FOOT BINDING IN CHINA
Foot binding among wealthy women Foot binding was performed on women through the 20th century. It required breaking the arch of the feet, and tying up the feet, causing them to curl up into stumps regarded as beautiful and sexually exciting to men. The process used to create bound feet was painful and uncomfortable. Once the job was complete women hobbled rather than walked around.
Kit Gillet wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “For almost a millennium, the practice of foot binding was prevalent across Chinese society, starting with the wealthier classes but over the years spreading down through urban and then poorer rural communities. The feet of girls as young as 5 would be broken and bound tightly with cotton strips, forcing their four smallest toes to gradually fold under the soles to create a so-called 3-inch golden lotus, once idealized as the epitome of beauty. The process would take many years and would lead to a lifetime of labored movement, as well as a regular need to rebind the feet. [Source: Kit Gillet, Los Angeles Times, April 16, 2012]
Bound feet, known as "lily feet" or tiny "lotus feet," sometimes were only three or four inches long. They resembled hooves or "fists of flesh." The pointed toes could be flapped back and forth like a swinging door against the top half of the feet. Because foot-bound women couldn't do physical labor, travel around or move around much, only high class women could afford to have it done. Hard-working, lower-class women needed normal feet to do their chores and fullfill their duties.
In the imperial era bound feet were regarded as the epitome of feminine beauty and an indication of nobility. In the Communist era, the custom was looked down as a primitive vestige of the feudal era: its beauty defined by backward men. Gillet wrote:
“Now the ancient, some say barbaric, practice is almost gone. The practice fell out of favor at the turn of the 20th century, viewed as an antiquated and shameful part of imperialist Chinese culture, and was officially banned soon after. But in rural areas, the feet of some young girls were still being bound into the early 1950s. Only a few are still alive
Aching for Beauty by Wang Ping is an account of foot binding and fetishism. Pam Cooper of Northwest University is an expert of foot-binding.
Foot binding shoes Good Websites and Sources on Women in China: All-China Women's Federation (ACWF) website: women.org.cn ; Directory of Sources on Women’s Issues in China /newton.uor.edu ; ; Bibliography /hua.umf.maine.edu ; Library of Congress loc.gov ; 1990s Sources Brooklyn College ; Women in China Sources fordham.edu/halsall ; Chinese Government Site on Women Women of China ; Village Womenwellesley.edu/DavisMuseum ; Marjorie Chan’s Bibliographycohums.ohio-state.edu
Links in this Website: WOMEN IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; PROBLEMS FACED BY WOMEN Factsanddetails.com/China ; BEAUTY IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CONCUBINES AND DIVORCE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China
History of Foot Binding
It is not clear exactly when foot binding began. The custom is believed to have originated between the Tang and Song dynasties. Tenth century descriptions of “golden lotuses” in the royal courts are thought to be references to bound feet. According to one story foot binding was invented by a palace dancer who indulged the aesthetic whim of her royal master. According to another story it began after an emperor became enchanted with a women with small feet who danced on top of a lotus-shaped platform.
Describing the "exquisite feet" of concubine in a story, one 15th century writer wrote they are "three inches long and no wider than a thumb." A 13th century poet wrote: "Why must the foot be bound?/ To prevent the barbarous running around." A 17th century writer said, "If [girls'] feet are not bound, they go here and there with unfitting associates."
The Mongols outlawed foot binding in 1279. The custom was banned several times in the Qing Dynasty, the last time when the dynasty collapsed in 1911. Although people in the West regard foot binding as primitive. Western women did awful things to their feet too: they wore shoes that were too small to make their feet look tiny and put on high heels. In the story of Cinderella, the ugly step sisters mutilated their feet to fit into the glass slipper.
Not all upper class women practiced foot binding. The Manchu Qing rulers forbid it among Manchu women. Most ethnic minorities in China did not practice it. After it was banned for good by the Communists, Chinese women with bound feet were humiliated and became the objects of derision. One woman told the Los Angeles Times, “I was a child and had no control when my feet were bound, and I had no control when I was told to unbind them.”
“Foot binding was also a strong multi-generational tie for women, with the procedure performed by the women in a family. "It was a strong tradition passed from mother to daughters, entangled with shoemaking, how to endure pain and how to attract men. In many ways, it underpinned women's culture," Dorothy Ko, a history professor at Barnard College in New York, told the scholars. She is the author of "Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding." "It is hard to romanticize the practice and I am happy to see it go, but it is a pity there is no comparable, but obviously less painful, practice to take its place and bond generations," Ko says.
Foot Binding Process
Binding the feet was done with cloth, and began when a girl was four, five or six. The bandages were not supposed to be removed, except for periodic washing, until the girl was married. According to one custom the stinky bandages were removed on her wedding night, when her new husband indulged himself by drinking alcohol from them.
The binding stunted foot growth and caused bones in the arch to break, the toes to curl under the foot, and the foot to bend and scrunch together. The bandages bent down the four small toes towards the sole of the foot and forced the heel inward, exaggerating the arch. The process was very painful. Flesh rotted. Infections added to the pain of the process itself.. Girls wept and moaned and often had difficultly sleeping and even eating or drinking because the pain was so intense.
