This chapter challenges assumptions that footbinding was confined to the urban elite and that women with bound feet were unproductive. On the contrary, footbinding was very common among poor villagers who could not afford to support unproductive members. Examining the enormous historical importance of women's work in China's handcraft textile production, this chapter argues for the importance of handwork performed by footbound daughters. Emphasizing the work girls performed before marriage, this chapter also considers the misdirections and omissions that have sidetracked queries about a practice that debilitated hundreds of millions of Chinese girls and women. Feminist historians and economic historians alike have underestimated the significance of hand labor by young girls and failed to examine its links to footbinding.
This chapter describes how data on girls' hand labor and footbinding was collected in order to examine the possible links between them. It describes the method of inquiry and the selection of village research sites in eight provinces. Interviews and surveys with elderly women asked about their experiences as young girls before marriage. These interviews supplied first-hand information of both qualitative and quantitative value concerning their household economy, their hand labor as girls and footbinding experiences, and indirect data on the footbinding of their senior kinswomen. Assembling the responses first by region and then in the aggregate can reveal whether girls who were required to do handcrafts were also those who were likely to have had their feet bound. The chapter outlines the general characteristics of the village locations, sample size, and women's birth years and education levels.
This chapter demonstrates how pervasive footbinding was among the mothers and grandmothers of women we interviewed in northern China. It begins by outlining political and economic background to the region and the development of the preindustrial cotton industry. Hebei province, surrounding Beijing, is the starting point. Heavily influenced by political changes and new developments in transportation and trade, Ding County, was the site of a landmark study of rural China in the 1920s and 1930s. Complementing the early research with new village material provides different perspectives on Ding County's decline in footbinding. Research in villages in Shandong, Henan, and Anhui Provinces provides additional information on the interplay of local environment, trade, girls' hand labor, the pattern of footbinding and the pace of its decline.
This chapter continues the inquiry at the western edges of the North China Plain in Shanxi and Shaanxi. Here the four village sites present differences in cotton production, political influence, proximity to urban trade centers, and to the railroad. One northern site in Shanxi experienced the direct effects of the nearby Communist base in the 1930s. One village in Shaanxi lay in the heart of a rich cotton-growing region while the other in Shaanbei lacked locally grown cotton. The chapter focuses on the political and economic changes affecting women's and girls' hand work as well as the timing of footbinding's decline at each site.
China's Southwest, lacking locally grown cotton, had imported raw cotton, cotton yarn, and cotton cloth. Among our five village sites in mountainous Yunnan and Guizhou, differences in the distance from industrial centers and the railway allowed some villages to specialize in hand woven textiles and other commercial crafts while other villages relied less on women's handcraft labor. With milder winters, the work of cultivating double-cropped rice and opium left less time for handwork, and generated income used to buy textiles. The variations in Han women's work and footbinding provide fertile ground for testing the relationship between girls' labor and footbinding. The examination of Southwest China concludes with comparison to Gates' earlier survey data on footbinding among nearly 5,000 Sichuan women.
The final chapter tests the general hypothesis that continued handwork by girls and women was instrumental in the persistence of footbinding. Aggregating quantitative data from our individual village sites across China and using logistic regressions, we show that when girls performed handwork for income, the likelihood that they were footbound was significantly greater than when they did not do handwork for income. Footbinding declined earlier when girls were not involved in commercial handwork. These findings are placed in the context of China's industrialization, the spread of textile mills, and widespread displacement of girls' hand labor in cotton textiles. The study provides solid evidence for a radically different interpretation of China's tradition of footbinding and its deleterious, life-long effects on millions of girls and women. A major force in its eradication was the expansion of commerce and industry.