Foot binding in imperial China

There are many legends about the possible origin of foot binding. One story relates that during the Shang Dynasty (c.1600-c.1046 BC), the concubine Daji, who was said to have clubfoot, asked the Emperor to make foot binding mandatory for all girls so that her own feet would be the standard of beauty and elegance. Another story tells of a favourite courtesan of Emperor Xiao Baojuan (483-501), Pan Yu’er, who had delicate feet, dancing over a platform inlaid with gold and pearls and decorated with a lotus flower design. The emperor expressed admiration and exclaimed, “lotus springs from her every step!”, a possible reference to the Buddhist goddess Padmavati who is often portrayed sitting on a pink lotus.

This may have given rise to the terms “golden lotus” or “lotus feet” used to describe bound feet, though there is no evidence that Pan Yu’er ever bound her feet. A more generally accepted explanation is that the practice is likely to have originated from the time of Emperor Li Yu (Southern Tang Dynasty, 937-976). The story goes that Emperor Li Yu asked his concubine Yao Niang to bind her feet in white silk into the shape of the crescent moon and perform a ballet-like dance on the points of her feet. Yao Niang was described as so graceful that she “skimmed on top of golden lotus”. This was then emulated by other upper-class women who wished to follow court fashions, and the practice spread throughout China.

Woman with bound feet in Tsingtao
Woman with bound feet in Tsingtao
Woman with bound feet, 1900
Woman with bound feet, 1900

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whatever the truth of its origins, by the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), foot binding was common practice among all but the lowest classes. Bound feet had become a mark of beauty and status and were a prerequisite for finding a good husband. Women, their families and their husbands took great pride in tiny feet, with the ideal length, called the “Golden Lotus”, being about 3 inches long. Bound feet were a sign of high status because they indicated that the woman did not need to engage in manual labour – this would have been near impossible with very tightly bound feet. Moreover, bound feet limited a woman’s mobility to such an extent that she was largely restricted to her home and could not venture far without the help of watchful servants.  She was rendered almost totally dependent on her menfolk, which appealed to male fantasies of ownership. A woman with bound feet was also seen as a desirable wife because she was assumed to be obedient and uncomplaining.

In Chinese culture, bound feet were considered highly erotic. When walking, women with bound feet were forced to bend their knees and balance on their heels; the resultant unsteady, swaying movement was attractive to many men. It was also believed that the gait of a woman with bound feet would strengthen her vaginal muscles. Although Qing Dynasty sex manuals list 48 different ways of playing with womens’ bound feet, many men preferred not to see uncovered feet, so they were concealed within tiny, elaborately embroidered “lotus shoes” and wrappings. Feng Xun is supposed to have said that “if you remove the shoes and bindings, the aesthetic feeling will be destroyed forever”. This concealment from the man’s eye was considered sexually appealing in itself, though it had the practical grounding that an uncovered foot would give off a foul odour due to chronic fungus infections and potential gangrene.

Chinese girls from Amoy, all with tiny bound feet
Chinese girls from Amoy, all with tiny bound feet

How did foot binding work? The process was started before the arch of the foot had a chance to develop fully, usually between the ages of 4 and 7. First, the toes were curled under the foot, then pressed with great force downwards until they broke. The broken toes were held tightly against the sole of the foot whilst the foot was drawn down straight with the leg and the arch forcibly broken (one aim of the process was to make the foot look more like a vertical extension of the leg than an appendage which propped up the body). Following this, cotton bindings would be tightly wrapped around the foot, ensuring that the heel and the ball of the foot were drawn together. A girl’s broken feet required a great deal of care and attention, and they would be unbound regularly. Each time the feet were unbound they were washed and soaked in a concoction that caused any dead flesh to fall off, and the bindings were pulled tighter each time they were reapplied. This ritual was performed as often as possible, daily or at least several times a week.

The most common problem arising from bound feet was infection. Despite the amount of care taken in regularly trimming the toenails, they would often in-grow, becoming infected and causing injuries to the toes. Sometimes for this reason the girl’s toenails would be peeled back and removed altogether. The tightness of the binding meant that circulation to the feet was almost cut off, so any injuries to the toes were likely to worsen, leading to infection and rotting flesh. If the infection entered the bones it could cause them to soften, resulting in toes dropping off. This was actually often seen as a benefit because the feet could then be bound even more tightly. Girls whose toes were too fleshy would sometimes have shards of glass or pieces of broken tiles inserted within the binding next to their feet and between their toes to cause injury and deliberately introduce infection. Disease inevitably followed infection, making life-threatening septic shock a real possibility.

