Regulation of Marriage and the Anti-Footbinding Society
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An essential element in the construction of a world history course for high-school students is the identification and exploration of themes that weave throughout the course. This gives the course coherence for students and enables them to shape their own knowledge about the material. Students can begin to see change over time and make effective comparisons among societies using the themes to structure their analyses.
The tensions that evolve between traditional ideas and values and newly emerging ones are key to understanding a number of issues in world history, and never more so than when examining responses of Eastern states like Russia, Japan, and China to Western industrialization and incursions. Each of these societies faced serious dilemmas provoked by encounters with the West, and each structured its own response by trying to strike a balance between traditional values and new Western ideas.
By the 19th century, China’s response clearly illustrated the intensity of this conflict. Early in the semester, my students explored the Rites Controversy and the Emperor’s authority in regard to the Catholic missionaries. They also studied the nature and impact of the unequal treaties that led to a plethora of reform efforts, including the Taiping Rebellion, the Self-strengthening Movement, and the “Hundred Days Reform” initiatives. The document, “The Rules and Regulations of Marriage from the Anti-Footbinding Society of Hunan” 1can be used to address two major themes: tensions between tradition and modernity, and changes in the roles and functions of women. This source can also demonstrate to students how nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can influence both official policy and social relations.
Prior to reading the document, I reviewed with the class the purpose and areas of concern addressed by the Self-strengthening Movement, and the controversies it provoked as reformers addressed military reform followed by transportation, commercial, industrial, and, finally, educational concerns. When many reformers began to focus on social customs, even more controversy surfaced. The class discussed why this might be so, and what customs might be targeted.
Footbinding was one of the first issues identified by the students, and we talked about the earliest anti-footbinding societies that emerged in the mid-1890s as I handed out the document, with the reminder of the questions we use to interpret primary sources (SCARABS).2
Each student read and annotated the document. Then students met in groups of three to discuss their interpretations as I circled the room to answer questions and help students with speculations. Finally, we participated in a class discussion to make sure everyone understood the important elements of the document and to analyze the document’s significance within a broader framework.
During our discussion, my students recognized the problem that reformers faced when trying to implement changes that involved social customs, striking at the heart of the Confucian construct for societyŚmarriage and the family, parental authority, and unequal stations in life. They questioned why men wrote the document with seemingly no evidence of any women’s influence. They saw the persistence of arranged marriages as commitments made by men not to marry their sons to women with bound feet. They puzzled over what the real reasons for the change was, veering in their conclusions from men who saw women with unbound feet as more functional workers, to male reformers who wanted to eliminate a visual symbol that Westerners used to denigrate China. Some drew comparisons with Peter the Great’s “Westernizing” efforts in Russia in the 17th century. They noted the affirmation of marriage as a key institution and arranged marriages as affirming the hierarchical nature of Confucian society. Students reasoned that the significance of the document was to show the strength of the traditional, patriarchal structure even among reformers as they tried to revise some elements of society.
Following this discussion, I gave students two other documents from the early 20th century to analyze for homework in order to add more layers to their understanding of the complexities involved in social reform. One was a letter from a young Chinese woman to her sister showing her ambivalence about whether or not she should unbind her feet.3 She shifts back and forth between her father’s opinion, the urgings of her peers, and the admonitions of reformers. Her sense of her inbred unworthiness wars with her new surge of self in a way that allows students to explore the ideas of social reform from the narrower lens of an individual. I asked my students specifically to trace the sources of her unease as they read and to identify what finally helped her make a decision. The second assigned document was a speech from a young female reformer who asserts that it is time for women to take responsibility for their lives, rather than allowing men to define their roles and behaviors.4 It is an appeal to gender and for women to become agents on their own behalf. Here, I wanted students particularly to note how the positions outlined by this author compared with those expressed by the Hunan Anti-Footbinding Society.
In the class discussion where students considered the importance of all three documents, a number of key points emerged. My students easily saw the difficulties that are implicit when change involves deeply embedded social customs that profoundly inform the society’s major institutions and values. They speculated about what can happen when a small thread is unraveled from a tightly woven social fabric as we discussed the shift from the idea of women being subject to male prescriptions to the idea of women asserting agency. This was an important discussion because it helped students understand the difficulties in the idea of change and the levels that must be addressed to implement real change. It also contributed to a continuation of a year-long conversation about the social construction of gender and societal ideals of beauty.
The writing assignment asked students to discuss how examining this topic from three points of view enhanced their understanding of the issues involved and increased their awareness of the complexities surrounding the issues.
Students refined their critical thinking skills throughout this assignment as they learned more about how to expand and narrow the lens through which they examine issues in world history. They also practiced how to place an individual event within the larger framework of a broader theme, and understood more clearly how the purpose for which a document is written, and the point of view its writer has, can provide valuable insight into the context of history. The benefit I had is that I have a relatively small class, so that whole-class discussions are manageable and productive. In a larger class, the small circle/large circle model might work well.
1 This document can be found in two books: The World’s History: Documents Set, eds. Raymond Hylton and Howard Spodek, Prentice Hall, 1999, and Chinese Civilization and Society: A Sourcebook, ed. Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Free Press: New York, 1981.
2 SCARABS stands for:
Subject or topic of the documentary source
Circumstances (time, place, occasion for the creation of the document)
Author or creator of the document
Reason why the document was created (its purpose)
Audience the document was intended for
Bias or point of view of the creator
Significant point the author or creator is making
3 Ch’en Shu-Hsien, “A Letter from Ch’en Shu-Hsien to Ch’en Pan-Hsien,” in Document
4 Ch’u Chin, “An Address to Two Hundred Million Fellow CountryWomen,” in Document