Little chinese feet encased in iron shoes: Freedom, movement, gender, and empire in western political thought

Hagar Kotef

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


This essay traces the evocations of the Chinese practice of foot-binding in Western political thought. I examine the changing deployments of the image: as a contrast to European freedom or as a mirror reflecting its own limitations. The bound feet not merely illustrate a lack of freedom through an image of disabled mobility. They also situate freedom within global (imperial) and gendered frameworks. Via a reading of the image and its contexts, we see that European freedom-as-movement emerged on the backdrop of two imperial contrasts: (1) images of nomadism (in the contexts of America, and later Africa and the Middle East), which are only marginally considered in this paper, and (2) an assumed stagnation, that presumably prevailed in the East. Yet surprisingly, the image was often evoked to say something about Europe itself, rather than about its “others.” Therefore, it also reveals the corporeal dimensions of a concept of freedom that has underlaid a long liberal tradition. The crushed and squeezed feet of girls in China thus marked both a gendered and an imperial divide between those who can move freely, and therefore rule, and those who cannot rule because of their lack of mobility; yet at the same time, it undid this division by allowing the East and its stationariness to permeate Europe through a multiply foreign body: feminized, racially alien, and geographically distanced.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)334-355
Number of pages22
JournalPolitical Theory
Issue number3
StatePublished - 4 Jun 2015
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 SAGE Publications.


  • Disability
  • Freedom
  • Gender
  • Locke
  • Movement


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