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Thanks to the following people for helping me with this post: JP Addison, Guive Assadi, Adam Bales, Max Dalton, Ben Garfinkel, Jamie Harris, Lizka Vaintrob.

One question I am interested in is how moral progress happens, and particularly how far economic changes have driven moral progress (as opposed to political, cultural or other factors).

I think this question has implications for things like:

  • How much to push on value changes versus artificial meat when it comes to ending factory farming
  • How to approach digital sentience
  • Whether it would be an important, good thing to encourage widespread support for something like longtermism, or ‘future generations matter’, or some other set of values
  • How optimistic to be in general about investments in moral circle expansion, value changes, and moral campaigns

It’s obviously an extremely complex question, and I don’t think it’s the sort of inquiry where one should expect to find a robust, simple answer, even with a lifetime of work:

  • ‘Moral progress’ is subjective
  • ‘Economic changes as opposed to political or cultural factors’ is very reductive
  • Historical causation is difficult to trace, and evidence is often sparse and messy

I still think it’s instructive to think about questions like this though, and to ground that thinking empirically by learning about relevant historical examples.

One example that I have spent around a week looking into is the decline of footbinding in China in the twentieth century.

In this post, I share my tentative understanding of why footbinding declined. In brief:

  • Some scholars argue that footbinding declined because of the moral campaign that was waged against the practice.
  • Others argue that footbinding declined because foreign textile imports undermined the value of girls’ sedentary handwork, which in turn reduced the economic practicality of footbinding.
  • I currently think that the moral campaign probably expedited the decline of footbinding by years or possibly decades, but that economic changes made it close to inevitable that the practice would decline in the first half of the twentieth century. Even if you don’t buy the handwork argument, the rise of factory work some decades later would likely have killed off the practice.
  • I also think that both the moral campaign and the economic changes were causally dependent on interactions with foreign powers. If China had been entirely isolated from foreign interactions (which it’s worth remembering were often highly exploitative and invasive), I expect footbinding would have continued for decades longer than it did.

What happened

Footbinding was the practice of tightly binding young girls’ feet so that the bones couldn’t grow. Usually this involved actually breaking bones, and was very painful.[1] Footbinding was practised in China for around a millennium,[2] and was widespread for centuries.[3] In spite of this prevalence, it disappeared as a practice over a space of 50 years, and in many places in more like a generation.[4] In 1900, footbinding was still a majority practice in Han areas, by 1940 at the latest it had become a minority practice, and by 1950 was very unusual.

There was a prominent, early moral campaign against footbinding. From the late nineteenth century, foreign missionaries and then Chinese nationalists formed societies, circulated pamphlets, collected pledges from parents not to footbind, and wrote to officials condemning the practice. These efforts preceded an imperial edict against footbinding issued in 1902, and the eventual ban of the practice in 1911.[5]

In urban areas, it seems that footbinding as a practice declined in the 1900s and 1910s, so around the time of the ban. In rural areas footbinding did not become a minority practice until the 1920s and 1930s.[4:1] The first half of the twentieth century also saw the growing importance of imported and then factory-made yarn and cloth, which gradually outcompeted homemade equivalents. So it seems that rurally, footbinding declined at roughly the same time as the economic importance of girls’ sedentary handwork fell.

Why did footbinding decline?

The moral campaign

The story here is roughly:

  • Arguments against footbinding had existed for centuries.[6]
  • The Manchu-led Qing dynasty never practised footbinding. In 1664 a proposal was made to ban the practice, but it was withdrawn.
  • In 1838 the emperor issued a condemnation of footbinding, but there were no enforcement efforts.[7]
  • In 1846 Christian missionaries were granted permission to enter all of China.
  • “A missionary of the London Missionary Society founded the first antifootbinding society in 1874. In 1895 ten women of different nationalities, led by Mrs. Archibald Little, the wife of a British merchant, founded the T’ien tsu hui (Natural Foot Society), a nondenominational umbrella organization. The first Chinese-initiated antifootbinding societies were set up in 1883 and 1895, but local opposition led to their collapse. In 1897 Chinese reformers founded the Pu’ch’an-tsu hui (Antifootbinding Society), China’s largest non-Christian antifootbinding organization, which later established many branches and had a membership of 300,000.”[8]
  • In 1898 an imperial ban on footbinding was issued, but soon repealed.
  • “[O]pposition to footbinding became associated with reform sentiment that was both antifeudal and antiforeign. After military defeat by foreigners [in the Boxer Rebellion 1899-1901], improving the status of women and ending footbinding were seen as tools to modernize and strengthen China so it could resist future intervention.”[8:1]
  • “After the Boxer Rebellion the Imperial Court saw the need to implement gradual reforms. One of the first was an antifootbinding edict in 1902.”[8:2]
  • “The campaign was strongest at the turn of the century… After the turn of the century progressive literature by and about women moved on to other issues.”[8:3]
  • In 1911, the nationalist government banned footbinding altogether.

