from 1861 to 1908. Seen here as a young woman, Cixi had the fortune to bear the Xianfeng Emperor’s only male heir. After the death of the Emperor, Cixi ruled through her son, who was only five years old when his father died. Then, when the boy Emperor himself died at an early age, Cixi installed her nephew to the throne and ruled through him. Whatever has been said about her since then, good and bad, there’s no denying the tremendous achievements of Cixi during a time when the best most women could expect was to be deemed a dutiful wife.
Judging by their fancy outfits, these young ladies were likely of noble birth. This status is reinforced by the tiny shoes peeping out from beneath the dress worn by the girl on the left, evidence of foot binding. Girls from the upper classes were not expected to do manual work during their lives, especially not with their crushed and misshapen feet. Instead, they would direct servants to do household tasks and, if they wished to travel, carry them around in sedan chairs. Poorer women, on the other hand, did work in the fields, even if they were slowed down by disfigured feet.
This lady carrying her baby on her back does not appear to have had her feet bound. If she was from the province of Guangdong (Canton), this may have meant she was a younger daughter in a poor family. Otherwise, it might have been that she belonged to an ethnic group that did not practice foot binding – at least, not in its extreme form. Given that the woman’s clothes and hair are simple, it’s probably fair to assume that this woman didn’t belong to one of the wealthier classes. Still, someone in the 19th century found her image interesting enough to put on a postcard.
These girls seem to have had the fortune of being born into a non-foot binding tradition. The Manchu people were among those who historically eschewed the practice; in fact, their Emperor forbade it when they came to power in 1644. Even so, admiring the swaying, if precarious, gait of those with smaller feet, Manchu women began to wear shoes that mimicked the effect of foot binding. Looking at the small girl at the back of this group, for example, you can see what looks to be a piece of footwear with a central pedestal – known as a ‘flower bowl’ shoe.
In this 1868 photograph, three Chinese ladies gather for a chat in what looks like a courtyard. Chinese women’s clothing was considered unshapely and demure by Western standards, even at that time. The custom is likely tied to the fact that modesty has traditionally been one of the core virtues women in China are meant to cultivate. The woman facing us can be seen wearing a tangzhuang, a style of jacket that fastens at the front with loops and which is still popular in China, and abroad, today.
Chinese women of the 19th century (much like many woman of today) spent a lot of time and care on their hairstyles. “As will be observed, the chignons are each of them different, and all alike deserve careful study by the ladies of Western lands,” commented photographer John Thomson. Thomson also went on to describe the lengths to which these ladies went to keep their hair neat, even sleeping “upon a pillow of earthenware or wood, high enough to protect the design from being damaged.” We wonder if they suffered stiff necks in the morning!
This Manchu bride is all decked out in her wedding finery, and both the ladies in the picture – taken in 1871 – are dressed in the Manchu style of curve-fronted robes that fastened at the shoulder. As you can see, there’s a fair bit of elaborate embroidery work, too. During the Qing Dynasty, which ruled from 1644 to 1912, the population were ordered to dress in the Manchu style. The penalty for failing to comply was death. That's certainly one way to make sure you start a fashion trend!
In a photograph taken in Peking around 1867, this sumptuously dressed Manchu bride looks as though she's supporting quite a weight on her head with that headdress. Like many traditional Chinese robes, hers is decorated with beautifully detailed embroidery. Note the wide, Manchu-style turned-up sleeves, as well. Quite the wedding outfit, wouldn't you say?
We hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into the past, and have perhaps come away with some idea about what life was like for the women of China prior to the 20th century. Some of the traditions may seem harsh to us today (surely no one would want a return to foot binding!), but there must have been many joys and triumphs, also. Without a time machine, all we can really do is look at mementos of the era, like these photographs, and wonder at what was.