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Wiping Out a Long-Standing Tradition

Missionaries and Their Effects on Chinese Foot Binding


"Our Girls’ school was not reopened in the Autumn, because the girls' parents were not willing to unbind their daughters feet; for we had concluded that the time was opportune for enforcing the hard and fast rule, that no girl with bound feet should enter the school.  The result was as we expected; no one came to the school."
--Viette Brown Sprague, in a March 1907 Report (4)


The presence and pain of foot binding were surely striking to missionaries coming to China for the first time.  Many of Frame’s and Sprague’s letters give mention to their first impressions of foot binding, expressing surprise, intrigue, and hope for the tradition's change.

Strong efforts were made by missionaries to put a stop to the tradition of foot binding. As the excerpt from an annual report above shows, Viette Brown Sprague was dedicated enough to the cause to literally deny access to those who refused to unbind their child’s feet.  Unfortunately, such efforts weren't very well-received, and change took both time and dedication.

A change was noticed, however. Slowly, foot binding became less and less prominent in China, and in 1911, the practice was legally banned. Alice Browne Frame describes with enthusiasm her experience at the first all-women's lecture in Tungchou in 1907, where the issue of foot binding was addressed:

"It was an epoch-making occasion, I assure you--our first women's lecture in Tungchou! ...We hoped that many outsiders, including 'society' ladies, who did not deign to attend a religious gathering, would come to this and discover that foreigners and Christians are, after all, much like other people. Come they did, all in full paint and powder, with attendant maids, carts, and cards, while of course our own women and girls were out in full force. I sat where I could watch the faces of the strangers, as they stared about with undisguised interest at the church, the audience, and the speakers. Poor things, they had never seen anything like it in their little empty, gossipy, shut-up lives before, but they knew it was quite the thing in this New China, to go to lectures, and they were quite conscious of the fact. The subjects appealed to them, too, hygiene, foot-binding, New Year's customs, and love of country. I was so proud of the Christian women who lectured, for only one had ever done it before, and yet they were so self-possessed, so vivacious, and so intelligible that I smiled in sympathy when I saw the audience nod and smile in approval of some bright word or good hit." (5)


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This page was created by Rebekah Dutkiewicz '09 in History 283, Spring Semester 2006 -