Ruist Basics

Foot-Binding and Ruism

If there is anything of which the Chinese Ru (Confucian) Tradition should feel guilty about, it is the past practice of female foot-binding in late imperial China. This does not mean that it was Ruism alone that caused the perpetuation of this awful custom that had wrought so much pain and suffering to women. Neither does it mean that Ruism does not have its own resources to correct itself in order to avoid anything similar in the future. In this essay, I will write down basic facts that contemporary Ruists should know in order to reflect, at first, and then, keep vigilant.

Q: When did the practice of foot-binding start?

A: The origin of female foot-binding had nothing to do with Ruism. According to a well-accepted view among historians, foot-binding began in the period of Wu Dai (907-979 C.E), which was more than one thousand years later after the life of Confucius (551-479 B.C.E). A frequently told story is about Li Yu (937-978C.E), the corrupted emperor of Nan Tang (937-975 C.E) who was more able to compose poetry than govern his state. He bound the feet of a court dancer called Yao Niang using silks so as to create a particular type of postures and movements for Yao Niang’s body to appear supple and sexually attractive. Since this kind of foot-binding was initially created for dancing, it had not yet evolved into the painful mutilation of women’s feet as seen later in the Ming (1368-1644 C.E) and Qing (1644-1911 C.E) Dynasties.

Q: How did the practice of foot-finding get developed?

A: There are three stages for the development of the foot-binding custom. From Wu Dai to Northern Song (960-1127 C.E) was the first stage, when foot-binding was visible mainly in the royal families, in the class called “Shi Da Fu” (senior scholar-officials) and other associated social elite’s circles. The practice was mostly seen in the cities. From Southern Song (1127-1279 C.E) to Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 C.E) was the second stage, when the practice of foot-binding spread to ordinary households, and even young girls of 4 or 5 years old were sometimes required to bind their feet in order to have a fortunate marriage prospect. Ming and Qing Dynasties were the last stage when foot-binding became a ubiquitous social norm, and the way to bind feet was also becoming the most abusive: women did not only need to bind their feet, they, from a very young age, also needed to mutilate, or even cut away part of their feet in order that their grown feet could look like a “three-inch golden lotus.”

As how most social norms spread to the general populace, a pattern can be discerned concerning the development of the foot-binding custom: the poor people imitated what the rich people did, the rural imitated the urban, the rich and urban imitated the politically powerful and the politically powerful imitated the royal families.

Q: What is the relationship between the practice of foot-binding and Ruism?

A: Even though it is difficult to find statements in Ruist classics that explicitly promoted the practice of foot-binding in those specific historical periods, the sociological and philosophical foundation of Ruism did provide rich soil that allowed foot-binding to flourish.

The membership of the aforementioned social class “senior scholar-officials” depended upon whether one can pass the civil examination and then, be officially appointed in a governmental position by the emperor. The major content of the civil examination is Ruist canons. In this way, since those “senior scholar-officials” were one of the most powerful social engines that spread the aesthetics associated with foot-binding, these officials, as well as the Ru Tradition they sustained, cannot be exonerated from the blame of condoning or even actually perpetuating this brutal practice of foot-binding.

One of the aims of the political philosophy of Ruism is to create harmony and stability within a justifiable hierarchy of social classes. The mainstream Ruist teaching in those time periods understood the marital relationship between husband and wife as hierarchical: the husband needs to be a model taking a leading role in his family, and the wife is expected to be an able assistant to her spouse. Although Ruism does not support wives to be mindlessly subservient to their husbands, the basic formation of Ruist family ethics risked a facile alliance with the patriarchal abuse of power with a result that some inhumane social rites, such as foot-binding, cannot be easily hurdled. As a consequence, as early as Yuan Dynasty, the increasingly popular practice of foot-binding was seen as aiming to cultivate women’s Ruist virtues, such as chastity and feminine propriety.

Q: Were there Ruists opposing the practice of foot-binding?

A: Yes! The practice of foot-binding ran counter to the central principle of Ru spirituality: the cardinal virtue of Ren (humaneness), which longs for the full-flourishing of all humans’ life in their dynamic and harmonious relationships, as well as the virtue of Xiao (filiality), which takes “not injuring one’s body” as one’s first duty. Throughout all the three stages of the foot-binding custom, there were Ruists standing up and voicing their dissent against the custom using Ruist principles. In its latest stage, Ruists even became a major reformative social group campaigning for the custom’s repeal. Some examples can be seen as following:

In the first stage, when the practice of foot-binding had not yet been spread to rural areas and ordinary households, Xu Ji (1023-1103 C.E), one of the pioneering Ruists in the so-called “Dao Xue” (“learning of Dao,” usually translated as “neo-Confucianism”) movement, denounced it in a poignant manner: when Xu Ji wrote a poem praising one virtuous woman who, through years, made great efforts to organize a decent funeral ritual for each of her 18 passed family members, he said: “She planted the pine-trees by her own hands, and then, all her body was stained with mud. Did she have any vain time to bind her two feet? She only knew how to work diligently using her four limbs.” [1] Here, unbinding one’s feet was seen by Xu Ji as a condition to fulfill a woman’s family obligation, while the upper-class fashion of women’s foot-binding, due to its associated aesthetics of vanity and indolence, is lampooned.

