A career inspired by 3,000-year-old bones

While many of us are inspired to academic success by an engaging professor or an eye-opening book, it was a little different for York humanities Professor Joan Judge.

Judge, who will launch her latest book, The Precious Raft of History: The Past, the West, and the Woman Question in China (Stanford University Press, 2008) at a Bata Shoe Museum Lecture on June 4, was first inspired to study China by stories of a great uncle who did crucial archaeological work on 3,000-year-old Chinese oracle bones. A number of his discoveries are now part of the collection housed at the Royal Ontario Museum.

As a student, Judge says she was fascinated and challenged by the Chinese language but chose to study history, specifically late 19th and early 20th-century China. "It was in this period that China attempted to accommodate its longstanding traditions to an increasingly intruding outside world," says Judge.

Her new book focuses on the relationship between Chinese women and Chinese modernity. It examines how China has been, and will continue to be, shaped by conflicting definitions of proper female behaviour, otherwise known as “The Woman Question”. Demonstrating that the woman question was intimately linked to the broader national and cultural questions that plagued China during that era, Judge asserts that rapid changes provoked by imperialist aggression and rising Western influence affected women more deeply than any other segment of the population.

Among these changes were forceful injunctions against footbinding. The act of unbinding or not binding the feet altered women’s relationships to their own bodies and enabled the emergence of China’s first generation of female political activists, overseas students, schoolteachers and public writers.

In her book, Judge recovers the stories of this generation of Chinese women. She also examines the complex repertoire of exemplary models they chose to imitate or were urged to emulate. These included ancient Chinese paragons like the woman warrior Hua Mulan and modern Western heroines like Madame Roland – neither had bound feet. 

"My latest book has been a very close companion in recent years as I uncovered what seemed to be infinite layers of complexity to the questions I was asking. These included questions about Chinese women's subjectivities and ritual roles, about the use of the figure of 'woman' as a stand-in for notions of historical and cultural change, and about the multiple ways the Chinese past was used to promote new visions of modernity," says Judge.

Left: A 1911 image of an upper class Chinese woman's "Lily Feet". This image shows the deformation of the foot (the shoe is worn on the great toe only). Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

"The more I researched this period, the more I realized that women, both changing representations of them and their actual changing roles, were crucial to understanding the complexities of Chinese modernity," explains Judge.

Since most sources from the period deal with the anti-footbinding movement, which began in the 1870s and 1880s, says Judge, it is easy to assume that footbinding was an unmitigated evil that anyone in their right mind opposed.

For her, though, it was more challenging to consider why this practice was perpetuated for close to a millennium and how the women who experienced it understood it. "I try to imagine the woman who would have spent long hours embroidering the exquisite lotus shoes and making them her own distinct creation," she says. "How did she understand the practice of footbinding? What did the shoes symbolize for her?"

Understanding footbinding in Chinese society is one component of the broader process of understanding how different groups of Chinese positioned themselves in relation to their own past and the modern West in formulating their identity and negotiating historical change.

She sees the excesses of the Cultural Revolution in China in the late 1960s and early 1970s as one example of how these processes unfolded later in the century. "The Maoist regime attempted to destroy anything related to the 'feudal' Chinese past or to the 'bourgeoisie' West," said Judge. "I believe we can both trace the sources of this violence and identify cultural resources for overcoming it to the early 20th century."

"Footbinding and Chinese Modernity: The Demise of One of History's Most Enigmatic Practices," is the title of an accompanying lecture that will be delivered at the book launch. The lecture presents Judge's reflections on coming to terms with the Bata Shoe Museum’s renowned collection of “lotus shoes,” and on the other, the almost universally condemned practice associated with them.

The lecture is part of the Discovering Treasures Series presented by the Bata Shoe Museum. Doors open at 5:30pm and close at 8pm. The lecture runs from 6 to 7pm. The lecture is free for members of the Bata Shoe Museum, otherwise tickets are $20 per person and $12 for students. Pre-registration is required, for more information contact the Bata Shoe Museum at  416-979-7799, ext. 242, or e-mail programs@batashoemuseum.ca. The Bata Shoe Museum is located at 327 Bloor Street West in downtown Toronto.

More about Professor Joan Judge

After earning her PhD from Columbia University in 1993, Judge taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara, before moving to Toronto in 2005. She is currently a professor in the Division of Humanities and the School of Women’s Studies in York’s Faculty of Arts. She has spent several years in East Asia both gathering sources and sharing her research findings with Chinese and Japanese colleagues.

Right: Joan Judge

Her first book, Print and Politics: ‘Shibao’ and the Culture of Reform in Late Qing China (Stanford University Press, 1996), examines the political press during the turn of the 20th-century in China. The book explores a new form of media that emerged during this period of intense political and cultural change. Judge has also published a selection of articles on Chinese print culture and Chinese women.

Copies of The Precious Raft of History: The Past, the West, and the Woman Question in China will be available for sale at a special discount and Judge will be available to sign copies.

For more information, visit the York Centre for Asian Research and Bata Shoe Museum Web sites.