19th century slippers for bound feet, 4½ inches long © Metropolitan Museum of Art
19th century slippers for bound feet, 4½ inches long
© Metropolitan Museum of Art

In her semi-autobiographical work Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, Jung Chang describes her grandmother’s experience of having her feet bound at the turn of the 20th century:

“When my grandmother was growing up the prevailing attitude in a small town was that bound feet were essential for a good marriage. [My grandmother’s] greatest assets were her bound feet, called in Chinese ‘three-inch-golden-lilies’. This meant she walked ‘like a tender willow shoot in a spring breeze’. My grandmother’s feet had been bound when she was two years old. Her mother first wound a piece of white cloth about twenty feet long round her feet, bending all the toes except the big toe inwards and under the sole. Then she placed a large stone on top to crush the arch. My grandmother screamed in agony.

“The process lasted several years. Even after the bones had been broken, the feet had to be bound day and night in thick cloth because the moment they were released they would try to recover. For years my grandmother lived in relentless, excruciating pain. When she pleaded with her mother to untie the bindings, her mother would weep and tell her that unbound feet would ruin her entire life. And that she was doing it for her own future happiness. In those days, when a woman was married, the first thing the bridegroom’s family did was to examine her feet. Large feet, meaning normal feet, were considered to bring shame on the husband’s household”. (pp.23-25)

In practice, foot binding was carried out in various forms. Some non-Han ethnic groups practiced loose binding, which did not break the bones of the arch and toes but simply narrowed the foot; the Hakka people did not engage in foot binding at all. When the Manchu Qing Dynasty came to power in 1644, the emperor ordered that Manchu women were not to bind their feet. Those who dared not oppose the ban developed other ways to emulate the unsteady gait that bound feet necessitated, inventing their own type of shoe that caused them to walk in a swaying manner. These “flower bowel” shoes sat on a high platform generally made of wood, or they had a small central pedestal. Bound feet therefore became an important differentiating  marker between Manchu and Han women.

Manchu shoes from the 19th century, 9½ inches long © Metropolitan Museum of Art
Manchu shoes from the 19th century, 9½ inches long
© Metropolitan Museum of Art

Serious opposition to foot binding started gaining momentum in the late 19th century. One force working against the practice was religion. In southern China, in Guangzhou, the Scottish sinologist James Legge encountered a mosque which had a placard denouncing foot binding, saying Islam did not allow it since it violated God’s creation. Many Christians also opposed foot binding. In 1874, sixty Christian women in Xiamen spoke out and called for an end to foot binding. Their cause was championed by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Movement in 1883, and advocated by missionaries including the Welshman Timothy Richard, who hoped that Christianity could promote equality between the sexes.

Educated Chinese began to realise that this aspect of their culture did not reflect well upon the progress of the modern rising world, and social Darwinists argued that it weakened the nation since enfeebled women supposedly produced weak sons. Some families who opposed the practice made contractual agreements with each other, promising an infant son in marriage to an infant daughter who did not have bound feet. This was supposed to ensure that the girl would get a husband even without bound feet.

The government eventually followed suit and passed various laws which attempted to ban foot binding. The Empress Dowager Cixi issued such an edict following the Boxer Rebellion in an attempt to appease foreigners, but it was rescinded a short time later. In 1912, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the new Nationalist government of the Republic of China banned foot binding, but they could not hope to enforce the ban in the most isolated rural areas. In Taiwan, foot binding was forbidden by the Japanese administration in 1915. It was not until 1949, however, when the Communists came to power, that a strict prohibition on foot binding could be properly enforced even in the most far-flung areas. The ban remains in effect today.

Woman with uncovered bound feet, 1911
Woman with uncovered bound feet, 1911
Unbound and bound feet in 1902, 10 years before the ban
Unbound and bound feet in 1902, 10 years before the ban

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Further Reading

Jung Change, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (2003)