In the second stage, when the foot-binding custom gradually infiltrated ordinary households and even toddlers began to be required to do so, Che Ruoshui (1210-1275 C.E), who was well-known as a Ruist “being deeply convinced by Zhu Xi’s Collective Commentary of Four Books”, boycotted the custom using a compassionate heart: “To bind women’s feet, I do not know when this practice started. My little daughter is only four or five years old. Since she is so innocent, should we torture her with so much pain? If we bound her feet to such a small size, of what use was it?” Because these words were said in the context of Che Ruoshui’s discussion of Mencius’ thought on “accumulating one’s rightful deeds” (集義), Che was implicitly employing Mencius’ famous teaching about the incipient sprout of the innately good human nature to arouse people’s compassion to stop the inhuman practice of foot-binding: if people cannot help having a feeling of alarm and commiseration when they see a baby falling into a well, can we not help having exactly the same feeling when we see our young daughters have to bind their feet?

Again, during the Yuan Dynasty in the second stage when the foot-binding practice continued to gather its popularity, Bai Ting (1248-1328 C.E), an officially appointed Ruist teacher traveling and lecturing in various local schools, forcefully opposed it. The way Bai voiced his dissent was to cite the story of Cheng Yi’s family. Cheng Yi (1033-1107 C.E) was one definitive figure of the Dao Xue movement in Northern Song. His grandson was called Cheng Huai. According to Bai Ting’s record, “the extensive family of Cheng Huai lived in Chi Yang. No women bound their feet. Neither did any of them pierce her ears. Cheng’s family followed this rule until now.” [3]. This record does not only speak to the protesting stance of Bai Ting against foot-binding, it also tells us that Cheng Yi, the founding Ruist for the Dao Xue movement actually did not approve of foot-binding, and Cheng Yi took it as a family rule that no women within his extensive family, including his offsprings, can bind their feet.

In the third stage, when the practice of foot-binding turned into a social routine, Ruists became a powerful social group campaigning for its repeal. In this regard, two examples can let us get a glimpse into this historical trend.

Qian Yong (1759-1844 C.E), among many other contemporaneous Ruists sharing a reformative ethos in early and middle Qing dynasty, argued: “if women’s feet are bound, the being of two modes will not be perfected. If the being of two modes is not perfected, their male and female offsprings will be weak and feeble. If all men and women are weak and feeble, everything in human society will fall apart!” [4] Here, the phrase of “two modes” (两儀) was borrowed from one of the Ruist canon, the Classic of Change, and referred to man and woman.

Also, among all reformative Ruists in the third stage, Kang You-wei (1858-1927 C.E) was one of the most active. He did not only argue for the cruelty of the foot-binding custom, he also launched social movements and established organizations to implement his critical ideas. He once adamantly urged to repeal the custom in such a way: “In the view of a state’s government, it (the practice of foot-binding) abuses power to punish innocent women; In the view of the virtue of parental kindness, it hurts parents’ feelings of humaneness and love; in the view of hygiene, it breaks women’s bones and causes their diseases; in the view of military competition, generations of weak people will be born; in the view of aesthetics and culture, it will make a barbarian country mocked by its neighbors. If we can bear this, what else can we not bear?” [5] Here, as for other similar examples, we find underlying Ruist principles for Kang’s argument, and therefore, although it was only after the end of the imperial China (1911 C.E) that the practice of foot-binding was finally eliminated in China, we need to know that Ruists were once major contributors helping this day to come earlier.

Q: What can we learn from the shown complex relationship between the foot-binding practice and Ruism?

A: At least two important lessons contemporary Ruists must learn from the concerned relationship:

First, even though hierarchical systems are still a worthy ideal for the development of human civilization due to efficiency and meritocratic justice, there is no need to sustain such a standard in some interpersonal relationships such as marriage. Married couples can cooperate in various ways depending upon their different personalities, abilities, and expertise. In some circumstances, men may play a leading role. In others, it may be women who go to take the lead. Regardless, contemporary Ruism must make a maximal use of its own resources to support the full-flourishing of women’s life in both domestic and non-domestic contexts. The role of women in family should neither be confined in assisting a leading patriarch nor giving birth to and taking care of offsprings. Women should have the opportunity to flourish, giving them a chance to build a legacy which could be equally as memorable as any man.

Second, one idiosyncratic feature of Ru spirituality is its persistent emphasis upon the role of li (禮, cultural symbols and facilities, usually translated as “rituals” or “rites” ) in the process of creating and sustaining high human civilization. However, good li leads to high civilization, but bad li can destroy it. Informed by the intricate relationship between the tragic custom of foot-binding and historical Ruism, contemporary Ruists should be on a constant alert to any degenerating tendency of established cultural systems and social norms, and thus, be prepared to use our full strengths to fix any new problems on the horizon. In this regard, we should keep Lao Zi’s Daoist criticism (the Dao De Jing, Chapter 38) of the Ru project of social construction and Confucius’ Ruist self-criticism (the Analects, 3.3) of the same project constantly in mind: being a Ru is to believe that li demarcates the humanistic feature of humanity; however, if misused, li can become inhumane.