There’s debate about the relative importance of foreign missionaries and Chinese intellectuals in these campaigns.[8:4]

The evidence base seems mostly to consist of the records of the societies themselves (membership, pamphlets, letters etc), and the main thing pointing to causation is the fact that the campaigns preceded the official bans on footbinding.

Economic changes in the value of girls’ handwork

The argument here is roughly:

  • Footbinding was a way of incentivising young girls to perform sedentary handwork from a young age, as it was painful for them to walk on broken feet.[9]
  • Foreign imports and later factory goods reduced the value of this labour significantly, and footbinding declined as a result.

The evidence base is surveys of ~5000 women born in the first half of the twentieth century, asking them about their work, whether they were footbound, and whether their mothers and grandmothers were footbound.

In their book, Bossen and Gates find that “for girls who did handwork for income, the odds that they would be footbound were 2.144 times greater than if they did not do handwork for income… If girls earned income from textile handwork, initiations of footbinding continued around five years longer than if girls did not do handwork for income.”[10]

Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips use (mostly) the same data in their article, but analyse it differently, and find that “girls producing commercial handicraft were 1.24 times more likely to have been footbound than girls not producing commercial handicraft across China”.[11] This is a smaller deal, but still suggests a relationship.

Problems with this argument

Shepherd presents data that footbinding prevalence doesn’t correlate with intensity of commercial handwork output in Hebei, but his data is pretty coarse and I think doesn’t undermine the Bossen/Gates/Brown data.[12]

However, there are a few things that worry me about this argument:

  • Bossen and Gates don't use any controls.
    • Their data is all rural, so it shouldn't be confounded by city girls who didn't do commercial handwork. And they do break things down by birth year, which is sort of a way for controlling for 'other things which are changing over time' (but not static things like class).
    • Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips control for various things: birth year, education level of mother, whether mother was footbound, agricultural labour, domestic handwork, and a rural wealth index. But there might be other confounders.
  • Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips find that being footbound did not correlate with greater or lesser daily yarn outputs.[13] If the handwork argument were correct, I would expect being footbound to correlate with greater yarn outputs.[14]
  • Bossen and Gates and Brown and Satterthwaite all include data for Sichuan. Bossen and Gates find that girls involved in commercial handicraft were 2.519 times more likely to be footbound, but Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips find they were only 1.05 times more likely.[15]
    • This is a big discrepancy.
    • 1.05 times more likely to be footbound is very marginal.
    • Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips argue in favour of the handwork argument, and so don’t seem to think that the Sichuan discrepancy undermines the case.
    • But it still worries me.

I don’t have the skills to assess the statistics used in these pieces,[16] but these worries make me much less confident in the handwork argument than I would otherwise be.

What about other economic changes?

Women and girls did begin to work in factories in the first half of the twentieth century, but in very small numbers. All of the scholars I cite above agree that this can’t have been a causal factor.

That said, I think that factory work would have killed off the practice eventually, if other processes hadn’t got there first.

  • Footbound women could walk and stand, but with more difficulty and discomfort than unbound women. You only need this difference to be marginal for employers to prefer hiring unbound women.
  • As child labour was still common and freshly bound feet were very painful to walk on, this difference was probably greater for girls.

What’s going on here?

Histories about the moral campaign and about the economic changes in the value of girls’ handwork are written by different people, draw on different evidence bases, and refer centrally to different groups of people (urban people for the moral campaign argument, rural people for the economic one). Is one of the arguments just wrong, or is there something more subtle going on?

I see three main questions here:

A. When urban people stopped footbinding, were the relevant economic changes already impacting the most advanced cities?

B. When rural people stopped footbinding, were they influenced by the moral campaign?

C. Can both of these stories be explained by some underlying factor?

On A:

  • The first foot-binding societies do seem to have preceded significant foreign imports of yarn.

