Gates, Hill. Footbinding and Women’s Labor in Sichuan. New York: Routledge, 2015. 238 pp. ISBN 978-0-415-52592-3 (hardback).


Hill Gates’ book examines footbinding as a form of labor discipline and a key institution in China’s preindustrial political economy. This study is based on the memories of elderly women from the Chinese countryside relating to the period between the final years of the Chinese empire and the 1949 revolution. Five thousand women were interviewed in the early 1990s by almost two hundred interviewers, mostly members of the All-China Women’s Federation, and with the financial support of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation’s Program on Violence and Aggression toward Women.

In the first two chapters of the book, Gates introduces the practice of footbinding as well as one hundred years of Sichuan women’s history. In doing so, the author weaves together the words of the interviewed women with the writings of nineteenth- and twentieth-century observers and commentators, excerpts from published memoirs of Chinese women, contemporary psychological studies, and her own assumptions. The excerpts from the interviews in the second chapter are worthy of special attention since they present a rare opportunity to hear women’s recollections of their histories, and their personal narratives open new vistas for further historiographical investigations and theoretical considerations.

The third and the fourth chapters of Hill Gates’ book challenge and reject some of the conventional interpretations of footbinding. In order to contest “a common notion that footbinding existed primarily to meet an unusual sexual interest among Chinese men” (p. 22), Gates discusses erotic literature and art, as well as the perceived relation of footbinding to fertility, its role in the relationships between daughters and mothers-in-law, and its assumed mandate from the Qing imperial authorities. The author also counters the idea that footbinding increased a girl’s chances of “marrying up” and securing a better marital home. Instead, Gates makes an important claim that “having ever (or never) had bound feet played only a small part in a girl’s marriage chances” (p. 98) as one-fifth of the girls married down, one-quarter married slightly up, while most married their equals (p. 100).

Chapters five, six, and seven focus on the life courses of Sichuan’s rural women and vividly reconstruct, reaffirm, and reappraise women’s hidden work. The author’s discussion of the significant events and experiences that marked women’s lives shows how “biological reproduction and the gendered production of goods were combined” (p. 103). Through her analysis of girls’ shadowed work, she highlights the critical importance of lower-class women’s work for the structural maintenance of the Chinese political economy throughout the twentieth century.

In the closing part of the book, Gates introduces the term hypergendering to denote “the imposition of a female identity that distorted biological development on a child too young to understand its implications, in order to encourage early material gendering” (p. 175). This concept, as the author further explains, should not be extended to all harsh treatments of girls and women. Instead, it should be restricted to the extreme gendering practices which were linked to the “extreme political-economic pressures of old, labor-intensifying preindustrial states that naturalized political power, made bureaucratic tools of kinship hierarchies, and emphasized household production” (p. 178). In the author’s opinion, footbinding, confinement to the inner quarters and heavy veiling exemplify hypergendering.

Hill Gates’ book makes an important contribution to the literature on gender and work in China. Its argument on the centrality of marginalized girls and women and their labor to the political economy of pre-industrial China may serve as an inspiring departure point for further analysis of the ways in which intersecting categories of gender, age, class and location operate in the rapidly transforming economy of modern China.

However, the book’s tone and writing style – including particular verbal and visual representations, as well as the emphasis on specific lines of argumentation about footbinding – refresh and reinforce modern/izing anti-footbinding narratives developed in the course of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries in China and the West. A number of historical studies published over the last two decades – most notably Dorothy Ko’s Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding (2005) – dismantled the discursive construction of particular meanings ascribed to footbinding by various modern/izing social agents, as well as their ideological investments in the creation and perpetuation of specific anti-footbinding attitudes and activities. The analysis of the interview data would have been much more nuanced if the author had engaged with the complex implications of the anti-footbinding stances and discourses her book adheres to.

(Dušica Ristivojević, Academia Sinica, Taiwan)