Rare Photographs of Chinese Women from the 1800s

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Image: Library of Congress

“At home or abroad, in holiday robes or in plain clothing, the heart of a Chinese female seems to be at all times ready to overflow with mirth and good humor.” This description comes from a Western observer’s account of life in China, and the character of its people, during the 19th century. Its focus: the painful process of foot binding.

Such a quote may suggest a positive take on womanhood during the 1800s, and the account positions itself as compassionate towards those it describes. However, the author presumes to see women as the helpless victims of Chinese males and Confucianism in general. He has a clear bias against many of the cultural practices observed by the women he seems to praise.

Westerners’ letters and stories from this era appear to paint a rather negative picture of life for Chinese women. Many of those who wrote them were, after all, missionaries, doubtless hoping to convince others of the necessity of ‘saving’ these women from the perceived barbaric practices of their culture.

Looking back at Chinese culture with the eyes of people living in a completely different time, it’s hard to know exactly what life would have been like for women during those years. However, perhaps by examining these vintage photographs, we can gain a glimmer of insight.


Image: John Thomson

In this photograph from 1868, the bound feet of a Chinese woman are juxtaposed with a normal, unbound foot. The difference is incredible. The tiny shoe propped up against the wall looks like it was made for a small child, not a full-grown woman. Westerners in China, not least missionaries, criticized the custom. However, in response to such censure from one doctor, a correspondent living in Hangchow wrote, “I think the charge of this custom taking away ‘much from the enjoyment of life’ is somewhat overdrawn. Here in Hangchow the majority of women are small-footed, and certainly do not appear to be so wretchedly situated as the Dr. [Kerr] makes them to be.”

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Image: John Thomson

Here’s a sight that isn’t really that unusual, even today: two ladies, in this case Amoy women, sitting together for a bit of a chat. Quite a serious one too, if the looks on their faces are anything to go by! It’s a pity there’s no way to listen in. The contrasting borders and wide, distinctively turned-back sleeves of the tunic worn by the woman on left were part of the Manchu fashion of the time. The photograph was taken in 1871.

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