  • By the time of the ban in 1911, ~25% of yarn was machine spun.[17] I expect that the markets for this yarn were mostly concentrated around urban centres, and that the proportion of foreign yarn would therefore be higher in cities.

  • Data on when footbinding starts to decline is patchy, but it seems that in coastal cities footbinding declined in the 1900s and 1910s.[4:2]

  • I expect there were at least some women who didn’t get footbound for reasons that had nothing to do with economics (e.g. elite women, women related to government officials, women whose parents took a pledge with an antifoodbinding society not to footbind), and that the campaigns, prohibitions and enforcement had some causal expediting effect. I’m not sure how big this effect was, and I expect that finding out would require primary source work.

    • It’s also possible that the moral campaign itself was contingent on wider economic changes. Campaigners’ desire to abolish footbinding might have originated from an expectation that footbinding would not be compatible with the kind of modernised industrial state they wanted to build. This seems plausible to me, but I haven’t researched the campaigns in detail so I can’t say for sure.[18]
  • It’s possible that economic changes were causally significant for the decline in urban footbinding, but it’s hard to say.[19] It would surprise me if the moral campaign had no expediting effect.

On B:

  • 87% of the women in the Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips dataset were illiterate, and 96% of their mothers had no education.[20] It seems unlikely that the moral campaign, which operated largely through writing and through meetings in urban centres, had any direct effect on whether rural girls were footbound.
  • “Girlhood knowledge of government prohibitions against footbinding, an indirect measure of awareness by the adults who decided whether to bind a girl’s feet, did not correlate with whether women were ever footbound.”[21]
    • It’s possible that awareness of prohibition was causally significant, but girls’ knowledge of prohibition didn’t correlate with parental knowledge of prohibition, for instance because rural parents didn’t discuss things like that with their daughters. If only a small proportion of girls in the dataset had heard of prohibition, I would want to explore this hypothesis further, but it seems unlikely to me given that 67% of the dataset knew about prohibition.[22]
  • There is a correlation between knowledge of the prohibitions and unbinding (as oppose to never being footbound at all), but it seems likely that this reflects a correlation with temporary unbinding only, as opposed to permanent unbinding.[23]
  • It’s possible that the moral campaign and prohibition had an indirect effect on rural footbinding, via cultural connections between rural and urban areas. The argument here would be that interactions with higher status urban people who no longer practised footbinding encouraged rural people not to.
    • This is hard to separate from the economic argument, as increased interactions with urban culture arrived via the same means as increased imported and factory-spun yarn and cloth.
    • I don’t see any reason why the families of rural girls who did handwork for income would be less culturally connected to urban centres than those of girls who didn’t do handwork for income. So this doesn’t seem to explain the correlation between handwork for income and footbinding.
  • I don’t think there’s a strong case that the moral campaign caused the decline in rural footbinding directly or indirectly via prohibition. It’s possible that indirect cultural influences had an effect, though this wouldn’t explain why girls doing commercial handwork were more likely to be footbound.

On C:

  • Yes. I think that both the moral campaign and the economic changes were causally dependent on interactions with foreign powers.
    • There had been antifootbinding sentiments and imperial condemnations for centuries in China. But an organised campaign only got off the ground in the wake of campaigns by foreign missionaries, and gained cultural traction in the context of antiforeign feeling and the desire to modernise China in reaction to foreign interference.
    • Girls’ handiwork became less valuable because of the importation of foreign yarn, cloth, and factory technologies.
  • So a zoomed out story one could tell about the decline of footbinding is that the Industrial Revolution and Western imperialism led to increased cultural interdependence and homogenisation, and the decline of footbinding was a part of that process.

My tentative conclusions

I currently think that:

  • If China had been entirely isolated from foreign interactions (which it’s worth remembering were often highly exploitative and invasive), footbinding would have continued for decades longer than it did, until such time as the Chinese economy in isolation produced its own industrial revolution, or hard-to-foresee cultural changes took place in isolation.
  • The moral campaign may have been quite successful. There was only around a generation between the first anti-footbinding society and the imperial edict against footbinding (though I’m uncertain about the causal link there). I think the moral campaign probably expedited the practical decline of footbinding in urban areas by years, possibly decades.
  • However, I don’t think the moral campaign was counterfactually necessary to the decline of the practice. In rural areas I think the timing of the decline of footbinding would probably not have been changed if you removed the moral campaign. I think economic changes made it close to inevitable that the practice would decline in the first half of the twentieth century. Even if you don’t buy the handwork argument, the rise of factory work some decades later would likely have killed off the practice.

