Why didn’t Manchu women bind their feet?

It is well-known that even after the conquest of China Manchu women did not bind their feet. The Qing emperors took clothing and hair very seriously as ways of defining groups under the empire. Thus after 1644 all Han men were expected to wear the Manchu hairstyle of shaving their foreheads and growing a queue in back as a way of symbolizing their submission to the dynasty. At the same time the state was Manchuizing Han men via their hair it was ordering Manchu women to keep their feet natural (天足). This was one of many things that were done to preserve a specific Manchu identity.

In the seventh month of 1638 the Manchu emperor Hong Taiji (Abahai) decreed that the Chinese custom of footbinding was not to be adopted. “Those who imitate the clothes of another country or order their women to bind their feet, [they] have their bodies in our dynasty but their hearts in another country.”1 There were at least some who defied this order. In 1804 the Jiaqing emperor was furious to find that women of the Chinese Bordered Yellow Banner (ethnically Han, but politically “Manchu”) were binding their feet. (Elliot p.470) Still, in general Manchu women did not bind their feet. In 1911 when the banner population at Nanjing and Hankou were slaughtered women’s feet were the one marker of ethnic difference that could not be disguised.
manchu Feet
This illustration is from 1911 and is one of a series on Manchu women adopting Han dress. (Rhoades Manchus & Han)On the woman’s left foot she is wearing a typical Manchu “horse-hoof” shoe that makes it appear the wearer has tiny feet. The other foot is, maybe, being bound, even though she is far too old for it at this point. Although some Manchu women may have tried to sinify themselves in the last years of the dynasty, for 200 years before that they were quite willing to keep their natural feet

The question I have is: Why footbinding? Why was this custom chosen as alone of the “evil habits of the Han” (Elliot p.470) as the one that would be unambiguously rejected by the Qing state? More importantly, why did the Manchus accept this imperial order? They were more than willing to smoke tobacco and later opium, to quit learning Manchu and do all sorts of other things that the Emperors did not want them to do. Perhaps most interestingly, how can this be connected to the current scholarship on footbinding?

I think we can safely dismiss Hong Taiji’s apparent assumption that footbinding was something done to women on the orders of men. Dorothy Ko suggests looking at footbinding as “a device inscribing the Confucian ideal of a centripetal woman and as a central event in the development of a women’s culture in the boudoir [and] as a means women employed to cater to the erotic fantasies of men” (Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers p.263) Footbinding was, among other things, a way for Han women to demonstrate (mostly to other women) their self-cultivation and self-discipline. It was the feet of Chinese women that separated the Han from the non-Han.2

Pamela Crossley suggests that natural feet symbolized the active economic and political lives of Manchu women, and thus a rejection of women’s passive role in Chinese society. (The Manchus p. 27) There is probably a great deal of truth to this, but at the same time Manchu women seem to have embraced their own foot customs as coeval to and superior to those of the Chinese. Zhou Hong presents this Liaoning folksong as an example of Manchu women’s attitudes towards feet. (满族妇女生活与民俗文化研究p. 96, My apologies for the translation)


Get a carpenter’s adze to make the shoe-bottoms
Get a carpenter to make the outside of the shoes
Use a card of yarn
Eight lengths of fine cloth
Altogether it will take three years
To make a pair of embroidered shoes
Call a girl to try the shoes
Whether short or long
The girl stretches her foot
to fit the embroidered shoes
The shoe small the foot large
Constrained and uncomfortable
Awkwardly and crookedly to the back wall
The left foot crushing eight tigers
The right foot crushing nine wolves

This poem shows, I think, how Manchu women tried to appropriate the meaning of footbinding despite their big feet. Right from the beginning the comparison to Chinese customs is implicit but never stated. Manchu shoes involve violent re-shaping, but it is of wood rather than the body. The girl stretches her foot to meet the shoe, rather than shrinking the foot to meet it. The process of making the shoes is said to take three years, which seems a little long no matter how elaborate the embroidery is, but it matches the time and dedication that go into binding feet. The girl, once mounted on the shoes, moves just as awkwardly as a Chinese women, and like them her feet become the center of her potency. Being a Manchu she crushes tigers and wolves rather than attracting poets, but the idea seems the same.

I suppose, then, that part of the reason Manchu women did not bind their feet was in part because it they were ordered not to by the Emperor and other men, who saw their feet as a marker (the marker) of ethnic difference. They were also able to gain all the benefits of footbinding, a visible symbol of their refinement and culture, without having to bind their feet.

1 “若有仿效他国衣帽及令妇女束发裹足者,等于身在本朝,心在他国.” I’m not sure how valid this quote is. 周虹 “满族妇女生活与民俗文化研究” 北京:中国社会科学出版社, 2005,p. 95, takes the quote from the 光绪朝东華錄. On the other hand, Elliot The Manchu Way p.470n61 says that he has been unable to locate the original edict, which makes me think their may be something wrong.

