Foot binding. In our mind, these two words usually bring up a horror image of ugly deformed smelly feet, amazing pain and torture.
Now a days, it seems that everyone has heard about foot binding. The words of it are self-explanatory enough. However, so few of us really know about it, even most of my Chinese friends don’t have any clue. What was actually done during the binding? Why was it done and how could such kind of things have been tolerated? When and where did this take place and is this custom still practiced anywhere today in China? Are there still any women alive who had to endure this tradition and what does modern Chinese think about that tradition now? These were some of the questions that I had and in the following pages, I will try my best to answer these questions and hopefully give us a better understanding of this bizarre custom in Chinese history and culture.
Before the 20th century, some Chinese people believe it is ‘better to have a dog than a daughter.’ Woman’s life is rigidly defined and programmed by her gender: foot binding, arranged marriage, virtual imprisonment by both her family of origin and her husband’s family. Chinese men preferred women with small feet, and in a male-dominated society what the best a woman could do was marry well, the reality was that what men wanted, men got.
Foot binding (also known as “Lotus feet”) is the custom of applying painfully tight binding to the feet of young girls to prevent further growth. The foot binding process begins with a young girl (3-7 years old) soaking her feet in warm water or animal blood with herbs. After soaking the feet, her toe nails were to be clipped short and given a foot massage. Then the
foot was wrapped tightly with binding cloth. Within a period of time, all of the toes would be broken except for the big toe. Every day, or every couple of days, the foot would be unwrapped and wrapped again. The girls were put into smaller shoes until their foot was about 3-4 inches long. 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. The most common problem with bound feet was infection and sometimes it causes death. However, woman always agreed to go on with the process because it is what everyone did.
Since the process was so painful, Chinese mothers would comfort their daughters over and over by saying, “Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suffering will you have peace.” From foot-binding onward, girls and women lived secluded in a second-story chamber of their household, because ” … the difference between nei – the inner realm of the home – and wei – the outer realm of men – lay at the very heart of Confucian society.” It was a strong tradition passed from mother to daughters, entangled with shoemaking, how to endure pain and how to attract men.
Many people believe that the practice originated from the time of Emperor Li Yu (Southern Tang Dynasty). Emperor Li Yu asked his concubine Yao Niang (窅娘) to bind her feet in white silk into the shape of the crescent moon, and performed a lotus dance ballet-like on the points of her feet. Yao Niang was described as so graceful that she ‘skimmed on top of golden lotus’. This was then replicated by other upper-class women and the practice spread. The practice of footbinding became popular during the Song Dynasty. 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. The practice was called “toast to the golden lotus” and lasted until the late Qing Dynasty.When a woman was to be married, the first thing the bridegroom’s family would check was her feet. The sight of a woman hobbling along on her three inch golden lilies was supposed to have an erotic effect on men, who would be touched by her helplessness. And a woman with perfect lotus feet was likely to make a more prestigious marriage. Qing Dynasty sex manuals listed 48 different ways of playing with women’s bound feet. Some men preferred never to see a woman’s bound feet, so they were always concealed within tiny “lotus shoes” and wrappings. In ancient books, it says, “If you remove the shoes and bindings, the aesthetic feeling will be destroyed forever”. Additionally a common male fantasy was that the unusual lotus gait tended to strengthen the vaginal muscles. An attribute of a woman with bound feet was the limitation of her mobility, and therefore, her inability to take part in politics, social life and the world.
In 1895, the first anti-foot binding society was formed in Shanghai. Soon after branches of the anti-foot binding society began to form in other major cities and across the country. The practice totally 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 practice didn’t stop until the communist takeover in 1949, almost all of the village girls had to bind their feet. If they didn’t do this, no man would marry them. Woman also viewed their bound feet as desirable and something to be proud of. In fact they are able to walk and work in the fields. In the 1980s, dancers with bound feet were very popular, about 300 of the remaining foot binding women in Yunnan started performing dances and circus together, which eventually became an unusual tourist attraction in Liuyi village until their decreasing numbers and mobility eventually brought the practice to an end. In an interview, one of those women said, “I lived a good life and we all thought our bound feet looked beautiful. 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.” Now there are only about 30 women left in the village.
In modern days, none of the Chinese women have to go through the foot binding process any more. We believe, in order to be beautiful someone has to find you beautiful, and so the power actually is in the beholder. But when we see someone in a fabulous pair of high-heeled shoes, we just comment, “Wow, those are spectacular.” The parallel between foot binding and modern-day high heels often strikes me, we don’t ask ourselves, why do we actually wear them? And where do they come from?”
“If you put on a pair of high heels, it changes your whole body,” one of my friends said and fully believes in it. But the beautifying benefits of heels come at a price. If someone is wearing high heels for an excessive period of years, the Achilles tendon tends to get shortened and tighter. There are beauty salons offer cosmetic services, such as a 45-minute “foot facial.” Or “Pillows for Your Feet,” which involves injections of polylactic acid to combat the loss of cushioning on the balls of the feet.
Foot binding or high heels, it is the same mixed feeling with women, “We hate it but we like it – it’s like a drug.”