The Chinese Lady and China for the ladies: race, gender, and public exhibition in Jacksonian America.

Author:Haddad, John
Position:Afong Moy - Biography


In 1830, Harriet Low, the niece of a China trader, strolled through the narrow streets of Canton, China. Though this activity may seem routine, she was actually acting in bold defiance of a Qing law that forbade the presence of Western women in China. Not surprisingly, Low attracted a crowd of Cantonese onlookers, most of whom had never before seen a White woman. In her journal, Low commented on their behavior: "I think the Chinese are much more civil than either American or English people would have been if a Chinawoman with little feet had appeared in our streets, dressed in the costume of her country. Why, she would be mobbed and hooted at immediately!" (1) Four years later, her prediction was tested when a merchant vessel arrived in New York Harbor conveying just such a passenger. When shipping news columns in the city papers announced her arrival, the curiosity of New Yorkers was piqued. In the days that followed, they would scour the dailies for updates on Along Moy, the young woman who would come to be known as "the Chinese Lady."

This article tells the story of Afong Moy, focusing on the shrewd marketing scheme that brought her to New York, the American views of China she faced and helped reshape, the intense public interest her exhibition generated, and her extensive tour of the United States. (2) Moy visited some of America's largest cities after departing New York, drawing crowds everywhere she went. In Washington, she even provided President Andrew Jackson with a private performance in the White House. Yet "performance" may not be the appropriate term, for performing was conspicuously absent in the exhibition of Along Moy Indeed, the following list of Boston area amusements hints at the difference between Moy and some of the other popular attractions of Jacksonian America:

Mr. Maelzell burns Moscow in an improved style.--The eastern Magician, Bahad Marchael, astonished crowds by raising and laying ghosts, and shows himself to be the most expert professor of legerdemain and necromancy that has ever visited the city-The Chinese lady, Afong Moy, has arrived there from the south--and last, as well as least, there is an exhibition of trained fleas. (3) Unlike most acts from this period, Along Moy did not juggle, work with trained animals, or profess to communicate with the dead--yet American audiences did not seem to mind. For they required only that the Chinese Lady be exactly that: authentically Chinese and a woman of affluence, elegance, and refinement.

Indeed, Afong Moy's nationality, gender, and class were absolutely crucial to her popularity, because without each of these, she would not have possessed the remarkable physical feature that set off a firestorm of interest everywhere she went: her diminutive feet. Like many Chinese women, Moy had undergone the painful process of foot binding as a child. During her exhibitions, men in the audience tended to fixate on her small feet, deeming them inexhaustible sources of anatomical fascination, moral disgust, or erotic pleasure. While women also studied Moy's feet, they were equally drawn to her surroundings--a luxurious setting composed of Chinese home furnishings and decorative objects. In other words, the Chinese Lady appealed to men and women alike, but their consumption of her performance tended to be actuated by different desires and concerns. While the male gaze was motivated by impulses we could classify as moral, physiological, and sexual, the female gaze was often driven by commercial and aesthetic concerns.

We can best understand the highly gendered response to the Chinese Lady by situating her exhibition in its larger economic, cultural, and historical contexts. As Americans flocked to see the exotic Asian beauty with the tiny feet, their behavior in her presence and subsequent written accounts were, to a large degree, shaped by sweeping changes transforming American life: the market revolution and rapidly industrializing economy, the rising tide of religious revivalism and reform movements, and the advent of new gender roles in a reconfigured home. One reporter from Baltimore was keenly aware of the peculiar American behavior Moy was witnessing daily; he reported in jest that she was considering publishing her observations on the "domestic manners of the Americans"! His joke underscored an important irony: the exhibition of the Chinese Lady, while offering some insight into Chinese civilization, shed plenty of light on American society in the age of Jackson. (4)


Though Along Moy was not the first Chinese person to touch American soil, she was probably the first Chinese woman. (5) This fact is not surprising, given the closed nature of China before the Opium War (1839-42). Back in 1760, Emperor Qianlong, desiring to control the empire's foreign intercourse, had adopted a highly restrictive policy regarding the movement of Westerners in China. The latter were confined to the southern port of Canton and banned from traveling to other parts of the country. (6) If China was largely unknown to the West, affluent Chinese women were utterly enveloped in mystery. Since wealthy Chinese men sequestered their wives and daughters from the public, these women seldom ventured onto the streets, leading an existence that was almost exclusively domestic. The ancient practice of foot binding, which became widespread in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), further intensified their seclusion by inhibiting their mobility. (7)