2 Dorothy Ko’s new book on footbinding is probably the best of the new scholarship, although I have not seen it yet. Wang Ping synthesizes some of the new scholarship in Aching for Beauty.


  1. Thanks, particularly for the Ko reference. I regularly run into the problem of talking about footbinding, and the various interpretive themes make for interesting theoretical discussions, but a solid historical (and anthropological) survey will be extremely useful. I get a little nervous about aggressive revisionist claims (yes, I’m reading Mao, why do you ask?), but the argument as presented in the Amazon review is consonant with a lot of current research on female agency (particularly identity formation and strategic choice) in patriarchal systems.

    The question of why Manchu women refrained is interesting, but I would like to see some research on why the practice remained so limited to Chinese culture. Perhaps Ko’s argument addresses this, but given China’s overwhelming cultural influences elsewhere, it seems odd that this practice remained distinctly and uniquely Chinese.

  2. Is it really the case that „Manchurian“ women (mostly) didn’t bind their feet and „Chinese“ women did? I’m not a specialist, but my teachers always told us that Chinese (Neo-)Confucianists were violently opposed to foot binding as a form of the most corrups decadence. What about Koreans who imagined themselves as the true heirs and protectors of Ming-culture. Did they adopt this custom?

    I would be cautious to argue (exclusively) in terms of ethnic affiliations. Hakka identified themselves as Han but didn’t bind, did they?

    Maybe religion or class affiliation (Manchurian warrior nobility against urban citizens who happened to be Han) has something to with the phenomenon?

    By the way, this is a wonderful website!

  3. Yes, it’s really the case. There are a few exceptions, but they are just that.

    Confucian scholars routinely inveighed against the practice, as did Buddhists, I think. Didn’t matter.

    I don’t know much about Hakka, so someone else will have to field that one. I’m pretty sure, though, from what I know about the Taiping Uprising, that their status within Chinese society and culture was somewhat removed from the Han mainstream (if that’s indeed a meaningful concept).

  4. There’s an interesting exploration of the economic aspects of footbinding in Laurel Bossen, Chinese Women and Rural Development. She suggests that the areas where footbinding was more strictly practiced (especially towards the end) were areas in which women’s textile work (as 内人) was the most profitable. I wonder if there is any possibility of a materialist/economic aspect behind the Manchu women maintaining their unbound feet.

  5. Laura,

    I expect that part of the reason was economic. Crossley suggests that non-binding was a marker of Manchu women’s greater economic and social role. She does not give any examples, however, and I wonder if she is assuming too much. I assume that symbolically it makes some sense. Manchus were supposed to be people who moved around and rode horses and such, so I assume the women were supposed to do this as well. I’m not sure how it fits in with their economic role, however. Officially, at least, banner women were not supposed to be productive any more than banner men.

  6. I hope it is okay if I join in here. As to the connection between footbinding and Qing politics, Ko argues that footbinding was used as a form of political expression by Han Chinese women who, by defying the court’s half-hearted attempt to stamp out the practice, showed themselves able to challenge the authority of their new Manchu rulers — in obvious distinction to the vast majority of men, who, by cutting their hair in Manchu style, had submitted to that authority. I believe you will find this mentioned in Teachers of the Inner Chambers; it’s also in one or more of her articles. This line of reasoning strikes me as quite plausible, and certainly is in line with other characterizations of female outspokenness on the matter of the Qing conquest and cultural loyalty, such as are explored in Wai-yi Lee’s article in HJAS a few years back.

    By the way, I don’t think that footbinding was the only “bad habit” practiced by the Han Chinese which the Manchu elite regarded suspiciously. Manchu males, for instance, were not supposed to seek literary fame and were discouraged from pursuing scholarly goals. These were seen as achievements best left to Han Chinese, as accomplishments in such arenas were perceived to weaken the “natural” martial character and Spartan nature of the Manchu soldier. Warnings against excessive attention to the letters and arts and neglect of military drill, however, failed to prevent the adoption of progressively more “civil” ideals among Manchu and other bannermen. It seems to me that this points to what is truly unusual about footbinding, namely, that (unlike, say, wider sleeves) this was one fashion which bannerwomen showed little inclination to adopt, even in the absence of frequent court remonstrances (Jiaqing’s edict is a rare exception). The attraction of footbinding indeed seems to have held little appeal outside the “Han mainstream” — and even within it, of course, its appeal was hardly universal, since a very significant proportion of Han women never took up the practice.

