Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Foot-Binding Ain't So Bad

The Case For a More Nuanced Dialogue.

Few would argue that the now abolished Chinese cultural practice of the foot-binding of Chinese women has been the subject of much debate amongst the men and women (but mainly the women) of the Asian minority of America. Although a phenomenon existing exclusively within Chinese culture, some Asian-American women find value in representing the practice as the essence of female oppression in Asia (and by extension within the Asian-Amerian community). Subsequently, the burden of correcting the historical wrongdoings of the culture of foot-binding falls on "Asian men" in general. Apparently Indian, Uzbek, Siberian, Pakistani, Nepalese, Filipino, as well as Chinese and all other Asian men - all must equally share the responsibility for the phenomenon of foot-binding - even though ultimately it took the willpower of strong Asian men to end the practice.

Foot-binding was a practice in which Chinese girls as young as 3 or 4 underwent an extremely painful process to modify the shape and size of the foot. In order to achieve this, the bones of young girls' feet were broken and bandaged in whatever was the desired shape. Foot-bound women lived in constant pain, and infections were a frequent complication. Definitely an ugly practice. Yet, what were the circumstances that brought about this practice? Most accounts maintain that the phenomenon started as a fashion statement amongst the rich and well-to-do of the Tang Dynasty and slowly evolved into a tradition that involved every echelon of Chinese society.

Women who had their feet bound were highly prized in feudal China - their value as wives were increased and for many it was a means to escape poverty. Asthetically, bound feet were considered sexually attractive, and those who had undergone the procedure were widely considered to be chaste. Although it is maintained that foot-binding was a means to  keep women disempowered, on the flip side, mutilating the feet of Chinese women effectively increased their value and thus was a practice that was propagated by the men and women of feudal China.

Ironically, the American practice of modifying the body through cosmetic surgery, bears some remarkable similarities to the Chinese tradition. As was the case with women's feet in feudal China, women in modern America aspire to a standard body shape and type that is extremely difficult or impossible to maintain by natural means, and which is a standard determlned by a patriarchy and not the women themselves. In order to do this some women are pro-active and seek out invasive surgery to meet the required standard. Other women in America simply become sick - that is, they develope eating disorders from attempts at body sculpting through extreme dieting and vomiting. Those women who achieve the desired body shape through mutilation (a.k.a cosmetic surgery), become highly valued and desirable.

Clearly the underlying principles that drove the Chinese tradition of foot-binding and continue to drive the modern American culture of cosmetic mutilation are almost exactly the same. Strangely, yet not unsurprisingly, some Asian-American feminism seems to somehow not notice this fact, and continue with the "Asian men are foot-binding mysogynists" battle cry, seeming to be intellectually stuck in feudal China. Apparently, for some Asian-American feminists a traditińĪon not practised by the majority of Asian cultures and one that has been abolished for decades, is more of a threat to their empowerment than an American patriarchy that is powerful enough to pressure millions of women to undergo cosmetic surgery. Somehow, Asian women seem fortunate enough to be unaffected by this American culture of control over women's body image, yet remarkably enslaved to an abolished culture of foot-binding that, incidentally, was never practised by the communities that they grew up in within the United States. This reminds very much of the type of disconnect that I noted here. I look on bemused.

The more I notice this similarity between foot-binding and cosmetic surgery, the more difficult it becomes to view the former as an inherently wicked practice without viewing the latter in the same light. Strange as it sounds, the fundamental difference between the two traditions is the availability of aneasthesia, anti-biotics, and painkillers. Unfortunately, what this means for those too lazy to make nuanced and balanced arguments against the practice, is that foot-binding would be no different and no less brutal that routine cosmetic surgery if practised in the present. Wheelchairs, Segways and escalators make the immobility issue a non-issue, painkillers and aneasthesia make the procedure painless. Modern surgical techniques might even make the practice easier and painless.

With this in mind, it is clear that if I am to be held responsible for a practice that has been abolished for decades, and which was never practised within my own Asian culture, then Asian feminists have to come up with better arguments for their case against me. Otherwise, it becomes extremely difficult to take this type of feminism seriously.

Sadly, as with much of the intellectual discourse that occurs within Asian America, the issue is often overly generalized to the point of becoming simplistic. Often this process goes hand-in-hand with a selective ommission of historical and social realities and an uncritical lack of nuance in the argumentation. Since foot-binding wasn't practised outside of China and never occurred amongst any Asian minority group in America (including the Chinese), it strikes me as strange in the extreme that this phenomenon could cause so much resentment toward the general Asian-American male population and serve as something of the rallying cry for the empowerment of Asian-American women. So how is it that some of the voices of Asian feminism rail vehemently against a practice that was not a Pan-Asian phenomenon and has been abolished for decades, yet few rail against the modern day manipulation of women into undergoing cosmetic surgery?

Hat Tip...


  1. Thanks for the hat-tip, Ben! There's an "emergency podcast" coming up tonight. I hope to post it up by tomorrow.

  2. Hi BWW

    Sure thing! I look forward to the podcast.

  3. The fundamental difference is the autonomy issue.

    I do have to say, though, that this whole recent discussion on footbinding is the first time since maybe, I dunno, AP World History in high school? that I had any at-length discussion about the subject.

    As a feminist theorist involved in discussions of such nature, what comes up more frequently is female genital mutiliation, a practice that takes place in several parts of the world, from Egypt and various other parts of Africa to Southeast Asia. Since it did happen in Southeast Asia, it's interesting to note why it wouldn't come up as frequently as footbinding in discussions by Asian feminists. Maybe it does and I just don't know about it.

  4. Hi TZ

    I agree, choice is the biggest difference, and I was going to mention that in the post but realized that choice is actually a relative concept in the case of cosmetic surgery and may not be much of a choice at all.

    I really see the subject as a classic example of the tension between ontology and epistemology - that is, what do we have and how can we really know that is in fact what we do have. When ideas become stuck in an ontology without epistemological enquiry they become dogmatic. And that's really what I'm seeing with much of the popular expression of Asian feminism.

    The conversation over at BWW about Butler made me wonder if there is that kind of debate going on amongst Asian feminists. If not, the question is why? For any entity interested in change or social evolution (which I presume Asian feminism is) that kind of debate is essential. Yet, just about everyhwere I see the popular interpretation of Asian-American feminism I see some really bland and unoriginal ideas being regurgitated.

    Like I've written elsewhere there is very much a disconnectedness in the way Asians view themselves. It's like there is a truth that we refuse to acknowledge and I think that the basis for this is being fearful of our own power. This I think is especially true for Asian women. I think the reason that so many Asian women focus on the trite (in my opinion) is that they may actually be afraid of their own power. I say bring it on.

  5. @ Ben:

    There is that kind of debate, especially in Asian feminist theory. It's a hot button issue that has polarized the Asian feminist school into two camps, the post-feminist Asian femininsts, who tend to be those who believe in sexual liberation, blah blah, and for some very peculiar reason ends up manifesting itself as sexual promiscuity with white men, and then there are the Asian feminists who talk about imperialism and oftentimes hand in hand are frighteningly patriotic (of China, for example).

    Note that I said Asian feminist. As for Asian American feminist theory. Well. On that front, there isn't a whole heck of a lot of text or discourse. PERIOD.

  6. "Note that I said Asian feminist. As for Asian American feminist theory. Well. On that front, there isn't a whole heck of a lot of text or discourse. PERIOD."

    That then is the issue. I'm surprised, yet not very. Why would you say that this is the case?