Ways I could be wrong about this

Some specific ways I might be wrong:

  • The economic arguments might be weaker than I currently think: I can’t rigorously assess the statistics used.
  • Some scholars argue that the decline was caused by changes in fashion.[24] I haven’t read their arguments.
  • I haven’t been able to find detailed English language analyses of the efforts to enforce the government prohibitions.[25] It’s possible that evidence on these would change my mind.
  • Pamphlets, government officials, imported yarn and cloth, and new fashions all arrived in urban centres first, and rural areas later, along the same roads and rivers. Without detailed research into specific localities, it’s hard to properly disentangle these factors.

Some general reasons that increase the chance I might be wrong: I spent around one week researching this, I only read secondary works, I have no background in Chinese history, and can’t read Chinese.

Closing reflections

I currently think that footbinding is an example of moral progress where a moral campaign expedited the change, but economic factors made the shift inevitable regardless. Assuming that this interpretation is roughly correct, there’s a question about how representative footbinding is as a case study:[26]

  • Are most examples of moral progress like this? Or was the decline in footbinding unusual?
  • Are there moral campaigns we might want to promote? How pertinent an example is footbinding for assessing those campaigns?
  • Footbinding seems likely to be economically disincentivised in lots of different environments. Other practices (slavery?) do not. Where do the value changes we might want to see fall on this spectrum? Moral campaigns seem more likely to be counterfactually significant if successful at the ‘not often economically disincentivised’ end (though also less likely to succeed).
    • Another way of framing a similar point is that footbinding seems highly culturally contingent: there have been many societies with similar economic and technological circumstances which did not develop the practice. Slavery seems much less contingent: it evolved in most societies at a certain level of development.
    • NB it’s possible there are value changes where counterfactual expedition, even by a few years, could be very valuable, particularly if you expect values to be locked in at a certain point.[27] So value changes at the ‘often economically disincentivised’ end may also be worth considering.

Postscript: Some meta takeaways from this exercise

  • History is really complicated. I think it’s an important virtue to be able to stick your neck out and say ‘I think x was mostly caused by y’ - but underneath statements like that there’s a huge cloud of possibilities and entanglements and holes in the data.
  • The first reference you come across via EA networks may be pretty poor. I told some people in the EA space that I was researching the decline of footbinding. Two people independently suggested a relevant chapter of a book to me (without claiming that it was good). The people were both philosophers, and the book they suggested was also by a philosopher, which is probably partly why they had heard of it. I think the relevant chapter isn’t actually worth reading if you want to understand why footbinding declined: it doesn’t mention economics at all, and seems to equate the prohibition on footbinding with the end of footbinding as a practice, which is quite confused. This wasn’t much of a problem for me given that I also read other stuff - but if instead of doing a research project I had just wanted to learn something interesting about footbinding, I might have come away with quite a misleading picture of what happened. My takeaway is: don’t assume that because someone is smart, the single reference they have on a topic they don’t know much about is any good.

Appendix A: Annotated bibliography

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

  • A book by a philosopher with a chapter on footbinding based on secondary materials. Argues that the moral campaign was responsible for the end of footbinding, with no reference to economic factors, or to the actual decline of the practice, as distinct from the edicts against it.

Bossen, Laurel, and Hill Gates. Bound Feet, Young Hands: Tracking the Demise of Footbinding in Village China. Stanford University Press, 2017.

  • A not-much-cited book by two anthropologists, drawing on interview and questionnaire work. Argues that footbinding declined because the value of girls’ handwork declined, thus reducing the economic advantages of footbinding.

Brown, Melissa J. “Footbinding in Economic Context: Rethinking the Problems of Affect and the Prurient Gaze.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 80, no. 1, 2020, pp. 179–214, https://doi.org/10.1353/jas.2020.0007.

  • Review article which covers Bossen and Gates, Shepherd, and Ko, Cinderella’s Sisters. In Brown’s words in personal correspondence, it also contains a ‘translation for history scholars’ of Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips.

