The Very Poetry of Motion

Missionaries and Footbinding in Late Qing China


  • Katherine DeCoste Student



Believed to have begun with Han noble families, and eventually spreading to most classes of Chinese society, footbinding refers to the practice of restricting the foot's growth to maintain a small form and specific shape, and was practiced on Chinese girls from a young age until the twentieth century. When British missionaries began activity in China, they became concerned with footbinding and sought to eradicate the ancient traditional practice. Examining the work of both orthodox and revisionist historians alongside primary texts written by missionaries in the nineteenth century, this paper studies why missionaries objected to footbinding and how the anti-footbinding movement gained traction in China. Ultimately, British missionaries misinterpreted the cultural meaning of footbinding, and their methods of eradicating the practice reflected this misunderstanding. Missionaries saw footbinding as patriarchal, regressive, and sexually perverse; in reality, footbinding's meaning was connected to nationalism and ethnic identity. Therefore, when Chinese activists began to perpetuate anti-footbinding propaganda, they nationalized anti-footbinding discourse, seeking to remove British influence from the movement. The paper is concerned with how missionary condemnation of footbinding constituted cultural imperialism, and why this process was successful in missionary activity in the late Qing period (the latter half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century). 






Social Sciences & Humanities