  7. Mark,

    Feel free to jump in any time. I have still not read the new Ko book (although I did get it for Christmas) I don’t doubt that Manchu women did not bind their feet in part to distinguish them from the Han. Pat Ebrey suggested at one point that the rise of footbinding in the Song was in part to distinguish Han from non-Han, so I guess that was always part of it.
    The thing I found interesting about the poem was that Manchu women seemed to have almost the same view of their feet as the Han women, as a source of concentrated potency as a place to lavish attention on. It seems to be almost the same uses for feet, only without the binding. So to the extent of making the feet the center of a mass of female practices that defined the entire group they were following the Han, but not in the same fashion. Or am I reading this wrong?

  8. Dear Alan,

    I think you have a point. Insofar as their going in for some rather bizarre shoe styles (not sure when mati xie appeared, but probably not until the 19th c.), it’s clear that Manchu women did indeed regard their feet as deserving of particular attention. But how far can we take that parallel? Manchu women’s trademark mati xie shoes hid the feet completely underneath one’s skirts, so that the foot was not on display in the same way that some Han women flaunted their small feet. Does this mean that Manchu women saw feet as “a source of concentrated potency”? Were they “using” their feet the same way? I’m not so sure.

    One thing: I would not say that Manchu women did not bind their feet in order to distinguish themselves from Han Chinese women. Rather, it was Han Chinese women who insisted on binding their feet in order to distinguish themselves from Manchu women.

  9. Dear Mark,

    I suspect you know more about the Manchus that I do, but I’m not sure I agree that Manchu women’s feet/shoes were ‘hidden away’. Wouldn’t mati xie give you the same gait as someone with bound feet even if you could not see the shoes? In any case, it is possible for people to take body parts very seriously without displaying them outwardly.

    Also, I think we are approaching the Manchu/Han thing from different sides. I assume that one of the reasons Han women bound their feet was to distinguish themselves from the Manchus, but that can’t be the reason the custom arose, and in many cases these Han women would never have even seen a Manchu. I think one thing that needs to be explained is why Manchu women did not bind. Admittedly lots of Chinese women did not either, and this was one aspect of the supposedly all-assimilating Chinese culture that could not even make it to Korea, but I still think that the behavior of the Manchus needs an explanation.

    I think that it is clear that Manchu rulers saw footbinding as one of the Han habits that needed to be kept out of the banners. (You mention this in Manuchu Way p. 470n62), so to some extent Manchu men were coming up with a set of reasons why binding was bad. But of course it was women who did the binding, and if Manchu women wanted to I’m not sure men would have won that struggle. One obvious reason for Manchu women not to inflict this on their daughters was that it hurt a lot, and that it made them look like Han. What I at least took that from the poem I quoted was that they also thought that their shoes and their foot customs gave them all the benefits of Han foot customs, but without having to be Han. And without the two jugs of tears that came with bound feet. Or do you read it differently?

  10. I think collapsing “feet/shoes” into a single thing, as you have done, elides a distinction that is worth thinking about. Part of Ko’s larger argument about footbinding is that the bound foot was a package, a presentation, something meant for display. Hence the ornate embroidery on so many shoes (though as she cautions, some examples may have been created for collectors and were never meant to be worn). My point about the mati xie is that while the bottom of the shoe could be seen, the foot itself was hidden — unlike the Chinese bound foot. I suspect that yes, the gait produced by wearing the mati xie may have been similar to that of the bound-footed Chinese woman, but I’ve no way to prove that and have never read any primary source that suggested that this was the case.

    As to why Manchu women did not bind their feet, I don’t see anything to explain. Why *should* they have bound their feet? It was hardly a cultural universal (I guess I don’t see footbinding as an aspect of the “supposedly all-assimilating Chinese culture”). Only if Manchu women had begun to bind their feet would we have a phenomenon to explain. Indeed, it is only when certain bannerwomen — and these in the Chinese banners, not the Manchu banners — start to wrap their feet tightly (they have not gone the whole route, it would appear) that the court gets anxious and feels a need to say anything. Otherwise, it was a non-issue.

    Regarding the poem, well, I guess I would need to be persuaded first that a Liaoning folksong represented a Manchu point of view. Frankly, I don’t see anything in the poem that suggests this. I read the word shen, which you translate as stretch, to mean that the girl stretches out, i.e., proffers, her foot to be put in the shoe. Are you quite sure that the parts of the shoe mentioned in the first two lines cannot refer to elements that went into the manufacture of a shoe for a Chinese woman? I seem to recall that some shoes were fashioned partly with wooden pieces.

  11. I am a Hakka. My grandmother who is approaching 90 has not known any Hakka women with bound feet. Foot binding is not question of a Han/ non-Han practice, it is about a distinction of wealthy Han from non-wealthy Han. As my ancestors were peasant farmers, like so many, all the girls have to work in the fields and in the home, so how can they have their feet bound?