Brown, Melissa J., and Damian Satterthwaite-Phillips. “Economic Correlates of Footbinding: Implications for the Importance of Chinese Daughters’ Labor.” PLOS ONE, vol. 13, no. 9, Sept. 2018, p. e0201337, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0201337.

  • An article presenting analysis of (mostly) the same survey data as in Bossen and Gates. Shows that commercial handwork correlated with footbinding but knowledge of government prohibitions did not.

“Foot Binding.” Wikipedia, 28 Jan. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Foot_binding&oldid=1068492290.

  • For finding references.

Keck, Margaret E. _Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics [Electronic Resource]. _Cornell University Press, 2014, https://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/login?url=https://doi.org/10.7591/9780801471292, pp. 59-66.

  • This is what I first read. It contains a brief summary of the decline of footbinding from secondary work, mostly quite old, all of which argues in favour of the moral campaign. The account contains no mention of economic arguments, except a statement that no economic changes occurred at the right time to explain the decline.

Shepherd, John Robert. Footbinding as Fashion: Ethnicity, Labor, and Status in Traditional China. University of Washington Press, 2019.

  • A book which argues that footbinding was an arbitrary status symbol, and spread and persisted because of local status hierarchies. Doesn’t deal in depth with the decline, and argues that a combination of moral campaign and government prohibition were the key causal factors. Presents some data against the economic change model presented by Bossen and Gates and Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips, which I don’t think undermines the case as it’s quite coarse.

Smith, Bonnie G. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History. Oxford University Press, 2008.

  • A more reputable reference work than Wikipedia.

Appendix B: Timeline

Spreadsheet here.


  1. There was quite a lot of variation, and some kinds of binding were less painful and approximately reversible. Brown, ‘Footbinding in economic context’, p. 188. ↩︎

  2. Sources of evidence on this are poor, and there was a lot of regional variation. Bossen and Gates, Bound Feet, Young Hands, pp. 3–4. Footbinding “probably began as a custom no earlier than the 10th century”. Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips, ‘Economic correlates of footbinding’, p. 23; Brown, ‘Footbinding in economic context’, p. 182. ↩︎

  3. In archaeological sites from the 15th-16th centuries, around half of women were footbound. There are 17th-18th century sites where almost all women were. Brown, ‘Footbinding in economic context’, p. 182. (Brown refers to half of women being footbound in the Ming period, which is 1368-1644, and ‘all women’ in the Qing period, which is 1644-1912.)
    For the nineteenth century, the estimates I’ve seen are all consistent with at least ~40% of women in China having bound feet, possibly more:

    • 57% of the ~7000 women born before 1943 in the datasets used by Brown and Satterthwaire were ever footbound. 90% of those women’s mothers were footbound. Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips, ‘Economic correlates of footbinding’, p. 9.
    • “We conservatively estimate that hundreds of millions of Chinese women grew up with bound feet. The practice has been so poorly documented that any estimate has a large element of guesswork. A rough method of estimation is as follows: The late Qing dynasty population was about 450 million in 1900. Judith Banister (1987, 3) states that there were 430 million in 1851 and 583 million in 1953. Roughly 90 percent of 450 million (405 million) would be considered Han Chinese. If almost half of these 405 million people were female (using an estimated sex ratio of 110 males to 100 females that conservatively takes into account excess female mortality due to female infanticide, abandonment, and neglect [Jiang et al. 2012; Mungello 2008]), then there were around 192 million females. If only half of those women lived in regions where footbinding was practiced, then roughly 96 million would have been bound during the last half of the nineteenth century. If life expectancy was generously estimated at about forty to fifty years, and assuming a smaller population of 430 million in the early nineteenth century, another 92 million women could have been bound in the early nineteenth century, or nearly 200 million for the nineteenth century alone. These assumptions about the distribution of footbinding are not arbitrary, as shown by our survey data on mothers and grandmothers.” Bossen and Gates, Bound Feet, Young Hands, p. 185, n.1.
    • “Yet one writer says that in 1835 it prevailed throughout the empire, and estimates that five to eight out of every ten women had bound feet, depending on the locality.” Keck, Activists beyond Borders, on Levy, The Lotus Lovers.
    • “According to the American author William Rossi, who wrote The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe, 40 percent to 50 percent of Chinese women had bound feet in the 19th century. For the upper classes, the figure was almost 100 percent.” Wikipedia. It’s worth noting that there were regions and ethnic groups where footbinding wasn’t practised at all, so in many places the local proportion of footbound women would be much higher or much lower than that.
  4. In the datasets used by Bossen and Gates, footbinding dropped below 90% in 1925/1930 for those who didn’t/did do handwork for income, and to 50% in 1935/1940. Bossen and Gates, Bound Feet, Young Hands, p. 144. In the charts presented by Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips, footbinding began to fall in the period 1900-04 (1910-1914 in the Northern counties), and fell to 50% or below around 1920-24 (1900-04 in the Southwestern counties, 1930-34 in the Northern ones). The practice had approximately disappeared by 1940-44 (1945-49 in the Northern counties, no data on Sichuan counties). Brown and Satterthwaire-Phillips, ‘Economic correlates of footbinding’, pp. 10-11. See also Brown, ‘Footbinding in economic context’, p. 189. There were still active government campaigns against footbinding in some places in the 1930s. Smith, The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Women in World History, ii, p. 379. Bossen and Gates and Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips are looking at rural data, and in urban centres the decline happened sooner.
    “It appears that, during the first two decades of the twentieth century, people in coastal cities stopped binding their daughters’ feet, though there are no quantitative surveys to confirm the qualitative reports of the day.” Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips, ‘Economic correlates of footbinding’, p. 19. ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  5. Keck, Activists Beyond Borders; Appiah, The Honor Code. ↩︎

