There are three main trends in the primary sources that may be useful to focus on in a classroom discussion:

  • Making distinctions
  • Issues of authority
  • Gender and representation

Although each of these trends may be found in any given source, the packet was organized to facilitate discussion of specific trends within a discrete group of documents. Thus, the first three sources (Remarks on Chinese Character and Customs; The Seven Deadly Sins of Confucianism; The Ethics of Christianity and Confucianism Compared) were chosen because they highlighted the distinction between Confucianism and Christianity. Students should consider the manner in which Chinese women are located in this discussion. In each piece, it is these women’s perceived hardships that are presented as proof of the degeneracy of Confucian civilization. This “proof,” in turn, implicitly points to the superiority of Christian/Western civilization.

The sources that relate to the practice of foot binding (The Small Feet of Chinese Females, 1835; The Small Feet of Chinese Women, 1869; Small Feet: Two Opinions; Bound Feet: An Alternate View) are quite interesting in their own right. They also nicely demonstrate the rhetorical strategies used to assert Western authority on the subject of Chinese culture. The first three of these pieces utilize scientific language to defend a moral judgment on a cultural practice. Students with a background in natural or social science will quickly realize that there is very little that is “scientific” about these observations. These documents also show the insularity of the Western observer: these authors most often cite other Western observers (or, in the case of the letter writers, each other) in forming their arguments about foot binding. Ultimately, the discussion is guided by the authors’ prejudices rather than “facts” about the practice. The photograph provides a contrasting view of bound feet by placing “small feet” in their proper cultural context—as a form of adornment.

The final three pieces (Schools for the Education of Chinese Girls, Women’s Work for Woman, Domestic Life of Woman) are authored by women. Students will note that the tone of these articles differs markedly from those authored by men. Chinese women are presented as agents rather than victims. In each of these articles, women are either explicitly or implicitly acknowledged as enjoying authority within the domestic sphere. In Women’s Work for Woman, it is even possible to read resistance on the part of adult women in that they are portrayed as less willing to convert. Nevertheless, there is also a consistent effort made to distance Chinese women from Western women. In each case, the reader is made to understand that the Western woman enjoys a superior position relative to her Chinese counterparts.

Discussion Questions:

  • In these pieces, how do the authors distance themselves from their Chinese subjects? How does the implicit distinction between the West and China affect the way in which Chinese women are presented to the Western public?
  • In exploring this question, students should look to the language and style of the articles in this packet. Often, an aside or a qualified comment stands as a marker that links the author and the reader together and excludes the Chinese subject. References to “us” or “we” proliferate, for example. The Chinese subject becomes “the other,” laden with descriptors that distinguish “us” (active, scientific, moral) from “them” (passive, superstitious, depraved).
  • What distinctions may be made between female and male authorship in these pieces? Can these articles teach us something about their female authors?

Students may wish to compare the representation of Chinese women in the first group (Remarks on Chinese Character and Customs, The Seven Deadly Sins of Confucianism, The Ethics of Christianity and Confucianism Compared) to the third group (Schools for the Education of Chinese Girls, Women’s Work for Woman, Domestic Life of Woman). Generally speaking, women in the first group of documents are presented as passive victims of Confucian culture. In the latter group, women are presented as either active participants in their own culture or as possessing the potential to influence those around them.

Students should be encouraged to consider the conditions of male versus female authorship. For example, male missionaries sought to convert patriarchs who would bring their families into the church with them. Female missionaries worked with women and therefore needed to present their subjects as both worthy of conversion (i.e. possessing the mental aptitude to convert) and as influential within the larger family.

Students should also be encouraged to grapple with the question of why Western women employed the same techniques as their male counterparts in distancing Chinese women from themselves. Rather than lamenting women’s common lot in patriarchal societies, Western women represent themselves as being better off than Chinese women—in many cases implying that the Western gender order represents the universal ideal.