Monday, February 6, 2012

Confucianism and footbinding

Thought I'd give people a heads-up on an interesting discussion at a Chinese philosophy blog of Paul Goldin's new book on Confucianism. The most interesting thing is the comments section where the discussion is on foot binding.

I've always thought it queer that some people blame the practice of foot binding on Confucianism or sometimes even more idiotically on Confucius himself!

Goldin's comments disabuses this notion quite adeptly. I have never read any Confucian text advocating it. Goldin (one of the world's leading scholars on ancient Chinese philosophy) says he has yet to see any Confucian advocating it and notes how strange it is to hear people attributing the practice to Confucianism (his analogy of the arrival of gingerbread cookies and Christianity brings this out humorously). I believe that only two references of foot binding exists in (neo) Confucian texts (both in Chu Hsi's work). Interestingly, in both cases, the Confucian philosopher denounces the practices quite vehemently.

One of the commentors (Manyul Im who is a comparative philosopher) mentioned that what surprises him is the absence of denunciations by Confucian philosophers towards the practice and he wonders whether this silence can be construed as a kind of endorsement for the practice.

I doubt it. There may be many reasons why there are few (except Chu Hsi's of course) philosophical denunciations of some practice. It may be simply because the practice was not conceived at that time to be a moral or political problem. This may be because of several factors. The overall sexism that exists in Chinese society at that time, the fact that it was women's active choices to bind their daughter's feet, or that it simply wasn't in philosophical fashion to talk about foot binding.

I can imagine philosophers in the future asking why ethicists today don't talk about, denounce and use as examples in thought experiments things like eating animals or plastic surgery. These topics may be of significant moral concern for future people. But a lack of discussion on these topics compared to say, trolley examples, does not necessarily mean philosophers today endorse these practices. Many are probably deeply concerned about them even if they don't use them in their philosophical writing as examples, etc.

But silence may also imply disapproval. This may especially be the case when the practice is so widely practiced as it was during the Ming that many people may have felt it no need to explicitly denounce something that was obviously wrong (to a philosopher anyway).