  6. Appiah, The Honor Code, p. 59. ↩︎

  7. Note that the imperial family were Manchu not Han and never practised footbinding themselves. ↩︎

  8. Keck, Activists Beyond Borders, pp. 59-65. ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  9. There’s a question about why footbinding wasn’t common in other societies where the handwork of young girls was valuable, but I don’t think this is decisive: the origins of footbinding in China are obscure, and it’s perfectly possible that it was first practised for some other contingent reason, and then became common practice because of its economic function. ↩︎

  10. Bossen and Gates, Bound Feet, Young Hands, p. 143. ↩︎

  11. Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips, ‘Economic correlates of footbinding’, p. 22. ↩︎

  12. Shepherd is unable to separate out a) male from female labour, b) females who did commercial handiwork from females who did only domestic handwork from females who did no handiwork, c) rates of footbinding for different birth cohorts, and d) ever footbound from never footbound women. He also presents evidence that variation in the decline of footbinding is in some cases explained by differences in local status hierarchies which I find convincing. I don’t think this is inconsistent with economic changes being the main causal factor: local hierarchies might well modulate these changes. Shepherd, Footbinding as Fashion, Chapter 7. See also Brown, ‘Footbinding in economic context’, p. 185. ↩︎

  13. Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips, ‘Economic correlates of footbinding’, p. 16. ↩︎

  14. Being footbound did correlate with being involved in commercial spinning however, and commercial spinning correlated with greater daily yarn production. I’m confused about how it works that A correlates with B correlates with C, but A doesn’t correlate with C - but I presume my confusion is just coming from poor knowledge of stats. ↩︎

  15. Brown, ‘Footbinding in economic context’, pp. 204-205. ↩︎

  16. If anyone who does have these skills would be interested in being contracted to assess these works for me, please message me. ↩︎

  17. Brown and Gates, Bound Feet, Young Hands, p. 150. ↩︎

  18. Thanks to Ben Garfinkel for this point. ↩︎

  19. Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips, ‘Economic correlates of footbinding’, pp. 20-22. Brown in personal correspondence: “it would require primary research to answer this question, and at least at this point, I don't know of any sources to accomplish it. There is not, to my knowledge, any research examining economic correlates of urban footbinding or its demise.” ↩︎

  20. Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips, ‘Economic correlates of footbinding’, p. 9. ↩︎

  21. Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips, ‘Economic correlates of footbinding’. ↩︎

  22. Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips, ‘Economic correlates of footbinding’, p. 9. ↩︎

  23. Qualitative reports refer to temporary rather than permanent unbinding in response to prohibitions. In two counties where the unbinding data refers solely to permanent unbinding, there is no correlation with knowledge of prohibitions. Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips, ‘Economic correlates of footbinding’, pp. 17-19. ↩︎

  24. Dikotter, Exotic Commodities: Modern Objects and Everyday Life in China; Finnane, Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation. ↩︎