    As for Manchu women not taking up this practice, it is purely one of management logic. The Manchus were a minority. To effectively rule the dominant people, they need every trustworthy pair of hands and feet they can find, and as Chairman Mao said, women uphold half of the sky, ie women are a resource just as much as men. Who in the West would have thought 200 years ago that one day we would have active women soldiers?

  12. J. Chan: Actually, I think it’s more plausible that footbinding is distinguished along both Han/non-Han and wealth axes. Whether or not you think it makes sense, by the 19th century there were farmers and peasants whose daughters feet were bound, though not as many as there were merchants and scholars. Similarly with the Manchu (who had no use for Mao’s labor practices), though their minority status makes the importance of women logical there’s actually no evidence that I’m aware of which indicates the Manchu were willing to put women in positions of authority or make use of their labor (and since the Manchu were administrators, not laborers, there’s no contradiction between bound feet and productivity anyway) outside the family/home.

  13. Doesn’t Mr Dresner have a sense of humour? He confuses Manchu with the Qing Empire. The Qing Empire was founded by the Manchus, however by the 19th century, the Qing Imperial Family and its relatives had essentially become Hans, genetically speaking. I do not know of any claims now that a person described as Manchu nationality is in fact genetically Manchu. He is also mistaken that the Manchus were administrators. The Manchus and their descendants (through family lines and not genetic lines) were rulers- the adminstration was left from the founding of the Empire mostly to Hans. As for Manchu women not being put into position of power, it seems that Mr Dresner had forgotten as an example, the Empress Dowager. If Mr Dresner were aware of the folklores of the Steppes tribes (of which the original Manchu is one), he will surely know the influence of mothers in the upbringing of their sons- the women taught their sons to be strong in body. These women were themselves strong and were handy with horse-riding and weaponry such as archery unlike their Chinese counterpart. The Chinese on the other hand, where possible, encouraged their sons to be ‘academic’ and study books, who as a result became weak in body. So although the Manchus of the later Qing Court were in reality Hans, they retained some of the customs of the Steppes, an example was that they believed the bodies of their people had to be physically strong to rule.
    Foot binding should be seen for what it was- mutilation forced upon an unwilling participant, just as in female circumcision. It was practised by a very small minority of Chinese. As such it cannot be regarded as a Chinese custom in general, as the majority of the Chinese did not agree with it and obviously had no use for it. To do so would taint the majority of Chinese who did not agree or accept such cruelty. Just as we should not blame every single Jew past and present for the death of Jesus Christ, in which the Jews allegedly present at His sentencing agreed to have His blood on their hands and their descendants’ hands, we should not claim foot binding was a custom of the Chinese people because it was not- it was only practised by a tiny proportion of Chinese, in the same way that the majority of Jews were not present at the sentencing of Jesus Christ, and had nothing to do with His death.

  14. Leaving aside the anti-semitic ahistoricality at the end, J. Chan makes some interesting, if humorless, points. It’s true that there was significant intermarriage between Manchu and Han, but patriliny, not genetics, was the tribal marker. The strong/weak stuff is pure cultural stereotyping, interesting as discourse but hardly proof of anything.

    My impression has always been that footbinding, by the 19th century, was practiced quite widely among urban Han, and even among wealthy rural Han: a minority, but not a small minority. I have no argument with his characterization of it as problematic, but I’m aware of no evidence that the “majority of Chinese” rejected or had any reservations about it.

    Finally, while the Manchu were privileged in the positions they held, many (most, I always thought) of Manchu males held positions in the Imperial bureaucracy: whether you want to call them rulers by virtue of their privilege or not, they were administrators.

  15. For the (estimated) proportion of women who had their feet bound, Mr Dresner should read comment 2 above from Hinrich, comment 11 by Alan Baumer and his own comment in comment 3.

  16. I am currently researching Sexuality in Qing China, specifically sexuality from the point of view of the Manchus an alien rulers. My interest lies manly with homosexual practises.
    I was therefore hoping that anyone from this well-informed thread may have certian opinions themselves on this subject or could suggest archives to visit or selected reading material.
    I appreciate that many of you are renowned historians as i have read and enjoyed your works, and i realise how precious time is however any contact whatsoever would be greatly appreciated.
    I hope you can help me, my mentor is Dr. Naomi Standen if any of you are familiar which her.
    Thanks Hayley Fletcher (h.l.fletcher@ncl.ac.uk)

  17. Those interested in this issue could benefit from reading this page: http://www.josephrupp.com/story15.html. This has first hand testimony from women explaining why they bound their feet. The number one reason they give is the hope that if they bound their feet really tight, they could marry into a wealthy family. The implication of this for Manchu is obvious: Manchu mothers wanted their daughters to marry Manchu husbands, and footbinding would likely lead to marriage with an ethnic Chinese.

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