In Canton, women with small feet were so hidden from view that Americans residing there treated their attempts to see one like a game. "A Chinese lady I have never seen," wrote John Latimer, a trader, in the 1820s. "They never walk, indeed I believe they cannot owing to the barbarous custom of confining the feet while young." He added that a Chinese friend had promised him a pair of shoes, 3 1/2 inches long, once worn by that individual's wife. Brantz Mayer, a travel writer who visited Canton in 1827, described the "well-born lady" in China as "a hot-house plant, grown under glass and watched as carefully as the choicest bud"; her "paleness" was a symptom of her "concealment" and "seclusion." At the time of writing, Mayer had successfully secured a pair of the sought-after tiny shoes. According to Osmond Tiffany, another travel writer, foreigners' intense fascination with foot binding eventually reached the awareness of Cantonese shopkeepers, who, eager to profit from this curiosity, began to sell clay models of "contracted feet, painted flesh color and set into shoes." (8)

By the time of Along Moy's arrival in 1834, this image of the Chinese woman as a delicate flower, hidden from society, had already filtered into Americans' collective consciousness. In 1831, James Kirke Paulding (1778-1860), a member of Washington Irving's literary circle, composed a story for the New-York Mirror entitled "Jonathan's Visit to the Celestial Empire." Since Paulding had never visited China, he almost certainly gathered the raw materials for his fictional travelogue from the published accounts of missionaries and merchants. In the story, Jonathan discovers wild ginseng growing in his native Salem and decides to sell it to the Chinese. After voyaging to Canton, he enjoys several adventures, one of which involves his accidental intrusion into the inner sanctum of a Chinese home. Once inside, he becomes privy to the rarest of sights--a genuine Chinese lady.

He approached her still nearer, took up the guitar, and begged her to play him a tune.... Jonathan was ... as handsome a lad as might be seen; tall and straight, with blue eyes, white forehead, and red cheeks, a little rusted to be sure with the voyage. The pretty creature with the little feet, whose name was Shangtshee, ventured at last to look at this impudent intruder, and, sooth to say, he did not appear so terrible at the second glance as at the first. She smiled, and put out her small foot for Jonathan to admire. She then took her guitar and played him a tune. Jonathan's chance meeting with a Chinese lady provides both parties with an erotic encounter. Though nothing becomes of their flirtation (when he gets too close, she scratches his face with her long, sharp fingernails), Paulding's story nevertheless foreshadows Along Moy's relationship with many of the men in her audience: she would sing to them and show off her small feet as they gazed upon her with thinly veiled sexual curiosity. (9)

With Chinese women being so tantalizingly difficult to see, it is not surprising that Westerners treated them almost like mythic creatures. They yearned to witness one in the flesh. After all, to look upon one, as Jonathan does in the story, was to have access to a sight that was doubly forbidden: a woman secluded from society inside a country sealed off from the world. Clearly, an individual who could smuggle a woman with small feet out of China and exhibit her in America stood to benefit financially. Yet the Chinese Lady, unlike many of the so-called human curiosities displayed in the United States, was not the creation of a showman like P. T. Barnum. Rather, her story is interwoven within the larger economic tapestry of Jacksonian America.


When Captain B. T. Obear of Beverly, Massachusetts, (10) sailed the ship Howard from Canton to New York in 1832, Nathaniel and Frederick Carne, the vessel's owners, placed the cargo of Chinese goods up for auction. Though this event perhaps seems rather ordinary in the mercantile world, it actually signaled a new development in the China trade. Prior to the Howard's venture, the Carnes had specialized in importing luxury goods from France intended for New York's upper-class consumers. However, a change in the economic climate prompted the Carnes to place a stake in the China trade. Before the Jacksonian era, the market for Chinese goods had possessed only two tiers: luxury goods, including high-grade...

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