  25. There is definitely some Chinese language work on this question: Yang Xingmei. 1998. “Nanjing guomin zhengfu jinzhi funü chanzu de nuli ji qi chengxiao” (The Nanjing government’s prohibition of footbinding: Efforts and results). Lishi yanjiu 3:113–29. If anyone would be interested in translating this for me, please message me. ↩︎

  26. Thanks to Adam Bales for these ideas. ↩︎

  27. Thanks to Ben Garfinkel for this point. ↩︎

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I want to applaud this effort. While I don't really think of myself as a China expert, I do think of myself as a guy who knows a good deal about China, including Chinese history from around 1840s or so up the present. I think that for someone with no background in Chinese history you did a great job here, and I think that this is a nice demonstration of how someone without a relevant background can still manage to grasp and issue with a short burst of dedicated effort. I also like how well structures this post is, being very clear about what could be wrong, conclusions, etc.

When I think of cultural changes, I generally think of how slowly cultural practices change. Thus, instances of rapid[1] cultural change (like the decline of footbinding, MADD changed the culture around drunk driving in the USA, or the acceptance of homosexuality in the USA) fascinate me. I'm sure there are lessons to be learned from these.

  1. ^

    Rapid on a historical scale, so 10 or 20 years counts as rapid.

Thanks for this! It wouldn't have occurred to me to consider the decline of footbinding as a case study of moral progress, 

I think you've probably noted this and perhaps didn't mention it because it's not directly relevant to the main questions you're investigating, but I think it's important to note for someone who only reads this post that having bound feet was a status symbol - it began among the social elite and spread over time to lower social classes, remained a status symbol because families who needed girls to conduct agricultural labor could not partake in the practice, and in practice an incentive to do it was to increase marriage prospects.

Thanks for this point.

I'm actually a bit unsure how true it is that the status element of footbinding was important. Certainly that's an established narrative in the literature (e.g. Shepherd buys it).

Brown, Bossen and Hill have an article I've only skimmed called 'Marriage Mobility and Footbinding in Pre-1949 Rural China: A Reconsideration of Gender, Economics, and Meaning in Social Causation' (link here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-asian-studies/article/marriage-mobility-and-footbinding-in-pre1949-rural-china-a-reconsideration-of-gender-economics-and-meaning-in-social-causation/CF5C5F1E441C5E2BF56BBA8B56F55835), which argues as follows:

  • "In our sample of 7,314 rural women living in Sichuan, Northern, Central, and Southwestern China in the first half of the twentieth century, two-thirds of women did not marry up. In fact, 22 percent of all women, across regions, married down. In most regions, more women married up than down, but in all regions, the majority did not marry hypergamously. Moreover, for most regions, we found no statistically significant difference between the chances of a footbound girl versus a not-bound girl in marrying into a wealthier household, despite a common cultural belief that footbinding would improve girls' marital prospects."

There's an article I haven't read called 'Footbinding, Hypergamy, and Handicraft Labor: Evaluating the Labor Market Explanation of Footbinding', which sounds like it pushes back on these arguments. Link here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40806-020-00271-9

Also, I think it's not clear how true it is that "families who needed girls to conduct agricultural labor could not partake":

  • Many scholars note anecdotal evidence of footbound women working in fields
  • In Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips' model, performing agricultural labour is not significant, although girls who did agricultural labour were less likely to be footbound. I can't immediately find a figure for % of footbound girls who did agricultural labour in their dataset unfortunately Brown in their review article puts forward several arguments against Shepherd's view:
  • Bossen and Gates note "Given the wide distribution of binding we found among poor rural populations, it seems unlikely that elite emulation was the main consideration."

Some other related things I've pulled from my notes are arguments in Brown's review article against Shepherd's view:

  • "99 percent of women married regardless of how many had ever bound. So bound feet were clearly not needed to be able to marry. The BBG data show regional variation in whether being footbound at marriage age led to hypergamy, with significant correlations only for Sichuan (primarily from two counties) and not for North, Central, and Southwest China.17 Nevertheless, about 47 percent of women—even in Sichuan—married to households at the same wealth level as their natal households."
  • Shepherd's Taiwan data shows earlier marriage for footbound girls, but later marriage could also indicate more economic value to the parental household, so this isn't a clear signal
  • "most ever-bound women had released their feet before marriage"

I liked this as a clear and concise breakdown of an interesting and relevant topic that I had heard of, but not known about.