Among upper class women, foot binding was regarded as a prerequisite to getting married, with mothers passing on the custom to their daughters. Chinese couldn’t understand how any man could marry a woman with big ugly feet. One 78-year-old woman with bound feet told the Los Angeles Times, “of course it was painful. If you didn’t bind your feet, you couldn’t find a husband.”
Restrictions and Attractions of Foot Binding
Foot binding greatly restricted the lives of women who had it done to them. It was difficult to walk, let alone run or dance with bound feet. Footbound women it was said walked with "a stylized, mincing gait.” When they dressed in robes their movements reminded some of lotuses blowing in the wind. They often wore tiny shoes or silk embroidered slippers that were generally around 2½ inches wide and five to seven inches in length. The first high heels were designed for bound feet.
Yang Yang, a Yunnan resident and author two books on foot binding, told the Los Angeles Times, "In ancient China, men preferred women with small feet, and in a male-dominated society where the best a woman could do was marry well, the reality was that what men wanted, men got," he says. The 17th century Spaniard Domingo Navarrete praised foot-binding as "very good for keeping females at home. It were no small benefit to them and their menfolk if it were also practiced everywhere else too."
"The mincing gait of these maidens, who could not stray beyond the limits of their room, bewitches men, young an old alike,” Pang-Mei Natasha Chang wrote in Bound Feet and Western Dress. “He who beat out all others in a drinking game downed his last from one tiny embroidered slipper whose owner lay waiting for him on the top floor of the teahouse.” Later upstairs, “In the intimacy of her chamber, she would unravel the bindings of her feet and reveal them to him. That evening, in a final moment of passion, he would lift her tiny unwrapped feet to his shoulders and thrust them into his mouth to suck."
Food Binding Today
Hardly any women have bound feet any more. Most that do are in their 80s and 90s and they are dying off every year. Foot binding hasn’t been done since the Communists came to power in 1949, except possibly in some remote rural areas.
In the mid-1990s, a village with 300 elderly women with bound feet was found in Yunnan Province. The discovery made headlines and stories were written on how the women played croquet and danced.
Only one factory, the Zhiqiang Shoe Factory in Harbin, continues to make shoes for bound feet. Many of them are sold as souvenirs rather than as footwear. The shoes that are still worn are generally plain looking because the women who wear them do not want to draw attention to their feet.
A study published in 1997 in the American Journal of Public Health found that women with bound feet were more likely have hip or spinal fractures.
Foot Binding Slowly Slips into History
In the village of Liuyi in Yunnan China there were about 30 women left who have bound feet as of 2012. Reporting from there, Kit Gillet wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Bathed in a faint afternoon sunlight that seems to highlight every wrinkle on her face and hands, Fu Huiying hobbles around her dusty home. Nearby, chopped vegetables suggest a dinner half-made, and the smoke of years of cooking has stained the wall behind a small gas stove. But the eyes are drawn to Fu's deformed feet and the tiny, ornate shoes on the floor next to her, both objects marking the 76-year-old as one of the last of a kind. [Source: Kit Gillet, Los Angeles Times, April 16, 2012]
“Isolated from the country's key cultural and administrative hubs, the area around Liuyi, a village of about 2,000 people in southern China's Yunnan province, was one of the last places in the country to end the tradition. A decade ago, there were more than 300 women like Fu in the village. Now there are just 30, by her reckoning, and because they are all elderly, they rarely come down to the village center, where they once gathered to dance and hand-sew the doll-size shoes they wore. "Before the [Communist takeover in 1949], all of the girls in the village had to bind their feet. If they didn't do this, no man would marry them," says Fu, sitting on a wooden stool in her dusty home on the outskirts of the village, her feet unwrapped. [Ibid]
“In Liuyi, the foot binding didn't stop until around 1957. "I started the process in 1943 when I was 7," says Fu, who smiles at the memory of those youthful days. "At the beginning it hurt with every move I made, but I agreed to go on with the process because it is what every girl my age did. "My mother had bound feet, and her mother, and her mother," she says, trailing off, unsure just how many generations it went back. [Ibid]
“Yang Yang, who was born in Liuyi, says his late mother was one of the last women in the village to let out her feet, loosening the daily bindings so that they would become less restrictive. Yang, who lives in the nearby town of Tonghai, has written two books telling the stories of his mother and the women of the village. His mother died in 2005. [Ibid] In Liuyi, even after the practice was banned, Fu says, she and others were hesitant to stop tightly binding their feet and hid them from officials, worried that the ban would be temporary. They also viewed their bound feet as desirable and something to be proud of. "We all thought our bound feet looked beautiful," she says, smiling. [Ibid]
“In the 1980s, some of the remaining women started performing dances together, which eventually became an unusual tourist attraction until their decreasing numbers and mobility eventually brought the practice to an end. Fu remembers the dances fondly, though nowadays she spends most of her time looking after her great-grandchildren and caring for the house where four generations of her family live. "Whenever there was some big event we would all get altogether, dress up in beautiful clothing and dance. Other times we would just meet to sew our shoes," she says. [Ibid]
“Fu carefully wraps her feet and slides them back into her intricately sewn shoes. "I've lived a good life," she says. "I am proud to be part of the tradition, but I wouldn't want my daughter or granddaughters to have had to go through it.” [Ibid]
Image Sources: Images of bound feet from Brooklyn Collage, University of Washington, Ohio State University,
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2010