Costume in 19th Century China

Unfortunately, late 19th century China is as foreign to me as it was to Stoddard. Although I have had to learn a thing or two about Chinese culture as it was so influential in Japan, the influence ceased in the early 17th century, and so did my familiarity with China.

In the mid 17th century, China was overpowered by the Manchu, a half-nomadic people living in what is now North-western China, who set up the Ching (or Qing) dynasty which ruled China until the breakdown of the empire in 1912.

The Manchu subsequently were the upper class of the country, while at the same time not completely accepted by the Han Chinese who felt culturally superior to the ruling "barbarians", which caused a duality of cultures supported by laws which forbade marriages between Manchu and Han Chinese.

When Stoddard travelled China in (probably) 1896, the Chin dynasty still ruled but was pressured by the colonial desires of Englnd, France, Germany, and Russia. Many harbours and cities were occupied, then "leased" by these nations, Hong Kong being one of them (1897).

The population of about 400 million made their living mainly as peasants and coolies and often lived, according to Stoddard, in appalling circumstances. The whole country appears to have deteriorated from the once world-leading standard of technology, infrastructure and education to what would nowadays be called a Third World country.

Chinese costume was influenced by Manchu fashions. While earlier Chinese costume had resembled Japanese costume, with big sleeves and the front parts wrapped over each other, it had then become what we nowadays believe to be typical: Standing collars and sideways-closing garments in general, shaved heads with long braids in men.

One of the traits the Han Chinese kept up even in Stoddard's time was "lily feet", the infamous feet of women crippled by years of bandaging. While the Manchu were slowly assimilated, upperclass Han women could be told from upperclass Manchu women by the size of their feet. (Manchu women had no truck with bandaging.)

I am very grateful to a visitor for pointing out that

"...from the research I have done in the past, it seemed that they are called 'lotus' feet, not 'lily', with the 'Golden Lotus' shoe being the ultimate ideal - an astounding 3 inches in length...".

(The Golden Lotus was a coin of about that size.) The explanation sounds very plausible, and actually I dimly remember having read about this torture as "lotus feet" myself, long ago. Stoddard, however, uses the term "lily feet". Maybe he wasn't aware of the difference between lotus and lily?

Costume in Chin China >>> Travel to Japan



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