It occurs to me that footbinding shares similarities with wearing high heels. Looks like I'm not the only one who noticed.

Was the "moral campaign" against footbinding itself actually about morality, or was it also mainly about economics and/or status? (Or maybe all these things are inextricably linked in our minds at a deep level.) At least one paper takes the latter perspective (albeit expressed in the language of "postcolonial feminism"). From its conclusions section:

Interestingly, foot-bound women were the strongest proponents of the practice in the face of the anti-footbinding movement.66 As Patricia Angela Sieber notes, from the perspective of these silenced Chinese women, footbinding was a “symbolic iconography of domesticity rather than [of] the deformed who hid themselves from government inspection and who reapplied binders as inspectors left.67 Why did the women who were being ‘liberated’ resist these policies for liberation? Because the anti-footbinding movement was not a movement for the ‘liberation’of feet-bound women as missionaries and reformers claimed, but was rather a product of “colonial conditions of global unevenness.”68

The presence of Western missionaries and colonialists in China led to an anti-footbinding movement, which gained exposure on a global scale. Male reformers, who were already shamed by China’s military defeats, were further shamed by westerners who through anti-footbinding tactics brought forth a colonial perspective of ‘acceptable’ cultural practices, which these Chinese reformers accepted.69 As Kenneth Butler notes “exploitation” occurs when an individual or group with power utilizes that power to his or her own advantage, at the expense of another individual or group without it.70 A review of the anti-footbinding historiography and feet-bound Chinese women’s histories reveals two acts of exploitation. The first was the colonialist imposition of morality upon the Chinese reformers and the second was the enforcement of anti-footbinding measures through imperial decrees, missionaries, and reform movements.71 Through the termination of practices such as footbinding, the Chinese nation did make the transition from tradition to modernity, but the end of footbinding was by no means achieved in the interest of foot-bound women whose voices and wants have since been marginalized in Chinese history.

I think this is interesting.

On whether the moral campaign was about morality:

  • There’s definitely a way of reducing it to economics. At the most zoomed out level, seems likely to me that without industrialisation you don’t get colonial presence and without colonial presence the anti-footbinding campaign doesn’t take off.
  • I don’t think the moral campaigners were interested purely in the empowerment of women, or thought about empowerment in the way we think about it. Seems like there was prejudice and misogyny and national interest, as well as concern for young girls going through pain and suffering.

Responding to the quote from the paper (which I haven’t read):

  • I do think it’s interesting and important that some footbound women resisted the decline of the practice.
  • It’s also worth noting that many girls resisted being footbound in the first place.
  • Also, while the decline in footbinding did involve the unbinding of adult women’s feet, I think the bigger deal in terms of numbers of women affected longterm was that young girls stopped being footbound in the first place. I would expect that some women who had already had their feet bound would be attached to what had happened to them and resist unbinding.
  • I’m unsure what the author means by “the end of footbinding was by no means achieved in the interest of foot-bound women whose voices and wants have since been marginalized in Chinese history.” If they mean that the reason that moral campaigners pushed against footbinding for reasons other than the welfare of women - sure, I expect that is at least somewhat the case. If they mean that the end of footbinding was net bad for women, I think that’s a tougher case to make. I don’t buy that because the end of footbinding was imposed top down means that it was bad for little girls not to have their feet broken. Brown notes that female infanticide rates seem to go up when footbinding declines, and Bossen and Gates also guess that the status of women declined at this time. All of those scholars attribute the decline in women’s status to underlying economic conditions though, rather than claiming that the end of footbinding was the causal factor.

Thanks for the response. I don't disagree with anything you say here, and to be clear, I have a lot of both empirical and moral uncertainty about this topic.

It’s also worth noting that many girls resisted being footbound in the first place.

This makes me think of another parallel: parents forcing kids to practice musical instruments, which a lot of kids also resist, and arguably causes real suffering among the kids who hate doing it. (I'm thinking of places like China where this phenomenon is much more widespread than in the US.) How likely is a "moral campaign" for stopping this likely to succeed, without some economic force behind it?

Another parallel might be forcing kids to go to school and to do homework.

Nice analysis!

This episode of The 80,000 Hours Podcast discusses the influence of economics on moral values. For example, energy extraction technology as a key driver of human values.

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