The Economic Motives for Foot-Binding

From Lingwei Wu and Xinyu Fan at AEA:

What are the origins of gender-biased social norms? As a painful custom that persisted in historical China, foot-binding targeted girls whose feet were reshaped during early childhood. This paper presents a unified theory to explain the stylized facts of foot-binding, and investigates its historical dynamics driven by a gender-asymmetric mobility system in historical China (the Civil Examination System). The exam system marked the transition from hereditary aristocracy to meritocracy, generated a more heterogeneous composition of men compared to that of women, and triggered intensive competition among women in the marriage market. As a competition package carrying both aesthetic and moral values, foot-binding was gradually adopted by women as their social ladder, first in the upper class and later by the lower class. Since foot-binding impedes non-sedentary labor, but not sedentary labor, however, its adoption in the lower class exhibited distinctive regional variation: it was highly prevalent in regions where women specialized in household handicraft, and was less popular in regions where women specialized in intensive farming, e.g. rice cultivation. Empirically, we conduct analysis using county-level Republican archives on foot-binding to test the cross-sectional predictions of our theory, and major findings that are robust and consistent with key theoretical predictions.

There are other interesting papers at the link, relating to culture and women’s issues.


"we conduct analysis using county-level Republican archives on foot-binding"

Sounds like the Republicans I know.

yaaaass slay queen!!!!!

'There are other interesting papers at the link'

A link called 'Cultural Practices and Women's Lives' - as anyone who clicked on link 2 of Friday's assorted links would already recognize, of course.

Do the superstitions of primitive savages always require an economic explanation?

"It's always about the money."
--Billy Wilder

If economics seeks to be the "best" social science then yes, it must seek to have an economic explanation of all social actions. And that is fine.

The problem comes in when some confuse the economic explanation with the complete explanations, implying some underlying, comprehensive social/human truth is presented.

As they say in the matrix, it is important to remember one simple truth: there is not grand unifying theory in social science (or apparently even within economics itself). Some light is shed, but in shinning that light, shadows are cast that obscure other factors and aspects.

One can never predict how the adoption of a custom can lead to all kinds of social and economic changes. More recently, China adopted the custom of producing goods for western firms, Apple especially but not solely. Who knew that, over time, this custom would motivate the Chinese to produce goods, not for western firms, but China firms, to compete with goods produced by western firms including goods produced by China firms for western firms. Of course, the prevailing attitude in the west about the Chinese is that they can copy but they cannot exceed. That attitude is about to suffer a fatal blow. Who knew that Apple's decision to shift production to China would eventually result in a total transformation of trade. Of course, Apple should have known.

foot-binding targeted girls whose feet were reshaped during early childhood.

Yes, it had nothing to do with women per se, in that parents did this to their daughters in hopes of their social and economic advancement. While an extreme measure, it's really no different than circumcision of infant boys, ear piercing, cosmetic orthodontics and application for admission to Harvard.

Why is no one outraged about Male Penile Mutilation, increasingly rampant in Trump's America. Does it always have to be about girls? Like boys don't matter now? (Question occurs to me, do males care that much that they were forced to be mutilated, or do they rather prefer it that way, and how do the girls feel about it ("it" being, mutilation of males and females, respectively).
We need to celebrate diversity and other cultural traditions and alternative ways of knowing and being. If moms in Somali (or wherever) want to hack their little infant daughters clits off, who are we to say it's wrong?

Paper: Briefly, the exam system triggered a transition from heredity aristocracy to meritocracy, under which system talented males could climb up the social ladder by passing exams while those who failed the exams would move downwards.

As a consequence, the exams introduced greater social mobility, and resulted in a more heterogeneous composition of men compared to that of women on marital quality.

Unlike in the pre-exam era, where the groom’s value was fully determined by his family’s socioeconomic status, during the post-exam era, a groom’s quality compoisition became more heterogeneous because of a positive return to men’s ability.

Any actual data on the bolded? It seems likely to me that the civil service exam didn't introduce more heterogenity among males at all, which is determined by levels of inequality of wealth, income and political power, not the means of shifting rank (or whether it is even possible to shift rank).

Rather it changed the form of how those ranks were determined. Away from muscle, business and farming acumen, and family background, and towards being a leisured gentry who has the time and social connections to collect in his mind a scrapbook of the approved Confucian aphorisms that he can regurgitate under exam conditions.

The idea that "groom’s value was fully determined by his family’s socioeconomic status", unchangeable except by exams, while the bride value can easily be shifted by tinkering with her feet seems rather ludicrous.

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