University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Dowager Empress Cixi

A Chinese Empress Is Introduced to the Corset:
“It is truly pathetic what foreign women have to endure.”

Dowager Empress Cixi

Source: Wikimedia (public domain).

Not long after 1900, the wife of a Chinese diplomat visited the Dowager Empress Cixi of China after returning from living in the West.  The lady and her daughters wore the latest, most stylish Western dress rather than traditional Chinese clothing.

During the visit the lady said to the Empress, “The bound feet of the Chinese women make us the laughing-stock of the world.”

“I have heard,” replied the Empress, “that the foreigners have a custom which is not above reproach, and now since there are no outsiders here, I would like to see what the foreign ladies use in binding their waist.”  One of the daughters complied, showing the corset she wore.

The Empress explained, “It is truly pathetic what foreign women have to endure.  They are bound up with steel bars until they can scarcely breathe.  Pitiable!  Pitiable!” To her credit Cixi banned foot binding in 1902 though the edict was soon revoked.

Source:  Isaac Taylor Headland, Court Life in China (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1909.) The author’s wife was an American physician in China, and for more than 20 years was the physician of the mother, sister, and several ladies of the court of Ci-xi (T’zu-hsi), the Dowager Empress of China (1851-1908).  Her notes on her experiences are the basis for much of the material about the Empress.

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