AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 283

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Session 283: From Hand Craft to Industry: China’s Rural Economy & Gender Relations, 1880-1980

Organizer: Laurel Bossen, McGill University, Canada

Chair: Mareile Flitsch, University of Zurich, Switzerland

Discussant: Matthew H. Sommer, Stanford University, USA

The final decades of the Qing and the Republican period (1880-1949) experienced rapid expansion of transportation, commerce and industry, as well as the Great Depression and Anti-Japanese War (WWII). During this entire time, rural social structure – including gender and the deployment of labor – was in flux. The turbulent first three decades of the People's Republic followed. How did the economic changes associated with rapid shift from hand crafts to industrial products change the demands upon men and women, upon parents and children? How variable were regional responses to these economic changes? Our panel examines, among other questions, how this economic upheaval affected footbinding and its prevalence among rural women and girls and how political authorities affected the relationship between women, footbinding, and cloth during this period . Exploration of these changing relationships over time can help us better understand China’s economy as well as gender relations from the late nineteenth to late twentieth century.

Footbinding and Chinese Textiles: Women's Labor and Footbinding in Early 20th Century Rural China
Laurel Bossen, McGill University, Canada

Challenging contemporary beliefs that footbinding was practiced primarily for aesthetic reasons, Gates proposed a link between footbinding and intensive "light labor" by girls and women, supported by investigations in rural Sichuan and Fujian. Using recent interview data from different provinces of China regarding women's work in the early 20th century, this paper examines the theory that girls and women's hand labor is linked to footbinding in rural areas. Women spinning thread and weaving textiles at home were major producers in China's preindustrial economy, yet the distribution of girls' and women's textile and hand crafts in many parts of rural China is poorly understood. While it is known that footbinding was common in early 20th century China, its distribution in rural areas has not been well documented or considered in relation to forms of domestic labor. Where hand spinning, hand weaving and other types of hand labor were taught to girls at an early age, footbinding should be more common, or persist longer, than in areas where girls and women mainly worked in the fields. This paper explores the link between rural women's accounts of their work in the early 20th century and the practice of footbinding.

The Effect of Footbinding on Women’s Marriage Mobility
Melissa J. Brown, Harvard-Yenching Institute, USA

Chinese women who lived during the times and in the places where footbinding was common were emphatic that a main reason to suffer footbinding was to gain the status of a wife, perhaps even in a household that was better off than their natal family’s. Interviews with 5,000 elderly Sichuan women and approximately 1,000 from Northern and Central China provinces provide us with data about socio-economic status of each woman’s natal and marital families and about their footbound status as girls. Did footbinding give a girl an advantage in the marriage market, enabling her to marry into a more economically comfortable family? Our evidence shows that footbinding had almost no influence on a girl’s “marrying up”—if footbound—or “marrying down”—if natural-footed. This finding is as true for the cohorts of women born in the 1890s and early 1900s as for later-born cohorts. We can set aside this over-generalized explanation in favor of closer analysis of regional transitions from reliance on handcraft products to consumption of industrial goods.

Political Action against Footbinding
Hill Gates, Stanford University, USA

Our project focuses on footbinding as a form of labor discipline that responded with considerable flexibility to the decline in economic value of the work of little girls in family settings. But individual and household economic changes that encouraged the abandonment of footbinding have been, until now, undocumented. They require intensive interviewing on a large scale to rescue from the silence that surrounds most actions by ordinary people. Pressures by governing authorities, political parties, social elites, and missionaries, by contrast, were recorded and praised, and their effect was almost certainly exaggerated. In our attempt to rank the relative significance of the multiple factors that shaped the distribution, persistence, and eventual abandonment of footbinding, we examine in turn a number of commonly-offered explanations. In this paper, I turn mainly to the information on anti-footbinding pressures gathered in 1990-91 from 5,000 Sichuan women over 65 years of age that speaks to their experience with such pressures. From them we can learn not only about the causes of abandonment, but also gain insight into the degree of penetration into women’s lives accomplished by governing authorities and social elites prior to the 1949 revolution. I conclude that previous political pressures were largely ineffective. This clears the way for greater reliance on economic explanations, and a clearer view of China’s initial transition from handcraft to industry.

Women’s Work and the Politics of Homespun in Socialist China, 1949-1980
Jacob Eyferth, University of Chicago, USA

The rise of modern industry in the first half of the twentieth century did not wipe out manual textile production. On the eve of the Anti-Japanese war, about one-third of the yarn produced in China was still hand spun and more than two-thirds of Chinese cloth was woven on hand looms. When the Chinese Communist Party came to power, it was determined to phase out manual textile production. CCP leaders saw the continued existence of rural textile industries as a sign of backwardness; moreover, they associated hand spinning and hand weaving with feudal family relations and the exploitation of women’s labor in the patriarchal household. The CCP was also opposed to rural spinning and weaving for practical reasons: China’s socialist industrialization strategy required that raw materials like cotton be processed in state owned factories rather than rural households, and that women be mobilized for paid, public work in fields and factories. However, hand spinning and hand weaving survived in many parts of China until the very end of the collective period – despite a state monopoly that siphoned cotton out of the countryside, a rationing system designed to supply rural people with factory cloth, and repeated bans on handloom weaving. Based on interviews in central Shaanxi, I explore how state policies that were intended to “liberate women from the loom” ended up increasing women’s workloads and making their work more isolated and less visible than before.