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drawing of a middle-aged Chinese woman in fancy clothes and a red hat

Empress Xiaozhuang

In the 1600s AD, most women in China still suffered from oppression, as they had in antiquity and the Middle Ages. They couldn’t own land, and they had to live with their husbands’ families and were frequently abused. All Chinese girls except the very poorest were forced to bind their feet. Mothers told their daughters that foot-binding made them more beautiful so men would want to marry them. But foot-binding also kept girls sitting down at home, working on spinning and weaving to make money for their families.

embroidered tiny shoe

A shoe for someone with bound feet

But the northern Manchu women who were ruling China as the Qing Dynasty did not bind their feet. Like Europe and other parts of Asia, China had a strong women ruler in the 1600s: the Qing Empress Xiaozhuang. In the 1800s, still under the Qing Dynasty, the Empress Cixi ruled China, and then the Empress Longyu in the early 1900s. With more and more European influence on China, however, foot-binding slowly began to seem old-fashioned. Hardly anyone made money spinning or weaving at home anymore, anyway. By the 1920s fewer and fewer girls were still binding their feet.

By the 1940s, only women in very isolated rural areas in southern China were still binding their feet. Central Asian influence became so strong in Communist China that after 1949 new laws made women equal to men in many ways. There were no women holding real political power, but women gained the right to own land and to leave their husbands through divorce. Many women got factory jobs, though they were still paid less than men. Mao Zedong famously said that “Women hold up half the sky.”

More about Communist China

More about women in China

Bibliography and further reading about Chinese women:

Eyewitness: Ancient China, by Arthur Cotterell, Alan Hills, and Geoff Brightling (2000). , with lots of excellent pictures.

China (History of Nations), by Greenhaven Press (2002). For teens. The negative review on Amazon is actually for a different book – don’t be alarmed!

Daily Life in China, on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276, by Jacques Gernet (1962).

The Inner Quarters: Marriage and the Lives of Chinese Women in the Sung Period, by Patricia Buckley Ebrey (1993).

Women of the Tang Dynasty, by May Holdsworth (1999). A short introduction, with many pictures of T’ang period figurines.

More about Chinese people
Women in ancient China
Schools in ancient China
Ancient China