Learning about Chinese Foot Binding
Imagine walking on stumps in order to marry well. Chinese women did just that for over 1000 years—disabling themselves for the purpose of living in the lap of luxury. Breaking your feet and turning down your toes toward your heel gave new meaning to the old adage that you have to suffer to be beautiful. The Chinese had yet another saying; “There are a thousand buckets of tears for one who binds her feet and 5,000 more for the one who unbinds.” Foot binding gave Chinese women a chance to find a husband who would take her from a life of hard labor, giving them wealth and status. The woman who refused to bind her feet was considered freakish; subject to cruel ridicule, becoming an outcast—and sometimes—subject to physical punishment and death.
The exact origin of foot binding is unknown. Legend has it that Li Yu, a Chinese prince in the first century, became fascinated with the graceful way his concubine, Yao Niang walked. He thought she “walked like she skimmed over lilies.” An extension of this legend is that Yao Niang bound her feet so that she could dance on her toes during a ballet. Li Yu was so enamored with her performance that eventually women bound their feet in order to obtain royal-like, cultural status and beauty that would entice wealthy men to marry them. The tradition began in the north, later spreading to all parts of China. Poor, rural women bound their feet with the hopes of escaping poverty. Most did not and lived lives of hard labor and the excruciating pain of disability from their pelvis to their feet, afraid to unbind, knowing no other way of life.
Breaking young foot bones and reshaping them into the compulsory crescent moon shape required slow, agonizing cloth binding that would last a woman’s lifetime. It led to disfigurement and disability, yet women prided themselves on feet measuring three inches or less. The process began as early as age five, although two year olds have been purported to undergo the horrendously painful process. Imagine a toddler who screams when she has her immunizations at her pediatrician today having to undergo her mother or village elder woman gradually crushing their foot bones in order to achieve the tiniest of feet in order to secure a better life.
First the feet would be soaked in warm water or animal blood, preferably in numbingly cold weather so that the pain would be less severe due to numbness. After the soaking, the dead flesh would fall away and her toenails would be cut as short as possible to reduce the possibility of infection and so that the toenails would not grow into the bottom of the foot. A foot massage ended with the four smaller toes being broken and folded toward the underside of the arch and bound with soaked bandages pulled tightly toward the heel. Every two days for two years, the feet would be released and rebound even more tightly until the feet were no more than four inches long. The ritual continued throughout her growing years, about 10 more, to make sure that the feet stayed their tiniest. Women would create ornately embroidered cloth shoes, sometimes with bells on them, in order to attract attention to their tiny feet, hoping to catch a wealthy husband.
Reasoning For and Against Foot Binding
Foot binding caused dire infections that often resulted in death due to the feet rotting and becoming gangrenous. Feet stank from lack of hygiene and infection, yet the unbound foot was considered socially unacceptable. It was difficult to walk with bound feet so women were easy to control. The tradition began as a quest for beauty and fashion to catch a husband and became over a 1000 years of crippling physical, social and economic suppression. Chinese government mandated that all foot binding be ceased in 1912, although many women continued to do it in secret, risking chastisement, physical punishment and death for non-compliance. Today there is no reason for foot binding other than tradition, which will soon die out with the last of that generation. Today’s Chinese women are free enough from constraint that they can find a husband without resorting to such measures as three-inch feet.
Articles and Resources
Get a glimpse of the lives of foot-bound women as late as the 20th century:
- History of Chinese Footbinding: Breaking the bones of the toes, folding them back to make the “golden lotus.”
- The Practice of Foot Binding: Which Chinese women practiced foot binding and why, including symbolism and origins.
- Where Foot Binding Existed: Detailing where in China foot binding was prominently practiced.
- Bound Feet: One of 30 lesson plans for teachers, from the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project.
- Suffering for Beauty: Graphic photos of bound feet.
- Consequence of Bound Feet: Severe lifelong disability followed those who bound their feet in 19th and 20th century China.
- Student View of Foot Binding: Photos, including comparisons of normal and foot-bound feet.
- Surviving Painful Memories of Foot Binding: Although foot binding was banned early in the 20th century, some kept up the practice in secret.
- The Dangers of Dress: Medical hazards of fashion and fads, including Chinese foot binding, corsets and tight jeans.
- Chinese Fashion: Social position was dictated by the size of a woman’s feet as early as 618 A.D.
- The Golden Lotus: Billions of women over 1000 years endured crushing pain that extended beyond the physical.
- The Lotus Shoe: The history of footwear included the ornately embroidered, three-inch “lotus” shoes, coveted by rich men and women seeking the good life.