Is ankle binding illegal in China now

How did women's roles and rights change in China's early Republican era?

Keep in mind that most of China was controlled by local warlords (or Imperial Japan) for much of this period. Most of the time there wasn't much talk of "under the republican government" as they were effectively ruled by strong regional men. In general, however, women (especially those from literary families) experienced a political awakening. Over the decades, there has been significant, albeit slow, improvements in the daily lives of women.

That is, if we ignore the extremely detrimental effects of incessant warfare of this time.


The late Imperial and Early Republican Periods were a time when Chinese elites turned away from tradition in favor of traditional ideas. This westernization process was attempted for all areas of society from daily life to the economic structure to the political system. The lifestyle (at least for the nobility) westernized the fastest and earliest.

Most people are probably well aware of the hideous practice of ankle tying. This is one of the major problems faced by women in the early Republican era. In the late Imperial Era, the Liberals had begun to view foot ties as a pointless crippling of half the population. Soon after the revolution, initiatives were taken to combat it: President Sun Yat-sen issued an edict in 1912. A more comprehensive order providing inspectors to ensure compliance was promulgated in 1927. Although slow progress was made, foot binding gradually became imprinted on most of China near the late 1940s.

(Illustration of bone deformation during the Foot binding , of Tensoku Monogatari by Okamoto Ryuzo)

The Republican era also relaxed standards of public decency, including attitudes toward sex and sexuality. As recently as 1920, exposing forearms or calves was illegal, not to mention cleavage. However, attitudes changed dramatically as the decade progressed. Scientists returning from studying abroad brought with them a spark of sexual liberation, like Chang Ching-sheng, whose 1926 sexual story caused a massive storm. The import of western fashion styles, especially in the big port cities, led to comparatively much more revealing clothes for women.

( Left : Advertising poster for cigarettes, Shanghai, around 1930 | Right : Former poster for milk; note the flattened chest.)

These changes in attitudes led to the suppression of the custom of the chest tie. Though much less abusive than ankle binding, breast flattening has been widespread in women as an expression of traditional Chinese aesthetic preferences. As attitudes changed, calls for an end to the practice emerged, culminating in a 1927 rally in Wuhan that shocked public sentiment with nudity. In the same year, the nationalist government in Canton banned the tying of breasts and hired police officers to enforce fines against relatives of women with tied breasts.


Such lifestyle changes were accompanied by a general rejection of traditional Confucian morality. For women, Confucianism dictated obedience to male figures as well as general ignorance. The latter, in particular, was challenged towards the end of the imperial era when liberal elites argued that women's ignorance was a key factor in China's backwardness. In general, the extreme inequality of the sexes in traditional society was unfavorably contrasted with the major European powers. Even before the Republican Revolution, women like the tragic heroine Ch'iu Chin had begun to advocate equality for women.

These trends took off in the early Republican era. The May 4th Movement, which broke out at Versailles in 1919 in protest against Japanese demands, is sometimes viewed as the beginning of popular feminism in China. Many of its leading intellectuals wrote about the need for "liberation" for women. Chen Tu-hsiu urged women to regain their independence and participate in politics as independent individuals (as opposed to obeying the politics of their husband or father). Li Ta-chao, another promoter of the New Culture Movement, argued that real democracy requires the liberation of women. He encouraged the adoption of small, monogamous, Western-style families, in which he believed women would be more respected than traditional large, polygamous Chinese clans.

(Women who go to school after the May 4th Movement and adopt the dress styles of their male colleagues)

Before 1919, there were only nine secondary schools for women in all of China. Only three private (church-run) universities allowed women to apply to study. After 1919, universities across China began lifting their bans on female students, something encouraged by the rise in activism (both among men and women) during the May 4th Movement. Peking University began accepting women as formal students in 1921 (the previous year they allowed women to "listen").


Traditional Chinese marriage was heavily controlled by parental intent. In the early Republican days, romantic love and free marriages were fashionable as virtuous choices. Ancient traditions like cohabitation were frowned upon as uncivilized practices. The 1930 Republican Civil Code officially prohibited the taking of concubines (or polygamy in general).

However, actual changes should not be overstated. Planned marriages remained the norm in most parts of China. Although anything but monogamy was formally forbidden, in practice the central government could only impose it unevenly on its own officials. Concubines in general were a widespread occurrence until the end of the Republican period.

The role of women was hardly changed either. In the 1930s, the government-sponsored New Life Movement emerged as a reactionary reaction to left-wing ideologies. The policy was for women to play a domestic role within the family unit, as a "force for the betterment of the family". For example, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's wife Soong May-ling encouraged educated women to teach their neighbors how to do business at home and raise children.


Politically, the feminist cause faced fierce opposition from more conservative social elements. Despite participating in the revolution against the Manchurian court and recognizing their role, women were excluded from republican politics. Just a few months after the revolution, a gender equality clause was noticeable by its absence in the 1912 temporary republican constitution. This despite the promises of equality that the revolutionaries had made to women in their ranks, particularly through temporary President Sun Yat-sen on September 5th. His promise was refused at the time and died with his abdication to warlord Yuan Shikai.

A gathering of nationalist representatives in 1924 declared one of its objectives to be "to establish the principle of equality for women in law, economy, education, society and to promote the development of women's rights". This promise was only partially fulfilled in 1947 when the republic passed a constitution that declared all citizens, regardless of gender, to be equal under the law. However, due to the lack of a functioning democracy for most of the period (and beyond) the delays on this issue had limited practical significance.