Footbinding and Chinese Civilization

Originally a letter I wrote to my students for the class Introduction to Eastern Civilization, Part I: China, published on LiveJournal, 10.17.06

Tomorrow we will be seeing some photos of unbound bound feet in class, and so I’d like to make my rant of last week clear. I believe it is our pedagogical duty to show you these photos, and to do our best in contextualizing them. So why my dismay?

We are being told these days that we’re in a “clash of civilizations,” of West vs. East, and that it’s not “merely” geopolitical, but a matter of differences in deep values. Sometimes it boils down to who loves or who hates freedom, but even those squeamish about boiling things down, and even those who believe that all people have the potential for all things, admit to differences in “tendencies” between civilizations, differences that affect the course of history, the embracing of science, compatibility with democracy, and so on.

It’s true that Western women are encouraged to wear heels (and Chinese women, too). But Chinese women’s feet were maimed. In social terms, the comparison makes sense, but for these women, the comparison is insulting, and sounds clumsily apologetic. We are far more forgiving of the former habit than of the latter.

So how can we put footbinding in proper perspective? The real question is what this perspective could even be. Does “civilization” makes sense as any coherent whole? Is footbinding a “component” of it? Is democracy?

These are, I submit to you, very difficult questions, and social science is only at the tip of the iceberg of connecting the dots. We’re much better at making local sense of social phenomena than talking about coherent wholes. In fact, many of us have given up on the coherency of the whole, however qualified it may be, and believe we are better off analyzing how ideas like “Chinese civilization” (or “Islamic civilization,” “Western civilization,” etc.) are mobilized for various political purposes.

I’d much rather you be the judge. However, I want to impress on you the difficulty of relating a practice and value like footbinding to an idea of “Chinese civilization” (especially vis-a-vis “Western civilization”). So far you have seen that even things like Confucianism, Daoism and Legalism can’t be connected into a coherent whole without throwing out inconvenient “less important” elements, something we may not be allowed to do as ethical historians. On the other hand, I don’t want us to dismiss footbinding as an aberration of what “real” Chinese civilization is about. It quite obviously happened, and it quite obviously was a big deal. And I’m not one to ask you to be generous or forgiving about it, nor, for example, to forgive the many cynical ways we continue to circumvent females in “our” civilization. (Modern terrorism, too, is a big deal.) But even big deals aren’t definitive. What is “Chinese civilization”? Is it a lesser, more bigoted version of Western civilization? What does it even mean to apply such evaluative qualifiers, which we usually use for individual behavior, to such constructs as “civilization”? So, yes, please do judge, but please be smart about what it is exactly that you are judging.

(Special bonus talking point: What does a “culture of poverty” mean, exactly, and how does one fight it?)