Foot Binding

To western eyes, the Chinese custom of footbinding appears strange. It lasted for about 1000 years, beginning in the 900s AD amongst the upper classes although it slowly spread to all classes. It was outlawed in Sun Yat-Sen’s 1911 revolution and finally died out in the 1930s

If you are squeamish you may not want to read any further as the actual mechanics of footbinding were not pleasant. The idea was to stop a girl’s feet growing and it usually began between the ages of about three and six although it might be later in poor families to allow her to work for a while first. As would be expected from the size of the country, there was no one standard age or even style. This however was the most common.

All the toes except for the big toe were broken and turned under so they were pressed into the sole of the foot and they were then bound tightly with bandages. This bowed the arch and made the foot shorter. The bandage was tightened every day and every few weeks the girl would wear increasingly small shoes. After a couple of years the arches were broken and the big toe bound to the heel. At the end of all this, the feet would be about three to four inches long. They would have to remain bound for the rest of her life to prevent ‘healing’.

The feet had to be thoroughly washed daily and were massaged and bathed to help with the pain. The toenails had to be kept short so they could not cut into the instep and start an infection. The tightness of the bandage led to ulcers and pus oozing from the toes. If the bandage was too tight, it could cut off circulation leading to gangrene or toes falling off. Corns would develop on the toes that were bent under and were cut off with a knife. The smell, particularly in summer, was appalling. It is believed that about 10% of girls did not survive the ‘treatment’.

There is no one obvious reason why the practice started although there are several legends. One is that some noble women bound their feet in sympathy with an empress who had club feet or, in other versions, that she ordered them to. Another is that Yao Niang, a prince’s concubine, was ordered to bind her feet to look like new moons. The most commonly held reason began, again, with Yao Niang. The prince had a fetish for small feet and demanded that she bind them when she danced which, he thought, made her glide like a lotus on a pond. Whether or not this was the true origin, they were known as Golden Lotus feet.

Whatever the origin, the effect was that of very limited mobility so that women could not stray far from home. They were under the control of the men in their lives, whether father or husband, in accordance with the superiority of men within a family unit which was part of Confucian teachings. The Confucian norm which rejected body mutilation was over-ridden by that of men’s superiority and ultimately foot binding became the symbol of an advance civilisation.

It was considered aesthetically pleasing, and the size of a woman’s foot was more important than her face or body and soon became normal among the rich and a necessity for a ‘good’ marriage. Lower class families followed the custom hoping that it might help their daughter find a husband from a higher social level than theirs, although a fit and active daughter who could work would have been more useful to them. However, this ‘marrying up’ was virtually never successful so the daughters had to work in the fields, almost unable to walk.

Because it was hard to walk any distance at all, the women were confined to their home and bound feet became a symbol of chastity. Part of the allure was in concealment. A grown woman’s feet would be soaked with perfume then covered by the binding, socks and shoes and then further covered under layers of leggings and skirts. Feet were washed in strict privacy and were only ever seen by intimates. Amazingly, bound feet were known to be an erogenous zone, possibly because the nerve endings were closer together because of the size of the feet. It was also believed that the way a woman had to walk developed stronger muscles in the vagina. Another bonus for the men. Erotic poetry and pornographic paintings of the time seemed to have an almost unhealthy preoccupation with bound feet and, in fact, everything snowballed into making them a necessity.

It was a thousand years before the first stirrings of discontent about the custom occurred when, in 1895, an anti-foot binding society was formed in Shanghai which spread fairly rapidly to the other major cities. Their main objection was that the pain a girl or woman experienced was a major obstacle to her education. The members vowed that their daughters’ feet would not be bound and their sons would not be allowed to marry women with bound feet. Their names and their children’s names were all registered by the societies so it would be possible for their children to find partners. They also tried to use education to dissuade people from the practice, telling them that China was losing face in the world because the custom was considered barbaric by other cultures. Sixteen years later it was officially made illegal although it still continued until the 1930s in some isolated areas until the combined condemnation of the practice by educated Chinese and missionaries caused its final demise. Shoes for bound feet were, however, still made until very recently for the final generation of women with bound feet. The last shoe manufacturer closed down in 1998.

Unfortunately, although founded with the best of intentions, the way the societies tried to outlaw the practice was almost as barbaric as the original binding. As the movement gained momentum throughout the country, ridicule was heaped upon those with bound feet and many were forced to unbind them which was almost as painful as the original binding. The ingrained idea that bound feet were beautiful and big feet ugly was not easy to dispel but had to be destroyed somehow and, as well as the forced unbinding, women with bound feet were also attacked.

However strange and cruel it may seem to us now, remember that women all over the world throughout history have undergone painful practices in the pursuit of perceived beauty. Tight corsets to produce a tiny waist, displacing internal organs were common in the west; today’s cosmetic surgery and botox injections may well be considered barbaric practices in retrospect. The binding of feet was China’s version.

The photos are courtesy of GillB and are of shoes in the Chinese collection at the V&A Museum in London. The first pair were made some time between 1850 and 1950 and are about 5 inches long; the second pair are more recent and of a style made between 1900 and 1980. They are slightly smaller at about 4 inches.