Broken soles: 10 centuries of foot-binding Published: 2013-11-27 18:34:00

          Editor's Note 
Foot-binding was an ancient Chinese custom that involved breaking and binding the feet of young girls to prevent further growth, as small feet, or ‘three inch golden lotuses’, were considered a sign of beauty. The practice lasted for about 1,000 years until the early 20th century.

          Photo gallery 

Zhou Guizhen, 86, says she regrets binding her feet:
 "I can't dance, I can't move properly. I regret it a lot. But at the time, if you didn't bind your feet, no one would marry you." 

79-years-old Wang Lifen, villager of Liuyi says:
"There's not a single other woman in Liuyi Village who could fit their feet into my shoes. When my generation dies, people won't be able to see bound feet, even if they want to."

        Process of binding foot 

First step
Feet would be soaked in a warm mixture of animal blood and herbs; this was intended to soften the foot and aid the binding. Afterwards the toe nails were clipped and the feet massaged.

Second step
All the toes on each foot (excluding the big toe) were forced downwards, curled into the sole of the foot and squeezed with great force until they broke.

Third step
The foot was then wrapped tightly with a 3-meter long silk or cotton bandage. The foot would be rewrapped regularly to allow the washing and manicuring of the toenails to avoid infection. The bindings were pulled even tighter each time the girl's feet were rebound. This unbinding and rebinding ritual was repeated as often as possible with fresh bindings.

Fourth step
Girls were encouraged to walk long distances so that their newly-bound feet would be further crushed into shape by their own body weight.

This process usually lasts for 10 years as the foot grows to maintain and ensure the foot’s small shape.

The most common ailment suffered from bound feet was infection. Despite the amount of care taken to regularly trim toenails, they would often in-grow, cause bleeding and become infected. Because foot-binding impeded blood circulation, any injury to the toes was unlikely to heal properly, resulting in severe infection and rotting flesh.

Blood poisoning (septicemia) and death sometimes followed infection. Even if a woman survived infection, it was not unusual for the foot itself to die after three years, leaving a terrible stench that would follow the woman for the rest of her life.

A well-developed arch was the essential feature of a perfect ‘lotus foot’. The cleft between the heel and the sole should be 2 to 3 inches deep.

The aesthetic ideal to be achieved was a ‘golden lotus’ or a foot measuring 3 inches (7.5 centimeters). The foot should appear as an extension of the leg rather than a stand for the body.

A 4-inch foot (10 centimeters), called a ‘silver lotus’, was considered acceptable.

A foot longer than 4 inches was called an 'iron lotus'.

Source: Chinese Foot-Binding 

          Reasons to bind feet 

Status symbol
A woman with bound feet is a status symbol, an indicator of wealth and social standing. Originally, only women from wealthy families bound feet, as they made manual labor nearly impossible. Only a man of considerable means could afford to have a wife, concubine, or daughters who couldn't work. Therefore, poor families would often bind the feet of their daughters in the hopes of marrying her off into a wealthy family.

A symbol of chastity
Foot-binding deepened the subjugation of women by making them more dependent on their husbands. Almost physically unable to venture far from their homes or flee to other men, women with bound feet were essentially handicapped in order to ensure their fidelity and servitude.

Bound feet were considered extremely erotic during the feudal age, as was the gait they produced. Women with small feet were seen as delicate, in need of male protection, and aristocratic, since they were unable to do many of the things a servant would do easily.

Source: Illustrated Hard Book of Chinese Sex History

The University of California, San Francisco made a study on foot-binding in November 1997. This research was part of a larger study of osteoporosis in China. A total of 193 Beijing women were selected for the study, 93 of whom were 80 years old and above, and the rest of whom were between the age of 70-79. 

Scientists found that 80-year-old women with bound feet were more likely to have fallen during the previous year than women with normal feet (38 percent vs. 19 percent).

They were also less able to rise from chairs without assistance (43 percent vs. 26 percent), and were less able to squat, an ability that is particularly important to toileting and other activities.

In addition, these women were found to have a 5.1 percent lower hip bone density and 4.7 percent lower spine bone density than women with unbound feet, putting them at greater risks off suffering hip or spine fractures.

Women whose feet were bound and then released early did not differ significantly from women with normal feet on any outcome measure.

Source: Consequences of foot-binding among older women in Beijing, China

According to the American author William Rossi, who wrote The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe, 40 to 50 percent of Chinese women had bound feet in the 19th century. Among the upper economic classes, the figure was almost 100 percent.

Some estimate that as many as 2 billion Chinese women broke and bound their feet to attain this agonizing ideal of physical perfection.

Source: The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe
Source: Painful Memories for China's Foot-binding Survivors

          History of foot-binding

The general consensus is that the practice originated during the time of Emperor Li Yu of the Southern Tang Dynasty (937-975). Emperor Li Yu asked his concubine Yin Niang (银娘) to bind her feet in white silk into the shape of a crescent moon, after which she performed a ballet-like ‘lotus dance’ on the points of her feet. Yin Niang was described as so graceful that she could 'skim the top of a golden lotus'. Her performance won the heart of the emperor and she became his favorite concubine. His other concubines, looking to similarly captivate his attention, began imitating Yin Niang by binding their feet. 

 The practice of foot-binding became increasingly popular during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and continued through the Yuan (1279-1398) and Ming Dynasties (1368-1644).
●Song Dynasty (960-1279):

Bound feet were primarily seen as a symbol of eroticism among men. By the end of the Song Dynasty, it was customary to drink from a special shoe whose heel contained a small cup. During the Yuan Dynasty, some would also drink directly from the shoe itself.

During the Southern Song Dynasty, a pair of bound feet had become a standard of beauty for young women.
Yuan Dynasty (1279-1398)
Families during the Yuan Dynasty found it difficult to marry off their women without bound feet, especially into wealthy families.

A Qing government notice prohibiting foot-binding in 1904
In 1664, emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) attempted to ban the practice. His attempt was thwarted about four years later by the Ministry of Rites, who urged the retraction of the ban.

In 1874, the first anti foot-binding committee was formed in Shanghai by a British priest.

In 1874, a 60-year-old Christian woman in Xiamen publically campaigned for an end to the practice. Her cause was taken up by the Woman's Christian Temperance Movement in 1883, and found champions with missionaries such as Timothy Richard, who believed that Christianity could promote equality between the sexes. These campaigns were also enthusiastically supported by scholar-philosopher Liang Qichao (1873-1929) and political reformist Kang Youwei (1858-1927) in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), founded in the late nineteenth century, initially focused its energies on foot-binding.

In 1902, foot-binding was also outlawed by the imperial edicts of the Qing Dynasty. 

In 1912, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the new Nationalist government of the Republic of China banned foot-binding, though, like previous bans, was not always successful.

In 1915,  the Nationalist government declared the practice illegal and sent inspectors to issue monetary fines to those who continued to uphold the tradition. 

The practice finally died out by the 1950s after the founding of new China, due to a series of anti foot-binding campaigns by the government. 

source: The Religious Question in Modern China 
               Chinese Foot-Binding 

          Related Books 

Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding   Author: Dorothy Ko

Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet   Author: Dorothy Ko

Splendid Slippers: A Thousand Years of an Erotic Tradition   Author: Beverley Jackson

Chinese Women and Rural Development: Sixty Years of Change in Lu Village, Yunnan   Author: Laurel Bossen

The Lotus Lovers: The Complete History of the Curious Erotic Custom of Footbinding in China   Author: Howard S. Levy, Arthur Waley

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